Des Moines Register: Iowa CCI wields political power

Front page, all of the back, tons of photos.

Today the Des Moines Register’s “Life” writer Mike Kilen ran a full length article on our work.

Read the full story online or below:|topnews|text|Frontpage

Iowa CCI wields political power, but not everyone agrees with tactics

It’s a routine morning in a dull suburban government office complex, and discussion of manure is on the schedule. Four people enter the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission meeting. The room hums with whispers of a well-known acronym.


Eyes shift. The meeting goes on with an air of anticipation — for the rabble-rousers from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement are in the house.

This seemingly low-key meeting, with no camera crews, big-time political candidates or sexy issues, is the toiling groundwork of a grass-roots group of Iowa citizens a national activist association calls one of the most effective in the United States.

CCI members were at the Iowa State Fair in August, shouting down Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, at the venue where they also engaged Mitt Romney in a back-and-forth that led to his famous quote last summer: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

A few days later, CCI members were cleared from the room with gavel-pounding after their complaint of a conflict of interest by Iowa Board of Regents member Bruce Rastetter was denied by the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board.

Both incidents set off a volley of public reaction from Iowans who complained of the organization’s rudeness and wrong-headedness, even from those who often side with CCI’s opinions, who say one person’s First Amendment rights shouldn’t trump another’s right to hear the speech.

Since its inception in 1975, CCI has made enemies with its tactics that range from street protests to taking over offices to even picketing outside people’s homes.

“People want dialogue, not debate. Respect, not rhetoric,” said Aaron Putze, director of communications with the Iowa Soybean Association and the target of a CCI picket outside his home in 2007. “The conversation has moved beyond those tactics they have used for close to 30 years, which at the end of the day can be divisive.”

Among the shouting and sign-waving, CCI has continued to grow in numbers, tripling its membership in the last 15 years to 3,300, including members in every Iowa county. It has grown its visibility and attempts at political influence, launching an offshoot to its organization last year called the Iowa CCI Action Fund, whose nonprofit tax category allows them to endorse political candidates.

“We’ve gotten more strategic on a lot of issues,” said Hugh Espey, a member since 1979. “Obviously, we pursue reporters and ask ourselves ‘what’s the news hook in it?’”

In the process, CCI has done everything from fight for storm sewers in low-income Des Moines neighborhoods and against rising utility rates in the 1970s and 1980s, to helping renegotiate loans to farms facing foreclosure during the farm crisis. It worked to stop large corporate hog confinements from being built in the 1990s and fought for restitution for families from subprime lenders and wage theft of immigrants in the 2000s.

CCI organizers describe themselves as “everyday people” who use personal time to attend public meetings such as the recent Iowa Environmental Protection Commission gathering, where the commission heard public comments on considering a ban on spreading liquid manure on soybeans. CCI members consider it harmful to the water.

“Putting manure on soybeans isn’t necessary,” CCI member Brenda Brink of Huxley told them, “and scientific evidence proves it.”

It’s not easy getting in front of a board, she would say later. A lot of people aren’t willing to risk their reputation in their small towns and be called complainers.

But CCI members have sparked a discussion on when it’s OK to shed the label of “Iowa nice.”

CCI was the subject of a national PBS piece on “Bill Moyers Journal” in 2010, which led with this line: “They are Iowa CCI. They take their fighting spirit wherever they go.”

In one scene after another, Iowans were shown holding signs, leading crowds and proclaiming their credo of putting people before profits, of being the voice for the little guy. None wore suits, or even bothered with business-casual attire. Most had gray hair.

They proclaim to be farmers and factory workers, students and grandmothers, challenging the seats of power, wherever they are, in corporations or government.

“These are big stages we need to play in,” Espey said. “If you don’t speak out, it ain’t changing.”

Today, CCI has 12 full-time staff members, an office in north Des Moines, seven chapters around the state and an annual budget of nearly $1 million. Individuals account for nearly a third of their revenue, from dues and donations, but they have garnered corporate donors such as outdoor clothier Patagonia and grants from large foundations such as McKnight and Needmor, who focus on the needy, the underserved and the environment.

Building an effective activist organization these days takes sophisticated financial skills and is attracting college graduates from schools of management, says Kesho Y. Scott, a Grinnell College professor of sociology and American studies who specializes in social movements.

