153: Iowa — Part 1: Early State Mini-Series with Grace Smith (Elizabeth Warren Campaign)

January 12, 2020

Grace Smith (@textFIGHT_24477), Field Organizer for the Elizabeth Warren campaign in West Des Moines joins us for Part 1 of our Early State Mini-Series to talk about her journey into the Warren campaign and how to organize Iowa for the caucus in 2020.

Listen to other episodes of this series on: New Hampshire, Nevada, Caucus 101.

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Transcript (lightly edited for clarity):

[00:00:21] Kevin: Today, we are going to talk about Iowa as part of a special mini series we’re doing on the Model Majority Podcast to profile all the four early primary states in the democratic primary. And today I am thrilled to welcome Grace Smith, who is currently working for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign in Des Moines, Iowa, to give us that perspective. Grace, welcome to the Model Majority Podcast today. 

[00:01:04] Grace: Thanks so much for having me, Kevin. 

[00:01:05] Kevin: All right. So to get things started, I want to start by kind of giving our audience the background story of how and why you decided to join the Warren campaign. So could you give us that story really quickly off the bat?

[00:01:20] Grace: Yeah, so I think for me, it really all began in college, at least my understanding of who Elizabeth Warren is. I went to school in Georgetown University in DC and my first year there, I interned in the US Senate, which I was, you know, just so honored to do and was such a wonderful opportunity.

[00:01:39] But it was there that I first met and saw Elizabeth in action. I remember so distinctly that I went to a committee hearing on education. And you know, I walked in and it was truly a bunch of people saying all the things we just shouldn’t say about education and saying things that really strip access to quality education.

[00:01:58] And I remember that she walked in and put all her folders down and it made this big thud and everyone kind of looked towards her and she was the only woman in the room, so it was already noticeable. But I remember she just walked in and absolutely said everything that should be said about education and really fought for something she cared so deeply about.

[00:02:19] And  the entire conversation changed after that, and I think everyone in that room was changed because she had stood there and fought for what she believed in. And from that very moment, I knew that she was someone worth following and something worth fighting for. And ever since it’s been my mission to work for her.

[00:02:38] So I will always remember that moment. I’ll always remember thinking that’s why I came to college. That’s why I came to college in DC. And that’s what government should look like — a strong woman fighting for what she believes in.

[00:02:50] Kevin: And this was before she announced her candidacy, is that correct? 

[00:02:53] Grace: Yes. So this was back in, let’s say, 2015 or so. That was the first time I really came to know her in this way. And ever since, she’s been on my radar as someone to know and to work for. 

[00:03:07] Kevin: And could you give us a story of kind of how you grew up and where did you grow up and how did you become, you know, really politically active and politically engaged in general?

[00:03:18] Grace: Sure. Well, I grew up in a family of journalists, so I think the normal conversation at dinner was what was on the front page that day of our local newspaper and what was happening in the news and in the world. So I certainly grew up with this kind of understanding and awareness that politics mattered, that government mattered, and that being aware of what was happening around you and having impact on that was something that was really important.

[00:03:46] So I grew up, again in that kind of political conscience that was really important to me and I think really shaped how I understood what we, what we have to do to fight for our communities. But I think in terms of how I grew up and where I come from, the most important thing for me, it was my high school teacher and my high school government teacher. He was the first one. I think that really opened my eyes to what government can be, what it should be, and what it can do for us. And, you know, I think really good education is so important, and I’m so honored to fight for a candidate who has been a teacher and who’s made education such a central part of her platform.

[00:04:27] And I, because I know again, the benefits of what a good education can do and what a good teacher can do. So I’ll always remember my high school government teacher, Drew Levy, and all he did for me to inspire me to really fight for what I believe in, because he showed me that it was really, really possible.

[00:04:43] And so I think that’s where the spark of wanting to fight for what I believe in and once again involved with politics began. 

[00:04:52] Kevin: And what part of, I’m just curious to learn more about, you know, your personal kind of goals and the thing is that you are willing to fight for. And how did all that align with Senator Warren’s background and also her agenda. At what point did those two kind of really align and overlap? You mentioned the story in the Senate, but were there something that personal about you, what you were willing to fight for it that really just kind of aligned with the things that Senator Warren was putting out there in terms of her agenda and her platform?

