Iowans Drive-In as Longtime Tradition Changes for the Night

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DES MOINES, Iowa — The 2020 version of the Polk County Democratic Steak Fry looked and sounded much different than previous events. Last year, nearly 12,000 people crowded into part of Water Works Park in Des Moines to listen and mingle with 17 presidential candidates and several Iowa politicians.

The Steak Fry is a four-decade tradition that features prominent Democrats — both from Iowa and those with national aspirations. Former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin hosted the event for most of those years before he retired in 2015.

But organizers changed this year’s event because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to keep supporters separated, they encouraged people to watch the event from inside the vehicles, while listening to speeches broadcast on their radios. Volunteers delivered steak sandwiches to people instead of them gathering at crowded tables as in years’ past.

(Iowans listen from their vehicles to Polk County Democratic Steak Fry speakers. Photo: Dave Price, WHO 13.)

“I’ll never forget who I am and what I’m fighting for,” said Theresa Greenfield, a Des Moines Democrat and her party’s U.S. Senate nominee.”

Greenfield concluded her remarks by saying, “Thank you very much.”

Honks of approval then followed from some of the people behind the wheel in a few hundred vehicles gathered in front of her. Greenfield gave her speech in person.

Greenfield also addressed her Republican opponent, first-term U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, with a challenge: “So Senator Ernst, tonight I am calling on you to apologize to our doctors, nurses and health care heroes in Iowa and across this country, who are putting their lives on the line to keep us safe during this pandemic.”

During a campaign event in Waterloo on August 30th, Ernst said that she was “so skeptical” of the reported numbers of people who have died of COVID-19. Members of the conspiracy group, Q-ANON, have made similar unfounded allegations that the medical community and government are intentionally misleading the public on the number of people who died of the virus.

Ernst had questioned whether virus-related deaths are inflated by the medical community as a way to get more money from the government. “These health-care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” Ernst said, according to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Two days later, Ernst released a statement that read in part, “Over 180,000 Americans have died because of Covid-19.”

The number of Americans confirmed dead — which some medical experts believe could actually be under-reported because not all people who die are tested for COVID-19 — is approaching 200,000.

(Volunteers deliver a steak sandwich to a woman in the crowd at the Polk County Democratic Steak Fry. Photo: Dave Price, WHO 13. )

U.S. Representative Cindy Axne, the Third District Democrat from Des Moines who seeks re-election for the first time, also addressed the Steak Fry crowd from the stage. J.D. Scholten, the Fourth District Democrat from Sioux City who is running for the seat for a second time, spoke via recorded remarks in a video.

(A view from behind the monitor that showed speakers joining remotely for the Polk County Steak Fry. Photo: Dave Price, WHO 13.)

Two politicians returned to the Steak Fry but in a different method than 2019. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Democrat, spoke to the crowd with a recorded video after speaking in person as a presidential candidate in 2019. U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, also returned via video after appearing in person in 2019 as a presidential candidate. This year, she spoke to Iowa Democrats via recorded video as her party’s vice-presidential nominee.

“Donald Trump reminds us every day of who he is and frankly how much worse it could get with a second term in office,” Harris said, “His failed response to the pandemic has families across Iowa worried about how they are going to stay safe from COVID and afford health care and earn a paycheck in a historic recession.”

Harris also left Iowans with this message to keep working until election day, “Let’s keep up the pressure. Let’s roll up our sleeves. And let’s bring this race home. See you soon, I hope,” she said.

(U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi delivered remarks via recorded video during the Polk County Democratic Steak Fry. Photo: Dave Price, WHO 13.)

Preya Samsundar, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, released a statement about the Democratic event. “After getting trounced in the Iowa caucuses, it’s no wonder Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have refused to return to the Hawkeye State, but ignoring Iowans for 222 days as nominees for president and vice president is shameful. Iowans, already turned-off by the Biden/Harris ticket’s radical agenda, will ensure their candidacy remains irrelevant by delivering a victory to President Trump in November.”

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