Lessons from a Presidential Campaign in Iowa

By Katie Malague ’94

As I crossed the Mississippi River in May 2003, my father’s words echoed in my ears: “You’re not going to leave your job for THAT — are you?” It was a reasonable question. Who would give up a comfortable apartment, a stable position with a global management consulting firm, and the benefits of D.C. city life to join Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in Iowa?

I had never worked on a campaign. I had never been to Iowa. I had never lived in a motel or received driving directions that included 10 miles of unpaved roads. I didn’t know that a farmer’s tan actually includes a hat line. I didn’t know about hog lots, detasseling corn, fried Twinkies, or that eerie orange glow that precedes a tornado.

Despite concerns about my sanity, I was thrilled. Politics was my passion. During my teenage years, when my friends’ walls showcased Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan, mine displayed Michael Dukakis. I was confident when I got into my car, but somewhere along Route 80, an uneasy feeling surfaced. What was I getting myself into? Was Dad right?

I did know a few things about campaign staffers. They worked relentlessly for little pay; their standard attire included jeans, sandals, and the occasional alarmingly large tattoo; and, from what I read, most fell into two broad categories that sometimes overlapped — the professionals (derisively called “hacks”) and the true believers. Perhaps because Dean was then an asterisk in the polls, our team was solidly the latter.

For the next nine months after arriving in Des Moines, I led a diverse group of motivated, dynamic activists and grew emotional addressing issues facing our country. I had days when my dad’s words played over in my head — and others when I was overwhelmed by my good fortune. Most importantly, I began to genuinely believe in something — that, together, we can make a difference. It was exciting, and it was exhausting. It was my field of dreams.

Then, in the cold winter of early 2004, it was suddenly over. The day after the campaign ended, I awoke at 5:36 a.m. and tried to remember the last time I was alert at that hour without something to do or somewhere to be. It was the first morning in nearly a year that required nothing of me — no morning conference calls, no urgency, no tractor pulls, parades, or pork sandwiches with locals in one-restaurant towns … nothing.

I disassembled our office, packed my compact car to its seams, and called my parents to let them know I was on the road. Throughout my time driving through Iowa’s farmland, small towns emerged and faded in the rearview mirror, but the experience had left an enduring impression. I remain inspired by the notion that a small number of dedicated people can change the course of history, and I fulfilled a dream by working on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. So, yes, I left my job for THAT. And, as my dad now says, I’ll always be glad I did.

Katie Malague ’94 observes this year’s presidential campaign on C-SPAN from the comfort of her home in Washington, D.C. She works at the Partnership for Public Service, where she focuses on government reform issues and the upcoming presidential transition. Her email address is katie_malague@hotmail.com.