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A Humble Model for Democratic Politicians in Small-Town Iowa

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

WEST POINT, Ind. -- It takes less than five minutes to discover that family, public service and community are the true treasures in Ron Fedler's life. And, of course, "love and respect for country," he says while sitting in his living room. This Lee County town is home to 966 people and the state's largest sweet corn festival.

It doesn't take much longer to realize that Fedler should be treasured by the Democratic Party.

Photos of his children, grandchildren, and nieces and nephews dot the walls of the modest red-brick home he built himself.

To the left of his easy chair is a framed black-and-white print of his parents and 11 of his 12 siblings. He notes, "My older brother had already left for Vietnam and missed the family photo."

Across the room, an 11-by-14-inch framed color photo of President John F. Kennedy sits atop a coffee table. It's Louis Fabian Bachrach's iconic 1961 official photograph of Kennedy at his White House desk, that innocent moment at the start of Camelot; a moment of promise before the Bay of Pigs, before the Cuban missile crisis and before his assassination.

Fedler says Kennedy will always be his hero.

He is not one of those Democrats who fled his party in 2016 to vote for Donald Trump. He thinks the president is off-putting and erratic. But he understands why fellow Lee County Democrats chose Trump.

"This goes beyond frustration and anger," he explains. "Experts fundamentally misread the voters' motives who went from happily supporting former president Barack Obama to equally happily supporting Trump on election night.

"They liked Obama, but many of his policies hurt them and their communities, and they wanted someone who they felt listened to them." Trump filled that void, he says.

In 2012, Lee County cast 9,428 votes for Obama and 6,787 for Mitt Romney. Four years later, the numbers were nearly reversed, with 8,762 votes for Trump and 6,195 for Hillary Clinton.

Trump carried every precinct in a county long dominated by Democrats and unions.

In 2016, you had people who stopped believing in the more progressive policies of Washington Democrats, who are very different than Lee County Democrats.

Fedler is the perfect Lee County Democrat: born and raised there, and drafted at age 19 to serve as a radio Teletype operator with a secret crypto clearance. His clearances were so top-secret that he never told his wife where he was stationed or what he did. "I made a pledge to my country not to divulge that information, and I will forever honor that," he says.

The military brass were so impressed that they offered him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. But he wanted to return to West Point, Iowa, so he respectfully declined.

After attending the local community college, he worked as a mason for four years, and then for an energy company, saving his money to buy Dugan's Corner Convenience Store, which he ran for 30 years. He eventually sold it and then worked as a correctional officer at Iowa State Penitentiary.

He won a seat on city council and served three terms as mayor. Next, he ran as a Democrat for the Iowa state House and lost. He ran again, and lost again.

Today, he's in his second term as a county supervisor.

His is a history of compromise, consensus building and accomplishing projects. He is tireless, well-liked and, more importantly, respected.

When he discusses the opening of the Iowa Fertilizer plant last month in Lee County, there's no "I" mentioned, and no grandstanding over it being one of the largest private-sector projects in state history and the first world-class nitrogen fertilizer facility built in the United States in more than 25 years.

Of the elections he lost, he sounds sensible; of the ones he won, he sounds humble. "What I do is not for me, it's for the community -- we don't want our people ... our communities to fade away," he says.

In short, he's what Democratic leaders should covet and how the party's candidates should model themselves.

In reality, Democrats up and down the ballot are divided, struggling and searching for a unified message.

The folks at the top of the party aren't exactly role models for how to reach out to Middle America voters who fled the party in droves over the past eight years. You don't lose 1,100 down-ballot offices -- state legislative, congressional and governor seats -- by connecting with working-class voters.

According to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, Fedler has no place in the party -- not because he's white, male and over 60, but because he's anti-abortion.

In April, Perez drew a line in the sand against candidates who oppose abortion rights. This is not the only reason Democrats lost so many offices, but it is a big one. It's elitist and tone-deaf, and it shuts out a great amount of support that should come their way.

Then there's Hillary Clinton.

As one Democratic strategist told me in an anguished email, "Won't she please go away?" This from someone who supported her.

Last week, in yet another speech, Clinton vaguely admitted to some mistakes in 2016. But then she accused the party of failing to raise money or back her in any meaningful manner.

Democrats have history on their side for 2018: 90 percent of the time, a president's party loses congressional seats in the midterm elections.

What they don't have are the right people in the limelight: Clinton blames everyone else, Perez is intolerant, and the party can't adopt a simple jobs message.

Go on a field trip to West Point, Iowa, and learn from the Ron Fedlers of the party.

Fedler isn't on Twitter. He works hard. He compromises. And he gets things done. And when he loses, he takes the blame.

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