After his speech in Manning Tuesday morning, Joe Biden, a Democratic candidate for president, spoke and took photos with area residents. (Photos by Caitlin Yamada)

July, 17, 2019

Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden, the vice president when the Obama administration eight years ago seeded the Manning Regional Healthcare Center with a $21-million federal low-interest loan, used the iconic backdrop of the Hausbarn in that city to release his national strategy for rural revitalization, a sweeping plan aimed at boosting the lives of the 20 percent of Americans who live outside of cities and suburbs.

The late Tuesday morning Manning event drew 230 people, a split, according to several Manning sources, of people from Carroll County and elsewhere in Iowa, and even outside of the state, with a mix of Democrats, independents and some Republicans.

“Rural communities power the nation, they feed our bodies, they fuel our engines,” Biden said.

Ron Colling, the 85-year-old old publisher of the Manning Monitor, said the Biden stop ranks as among as the biggest events in Manning history.

“We’ve never had a political gala like this before, nothing of this magnitude,” said Colling, who has owned the Manning paper since 1964. “There’s a lot of interest. A lot of interest from the standpoint of it’s never happened.”

Biden, a former U.S. senator from Delaware, campaigned in the city of Carroll during two previous runs for the presidency in 2008 and 1988.

For his part, Biden, wearing jeans and a blue-and-white striped Oxford shirt and speaking from a stage in the Hausbarn, focused almost exclusively on the substance of rural policy, making only the occasional reference to President Donald Trump. At one point, an audience member’s cellphone started ringing loudly. Biden joked, “That’s the president calling me.”

Improving the economy of rural reaches of the United States is essential to what Biden says is the “moral obligation of our time” — rebuilding the middle class.

Biden’s rural plan would, among other things:

— Abandon what he calls a “damaging and erratic trade war” to boost ag exports.

“How our American farmers are being treated today I think is wrong,” Biden said.

— Increase loans to new farmers.

— Invest more in land-grant universities like Iowa State University to improve on-the-farm technology.

— Expand the Conservation Stewardship Program developed by former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to increase farm income through payments tied to practices that benefit the environment, like carbon sequestration.

— Use anti-trust laws to reduce market concentration.

— Expand biobased manufacturing to bring more manufacturing jobs to farm country. This would involve using ag products like corn stalk and manure to create chemicals and fibers and other materials.

— Promote ethanol and the next generation of biofuels.

— Create a White House “strike force” to partner with rural communities to assist them with accessing federal funds, a program modeled on what former U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack developed at that agency.

In a phone interview, Vilsack, a former two-term governor of Iowa, said Biden’s plan is aspirational and includes many of his own suggestions — notably the push for more biobased manufacturing, a signature passion for Vilsack who sees it as a way to leverage existing ag production into billions of more dollars for rural Iowa.

“I impressed upon the vice president the need for more of that,” Vilsack said.

The message Biden is sending: that the Democratic Party is going to aggressively pursue rural voters on the issues, said Vilsack who has not endorsed a candidate for the White House, but hosted Biden in his home in Booneville, outside of Des Moines, on Monday.

“We think everybody deserves a shot,” Vilsack said, adding that “there are several good moderates in the race.”

Vilsack said he senses an unease among the electorate that recalls big years for Democrats. Vilsack predicted that many quiet residents of rural Iowa, those who don’t turn out for events, or make their opinions publicly known, are likely to gravitate to an “adult-in-the-room” approach of the type Biden is offering.

“It reminds me of my race in 1998 and President Obama’s in 2008,” Vilsack said.

Biden fiercely made the case for the Affordable Care Act — so-called Obamacare. He said with its repeal, rural hospitals would have lost $1.7 billion, and that Medicaid expansion is a critical tool for such medical centers. Later on Monday in Sioux City, during a press conference, Biden said a public option, a government-financed health-insurance plan, should be part of the mix, but not fully replace private insurance, which many Americans have worked hard to obtain.

In Manning, Biden, recounting the death of his first wife, Neilia, and daughter, Naomi, in a 1972 car crash in Delaware that injured his two sons, noted that his boys benefitted from rapid medical care.

“Had they been in a rural community, not a suburban community, things might have turned out differently,” Biden said in calling for improvements to rural hospitals.