Groups such as CCI are also becoming more aggressive, as immigration policy and predatory lending have become transnational issues and activists have shifted from education and consciousness-raising to agitation.

“As they mobilize and get people’s voices heard, they get kickback from stakeholders, who don’t allow them to protest or don’t bring them to the table for meetings. That’s why it appears they have taken a different tactic, and they have,” she said. “It’s the work of mobilization.”

It’s a long way from CCI’s beginnings, when four Catholic priests from Waterloo traveled to Chicago in 1975 and came back inspired to help people get a fair shake by standing up for themselves.

The first thing Joe Fagan, one of the original founders, said he learned is to listen. He ventured into poor Waterloo areas, sure they would complain about the run-down abandoned house in the neighborhood. At door after door, he instead found they complained about the cracks in the curbs. He eventually helped not only fix the curbs but get the mayor’s action on tearing down the old building.

“That was our first taste of victory,” said Fagan, who retired from the priesthood and went on to serve as CCI’s executive director until 2003. “It was euphoric to see people win that are used to losing.”

Over the years, he recruited more people to take on private institutions such as banks and government bodies trying to treat sewage in poor neighborhoods. He said he saw average working people, country people, suddenly lead groups or speak in public for the first time.

They stormed offices, such as the Farmers Home Administration, during the farm crisis while trying to urge lenders to modify loans for farmers.

“We took over the damn building among typewriters and secretaries,” he said. “And then they started meeting with us.”

The organization claims to have stopped foreclosures and renegotiated terms on over 200 loans that saved family farmers $4 million.

“Did we stop the farm crisis? No. But we gave information to people that empowered them,” Espey said.

The progress, they said, happened one Iowan at a time.

Barb Kalbach also said CCI has grown with one episode of empathy at a time.

As the number of large hog confinements grew in rural Iowa in the mid-1990s, so did the Internet, which CCI used to connect people and organize opposition.

In 2002, when Kalbach heard about a company seeking permits for a 7,000-hog confinement near her home in Adair County, she called CCI. The group swings into action by feeding people information on the local level, telling them how to organize, when public meetings are held and how to fight for their cause.

“Soon I was taking stacks of manure management plans wherever I went,” Kalbach said.

CCI helped start a petition, appeal to the Environmental Protection Agency, and stop the confinement.

“I was so grateful for what CCI did for us, I wanted to do everything I could to help out the next person,” she said.

CCI has become unique nationally because of its diversity — taking on both urban and rural issues from immigration to farm practices — with a membership that is young and old, white, black and increasingly Latino, said George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action in Chicago, a grass-roots activist organization with 29 affiliates, including CCI, in 15 states.

“Of this kind of statewide grass-roots organization, there are maybe five in the conversation that have been as effective as CCI,” he said.

Julia Rendon, pastor at Crossroads Church of Christ in Indianola, joined CCI after meeting one of the first refugee families from Afghanistan in 2001. A mother and her six children were being charged more for government-subsidized rent than allowed, she said, because the landlord was charging her for repairs. “You can’t just let that happen,” Rendon said. “It’s not decent.”

With CCI’s help, the mother won in a small claims court and eventually received a Habitat for Humanity home.

“CCI is described as an antidote to despair — and it is,” she said. “For me, it’s a faith issue. Jesus acted by standing up for the least of these.”

Espey said CCI is not opposed to people making money. “But do you run people over to do it, or do it in a way that lifts people up?”

That takes raising your voice sometimes, members said, and risking their label of “Iowa nice.” “For those people who want us to shut up: I refuse to be silenced by a code of conduct,” Kalbach said.

The political noise has become deafening in recent years, activists say, as the failing economy led to social upheaval from people who felt they weren’t getting a fair shake.

So CCI members co-mingled with the Occupy Movement that took root in the last year. After years of protest, Espey was arrested for the first time on the grounds of the Iowa Capitol last fall and again in April outside a downtown Wells Fargo office where he was protesting home foreclosures and what CCI deemed excessive corporate profits, among other issues.

The volume has been turned up, CCI members admit. When they shouted at Republican vice presidential candidate Ryan during his speech at this year’s Iowa State Fair, to “stop the war on the poor,” they claimed Ryan supporters pushed and shoved them while they remained nonviolent. A video taken of the event shows others in the crowd putting Romney signs in front of the protesters. But others at the fair complained that CCI protesters were pushing, and out of control.

