DAVENPORT, Iowa – The sound system had gone haywire, so Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms stood on the creaky stage of an Iowa school auditorium and bellowed as loud as she could to a room full of Iowa voters who had hardly heard of her.
“The reason I left 74-degree weather is because I still believe in this country,” she said. “I was reminded of a quote from Kobe Bryant this week. He said, ‘The moment you give up is the moment someone else wins.’ And I refuse to let someone else win. That’s why I’m here on behalf of Joe Biden.”
The Atlanta Democrat has become one of the former vice president’s most visible supporters, trekking to Texas, South Carolina and Iowa last year to stump for his campaign. No Georgia Democrat has played a more prominent role in promoting a White House hopeful than the first-term mayor.
This, however, was a crowd that would test any Atlanta politician’s abilities. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s supporters staked an early claim to a giant section of the musty auditorium, lofting signs that read: “Warren has a plan!”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, too, had boisterous supporters waving Iowa-shaped placards. So did Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. There was no visible Biden presence when she entered the room shortly before the caucus started with an aide and two members of her security detail.
One by one, surrogates from each candidate came to the stage. A backer of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar talked of winning over Republicans. Buttigieg’s precinct captain talked about the candidate’s policy chops. Sanders’ tried to take a selfie from the stage.
“Will you guys indulge me for a second?” he asked.
“NO!!” the crowd belched in unison, eager to get to the caucusing.
Then came Bottoms, who tied her criminal justice policy in City Hall to Biden’s platform, and quoted another Atlantan in her remarks: Andre 3000, the co-founder of the hip-hop duo Outkast.
“‘The South has something to say.’ We’ll have our say when we get to the South, but right now we are counting on you to get it right,” she said. “And I want to look my four children in the eyes when I get back home and tell them I was on the right side of history.”
Iowa’s caucuses are governed by complicated rules. Candidates much reach 15% of support to be declared “viable.” If the contender they’re supporting doesn’t reach that mark, they can switch to another candidate on a second round of voting.
That leads to calculated deal-making in the best of cases, shouting and squabbling in the worst. There was a little of all three at the Washington Elementary auditorium.
The Biden campaign, which had dispatched Bottoms to the Davenport school, came up with only about 27 of the 44 votes it needed to be viable at this caucus site. Over the following hour or so, she and other Biden supporters tried to cajole supporters of Klobuchar, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang to join them.
One of them was Barbara Reiber, an early supporter of Sen. Michael Bennet who sat 15 rows deep in the crammed auditorium. She was sought-after from the moment she stepped in the room, since Bennet was not seriously contesting the state.
“I don’t have any clue who I’m supporting yet as my second choice,” said Reiber, a retired chiropractor. “I’m truly up for grabs.”
She flirted with supporting Warren and Buttigieg, and a Sanders volunteer shot her a smile: “Keep in touch.” She wound up backing Biden, though, huddling with the mayor before making her decision.
With each voter who flipped, a booming cheer erupted from Bottoms and the rest of the Biden camp. There were eight cheers in all – enough to make a ruckus, but not enough to reach viability.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.