Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts about the experiences Ben and Jack Iboshi had during the Iowa Caucuses. An article on the two teens appeared in the Feb. 6 edition of the Waverly Democrat.
After spending some time this summer visiting family in Waverly and getting a taste of Iowa’s pre-caucus political culture (including seeing candidates at the Iowa State Fair’s Soapbox), my mom and my brother, Jack, and I vowed to return to Iowa for the Feb. 3, first-in-the-nation caucuses.
So, on Friday, Jan. 31, we boarded an early morning flight out of our hometown, Portland, Oregon, to Cedar Rapids, to begin our caucus journey. Little did I know the extent to which, through the Waverly Newspaper’s Transformative Journalism Academy, we’d be eyewitnesses to history.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect when we arrived in Waverly and met with the Waverly Newspapers’ Executive Editor, Anelia Dimitrova. I’m 16 years old and Jack is only 13 so it was hard for us to imagine that we would have any chance to do anything other than watch candidates from a distance. We met Anelia in the newspaper’s main office. She handed Jack and I our press passes and called us “cub” reporters — a term, admittedly, I had to look-up online.
Anelia gave us a brief orientation to let us know what to expect at our first assignment, which was going to be a Mayor Pete Buttigieg event on Saturday, Feb. 1, at Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo. During this first meeting and throughout our time in Iowa, Anelia had many insights to share about journalism, which we took to heart. One of her comments in particular about finding people to interview — “interesting people usually self-identify” — proved to be a helpful mantra throughout the weekend.
When we arrived at the Buttigieg event Saturday morning, we bypassed the long line outside by using the “press entrance.” Once inside, we saw maybe seven press teams setting up cameras pointed at the large stage with rows of enthusiastic supporters as a backdrop. The number of reporters grew, as did the crowd. There weren’t enough chairs to hold the over 500 attendees, so people stood around the edges of the room.
Jack and I spent 20 minutes before the speech asking people questions about the candidates. My initial plan was to stick to my pre-written questions, but I quickly learned I had to go with the flow of conversation. (This is something else I learned from Anelia — you never know what to expect and you have to be flexible). Jack learned this quickly when the first person he interviewed was a foreigner who was visiting Iowa to watch the political process, not at all what Jack was expecting.
After a few interviews, we got into a groove and were enjoying talking with people. Plenty of them were Buttigieg supporters, won over by his previous visits to Northeast Iowa. But, a large number of the people we spoke to were undecided and were still gathering information before the upcoming caucuses.
Laura from Waverly was an example of this. In addition to seeing Buttigieg in Waterloo, she saw Andrew Yang the day before and was seeing Sen. Amy Klobuchar that night. It was generally an older crowd, which I didn’t expect to see supporting the 38-year-old candidate. The vast majority of attendees were white.
When Buttigieg took the stage after four introductory speakers, he was charismatic and confident. His speech seemed to register with the crowd. Focusing more on general ideas rather than specific policies, Buttigieg talked about bringing the county together, having hope and welcoming voters no matter who they have voted for in prior elections.
Remembering another piece of advice from Anelia about creating your own opportunities, Jack approached Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, who has endorsed Buttigieg, and asked if we could interview him after Buttigieg’s speech. He agreed and, while Buttigieg shook hands with members of the crowd after his speech, Jack and I spoke with Mayor Hart about his reasons for supporting Buttigieg. We felt like this was a little bit of a “scoop,” as other reporters were trying to interview him, as well, but he talked with us first because we had requested the interview in advance.
After talking with Mayor Hart, I noticed a group of the press members gathered around a gated off area, waiting to ask Buttigieg questions. I rushed over and squeezed between two other reporters. One helped me out by putting my phone, which I was using as a voice recorder, on his notepad so that I could record Buttigieg responding to the questions. Although I was jostling for position in the press gaggle, being a 16-year-old gave me an advantage because it made me stand out in the group.
Eventually, one of Buttigieg’s campaign workers pointed at me to ask a question. Here, another lesson from Anelia — “it’s good to prepare in advance” — was useful. In the spur of the moment,
I had a pre-written question ready to go: “With a ballooning deficit, climate change, and gun violence what can you say to my generation to give us hope?”
Buttigieg listened to my question. “The longer you are planning on being here, the more you have at stake in the decisions that are about to be made. But, we have the power to make different and better decisions. And I am seeing the activism and the energy of a new generation, some not even old enough to vote, really changing the conversation,” said Buttigieg. He then went on to cite Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, as an example of a youth leader making a difference.
The questions from the press continued. At that point, I was ecstatic. I had survived my first press gaggle and had one of my questions answered by a major candidate. I assumed this would be the highlight of our Iowa caucus experience, but little did I know what was coming up!
After the press gaggle, Jack and I interviewed State Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Buttigieg supporter. In response to a question about who Buttigieg should choose as a vice-president if he is the Democratic nominee, Dotzler commented that he is from Minnesota so thinks Amy Klobuchar would be an excellent choice.
When we finished the interview, a Buttigieg advance person approached and asked us if we would like to have an exclusive interview with Buttigieg. Of course we agreed and we were led to a screened off area behind the stage, where we were told there would be time to ask one question.
A little while later, Buttigieg walked into the area, shaking hands with a number of supporters who had gathered there, including Mayor Hart. Because I had already had the chance to ask Buttigieg a question, my brother and I decided he would handle the interview while I filmed it.
Jack asked, “How will you be able to get anything done with a Republican Senate, especially this week how they blocked witnesses for the impeachment trial?”
Once again, Buttigieg listened to the question and responded by indicating that his proposals have been popular not just with Democrats but across America, including in conservative states.
“So, if I can’t get through to a senator one-on-one, I’m going to go to the state where they are from and get their voters fired up so that they would have to explain why they are ignoring their own voters,” said Buttigieg.
At that point, Buttigieg left the event and we went back to the stage area to wait for our ride, but not until we had one last interview. Remembering what Anelia had told us in Waverly during our first meeting — “interesting people often self-identify,” I approached a man on a motorized scooter, wearing a red sweatshirt, a Buttigieg pin, and American flag pants. His name was Joseph Biggs Mathews of Waterloo.
He said he has supported Buttigieg since the first time he saw him on the “Ellen Show.” He likes that Buttigieg is a veteran. Buttigieg has “already fought for our country, so I think he’ll still fight for us again,” said Biggs Mathews.
He also thought that Buttigieg had a good chance of winning the caucuses “with as much work as had been put in. They really went gung-ho, all out with all these organizers and volunteers.” Biggs Mathews said that he could not knock on doors, but had made phone calls for Buttigieg.
Part two of this story picks up where the Iboshi brothers head to Cedar Falls for a rally for Sen. Amy Klobuchar and then their experiences covering the caucus at the site for Waverly Ward 1.