As the event organizer spoke to a packed auditorium at Pangaea International Academy in Clinton, he didn't noticed that the headliner, who’d been running about 25 minutes late, had quietly slipped into his seat at the table.
Nods were given by each member of the event's panel, which included labor representatives from the International Union of Operating Engineers, the University of Iowa Labor Center and the Teamsters. Topics of discussion were listed off: local minimum wage adjustments, changes in workers' compensation laws and worker safety regulations.
“So, there’s a lot to talk about today … and somebody can introduce the senator when he arrives,” the organizer said, concluding his remarks.
“He’s here,” a few audience members yelled back, drawing big laughs from the crowd.
And with that, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is considering running for president in 2020, introduced himself to the people of Clinton: With a brief apology for his tardiness followed by a swift call for Democrats on the national level to reframe what he described as a struggle to effectively communicate with American workers.
It was that sort of missed message that led to Democratic leaning areas across the Midwest to put President Donald Trump in the White House, a result that could occur again if Democrats don’t figure out how to get it right, Brown said.
“We’re just getting emasculated in smaller communities even when those communities have labor union workers,” Brown said. “We’re just not talking to workers enough.”
Brown spent roughly an hour Saturday afternoon speaking with area labor leaders on issues that ranged from Iowa’s major changes to collective bargaining laws to safety regulations for road workers. Among the speakers was Tracey Leone with the Teamsters, who said “there is no dignity” for many Iowans working today, saying they’re been reduced in some cases to “less than human” like data points on a spreadsheet.
The event in Clinton marked the final public stop in the state for Brown as he continued his “Dignity of Work” tour. Brown, an Ohio Democrat who is considering a run for the presidency in 2020, began the tour in the small northeastern Iowa town of Cresco, crisscrossing the state through Perry, Waterloo and Dubuque.
“This shows the kind of support there is for a labor movement in this country,” Brown said of his visit with Clinton labor organizers, adding that the U.S. has a federal government that’s “hostile” to labor rights and “betrays workers” in far too many cases.
Brown hasn’t officially entered the fray of Democratic candidates hoping to defeat President Donald Trump – yet. Asked by a reporter after the event about the timing of his announcement, Brown replied: “My wife and I will make that decision in the next month or so.”
But the senator’s visit comes as Democrats seeking the presidency have flocked to the first-in-the nation caucus state in recent months to explore the possibility. Long regarded as a litmus test for the political primary field, grassroots campaigns have already begun to sprout in the Hawkeye State as candidates begin to add resources to an area where winning can be vitally important for securing the party’s nomination.
Several of Brown’s colleagues in the Senate have already entered the race, including U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kristen Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren. Other candidates include former Maryland congressman John Delaney and Julian Castro, a former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary during the Obama administration.
After speaking with the senator about local issues Saturday, several people from the crowd stopped off to grab smartphone pics with Brown, shake his hand and bend his ear. Among those who had a chance to talk with Brown was Toby Paone, a labor representative with the Iowa State Education Association, who sat on the panel.
“I think he speaks to middle class voters,” Paone said of Brown, noting his own family roots trace back to Ohio. And while the conversation around social issues remains important, Paone said, “at the end of the day, people need a paycheck” and access to quality health care.
“If he decides to run, I may be supporting him,” Paone said.