Iowa’s most conservative county isn’t tolerating King’s anti-immigrant comments anymore
He claimed hundreds of undocumented immigrants from Mexico have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” He advocated for an electrified fence along the United States-Mexico border to discourage crossings, adding, “We do that with livestock all the time.”
He criticized Rep. John Lewis for “trading off” his status as a civil rights icon and not contributing anything since then. He asked the rhetorical question whether any other subgroup of people contributed more to society than Western civilization.
He has been accused of supporting white nationalism, of being bigoted, racist and xenophobic. He is Rep. Steve King.
His latest incendiary remark sparked widespread ire and outrage when he praised a far-right, anti-immigrant Dutch politician, saying on Twitter, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
Fourteen years after electing him to Congress, it seems the people of Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District have grown apathetic toward his headline-grabbing antics. But this time around, King’s comments drew protest in an unlikely place.
In Sioux County, the most conservative county in Iowa, where King received 80 percent of the vote in the general election, nearly 150 people gathered outside the courthouse in Orange City, Iowa on a cold, cloudy Saturday morning to let it be known that the outspoken Republican’s views do not represent them.
The flags whipped in the wind throughout the 30-minute Sioux County Assembly for Diversity, a non-partisan event featuring five speakers.
Jim Schaap, a retired English professor, spoke about a time, 10-15 year years ago, when he watched a grocery store clerk, struggling to communicate with two Hispanic customers. When they walked away, she muttered to the white folks in line, “Learn the language! When you come to our country, at least learn the language!”
“I would have liked to say, almost assuredly, her great-grandparents or grandparents needed help shopping at Le Mars or Rock Rapids because they didn’t know English. That as late as the 1950s, men and women in the streets of Orange City or Sioux Center still used the Dutch language a half-century or more after immigration from the Netherlands stopped for the first World War,” he told the crowd. “We have a history of prejudice, a history we’ve created and even suffered, but we don’t have to tolerate it.”
The event was coordinated in part by Steve Mahr, a local coffee shop owner who has been known to shake things up in this conservative community that exudes what you might call “Iowa nice.”
At the Old Factory Coffee Shop, he’s hosted live music, poetry slams and, most recently, community conversations that elevated the voices of Muslims.
“My wife, will even say that, ‘Oh, you’re really going to get in trouble this time.’ No, I’m not,” he said with a smile. “If they don’t like what I have to say, they’ll say to me what they say about Steve King. ‘That’s just Steve being Steve.’”
He lives in a place where pleasantries and politeness prevail, alongside a certain restraint and aversion to confrontation. After all, the person you just tailgated or gossiped about in Aisle 4 might work at the only grocery store within 15 miles or, worse, they might go to your church.
Mahr, who grew up in Joliet, Illinois, went to college in Orange City and chose to put down roots here, knowing his liberal views would be among the minority in a county that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.
“My friends, they moved up to Minneapolis, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, you should move up some place like where we’re at because everyone agrees with you.’ I’m like, that’s not fun to me. I’m not challenged by that,” he said.
This blood-red county — the very place where Trump declared during his campaign that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters — can be a challenging place to live for those on the other end of the political spectrum and people of color.
The U.S. Census Bureau's 2015 American Community Survey showed Sioux County was 88.3 percent white alone. Latinos are a among a growing minority, representing 9.6 percent of the population.
When a Muslim man from Morocco considered moving to Sioux County, he heard stories about this foreign land like — “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much. Or there is no bar! They have no movie theater,” he said. “That I couldn’t believe, you know. And they’re backward.”
Said Ben Saida married a farmer’s daughter, and he was embraced by this “backward” town. During the assembly, he thanked nearly a dozen community members by name for fending off racism, helping him find a good job, plowing the snow in his driveway, teaching him how to fly and treating him like family for the past 22 years.
“Why was I calling this place home? It’s because of its people who opened their hearts to me and gave me a chance to exist in their surroundings. To exist,” he said.
Even though the Sioux County Assembly for Diversity was deliberately planned and described as non-partisan, some still perceived it as a little too progressive for these parts — and that was enough to bring dissent among families.
“People were messaging me all throughout the week as we were planning things, saying, ‘I’m trying to invite my family along, and they’re upset with me that I’m even going,’” Mahr said.
Those that did go heard from people like Mimi Sandbulte. She is an active member in the community, a mother of three and an immigrant from Mexico.
“I am married to a Sioux County — Dutch — farmer, and we’ve made pretty nice babies,” she told the laughing crowd outside the courthouse. “My desire is to raise up my kids to be proud to be an American like I am.”
Sharing in the values of this rural community, she’s involved in not one but two churches — Carmel Reformed, which was started by Dutch immigrants in 1896, and Amistad Cristiana, established nearly 100 years later to serve a new wave of immigrants: Spanish-speaking Latinos.
“This is who I am. I feel very accepted, fully accepted in Sioux County,” Sandbulte said. “Instead of tweeting out racist comments, legislators should be working on immigration reform.”
Of the people who spoke at the assembly, only one was born and raised in Sioux County.
The outlier was Laura Heitritter, a lifelong Republican who read an open letter to King, detailing her family’s immigrant experience. Like many in Sioux County, her grandfather came from the Netherlands. Her father was a first-generation American. Her husband’s ancestors tipped over their covered wagon outside of Boyden, Iowa, and spent their first winter on the land where she now lives.
“Somehow, Mr. King, you have gotten the idea that immigrants and their children are a threat to American civilization, the very civilization that immigrants like my ancestors and yours built,” she said. “You’re not talking about immigrants that look like us. You’re talking about immigrants that look like my two youngest children, who are immigrants from Ethiopia.”
Her frustration with King mounted when he doubled-down on his tweet in a CNN interview.
“You’ve got to keep your birth rate up, and you need to teach your children your values, and in doing so, then you can grow your population, and you can strengthen your culture. You can strengthen your way of life,” King said.
Mahr sees strength in diversity and the potential “to foster hope instead of fear, to rabble rouse apathy toward action, to acknowledge our sameness and celebrate differences.”
He’s been building a friendship throughout the past year with one of his customers, a Republican counterpart who disagrees with him about everything, but by challenging each other’s views, he said they can support each other and help each other be better community members.
“If we’re not going to do that, if I’m just going to bail, then I can’t actually believe in unity. Like I just have to believe that oh, well, we actually do need homogenous communities of — here are where the progressives live and here are where the conservatives live and we can’t live together,” he said. “I don’t want to believe that.”