[00:05:24] Grace: You know, I think I’ve always been aware that she’s been a wonderful fighter, and I point back to that moment in the Senate because it was so important to me as a reminder of why we do this work and what it can mean to do this work and what it means to do it bravely. So I think that really was a pivotal moment, and that’s, you know, in a lot of ways what led me to work for her.

[00:05:44] That said, I think, on this campaign, one of the hugest moments of, of affirmation for me and a reminder that she’s absolutely the right candidate for me and for America was when she released her LGBTQ plan, and as someone who is a queer person of color, seeing her release that plan and seeing such a bold plan be released was so important to me. And the ways in which she, she really embodied specificity in her plan. And she was, you know, backing up my communities, not just with words, but with real action and seeing the way she’s done her research surrounded herself by a team that really cared. That was so important to me. And I think that was the moment where I said: Oh, absolutely, this is the right candidate. This is the team for me. 

[00:06:28] Kevin: So part of what we try to do on this podcast for the Asian American community, but really for all communities of color, for marginalized communities in general, is to number one, show them a picture of political engagement that’s actually really accessible.

[00:06:46] So it really is for everyone who wants to participate in the process. It’s not just for people who are privileged or people who know people. And what are the common mysteries, for everyone is how do you actually, you know, get to work on a campaign? Like how do you actually get a job, right? The actual mechanics or the techniques of doing so.

[00:07:04] And I love for you to share that story, like how do you actually get on the Warren campaign? Is there like an application that you fill out a form? And then also specifically, how do you end up in Iowa to do the work that you’re doing right now? 

[00:07:21] Grace: Yeah, for the longest time I wanted to be an astronaut growing up as a kid.

[00:07:25] So I think this trajectory was not one I always knew I would have. But when I came out in high school, that was really pivotal moment for me. And I think coming out as queer and understanding who I was in that moment, I realized that I had to fight for everything that I needed. And I saw politics as a real avenue to do that work.

[00:07:47] And I think so often for folks of color, and especially Asian American in the political arena, so much of fighting for what you need means that you really have to push that much harder because we’re also not represented. And to get there, it is a real fight. But I think from that moment of coming out.

[00:08:09] I knew already that I had to do this work. I had to fight for what I believed in. And I had to put myself in a position where I had the platform and the resources and the communities to do that. So I think that’s what really launched me. And from that moment, I think I really sought out opportunities.

[00:08:26] I would say I went to college in DC and that was a huge moment for me because that unlocked the whole world where I was really in the center of what was happening. And when Trump was elected in 2016 I remember being at the White House. And I remember what those moments felt like, and I knew I had to talk to every single person I could and find a way for me to be part of this fight because I knew I needed to make, to make it through those next four years.

[00:08:52] I knew I needed those kinds of opportunities and I needed to be part of that fight. So I think it was just connecting to as many people as possible and telling people: Hey, this is what I need. These four years are going to be hard. I have to be part of this work because I know my life depends on, I know so many other people in my communities that their lives depend on it.

[00:09:13] We have to get this work done. So it was so much of it was just outreach and saying, this is what I need to do. This is what we need to do. How can we make it happen? So right after college, I made a promise to myself that I would certainly be in campaigns, until Trump  was out of office. So I jumped really quickly.

[00:09:35] Into working on my first campaign right out of college. And that sent me on the path of campaigns as a whole. And I really fell in love with the work right after college because so much of this work is grounded in creating community and empowering community. And that’s something I value so much. So getting an opportunity to do that professionally was really just a dream come true. And ever since I’ve had my heart kind of set on that path, and I knew that I really love being in DC because it was such an epicenter because you felt like you were at ground zero of what was happening. And so on that note, I really wanted to come to Iowa to really be at the center of all that was happening and to really be part of that narrative.

[00:10:16] Kevin: Right. So just to be clear, your first job and your first political job right after graduating college is to work on the Warren campaign in Iowa, was that right? 

