A Dot of Iowa Blue

Art Cullen: "Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope From a Heartland Newspaper" (Viking, 317 pp.)

Storm Lake is a northwest Iowa town of 10,000 whence Art Cullen won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for deeply reported editorials on water pollution that took on both the Koch brothers and a de facto agribusiness consortium. Cullen is a scion of one of the town’s most prominent families turned editor and (with his older brother) co-owner of the barely profitable twice-weekly Storm Lake Times, where he not only writes editorials but turns out a weekly column that can bust his ass. How much of the episodic book his Pulitzer generated he adapted from his newspaper writing I don’t know. But I also don’t care, because 300 fast-moving pages later I’d learned more about meat processing, sustainable agriculture, and immigrant labor than I’d ever thought to ask as well as getting the lowdown on Iowa politics from Republican evildoers like son of Storm Lake Steve King and six-term governor Terry Branstad to left populists like FDR veep turned fourth-party presidential candidate Henry Wallace and 40-year Congressional stalwart Tom Harkin. But mostly I learned about Storm Lake. As a depiction of the factionalism, frustration, surprising variety, and neighborly give-and-take of small-town life, this isn’t Willa Cather because nothing is. But it’s more up-to-date.

The despicable King was born in Storm Lake, which is still in his district. The town itself, however, is “a dot of political blue” in a sea of rural red. Cullen argues that this pattern has parallels in Wisconsin, Ohio, and even Pennsylvania, and thus holds a key to future presidential elections. His account of Bill and then Hillary Clinton’s refusal to venture beyond the Des Moines airport is as chilling as he means it to be in the wake of Trump’s 2016 WI-MI-PA-(IA) sweep. As a small horde of White House hopefuls focus more of their energy than seems efficient on rural Iowa Dems as well as the fine citizens of Des Moines, Davenport, Ames, and Dubuque, it’s pleasant to imagine that the state’s six electoral votes might return to the party whose column they buttressed in every presidential election between 1980 and 2012 except 2004’s.

Although he published this book in part to convince fellow anti-Trumpers to take notice, Cullen expresses skepticism in this regard—admittedly writing before Second Amendment extremism began softening a little (or has it?), he sees gun rights as a decisive wedge issue. But he emphasizes that Storm Lake has been turning multiracial ever since food-processing capital broke the unions decades ago. It’s on its way to majority-Latinx as well as accommodating many Laotian Hmong with their own Buddhist temple in a town without synagogue or mosque; 90 percent of elementary schoolers are immigrants, and 70 percent of Storm Lake High School grads are Latinx. When Cullen visited Ayotlan, his town’s Mexican sister city, he learned that the mayor’s aide there washed dishes for a year in L.A. before returning home for law school. That aide shows up in a reprinted Storm Lake Times column. Understandably, local newspapers are said to be disappearing in both this economy and this information age. By argument and example, Cullen wants to make sure everyone understands what a loss that would be.