Boots and blue-jeaned into oblivion
Mr. and Mrs. Rural Iowa. Or to put it more directly, my friends and neighbors:
I invite you to take a Sunday drive through the Des Moines suburb of Grimes, which is snaking east with housing subdivisions and schools and mad-confusing roundabouts. Grimes is grinding up land like a gold-rush town. Better yet, hit the construction on Highway 141 around 5:10 p.m. on a Friday.
Make sure you have patience and enough gas.
Then snap through Des Moines, which reported record housing growth in 2016. Pop over to Waukee, a sprawl of a place, or Altoona, an overbuilt convenience store posing as a city that breathlessly announces a new store nearly daily in the 300,000 square-foot Outlets of Des Moines (which opens Friday).
The march of progress in Iowa has a decidedly suburban strut these days as we build places that exist entirely in the present.
These ’burbs have no rich Iowa history, little in the way of personality or the sustaining cultural touchstones that make Iowa, well, Iowa. How can you, with schools that haven’t been around long enough to host so much as a 20-year class reunion? As for the future, what difference does it make, really, if you live in Sugar Land outside of Houston, Texas, or Ankeny, Iowa?
Rural Iowa is what gives this state its distinguishing features.
Oh, what a thrill it must be to live in Waukee, especially after our governor, seduced by the wizardry of Apple, boosted that city’s already-winning economy with $213 million in local and state incentives for a data center.
More than 70 percent of Iowans are from Iowa, meaning the quick-build homes in the suburbs, the jobs in two or three growing corridors in Iowa, will be filled not with emigrating Minnesotans or Mexicans, but with economic refugees from Carroll and Guthrie Center and Jefferson.
There is a rural-urban war in Iowa. And we’re losing. What’s striking about that is all the generals are on our side, by birth and culturally.
Kim Reynolds, our governor, is a self-described “boots-and-blue-jeans” kind of gal, an Osceola product, a humble Clarke Countian.
Our two U.S. senators, Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst, are iconically rural. Even in the marbled halls of Congress, attired in Washington formal wear, a blue tie for Chuck and red dress for Joni, the two senators project an overalls-and-work-gloves sensibility.
Iowa legislative leaders in the GOP hail from rural Iowa areas.
But don’t let appearances obscure the hard truth: We rural Iowans are losing the economic battle to the cities under the watch of nearly 100 percent Republican leadership at the state and federal level.
It’s the biggest story in our state.
And as more Iowans open their eyes to this reality it should, counterintuitively, mean favorable winds for the recently hoisted political sails of Des Moines businessman Fred Hubbell.
On paper, Hubbell would seem to be a candidate for governor with a reverse Midas touch where rural voters are concerned.
In fact, though, Hubbell has an opening. And a big one.
Rural people take it at face value that Reynolds and Ernst, she of bread-bagged feet and skilled at the cutting of hogs, are warriors for small-town Iowa, our rural reaches. Look the part, be the part.
Reynolds’ cultural connections are so strong that she actually never has to deliver for rural Iowa. What’s more, Reynolds is easily co-opted by urban forces and the Des Moines power center.
But Hubbell, a scion of a founding Iowa family tied to pioneering and still-flourishing Iowa businesses, can’t rely on biography and Maid-Rite moments with rural Iowans.
He has to deliver results for rural Iowa, and fast, to earn anything in the way of trust here.
Having chaired the Iowa Power Fund, which invested in renewable energy across Iowa, and led Younkers when it had more than 15 stores in Iowa, Hubbell knows the state well.
He also knows how to use money. And really, how many people can say that — with evidence?
The Democratic candidate for governor says the state’s future depends on widening growth beyond its largest cities and the sprawl of suburban life.
“Everybody was worried about the suburbs having all the good things going in Des Moines and people were worried about having a rotten core in the downtown area,” Hubbell said, acknowledging that he was referring to the 1980s and 1990s.
“We have the same issue with the state now,” he added. “It is just kind of the reverse of that.”
The state must do more in more places, though — and with urgency, Hubbell said.
“If we don’t make sure that those strong areas are supported by good, strong communities also, then ultimately, the strength and ability to grow in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Ames and Iowa City is going to decline,” Hubbell said. “Iowa can’t sustain itself on the strength of two cities better than Des Moines could sustain itself just having strong suburbs.”
There’s something else Hubbell can do for rural Iowa. He’s the very essence of Des Moines establishment. That said, Hubbell can tell capital city interests “no” in favor of boosting rural Iowa.
We can keep electing people “just like us” in rural Iowa who aren’t capable of doing the big things we need for a viable rural future.
Or we can be more smart, tactical and look to hire based on performance, not who connected with us over a drink the night before the actual job interview.
Hubbell’s challenge will be to dismiss the political comfort food of identity politics (he is a social progressive, though) and present himself as a practical businessman who sees the connection between rural Iowa and our growing cities, and understands that one can’t exist without the other.
And then he needs to sell rural Iowans on something we know, but don’t want to admit: We cannot compete with the suburbs and cities on a level, 100 percent market-driven playing field. We need a governor, and other leaders, to press their thumbs on the scales to tilt the balance a little toward us in rural Iowa if we are to survive.
Fred Hubbell, whose family actually donated Terrace Hill, the governor’s residence, to the state, may be one of the few Iowans with the gravitas, the connections in the right places, and the political motivation that comes with having to earn respect in rural Iowa, to bring about real and desperately needed rural, urban and suburban balance.
It’s a compelling argument. Will Hubbell make it? And will rural Iowans listen?
Boots and blue jeans are great. But they aren’t fitting for a rural Iowa funeral.