[00:10:26] Grace: No, no. So I worked on a campaign last year in Nevada, and then worked on a campaign in Arizona and then came to Iowa after that. 

[00:10:38] Kevin: Got it.

[00:10:39] So this is a good segue to our next subject, which is kind of the crux of this discussion, is to help people understand Iowa as an important political state. And I love to kind of get your thoughts on some of the unique challenges that is doing political organizing in Iowa. You know, since you’ve obviously work in a couple of other states as well, in Nevada and Arizona, so there’s a lot to compare with.

[00:11:05] And whether some of the challenges has to do with the fact that it’s a caucus state being Iowa, or that has to do with kind of the physical makeup of it being a large rural state. I’d love to get your thoughts on those challenges. 

[00:11:18] Grace: Yeah, absolutely. 

[00:11:19] I think it’s absolutely important to note that in a caucus state especially, every single part of that state matters, because there are caucuses that happen in every single precinct.

[00:11:29] And so you really have to devote all your resources and time to the entirety of the state where no precinct can get left behind. And I think that’s, that’s also just such a wonderful approach to make sure that everyone’s really included. But it is a challenge, right? Because there are urban centers and communities, while there’s also rural communities and suburban and really everything in between.

[00:11:50] So I think the approaches have to be different depending on geographically where you are. And I think that’s been one of the strengths of the Warren campaign is to tackle these challenges head on. And from day one Warren is invested in a really strong ground game. And that’s been so useful in that she has put people on every corner of this state.

[00:12:09] And we have been talking to folks everywhere since day one. And I think that shows what a grassroots campaign can do. And I think that shows how you meet this challenge is by talking to every single person you can, by making sure those one on one interactions happen across all kinds of geographic communities.

[00:12:28] Um, and making sure that all of those backgrounds and ideas are represented on a campaign and in a community. But I do think it’s certainly a challenge, right? Because, you know, rural farmers are going to have different ideas and different needs perhaps than an urban business person or something.

[00:12:45] And so to understand those nuances is a challenge, but it’s absolutely been a joy to watch his campaign tackle. 

[00:12:53] And does your  

[00:12:54] Kevin: And does your turf specifically have these mixture? Because you do organize in Des Moines, which is a large city in Iowa, but Iowa in general is a very rural state. Does your kind of territory, which is, you know, usually how these things have divvied up in particular, have this mixture of urban concerns and also rural concerns?

[00:13:14] Grace: So I don’t cover rural community quite as much. I cover a part of West Des Moines in Polk County and also Windsor Heights, both of which are kind of suburban, urban, depending who you ask. But it’s been interesting because I think even in these urban centers, a lot of people have moved there from small town, rural communities.

[00:13:36] And so I think a lot of them bring that mindset and that culture, which has been something that is certainly in some ways new to me. But it’s been really wonderful to learn and be a part of in ways that I can, because, often within these smaller cities, for instance, Windsor Heights, which is a certainly a smaller city, but they really bring the small town feel and an urban center and so close in proximity to Des Moines itself.

[00:14:00] And so it is really wonderful to watch how that kind of small town, close knit community still exists, even in the urban centers, and I think shapes so much of Iowa’s community. 

[00:14:12] Kevin: One thing I want to kind of understand more, and a lot of our audience wouldn’t actually physically be in Iowa, right?

[00:14:20] Because it’s a relatively small state, but they are politically very engaged. And I’m always curious to hear the mixture of the people that you as a field organizer talk to on the ground, the actual voters, like what is the mixture of issues they care about that is completely, very local.

[00:14:38] Very much kind of a bread and butter issues, kitchen sink issues, or do they actually talk to you a lot about the national issues, whether it’s the impeachment or trade war or all these sorts of things that you see on cable news? Like what is there the mixture of that that you’ve seen on the ground. 

[00:14:55] Grace: Sure. I mean, I think it’s a little bit of both.

[00:14:59] In that I think healthcare will always be an important issue for people across the board. And I think that’s why I’m so proud to work for a campaign that’s trying to make sure everyone has access to quality health care. And so I think I’ve certainly heard a lot about that from stories of volunteers, you know, who are under insured or just simply uninsured.

