There was no way anyone outside the Polk County Convention Center Sunday could miss this bus.
The 1976 Crown, a once mellow-yellow school bus that’s spending retirement decked out in fluorescent hues, was parked flush outside the latest debate between the Democratic candidates for president. The riders on this bus had eyes for only one candidate: Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. The 20 passengers were so starry-eyed that they’ve embarked on a cross-country journey to show support for him.
“We’re snuggling in and here we go,” said Annie Schlessinger, one of the trip’s coordinators. “We’re getting the word out about Dennis here and in New Hampshire.”
There’s something about Kucinich’s long-shot bid for the presidency that inspires wanderlust. While the Democreation Project bus continues along a route from California to the upper reaches of New Hampshire, a handful of supporters are walking from Maine to the West Coast. The Steps for Peace walk began in Maine in October and has so far covered 18 states and 2,000 miles.
The efforts are just two ways that supporters of the dark horse candidate are attempting to drum up support -- and media attention.
Drumming up support
My first encounter with the Democreation Project was prior to the debate at the convention center. Joining the campaign’s national musicians coordinators John and Moriah-Melin Whooliliurie on the sidewalk, one guy rocked it on the base of a plastic drum while Thaddeus Gray of Farmington, New Mexico, pounded a bongo. (It should be noted that the Whooliluries are on a honeymoon voyage, arriving in Iowa from California with 20 other supporters on a “Peace Train.”)
When I was invited to hop on board the bus in Des Moines, Schlessinger -- a graduate of the University of Arizona who lists her occupations as “world traveler, a DJ and a fire dancer” -- was stirring organic macaroni and cheese and broccoli over an on-board stove the group picked up in Salt Lake City. The group had been on the road for five days at this point and inside it was good vibes among all.
“We’re really celebrating the opportunity to take part in democracy because it’s our opportunity to make our lives better and the lives of people around the world better,” said Daegan Sheehan, Harvard student and group co-founder. “And we end up having more fun than we could anticipate.”
Walking the walk
While the bus rolls on east another group of “Kucitizens” makes its way in the opposite direction -– on foot. When I reached Jonathan Meier he was in Tucumcari, New Mexico, celebrating the cross into the Mountain Time Zone with a rare treat, a motel stay. The 21-year-old peace activist left Portland, Maine, on Oct. 17, and has been walking the Steps for Peace walk since. He was joined by father and son duo of 48-year-old Tom and 14-year-old Tak Schmitz, as well as 25-year-old massage therapist Clara Wilson in New York City two weeks later.
Meier’s backpack is stuffed with a few extra layers for the weather, but no sleeping bag and no tent. He and the group have been staying in people’s homes and churches and eating meals cooked by supporters.
“It makes me vulnerable and puts my life in the hands of others and I think that’s an important step in these walks,” said Meier of the arrangements.
Like the candidate he supports, Meier is a vegan and does not consume meat, dairy or animal products. That means he can’t stroll into McDonald’s for a bite to eat. “We eat a lot of peanuts” for energy. he said.
As the Hawkeye State gears up for the nation’s first caucuses in just a few days, Meier said, “the walk through Iowa was particularly powerful." He acknowledged, though, that Kucinich has a lot to overcome. “What frustrates me the most is cynicism. ‘We love his platform, but we don’t think he can be elected,’” he said, describing the reaction he got from most Iowa voters.
In preparation for the caucus, the walkers split up. Meier is continuing on the original route to San Francisco with walk organizer Amy Fay Kaplan, an intern at Cleveland national headquarters who joined the walkers in mid-December. The Schmitzes and Wilson have stayed behind in Iowa to campaign and canvass. Meier plans to walk into San Francisco on Feb. 29, just days before the California primary.
“Kucinich’s ideas represent basically the ideas of everybody, not everybody maybe, but most people in the U.S. If they thought about it and examined their needs and wants for this country, I don’t think there’s any question that they’d come up with Dennis. He’s kind of a dream politician. He’s a politician who in a very unique way comes from the head and the heart,” the elder Schmitz told me in October before embarking upon the walk. He left his consulting job and agreed to home-school -– or, more appropriately, road-school -- his son in order to make the trip.
Three days after the meeting in Des Moines I receive a dispatch from the bus. “The bus has made it to New Hampshire,” writes the Democreation Project’s Jennifer Wilkie. “We are in Portsmouth today where Dennis welcomed us with a brunch. It's absolutely freezing! The kids nearly froze last night so we're warming them up in a hotel in one of the frozen beach communities.”
The reason the kids nearly froze? The bus has lots of blankets, but no heat. Despite record-breaking cold snap in the Northeast, the kids are undeterred. They’re giddy over the brunch with the candidate, further proving that Kucinich may not have the most supporters, but he certainly has the heartiest.