Every four years, Iowa becomes the prime focus for presidential candidates, national news stations, and journalists worldwide as they plan to hold the first caucus of the election season. Often, the candidate who wins in Iowa becomes his/her party’s representative. The 2008 election was no different.
It is a big job to lead presidential campaigns in Iowa, but former Iowa City mayor Ross Wilburn was up for the challenge. He spoke at Knox last Thursday about his life in politics and how he convinced Iowans to caucus for Barack Obama.
“People in Iowa were jumping on the Clinton campaign,” said Wilburn. “A lot of us felt that if [Obama] won Iowa, he’d be the next president of the United States.”
Wilburn worked so hard for Obama’s campaign because he agreed with Obama’s approach to governing and felt that he would be the best person to lead the United States through the troubled times ahead.
“I think radical change is an important thing to shoot for, but I’m a big proponent of what’s possible,” said Wilburn. “A presidency’s worth of stuff has happened in Obama’s first one hundred days.”
He also knew that the campaign would be difficult, as no African American had won the presidency before Obama. As the first black mayor of Iowa City, Wilburn knew the stakes were high. During his youth, he remembered watching films of Civil Rights protests.
“Those images were burnt into my mind at all times,” said Wilburn. “Because of the events that happened back then, some of them tragic, it definitely had a big impact on my life.”
Wilburn recalled registering to vote as a democrat when he was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa. He quickly got into the political scene, working on state and local campaigns and for Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. He also spent time working as a youth counselor after he graduated, which influenced his political values. He became an advocate for how political policy affected the day-to-day lives of average people.
Wilburn also volunteered for former presidential candidate Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004 and served on the city counsel of Iowa City. Though the Dean campaign was not a success, Wilburn was a part of the organizing team and learned how to conduct a campaign.
He then became the mayor of Iowa City and decided to support Obama if he ran in the 2008 election. He first met Obama at a community event during the fall before his presidential election.
“I was just going to shake his hand and tell him thanks for coming,” said Wilburn. However, when the lady in front of him told Obama that Wilburn was the mayor, he expressed his willingness to work on a future campaign.
Later, after all the candidates were announced, Wilburn joined a group of Iowa politicians for an event in Washington D.C., which the candidates were invited to.
“This was a reception for dinner. I was more interested in the dinner,” said Wilburn. “Then Senator Obama walked in.”
Obama remembered Wilburn and the two became fast partners. Wilburn was able to build a strong team for campaigning in Iowa and the surrounding states. The rest, of course, is history!
“The philosophy of the Obama community organization and neighbor helping neighbor was really good for the workers,” said Wilburn. “[The Obama campaign] put a lot of trust in us and that trust was contagious.”
Often, Wilburn and his volunteers had to speak on behalf of the Senator without a script and they became very knowledgeable about the issues. He was able to organize young and old volunteers from all races and genders to participate in organizing events, calling voters and writing letters to potential voters in other states about why they supported Obama. Wilburn noticed that several planned events and rallies for Obama had attendance numbers far higher than he expected, though polls in Iowa were still predicting a close race between Clinton and Obama.
“What they were describing on the Internet wasn’t what we were seeing,” said Wilburn. He proved correct, as Obama won the Iowa caucuses.
“We knew that was going to happen, but we were scared at the same time,” said Wilburn.
Wilburn and his team continued to work for Obama during his campaign against John McCain. Though he wanted to be in Chicago on Election Day, he decided to stay in Iowa to make sure there were not any issues voting. Wilburn drove people to and from the polling stations so they could cast their ballots. His work paid off, as Obama won Iowa and the presidency.
“We saw it on the screen and it took a few minutes to set in,” said Wilburn. “It was three days later before I could talk about it without tears.”
Wilburn was able to be in Washington, D.C. during the inauguration with his family. He is currently working to keep people involved in the Obama campaign for the next election as well as considering options for his own political future. The rest, of course, is history.