[00:15:18] Or who has had to pay too much on their medical bills because of an unfair process that’s working against them. S o I think those that will always continue to be an issue. Certainly in Iowa, I’ve heard a lot about agriculture and the way that Big Ag has really hurt some local populations and local farms.

[00:15:35] And so I think in a lot of ways, although not necessarily, you know, unique to Iowa is specific often to the communities within it. So that’s something I definitely heard a lot about. And I think education is another important one, where a lot of folks, there are a lot of families here and a lot of folks, who have young children are trying to go through a public school system.

[00:15:58] And often the class sizes are too big, or any number of things. There’s not enough resources towards the things they care most about in their schools. And so I think that comes up as an issue as well, which again, it is reflective of a national conversation that’s happening. There’s also specific, I think, often to the ways that their local public school system works.

[00:16:18] Kevin: Mmm, gotcha, gotcha. And I’d love to understand your day to day to mystify this for our audience as well. I was a field organizer back into 2007 – 2008 presidential cycle for President Obama, but I’m sure a lot of that might have changed, fast forwarding now to 2019. So what does your day to day look like?

[00:16:39] Or what does like a typical day, if there is ever one from dawn to dusk of a field organizer working in Iowa? 

[00:16:47] Grace: You know, I think that’s the fun part of this job is that, there is nothing called typical on a campaign. And that’s the fun of it is that it changes constantly. I think sometimes it’s, you know, days of knocking doors and making calls and making as many spreadsheets as I can to figure out my life.

[00:17:05] And then I think other days it’s having a one-year-old at our kid’s room in the office and talking with him and knowing he can’t, but while his mom makes calls for us. Other days it’s meetings and local communities, representing the Warren campaign and telling them what we’re doing.

[00:17:23] And other days it’s throwing events and bringing folks together to give them the tools to empower their local communities. And so I think often it changes what the specifics look like. But I think every day it’s about fighting from the heart and every day it’s saying, how can we creatively engage new communities and existing communities to be part of this political process.

[00:17:45] Kevin: Is it typical that you get to at least plan out your day? Like today I am going to do X, Y, Z, and then you kind of execute that on the ground. Or is there a lot of like reactive stuff that you have to be ready for as well on either like a day to day basis or a week to week basis? 

[00:18:03] Grace: You know, I think it’s again, both.

[00:18:06] I wouldn’t be on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign if we didn’t have a plan for a day and a plan for everyone. That said it also changes rapidly, and that’s, you know, the rush of the campaign is that you have a plan for yourself and then two minutes later everything changes because something exciting just happened.

[00:18:24] Um, so I think part of that capricious nature of a campaign is that it’s ever changing. And that’s kind of the fun part is keeping up with that.

[00:18:34] Kevin: [00:18:34] Right. True to the Warren campaign. There is literally a plan for everything, even down to the field organizer’s day to day life level. And one thing I want to dive deeper now that we got a sense of how did you got in interested in politics.

[00:18:50] How did you get on the Warren campaign. You know, the day to day of working on a campaign in Iowa. I’m curious to learn more about you as an Asian American, as a queer person of color, has your identity whether superficially or deep down inside impacted the way you approach organizing and the way you interact with local voters or volunteers in Iowa?

[00:19:13] I love to hear some stories there. If there any at all, or maybe there hasn’t been any impact, but I’d love to kind of get your thoughts on that. 

[00:19:20] Grace: Absolutely. I think there’s, you know, in every moment of my life, I am always Asian and I’m always a queer person of color. So there’s never a moment in which it does not impact the way I’m navigating a certain space or community. And I think often those identities serve to hold me accountable to my larger communities every single moment I’m doing this work. And it always pushes me to think more  broadly and to think more inclusively of what I can do most. But I think specifically in thinking of how those identities have shaped the way

[00:19:52] the way I’ve  done this work, the way I want to do this work. I think back earlier this year, in June 12th, when I partnered with a local queer night club in Des Moines and we hosted a Pulse vigil to honor the lives lost a few years back, and I think often what those identities of mine do for me is to remind me to bring back the humanity in this work and remind me to really center it on the people and what our community has gone through and what they should never have to go through again.

