At the Iowa People’s Presidential Forum on Saturday, organisers hoped to serve up an antidote to the Polk County Steak Fry, an event a few miles down the road that drew 17 Democratic presidential candidates to deliver stump speeches and pose for selfies with 12,000 attendees.
The people’s forum, organized by a collective of grassroots groups, aimed to push progressive policy initiatives. It hosted four candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, frontrunners in the state that will hold the first nomination ballot on 3 February next year.
Perhaps the most notable absence was that of Joe Biden, the former vice-president who Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action, the forum organiser, declined to invite after his campaign failed to respond to a questionnaire.
Biden, a centrist in a field increasingly dominated by progressive ideas, has dropped behind Warren in the polls in Iowa for the first time.
To a number of speakers at the forum, his absence spoke volumes.
There are few people who fit into the kind of progress that we all want to see in this country. Joe Biden is not oneIlhan Omar
The Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, one of four new members of the House of Representatives racially abused by Donald Trump, gave the keynote speech. She demanded “a president who realises we are not just fighting for one election, we are fighting for the very soul of our democracy and what society we want to become”.
Asked by the Guardian if Biden could be that candidate, Omar was less than optimistic.
“There are few people who fit into the kind of progress that we all want to see in this country,” Omar said. “And I would say he is not one of them.
“I think it has been very clear to many of the people who have been creating the kind of movement that is exciting generations, that we want somebody who really has a plan that is going to tackle a lot of the systematic challenges that we have, and he doesn’t.”
Asked about Biden’s absence, former housing secretary and presidential hopeful Julián Castro told the Guardian: “I’ll just say that if we’re going to win this election in 2020, it’s going to be because we excite people, and we can’t excite them if we don’t show up for them.”
Like the other candidates who attended, Castro was pushed by questioners from Iowa and other midwestern states on subjects including Medicare for All, immigration reform and the creation of a “Homes Guarantee” – an initiative that would create 12m new housing units supported by federal rent control to combat a growing housing crisis.
Tiana Caldwell, an organiser with Kansas City Tenants in Action, told Castro she was evicted from her home last year and forced into housing with overflowing sewage, which she was also forced to leave, meaning she was homeless for six months.
“Why are we forced to live like this in the wealthiest country in history?” she asked. “I can’t take it anymore. I need a homes guarantee.”
Castro accepted there were differences between his affordable housing plan to create 3m new homes and the “Homes Guarantee”. He told the audience of around 2,000: “I don’t want to sugar coat that, but I believe that mine is the most ambitious plan that any candidate has put forward.”
Warren was also pushed on the Homes Guarantee but declined to endorse it, pushing her plan to invest $500bn over the next decade in affordable housing.
Of the four candidates who appeared, only Sanders has endorsed a plan for federal rent control.
The senator from Vermont invited the Guardian to observe an intimate meeting with a group of workers from the Fight for $15 group.
Kelly Osborne, a McDonald’s worker from Cedar Rapids, told him how her hours had been cut, making a small pay rise from $8.25 to $10 an hour essentially irrelevant. As he listened, Sanders’ smile disappeared.
The senator, a longtime backer of the fight for a $15 minimum wage, first met the 44-year-old earlier this year, as he took part in a strike with other fast food workers. He appeared disgusted.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered under his breath.
“I’m not making any more money than I was before,” Osborne said, “and I’m working just as hard.”
Sanders replied: “There is no end to the greed. Every time you think you hear a new low, then it gets lower.”
No candidate was as warmly received as Sanders, who was given standing ovations as he answered questions from community leaders. Among a progressive audience there was little evidence that he was slipping, as the most recent polls suggest.
The South Bend, Indiana, mayor, Pete Buttigieg, drew perhaps the most lukewarm response. As he responded to a question about Medicare expansion, which he supports while advocating for a private insurance option, he met with chants of “Medicare for All”. Organisers intervened to quieten the crowd.
The questioner, Sameena Mustafa of Seniors in Action in Chicago, asked a follow-up.
“A market-driven approach has meant that 40,000 people die a year without healthcare, that a $6 vile of insulin is being sold for $300,” she said. “We know as president you will be commander-in-chief. Will you be the healer-in-chief?”
“You can count on it,” Buttigieg said.
Mustafa did not seem convinced.