Bill de Blasio had an unconventional first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate

Kim Norvell
Bill de Blasio had an unconventional first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate

GOWRIE, Ia. — People in New York City and rural Iowa have one thing in common — they're both populated by "working people" who want the government to work for them, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said here Friday.

In his first trip to Iowa since announcing his campaign for president, reporters asked de Blasio how the mayor of America's largest city can relate to rural Iowans. 

"I think there's more that unites us than divides us, I really believe that. When you talk to people here about what they're going through, (there's) a lot of economic uncertainty," he said after touring the POET ethanol plant in Gowrie, a town of about 1,000 residents in northern Iowa. "They're hurting because of the tariffs now — they're really hitting Iowa farmers hard — and they want a better lifestyle for their family and they want the government to be on their side.

"Doesn't matter where you come from, that's a universal reality." 

Democratic presidential candidate New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tours the POET Biorefining Ethanol Facility, Friday, May 17, 2019, in Gowrie, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

De Blasio made an unconventional first trip as a Democratic presidential candidate to the first-in-the-nation state on Friday, choosing not to introduce himself and outline his issues at rallies or even meet-and-greets in front of would-be supporters.

Instead he took a tour of the ethanol plant with former Gov. Tom Vilsack, met privately with family farmers in Greene County, and held a private discussion with Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and mental health care professionals.

The mayor was scheduled to speak Friday night at a fundraiser for the Woodbury County Democratic Party in Sioux City, a group he meets with in late February as he mulled a run for president.

When asked why he decided to take the unusual approach, de Blasio said he still has plenty of time to have traditional campaign events before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020. 

"We're doing it piece-by-piece, but what I'm really focusing on today is listening to Iowans. It's not: me, me, me. It's: 'listen to the people,'" he said.

In Gowrie, reporters followed de Blasio and Vilsack as they toured the ethanol plant.

A farmer wearing an Iowa State University ball cap had just pulled in to drop off a load of corn when de Blasio stopped to introduce himself. Later, one of POET's employees gave de Blasio a handful of distillers grain, a byproduct of ethanol used for animal feed. 

De Blasio said the farmer explained how "absolutely vital" it is to his family's well-being and his farm's bottom line to have an ethanol plant nearby

"I want to see a lot more farming communities have these kinds of biofuel facilities," de Blasio said. "Biofuels are a really important part of the future."

Iowa is the nation's leading ethanol and biodiesel producer. About half of Iowa's corn production goes into making ethanol and distillers grain.

There are 42 corn ethanol plants in the state, according to the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

But instead of increasing the production of ethanol or making it easier for farmers to contribute their grain, the Trump administration has "favored big petroleum companies," de Blasio said. 

"That has to end," he said.

Democratic presidential candidate New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, tours the POET Biorefining Ethanol Facility with former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, left, and POET general manager Wael Sanduka, right, Friday, May 17, 2019, in Gowrie, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Vilsack, who served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Barack Obama, told the Des Moines Register that he and de Blasio spoke of the importance of the Renewable Fuel Standard and E15 – gasoline with 15 percent ethanol – to Iowa's economy.

Most gasoline used today contains 10 percent ethanol, though late last year, President Donald Trump directed the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rulemaking that would allow for year-round E15 use. The agency released its proposal in March and hopes to have changes in place by the summer.

Vilsack has not endorsed a candidate for president, but said he has spoken with nearly all who have campaigned in Iowa. He has said candidates must have a clear vision for rural America in order to win the White House in 2020.

When he visited Iowa in February, the New York mayor acknowledged that he still needed to learn more about agriculture and rural issues. He noted at the time that he reached out to Vilsack to help with that process.

In Des Moines, de Blasio met privately with representatives from Optimae LifeServices, a mental health care organization, who wanted to speak with him about challenges facing Iowans. 

Critics have said the state's shift to private management of Medicare has led to cuts in services for members and unpaid bills to the agencies providing their care.

"We know there's been huge mistakes made by a Republican governor — this governor and the previous governor — that really undermined the ability for people to get health care and to get mental health care," de Blasio said. 

In addition, Iowans have increasingly had a difficult time finding mental health care. Iowa closed its mental institutions at Clarinda and Mount Pleasant in 2015. In the past dozen years, six hospitals statewide have closed their inpatient psychiatric units.

Psychiatrists are scarce in Iowa, especially in rural areas. Only about 220 of them practice here, giving the state one of the deepest shortages in the nation.

In New York City, de Blasio introduced a new insurance plan to provide health care to 600,000 New Yorkers who are uninsured. He also started ThriveNYC, an organization dedicated to boosting funds for existing mental health organizations and helps residents find care in the city.

"This issue — health care, mental health care — is going to be central to our campaign," de Blasio said. "It's central to what we're doing in New York."

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Bill de Blasio had an unconventional first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate