You Can’t Even Leave Iowa without Running into a Candidate
My bags were packed, my ticket was added to the Wallet app on my phone, and my professors had all been successfully notified. It was time to leave Iowa, if only for a week. A week without the madness of the caucuses, a week with a little more sleep, a week focused on policy instead of politics. I was off to Washington, DC for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge Awards with the Students Learn Students Vote Post-Election Summit immediately following. I was so excited for the chance to reflect on Iowa’s nonpartisan voter engagement and bring back ideas for the caucuses. As I passed through security, I was ready to step away from the Hawkeye State’s madness and dive into a week of learning, celebration, and networking.
Until, of course, I saw a familiar face walking down the Pre-Check line at the Des Moines International Airport. Converse, a blazer, and a scarf – that stylish airport outfit could only mean one thing: Senator Kamala Harris was here.
Her presence, though, caused little fanfare. I was called first by the TSA Agent, despite the Senator’s coveted Pre-Check status. I called out, “Hi, Senator Harris!” and she smiled and laughed, before yelling back a quick hello. At the Hudson Newsstand, Senator Harris bought local popcorn from the Cedar Valley. Paying in cash, she searched through her wallet for the correct amount of change so that way the cashier didn’t have to count out quarters and pennies.
When I went up to the counter, I said to the cashier, “Caucus season, am I right?” The cashier responded, “Yeah, it’s been a little busier than normal.” Looking around at the near-empty store, I realized the cashier had no idea she had just spoken to the Senator from California.
My political nerd jumping out, I immediately called my parents. “You’ll NEVER GUESS who I just saw.” My dad convinced me to find Senator Harris and talk to her about my caucus experience so far. “This is the perfect opportunity,” he said. It was a small airport, and it wasn’t a huge detour from my gate. Why not? I’m still in Iowa, after all.
Senator Harris was gracious, warm, and kind. She gave me a hug, and she spoke to me for over five minutes. I told her that I was a Drake University student, and she told me that she is trying to come back to Drake soon. “We’re figuring it out now,” she said.
Senator Harris seemed genuinely interested in my passions and experiences. She validated the importance of youth voter engagement and seemed authentically excited when I told her about the award I was receiving. When I told her that I cared about equitable education policy and worked for a nonprofit called The Education Trust this summer, she asked for my opinion on her education policy. Taken aback, I asked if she was sure! I was just a student, after all. “Yes, I want to hear your opinion,” she said.
This interaction with Senator Harris is something that I will never forget. She took the time to speak to me – a stranger, a college student – on a Sunday in the Des Moines airport, where she was catching a flight to South Carolina. Even though her poll numbers have been less than ideal, this chance meeting showed that Senator Harris is excellent at the retail politicking that defines the Iowa caucuses. No matter whether she wins the eventual nomination or not, it was obvious that Senator Harris will be more than a Senator in the near future. I felt empowered, seen, and validated, after just five minutes of speaking to her one-on-one. After a few days of wanting to leave the state, I realized: this kind of opportunity can truly only happen in Iowa.
After taking a photo, Senator Harris turned to me. “I want you to remember this,” she said. “You don’t need anyone’s permission to lead.”