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Iowa Shedding Old 'closed-minded, Homogenous' Image

This story was written by Mary Harrington, The Daily Iowan

Mary Yeggy is a lifelong resident of Iowa.

Watching the first black man elected president on Nov. 4 was a joyous moment for the 79-year-old, a change she said was long overdue. And although she said she never considered Barack Obama's skin color a factor in the election, a half century ago her opinion may have been very different.

"I didn't think once about the color of his skin, but back in, say, the '40s, I don't know that I would've had the same reaction," she said. "Maybe I would have thought he wasn't quite smart enough, capable enough. People back then just weren't as open-minded around here."

Often stereotyped as a closed-minded, homogenous state, Iowa surprised some when its voters supported Obama to be president, in the general election and earlier at the caucuses.

"A lot of people on the outside always thought of Iowa just as Grant Wood, as the Field of Dreams, as State Fair, and as 99.99 percent white farmers," said Ralph Rosenberg, a spokesman for the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. "People haven't taken the time to understand what Iowa actually is. I think we were always willing and ready for this, but nobody saw it coming."

A real change in the perception of the state came after the caucuses, said University of Iowa American Studies Assistant Professor Deborah Whaley.

Iowans gave Obama nearly 38 percent of the Democratic vote in January, a more than 7 percent lead above second-place contender John Edwards, according to the Iowa Democratic Party. It was the first win in the nation for the now president-elect, an outcome many were reluctant to predict.

"I was so proud of Iowans after the caucuses," said Venise Berry, UI associate professor of African-American Studies. "Even though I had high hopes and dreams about electing the first black man, I didn't really think it would actually happen."

And yet, Iowans did it again this month, handing the only black candidate a majority with nearly 54 percent of the vote.

It was a move UI political-science Associate Professor Cary Covington said will not only strengthen the state Democratic Party in the future and further legitimize the caucuses, it will also illuminate the open-mindedness of the state.

Whaley agreed.

"People definitely perceived us as homogenous," she said. "Just because it's the Midwest, they assumed that no diverse ideas existed."

For Iowa City resident Mary Jo Small, the assumptions of the state, especially its elderly population, are a constant frustration. Small, born in 1937, lives at the Oaknoll Retirement Residence. After months of political discussion with fellow residents, the lifelong political junkie said she has not heard any bigoted dialogue in the retirement community.

"We don't seem to fit the typical stereotype that old people in Iowa will only vote McCain," she said.

Small was active in the caucuses, supporting Obama from the start. But she was still nervous which direction the state would sway when the votes were cast.

"I just told myself, 'We'll never know until we try it,' " she said. "So many times I supported people who failed, but not this time around. And like many people here, I shed a few tears."

Berry was another Iowan emotionally rocked by the election results, proud of her own state's political undertaking this year.

"Iowa was always kind of overlooked, but people see us very differently now," she said. "Part of my pride in the state comes from the fact that we have taken a huge step forward by now allowing outsiders to truly believe that the door here, it's wide open."

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