Bob Stessman, a Democrat and the owner of the Manning Pharmacy who said he remains undecided in his party’s White House nominating process, said he is drawn to Biden’s plan to give rural Americans more access and information about existing federal programs, not just increase spending.

“I like the idea that he feels that there is need to focus on the middle because I see that every day here in Manning,” Stessman said. “He speaks more to (the) middle opinion.”

Stessman said he thinks Biden has a better chance than other Democrats to carry rural Iowa in the February caucuses.

“I think Joe Biden is a safe bet,” Stessman said. “They know who he is.”

Ron Roe, 74, a Vietnam veteran from Carroll, said Biden’s views on health care largely matches his own. Roe said he’ll support Biden in the caucuses and plans to serve as a precinct captain in Carroll.

“I just think he’s the most solid one of the bunch,” Roe said.

Jean Guy, 68, who teaches English and current affairs at Kuemper Catholic High School, and has been a Republican and independent, but is now a Democrat, said it’s not fair to choose a candidate so early in the process. That considered, Guy said Biden connected with the Manning audience.

“I, myself, I’m more of a moderate, so I’m drawn to candidates like (Minnesota Sen. Amy) Klobuchar and (Montana Gov. Steve) Bullock, and not Bernie (Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont),” Guy said. “I think Biden fits into that situation. I’m not for anyone at all that would want to destroy privatized insurance. I thought Biden really spoke to this crowd because he has a lot of concerns for rural America.”

Rich Stoffers, 63, a retired school superintendent from Coon Rapids and Westside, said he likes the Democratic field but wants to hear more from Democrats. He agrees with Biden on rural focus, particularly with his criticism of Trump’s trade policy, which has caused retaliation from China and other nations on American farmers. But Biden didn’t get him fired up, Stoffers said.

“I just didn’t feel like he personalized things enough for me,” Stoffers said. “I may be a little bit too old-school. I’m looking for some new thoughts, new ideas, new initiatives and really a lot of passion (and) a lot of energy.”

Ron Reischl, a leader with Main Street Manning, said the community is proud to have a national spotlight with the Biden visit and thinks it can be a model for other rural cities.

“I totally agree with him that the rural area is the soul of the country,” Reischl said. “We need to make sure the middle class across the country, but especially in rural America, is successful.”

Reischl, 67, a Republican, spent time with Biden at the Manning event. Reischl chairs the business improvement committee of Main Street Manning.

“I had an opportunity to shake hands with Joe, and what I told him was, ‘I’m a registered Republican. I’m a fiscal conservative. I would not vote for any of his Democratic opponents, but I would consider voting for him.’”

The Biden event attracted the chairmen of the Carroll County Democratic and Republican parties. Both live in the Manning area.

Democratic chairman Peter Leo introduced Biden after watching his two sons, Eric, 8, and Sam, 6, students at IKM-Manning Community School District, lead the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Vice President Biden was very gracious and very happy to be here (and is) excited to roll out his new policy,” Leo said. “It was nice to get a chance to share with him that one of his accomplishments was getting the Affordable Care Act, which made it possible for me and my family to move to this community in the first place. We shared that with him. I think he was really moved.”

Republican County Chairman Craig Williams listened intently to the speech, which he recorded on his cellphone.

“Regardless of party, it was good to see a major presidential candidate in Manning today,” Williams said. “I took advantage when Obama was in Carroll to listen to what he had to say and did today as well. If you haven’t seen or shaken hands with a presidential candidate in Iowa, it’s your own fault.”

As a GOP leader, Williams doesn’t sense the same political threat from Biden that he did with Obama in 2008.

“When Obama came to Carroll, I could see we were in trouble with the way the audience reacted to him. I did not see that in Manning today,” Williams said. “Biden said nothing to convert me, which isn’t surprising, but I heard a number of people talk afterwards who were not convinced either.”

Williams said he is disappointed with the outcome of the Affordable Care Act, and knows others who are, too.

Biden said, ‘Everyone in America deserves affordable, accessible health care. Period,’” Williams said. “After his ‘Affordable Care Act,’ every health-care provider in this area left the marketplace. When Medica came here in the eleventh hour, my coverage greatly decreased while my premiums more than doubled. We were lied to. Period.”