South Side Democrats primary forum


Could Polk County Democrats successful grassroots neighborhood groups be a model for Party Building?

By Rick Smith

Following the 2014 election, Polk County Democrats began to grow the number of neighborhood groups within Polk County. Their vision is to develop a permanent core of local activists centered on geographic areas within the county. There has been a long history of local Democratic activism based on local neighborhood organizations but were limited to one or two around the county. The Ankeny neighborhood group is the oldest of the current groups established in 2004.


Perhaps the best known is the Obamadale (Beaverdale) neighborhood group

that has generated national recognition. They have been covered by both local and national media since their launch following the 2010 midterms. They were organized by Kim Boggus and Sam Reno. Their merry band of volunteers made President Obama’s reelection their mission and turned out a record 85% of Democratic voters in their area in the 2012 election. Their passion and success in reelecting President Obama caused the renaming of their group to Obamadale. Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley was on a first name basis with many of the Obamadale volunteers during the 2015-2016 primary season. The tradition continued in July 2015 when Hillary Clinton held a rally at the home of Sean and Vidhya Bagniewski, Beaverdale activists. The debate continues on whether Obamadale will become Hillarydale.


Following the 2014 losses Polk County activists met at the home of Jerry Tormey in Urbandale to discuss building more neighborhood groups modeled like those established in Obamadale, Ankeny and Urbandale. Out of that meeting and with the guidance and support of Polk County Democrats’ Executive Director Tamyra Harrison, they established a goal of building many more local neighborhood groups. They have grown from three to nine in the last two years with more proposed.


The leadership didn’t establish any hard rules but rather let the individual groups grow organically from the local neighborhood activists. Polk County Chair, Tom Henderson, and the Central Committee have set aside time in the County monthly meetings to give the local groups time to give quick updates. Henderson said the success of each group depends on local enthusiasm. He repeats an often cited point, “all politics is local.” He wants to give them space and assistance but allows them to grow as they see fit. In addition, Tamyra hosts a breakfast meeting one Saturday a month to give the group leaders a forum to meet, exchange ideas and successes. This group did establish some general suggestions based on modeling the established groups.


Highlights of the Democratic Neighborhood groups:


  1. They are organized as monthly social events, rather than business meetings, and are generally held at restaurants centered in their neighborhood area.
  2. They generally feature a speaker(s). During the primary season speakers have been predominately candidates for various offices.
  3. Some have done fundraising events with the intent of supporting candidates.
  4. Most have sponsored forums featuring Democratic primary candidates.
  5. Some have established one or more signature events during the year to bring more local Democrats together. Ankeny has a large winter banquet and a successful summer barbeque.
  6. Some use their organization to shift directly into political campaigns and plug into the coordinated campaign.
  7. Most have Facebook pages and are growing their social media presence.
  8. The groups have many similarities but also differ widely in the party affiliation within each of their areas. Des Moines is generally heavily Democratic. Suburbs like Urbandale, Johnston and West Des Moines are much more heavily weighted to the Republicans. Each group must adjust and organize based on their Democratic/Republican/Independent voter registration balance.
  9. Several of the forums and watch parties have drawn local and national news media boosting the Democrats’ messaging in the Metro area significantly.


What Polk County has learned from these groups?


  1. Local neighborhood leaders have voluntarily stepped forward and continue to build new groups. Polk County has groups in Altoona (new), Ankeny, Beaverdale, East Des Moines, Johnston, South Side Des Moines, Urbandale, West Des Moines, Windsor Heights. Proposed groups include Des Moines downtown and Clive.


  1. The social aspect of the groups builds relationships and friendships. Democrats feel this is a safe place to share their political experiences and perspectives.


  1. The local groups have given Democratic candidates multiple opportunities to speak and polish their messages during the primary season. Local activists have the opportunity to meet their candidates, especially local House and Senate candidates. Current elected candidates also have been more accessible due to their local groups’ regular events.


  1. Local neighborhood group provide a self-organized and established team to plug into the coordinated campaign. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every two years.


A snapshot at the groups:


Ankeny: Gary Schmidt is a fixture (a 40 year veteran of Democratic politics) who knows how to do it all. He organizes successful events, is assisting two female Iowa House candidates and has sponsored great forums. Average attendance of 15-35.


Beaverdale: (Obamadale) they were covered above but look for their reentry into local leadership.


East Des Moines: Heather Ryan is relatively new to politics but in the last couple years is getting the East Side group off to a great start. She is extremely creative and innovative on social media. She is fighting in an area of town that lacks much of the built-in events that take place in other areas. Average attendance of 25


Johnston: Tom Leffler describes their group as centered on networking by bringing together Democrats for fun, support and education. He emphasizes three categories in Johnston, assisting candidates, debating issues and basic party building. Tom is building on a long standing core group of activists that have been working there for years. Average attendance of 30.


South Side: Karl Schilling differs from others in meeting venues. He meets at a local union hall. He began meeting in a restaurant but noise and size limitations convinced him to move. He has had the greatest number of candidate forums. Four different forums featuring both U.S. House and Senate candidates. He has also had the greatest success in turning out elected officials and building rapport with the neighborhood. South Side Democrats have traditionally been very contentious and sometimes a bit unruly but Karl has successfully mediated the personalities and found common ground. Average attendance is 30 but some forums have exceeded 70.


Urbandale: Jerry Tormey wears at least two hats. He is the leader of Urbandale Democrats and is campaign manager for Representative John Forbes. His signature Flag Day event has grown each year and drew presidential candidate Jim Webb in 2015. Urbandale sponsored a joint forum with Johnston, and Jerry has been assisting other groups as well. Average attendance 15-20.


West Des Moines: Dan Fessler has been organizing this area, and they recently moved their meeting from a local coffee house to the library. They are the only group that meets on Saturday, all the other groups have evening meetings. Claire Celsi a candidate for the Iowa House and a West Des Moines member says the group is still relatively new and getting their footing.


Windsor Heights: This is the smallest sized group with just three precincts and meets in the home of Kerry Bowen, a long time Polk County activist.


Polk’s leadership in building neighborhood groups appears to be a model that could be used statewide.


In Polk County, you can find a group in your area for meeting times and location-