Olympian Michelle Kwan Stumps for Biden: Will He Take the Gold on Feb 3rd?

Posted: December 17, 2019 | By: Tanner Halleran, Ian Klein, and Runal A. Patel Tagged: Blog

JOHNSTON, Iowa — As the semester ended for Drake University students last week, most of our peers packed up their dorm rooms and hit the road to make it home for the holidays. But when we saw that world-famous figure skater and Olympian Michelle Kwan was coming to Iowa to support former Vice President Joe Biden, we knew we had to check it out. 

As Runal has written previously, one marker of these final laps before the Iowa precinct caucuses is the influx of campaign surrogates: influential party activists, leaders, celebrities, and talking heads who descend on Iowa to make renewed calls for Iowans to jump aboard a campaign. Michelle Kwan is unique in that she is both a surrogate herself and a Biden staffer serving as the campaign’s director of surrogates. She described her dual role by saying that on campaigns, staffers serve as “jacks of all trades.” She tries to think about how to best leverage the campaign’s surrogates in early states and Super Tuesday states while knowing that she can also fulfill the role herself. 

Before we spoke with her, Kwan spent Saturday in Des Moines visiting Brenton Skating Plaza and other stops while campaigning for the former vice president. We got to see her speak that evening at a Johnston house party focused on the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. The event was hosted by Prakash Kopparapu, a regular face in Iowa Democratic politics. Kopparapu is the chair of Asian & Latino Coalition, an Iowa political action committee dedicated to issues facing Asian and Latino communities in the state. As we pulled up to Kopparapu’s home, we saw Christmas lights and Biden signs throughout the front yard. Cars lined the street and a warm glow emanated from the house.

As we entered the house, we saw a number of Christmas decorations on the walls and nearly 30 Iowans milling around. As we signed in and hung up our coats in the Kopparapu’s closet, we couldn’t help but notice the relaxed nature of the event. Some guests sat and others stood, nearly all with drinks and food in hand, chatting about not only politics but also everyday life. If not for the “Iowa for Biden” signs on the walls and the conspicuous number of campaign t-shirts, you might think this was any other holiday party. 

This informality speaks to the nature of a good old-fashioned Iowa caucus house party. The act of entering a stranger’s home and being welcomed with open arms, of putting your coat in their closet alongside dozens of others, all while there to engage in the process of choosing the next president of the United States is an incredibly unique and weird experience — there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else. As Kopparapu put it, “we elect the leader of the free world in our living rooms in Iowa.”

As we made our way to the kitchen we spoke with a number of the guests about what brought them out to the event. Some we spoke with said they didn’t often attend political events but were brought out by the notion that this event would focus on the issues affecting their community. Others just really wanted to meet Michelle Kwan. One such guest was Roy Ney, a Biden-supporting retiree who has lived in Iowa for almost his whole life. Ney said he is looking for a candidate that can win states in the upper Midwest. “Whoever can win California or Massachusetts, that’s nice, but almost any candidate can win there” Ney said. “Who’s going to win in Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin, that’s really the key to the 2020 election.” Ney perceived Biden as the most electable of the Democratic presidential candidates.

Ney recounted a story of a long-time running partner who in 2002 convinced him to take ice skating lessons along with her (Michelle Kwan also was competing in the Winter Olympics the same year). That year, the running partner had traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah (where the Winter Olympics were held that year) and brought back for Ney a 2002 Winter Olympics t-shirt as a gift. Ney had kept the shirt ever since, and he asked Kwan at the event to autograph the shirt for him. Ney said that he will give the autographed shirt back to his running partner as a Christmas gift this year.

Soon after we spoke with Ney, Kwan gave her short remarks about the importance of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community and why Joe Biden appealed to her. She mentioned that she believes that the AAPI vote would be important in 2020 saying that, “we are the growing minority and we have to realize that our vote really matters.” She also reflected on the way that AAPI communities often don’t focus on things like athletics or politics, two things that Kwan has spent her life entrenched in. “I think with politics it’s okay to be a pioneer in your family,” she said. “A lot of people fought hard for the power to vote.” 

With this overall focus on the issues of minority communities, we were reminded of various conversations that have been happening lately about the racial dynamics of the 2020 Democratic primary. Much has been said about the lack of racial diversity in Iowa but there has also been a conscious effort by activists and organizations such as Asian & Latino Coalition to bring issues pertaining to diversity to the forefront. “Diversity has become the number one topic and I’m very proud to say, and I don’t mean to be egotistical, that it’s because of Asian & Latino Coalition,” said Kopparapu. 

Kopparapu echoed Kwan’s comments and posited that, “we [AAPI] are going to be the deciders in 2020, there’s no doubt in my mind.” He also explained that he believed that some of the swing in 2018 from Republicans to Democrats in the suburbs came from Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. With less than 50 days until the 2020 Iowa precinct caucuses and the official start of the primary race, candidates are racing to get all the support they can get. With the race as tight as it is, we have good reason to believe that otherwise small communities such as AAPI can have a big impact on the race ahead.