The Greene County Democrats’ inaugural Groundhog Day Dinner Feb. 2 drew not only local Democrats but also guests from surrounding counties, District 39 Rep. Karin Derry (D-Johnston), District 29 Rep. Wes Breckenridge (Jasper County) and J.D. Scholten, contender for the Fourth Congressional District seat held by U.S. Rep. Steve King.
Close to 80 people attended the Saturday night dinner, including a news crew from Agence France Presse (AFP). AFP is documenting the Iowa caucus process. The crew learned of the dinner as they filmed a visit by presidential candidate Andrew Yang on Friday.
Greene County Democrat Central Committee Chair Chris Henning served as emcee.
Scholten and David Weaver, who ran for the Iowa House District 47 seat, became part of the Greene County Democrats’ Blue Apron Brigade, donning blue aprons to help serve the dinner. Candidates visiting Greene County in the months ahead will all be asked to be part of the brigade. Henning rounded out the brigade for the Groundhog Day dinner.
Scholten spoke briefly early in the program, telling of his new endeavor with the Working Hero PAC. He will travel across Iowa, raising awareness of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which he calls “one of the best anti-poverty policies, especially for children.”
Scholten commented on the size of the crowd, calling it “amazing,” and urging Democrats to keep enthusiasm going and to keep building.
Chuck Offenburger introduced guest speaker Art Cullen. Cullen, co-owner and editor of the Storm Lake Times, received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Since winning the Pulitzer, he has written a book, “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.”
In his introduction, Offenburger described the book as “brilliant, challenging, entertaining and visionary.” He said that although Storm Lake is in the book’s title, “it’s a story about the very soul of Iowa,” and added that reading the book should be required reading “before you participate in the future. It’s that important.”
He introduced Cullen as “the second coming of Mark Twain.”
Cullen spoke for more than an hour, telling of the work that led to the Pulitzer Prize. He had submitted 10 editorials that covered the two years following the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors’ refusal to say who was funding the defense against the lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works in 2015. The suit named as defendants the supervisors in Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties as trustees of drainage districts allowing nitrate pollution to enter the Raccoon River.
Cullen’s editorials urged mediation between agriculture and the Des Moines Water Works and transparency leading to release of the list of donors to the defense of the lawsuit. He urged agriculture to move forward to a new, sustainable paradigm, “where we aren’t poisoning people in Des Moines and killing the Gulf of Mexico.”
The investigative work of Cullen’s son, Tom Cullen, who works for the Times, found the county supervisors had hired the Belin Law Firm of Des Moines with funds provided by the Agribusiness Association of Iowa (AAI). Cullen learned the largest donors to the associaton were Monsanto and the Koch brothers. They spent more than $1.5 million defending the case.
Cullen also told how Storm Lake has evolved into one of the most diverse communities in the state. Ninety percent of the elementary students in Storm Lake are immigrants, primarily from Latin America and also Laos.
“Storm Lake is a fascinating place,” he said, adding that it is nothing like Congressman Steve King likes to say.
He told of the schools and of “magic” at Storm Lake High School.
“I wish Trump could go to the Storm Lake school sometime and see the magic that’s going on there, and how these people are Americans,” Cullen said. “They are Americans now. When they graduate from Storm Lake High School, they’re Americans.”
Cullen read two passages from the book — one telling the tangled early history of northwest Iowa and demonstrating that if we cannot clearly explain the past, it is difficult to chart the future, and the second telling of his realization that people can sincerely support Congressman King, a man with whom he strongly disagrees.
Cullen stayed after the dinner to sell and autograph copies of his book.
Before Cullen spoke, John Brunow, Greene County Democrats treasurer, recognized former county treasurer Donna Lawson for her many years of service to the county. He presented her with a plaque stating: “Thank you, Donna Lawson, for serving Greene County with honesty, integrity, intelligence, courtesy and common sense for 32 years.”
Lawson was given hearty applause and a long standing ovation. She commented that she totally enjoyed going to work every day of those 32 years.
The Greene County Democrats said they hope to make the Groundhog Day Dinner an annual fundraising event.
Victoria Riley is editor and publisher of the Greene County News Online.