STORM LAKE -- Proposals to address corporate agribusiness mergers, dropping farm incomes, immigration and trade policy were relayed by four Democratic presidential candidates and one potential candidate during a forum held Saturday afternoon on the Buena Vista University campus.
Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, John Delaney and Amy Klobuchar, all seeking the Democratic nomination for president, participated in the forum, as did Tim Ryan, who is considering a run.
The event was billed as an opportunity for candidates to speak directly to rural Iowans about rural and agricultural issues, though a few broader topics also were sprinkled into the two-hour discussion.
“I want to know what the vision is for growing and revitalizing rural America,” said Tom Vilsack, the Democratic former governor of Iowa and federal agriculture secretary. “We need a vision that will drive and prioritize what an administration does.”
Roughly 800 people attended the forum, organizers said. It was sponsored by the Iowa Farmers Union and Open Markets Action with media partners the Storm Lake Times and HuffPost.
The candidates took turns fielding questions from a panel of journalists, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen, and from the crowd.
The U.S. Senator from Massachusetts tailored one of her central campaign themes, addressing the power and influence of large corporations, to rural issues by repeating her call for increased scrutiny of corporate agribusiness mergers.
She also said there should be a federal law similar to an Iowa law that prohibits foreign countries from owning farmland.
“That not only creates a problem for farming communities and for our food security, it creates a threat to the safety and the defense of the United States of America,” Warren said.
The former housing and urban development secretary under former President Barack Obama said he plans to introduce an immigration plan in the coming days that he described as “bold.”
Castro, who is from Texas, said if he is elected president and Democrats in 2020 also win majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, he will move swiftly on immigration reform legislation.
“Every country in the world of course wants to have a secure border and should. We can have a secure border and also be compassionate and recognize the value of our immigrant community,” Castro said.
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The businessman and former Congressman from Maryland highlighted his “Heartland Fair Deal” plan that he published this week. The sweeping policy proposal addresses rural health care, infrastructure, trade and anti-trust regulations, among other provisions.
Delaney said he would seek to direct government investment to rural communities, noting that most investment capital now goes to just four states: New York, California, Texas and Massachusetts.
“That’s not a country of opportunity. That’s a country of birthright,” Delaney said. “That’s why so much of my agenda is focused on policies to encourage people to invest in communities. ... I want there to be a resurgence of investment in these kinds of communities.”
The U.S. Senator from Minnesota asked about corporate agribusiness mergers and vertical integration, recalled the Granger movement, in which post-Civil War farmers fought monopolies over the transportation of grains.
Klobuchar noted her legislation that would boost fees on corporate mergers to provide more funding to investigating those mergers, and more resources to the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission for similar purposes.
“You have to have people that are sophisticated as those corporate tycoons to be able to take this on. You can’t just think you’re going to be able to do it with three lawyers in a room,” Klobuchar said.
The Congressman from Ohio, who has not yet declared whether he will run for president — he passed on an opportunity to do so during Saturday’s forum — said the country can overcome the loss of manufacturing jobs by committing to new technology in renewable energy, for example.
He said government can play a role by using financial incentives to encourage the private sector to invest in certain industries and communities.
“This is the new model: How do we use the government, the tax code and every incentive we possibly can have and put into place (to) incentivize the private sector to make investments in distressed communities or rural America?” Ryan said.