[00:20:25] And so these identities bring me back to why I do this work and what I hope to give these communities. And I think that piece is so important. And having who I am really be part of how I do this work is so important to me. And so I am really grateful to be able to have a campaign that honors that and empowers that.

[00:20:45] But I think in those day to day interactions, that’s often how it surfaces is just really reminding me who, what, what heart is at the center of all this work. 

[00:20:56] Kevin: And another thing that’s interesting I want to explore with you is the technology that’s being used on these campaigns.

[00:21:03] Obviously technology has a huge impact on how campaigns are produced and executed. And I remember back in ’07 and ’08, you know, we had Google Maps back then, but it was a lot of printing maps from Google to put into envelopes, and that’s how you print your turf. And there’s just piles of clipboards, which is the most technological thing that you bring to a canvas or you give to your volunteers to bring to a canvas.

[00:21:31] What are some technologies or interesting tools that you use on a day to day to do your job well? Or is there still a lot of clipboards being piled up in your field office? 

[00:21:43] Grace: One of the local regional organizing directors always says, every single moment is a moment to organize or something like that.

[00:21:52] And I think one of the coolest tools that Elizabeth Warren’s campaign has is this new organizing tool called Reach. And it’s an app that anyone can download and it works both locally and nationally. And it’s this really cool tool where you can talk to anyone in a grocery store, in a cafe, online, anywhere, and you can, you can put in their information and you can kind of mark down what they’re interested in if they want more information.

[00:22:17] It’s this really cool tool that is founded in grassroots work and connects people across communities. And I think it’s something that a lot of our volunteers have and use regularly. And it’s this great tool that the Warren campaign has employed to really build out this grassroots effort and making sure we’re taking advantage of every opportunity to organize and to connect people.

[00:22:39] And I think it’s one of the coolest innovations I’ve ever seen. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with it. And I think it’s just absolutely wonderful to see the connections that have come from it and the ways in which people have been empowered in their own community to just go up to people and talk to them has been really amazing.

[00:22:54] So I think that’s been, again, one of the coolest pieces of technology we have that has been one that has really brought back to the mission of this campaign of connecting with everyone. 

[00:23:04] Kevin: And is that the same tool that you use to launch your more organized canvasses as well on like a Saturday morning or things like that? Just like all out of this single app to kind of aggregate everything or the conversations that you guys are having out there? 

[00:23:18] Grace: I mean, I think the cool thing about Reach is that it can be used anywhere at any time and pretty much any context. So and I think it encourages people to always be in that mindset of how can I connect more people?

[00:23:30] How can I make sure my community has more information? So it’s a really cool tool in that way, that it’s nonspecific to a certain moment and can really be used at any opportunity. 

[00:23:41] Kevin: So you are  really like literally organizing out of your smartphone all the time, right? If you would like to do that on an ongoing, nonstop basis.

[00:23:49] So thank you so much Grace, for spending some time with us today to demystify Iowa, to demystify organizing in 2019. How can people follow your work and other stuff that you’re doing on the campaign trail? Do you have like social media handles that you put out content regularly? 

[00:24:05] Grace: Yeah, absolutely.

[00:24:06] Well, first I would encourage people to text fight F. I. G. H. T. to 24477. That’s a really easy way just to stay in touch with the campaign and to get text updates of what we’re doing. I think you can also text Bailey, B. A. I. L. E. Y. to 24477. It’s Warren’s dog. So that’s another plug I’ll put in there.

[00:24:29] But in general, I think just staying in touch with the campaign, that’s a really good way to stay connected to your local community. Obviously if you go to her website, you can sign up to volunteer at elizabethwarren.com. And that’s a really good way just to, because there’s so much happening in every community across America, and I would love everyone to be part of that. So I think that’s a really good way to stay in touch as well. 

[00:24:51] Kevin: Cool. Well, Grace thank you so much for being on our podcast and for being part of this mini series to help more and more people understand and hopefully get engaged, as we approached the first part of the primary season, in one of the four early states. Thank you so much, Grace.

[00:25:07] Grace: Absolutely. Thank you for having me, and thanks for all the work you’re doing.

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