Clare Gannon works in a tiny, dark room crammed with desks and cluttered with maps, televisions and signs reading “Howard Dean for President.”
Dressed in sweat shirt and blue jeans with pink highlights in her hair, she takes phone calls every few minutes from reporters who want to talk about Dean’s chances of winning the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19. The 23-year-old said she hopes a stint in the press office here will help launch a public relations career.
“There’s a general respect for people who have worked the Iowa caucuses,” Gannon said. “Politically, people know it’s hard work here. I’m really young, and the fact that I’ve had so much hands-on training, that’s really, really great.”
Twentysomething campaign staffers eager for a taste of grass-roots politics have flocked to Iowa, the place Gannon calls “the center of the political universe.” In exchange for long hours, little pay and an occasional bout of homesickness, they are handed significant responsibilities. They become adept at handling the media, make contacts that could last decades and learn how to be politically competitive at the highest level.
“It gives a certain amount of sort of cachet to the rising young staffer to have worked a caucus campaign,” said David Redlawsk, a University of Iowa political science professor and a Democratic county chairman. “It gives you that grass-roots, on-the-ground experience that you just can’t get very easily any other way.”
Gannon, an Iowa native, graduated from Northwestern University with a communications degree. She works nearly 90 hours a week on “Campaign Row,” an area of downtown Des Moines where about half of the candidates’ Iowa headquarters are clustered in old storefronts and office space emblazoned with campaign signs.
She predicted many young campaign workers will leave Iowa with the same feeling: “If I got through that, I can get through anything.”
From Dick Gephardt headquarters on Campaign Row, spokesman Bill Burton has helped push the Missouri congressman into the top of the field in Iowa. Burton, 26, already has worked in politics for four years, including stints with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and former Minnesota Rep. Bill Luther.
“You learn so much every day because there is just so much more going on than there is in a Capitol Hill job or other campaign jobs,” said Burton, a University of Minnesota graduate. The difference, he said, is the direct contact with voters.
“It’s much less insulated from the actual folks who make our country go,” Burton said. “People here really understand the issues. They really understand how their leaders and government are responsible to them.”
This winter, the Iowa caucuses have been more exciting for staffers scattered throughout the state because of the intense competition among nine campaigns. Staffers have been known to spread damaging information about the other side as fast as a rumor whips through a high school locker room.
“Anything happens when you are under intense pressure with a small group of people,” Redlawsk said. “There’s a real sense of team, a sense of us versus them.”
Few staffers talk publicly about the darker side of campaigning. Instead, they can be found toasting each other with rounds of drinks at Wellman’s, a pub close to Campaign Row.
“I think that though the competition is intense, that people are very respectful of the other campaigns and, you know, a lot of us are friends from the past,” said Burton, who worked in Harkin’s office with Dean spokeswoman Sarah Leonard.
Many of the young staffers work as volunteers and then move up to salaried positions that pay about what they’d make at a fast-food restaurant. They sometimes room with other staffers — at times 10 co-workers can crash in one apartment if an event brings regional coordinators into town.
Jessica Love, 24, lives with a couple of other John Kerry staffers and a cat in a rented room at a supporter’s home. She quit her job at a nonprofit organization in Washington to come to the Corn Belt in September. The George Washington University graduate calls her caucus work an “experience of a lifetime,” but some family and friends were skeptical.
“When I told my family, they said, ’Iowa?’ And I said ’Yes, it’s where it’s at,”’ Love said.
Campaign staff like to look ahead. Burton has his sights fixed on working at the White House. Love said she isn’t certain what she’ll do after the caucuses, but she has no doubt her Iowa experience will be a help.
“Anybody in a higher position in politics, I think, yeah, would think this sort of experience is very necessary,” she said. “Iowa is it. This is where it starts. It’s where decisions are made and what propels candidates into other primaries.”