There is no power like the star power of being an undecided Iowa voter, and my mom is making the most of it.
As the caucus season was heating up in Iowa last year, my mom started popping up at Democratic events all over town. Even though I’ve been impressed by her activism and her seemingly endless energy to attend potlucks and rallies, I’ve started to notice that she’s gotten a little swept up in the indisputable star power of being an undecided Iowa voter.
“I can’t come over for dinner, I have the opportunity to sit behind Bernie Sanders,â€ she told me recently, referring to scoring a spot in the camera shot during his campaign appearance. She isn’t planning on caucusing for him or anything — she was just jazzed about the possibility of being on the news.
After taking me out to lunch one day, she tricked me into meeting Michael Bennet by suggesting we casually stroll into a local gift shop where he, conveniently, was giving a speech. “I know he won’t get nominated, but he might become a member of a cabinet or something,” she whispered to me when I told her I had no idea who we were listening to. She was already buddies with many of the press people in the room, and she pointed out the ones she’d given interviews to, some more than once. The lead-up to the Iowa caucuses is the most attention those of us who live in Cedar Rapids ever get, and although we’re generally a humble people, many of us aren’t exactly shy.
“You touched Mayor Pete?” I asked my mom, laughing when my sister sent me a screenshot from a news clip. The picture showed my mother with her hand squarely on the candidate’s chest.
“I was just touching his pin,” she said, trying to rationalize her hands-on approach to vetting political candidates. I couldn’t resist teasing her, and of course, informing her that if she keeps this up, she’s definitely going to get tackled by the Secret Service at some point.
At the many political events she attends in our hometown, she’s openly self-conscious about her age — always pointing out that the many 30-year-olds in the room could be her kids and failing to mention that the 40-year-olds could be, too. Many of the new people she’s met through her political activism are closer to my age than hers, and some of them are people I know from growing up in Iowa.
“I met your mom today; she seems really nice. She told me your nickname as a kid was ‘Messy Jessy,’ a friend told me to my horror.
I agreed to come with her to meet Cory Booker, who was scheduled to speak at a small former Blockbuster – the very one I used to frequent as a teenager. As one of the many young, attractive campaign staffers from the coasts approached us, my mom introduced me in a way only a mom could.
“Can you believe I have a daughter this old?” she said.
My mom has said political activism today reminds her in certain ways of the events she witnessed as a young girl in the 1960s. She’s drawn to the energy of the like-minded people of all ages she meets at events who, in true Midwestern spirit, want to help out.
“I had a front-row seat at the Moms Demand Action Presidential Gun Sense Forum,” she told me the other day.
“Shouldn’t it be grandmas demand action?” I said both jokingly and earnestly — her only relatives currently in school are my sister’s two kids.
“I’m still a mom, you know,” she replied.
Before 2016, my mom’s primary civic duty was riding to the polls with my dad every four years and politely canceling out his vote. Even though she’s always leaned more liberal, she wasn’t politically active until 2016, when, at age 63, Trump’s election inspired her to break her silence. Since then, she’s taken advantage of all the unique opportunities for civic engagement that living in Iowa provides.
In the past month alone, she’s joined a climate activist group, volunteered at a soup kitchen with Booker’s campaign, and loaned supplies for a potluck (a high honor in the Midwest) to Buttigieg’s campaign.
After introducing me to another one of her new friends at Senator Booker’s appearance, my mom somehow found a way to bring up the time we took a trip we took to Sheldon, IA, to attend my cousin’s sheep show. Being from Cedar Rapids, which is a big city compared to the tiny town in the northwest corner of the state, I’d never been to a sheep show, and I assumed the dress code was the same as anywhere else. For teenage me, that meant a skirt, wedge sandals, and full makeup.
“She stuck out like a sore thumb!” she said.
When my mom greets people, she talks about whatever is on her mind to see if something will stick, and occasionally, something does. After locating a friend at Senator Booker’s event who was about her age, she started chatting about their shared love of the original “Twilight Zone.” After a minute, she turned to me and asked if I had ever heard of the show.
“Yes, I’m a human being,” I responded. A few moments later, Rosario Dawson, Cory Booker’s partner, started chatting with us, and my mom didn’t skip a beat before asking her if she’d heard of the “The Twilight Zone” too.
“Have you seen the new one?” Rosario asked. My mom looked skeptical and said she hadn’t before launching back into how good the old version was.
“I’m embarrassing her,” my mom said, when she noticed me cringing. Whether she’s telling embarrassing stories about me, reaching out and touching political candidates, or talking a famous actress’s ear off, seeing my mom in action at political events has made me realize her ultimate goal is forging a real connection with people. Her methods are a little haphazard, but sometimes charming. As Rosario was walking away, she turned to me and said, “My mom is Puerto Rican and high-energy … I get it.”
After trying to collect all the Democratic candidates like Pokémon for months, she signed her “commit to caucus” card at the Cory Booker event.
“I signed!” she told everyone, prompting hugs and fanfare. Immediately after, she pointed at me and announced to the whole room, “She’s not committed yet.” One of Cory’s handlers came over and insisted I meet him, sure that a handshake would prompt me to sign on the spot.
“Hi, I … really enjoyed your speech,” I fumbled. I may have bumped into political candidates everywhere for months, practically having to elbow one out of the way to get a corn dog at the state fair, but it’s admittedly a bit disarming to meet them in person. I suddenly wished I had a dose of my mom’s confidence.
When Senator Booker found out my mom had committed to caucus for him, he said, “You must come from a good family.”
I heard my mom yell, “Cory! Cory!” from across the room. He nodded and gave a slight wave – a little connection, which was, apparently, all she wanted.
This week, Senator Booker announced he’s suspending his campaign. While my mom was sad to lose her top candidate, she won’t waste too much time mourning before getting back on the campaign trail. There are hands to shake, potlucks to attend, and so many stories to tell.