“Paul Ryan has a good platform and has many opportunities to tell his story,” Espey said. “We certainly don’t get those opportunities. You know how scripted those speeches are.”

At the same time, CCI’s actions are often scripted, Espey admitted. If a member asks a question at a public meeting, for example, another member is there with a scripted follow-up question.

Some Iowans see CCI’s actions as rude behavior.

“Their motivation seems to be they are mad at everything,” said James Robinson of Des Moines, who fired off a Register letter to the editor after the State Fair incident. “To me, it comes across as uncivilized and just rude. I don’t object to public discourse, but it doesn’t further your cause to come across as a jerk.”

When they picketed outside Putze’s home in 2007 for his organization’s ties to big agricultural companies, he thought they crossed the line, and called police.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to their cause and I think it has been proven. Some of their tactics don’t help their cause, but hurt them,” Putze said.

Even Democrats have voiced displeasure.

After a ruckus during a town hall meeting with U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley last year, Iowa Democrat Party chairwoman Sue Dvorsky scolded CCI for its behavior. A video taken at the event shows a woman yelling at the departing senator, and an Iowa newspaper columnist later wrote that CCI members blocked the senator’s entrance to a post-event media interview. Dvorsky told the Register then that the group’s behavior was “unproductive, embarrassing, and has no place in a serious debate.”

Dvorksy said recently that she didn’t want to revisit the issue but that with all the protests in recent years that have attracted police attention, concerns over issues “should be channeled into getting things done with electoral politics.”

Others called out CCI for the dust-up at the ethics board meeting last month, including Iowa Sen. Jack Hatch, also a Democrat.

“What we are looking for is political figures that put people over politics, whether they are Democrats or Republicans,” Espey said. “What we say to Democrats is your actions don’t match your rhetoric. You wanted to hear from us on the campaign trail, now we want you to stand up for everyday people.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the issues, Espey continued. It just takes a lot of work reading documents, shirttailing on the scientific research by groups such as Iowa Policy Project, and convincing Iowans to stand up.

“We’re painted as this outrageous group, but look at the people here. We’re old!” said Kalbach, who is a nurse. “We take a day off our jobs and drive hundreds of miles to come to these events. We are not crazy people.”

At times, that’s the image, and in a world of social media and 24-hour news, Grinnell’s Scott said the organization needs to promote its helpful public face “when it’s not in an engagement, or mobilizing. That’s what organizations have to do now.”

It can create tension for activists in rural areas who live among friends and neighbors they know well.

Rosie Partridge, 68, of rural Sac County owns a business with her husband that employs 30 and does business around the world. But she said she sees big corporations taking over, small towns emptying and farmers gone. She feels compelled to speak up.

“I’d rather work my land and live a peaceful life out here,” she said. “It’s hard to speak up when you are part of a rural community. People mind their own business.”

Yet she lobbies at the statehouse and in Washington, D.C., visits government offices, writes letters, makes phone calls, demonstrates and raises her voice — “sometimes a lot.”

“Once you know something, you have to go forward,” she said. “Confronting those in power is what our whole democracy is based on. We aren’t going to be invited on ‘Meet the Press,’ so this is how we have to ask those tough questions.”

CCI: A brief history of causes

1979: Fights for a storm sewer project to stop flooding in a low-income Des Moines neighborhood.
1980-84: Fights for utility rate reductions and weatherization programs for low-income seniors.
1985-1992: Fights against farm foreclosures and helped renegotiate terms of loans or get new loans to family farmers.
1995-present: Fights the construction of large confined animal facilities in Iowa.
2002-present: Fights subprime lenders who the organization says prey on low-income families.
2009-present: Fights wage theft cases, particularly for immigrants who they say don’t get the full pay for their work.
2011: CCI members shout questions to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley at a town hall meeting and, according to some reports, block his entrance to a news conference.
April 2012: CCI protests outside Wells Fargo’s downtown Des Moines headquarters against the corporation’s business practices. Ten protesters are arrested.
August 2012: Members heckle Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan at the State Fair.
August 2012: Members disrupt the meeting of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board after CCI’s conflict-of-interest complaint against Iowa Board of Regents member Bruce Rastetter is dismissed. The room is cleared.

Learn more

  • Iowa CCI has been “Putting People First” for decades. Dive into more of our organizing history here.

Join the fight


Click LIKE and TWEET to share this article with your friends.