A- A+

Why a D.C. Native Loves Covering Iowa Politics and Adores DSM USA

Caroline Cummings in DSM USA

August 12, 2019

I took pen to paper one summer afternoon while sitting in the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, waiting for my flight to Iowa — a new place I’d soon call home. I checked two giant, weathered purple suitcases filled to the brim with 22 years of my belongings — the rest of which followed me by car (apologies to my brother and dad for that 15-hour jaunt). It was June 25, 2017 and I had just graduated college a month before. “If you had asked me a couple of months ago where I thought I might end up for my first job, Iowa would’ve been the last place I would’ve expected,” I wrote in my pearl white journal.

What Brought Me Here

“Wait…you’re moving to Iowa? Why?”

This question defined the weeks preceding my move to Greater Des Moines (DSM), as I bid farewell to friends, family and acquaintances I knew at the University of Maryland and even random D.C. denizens I met in passing. Each time I felt like I had to clear my throat and give an elevator pitch of sorts: I’m moving for my first job in news, I’d tell them. No, I can’t get an on-air job in D.C. right out of college. Instead, I’ve accepted a position as a political journalist in Des Moines to cover state government and politics from the state’s capital for five local TV markets across the state of Iowa. “Oh that’s so cool,” they’d usually tell me. That’s what I thought, too. I was over-the-moon at the opportunity. I had spent my whole life around Washington and the political orbit that encompasses it has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I also kept a journal from as early as 10-years-old (man, is that a treasure) and loved telling stories and being “in the know.” Journalism seemed like a perfect fit. But despite all of the excitement, I was equally terrified. What if I hate my job? What if I hate DSM? What if I never find my place? No matter. I was bound, at least, to a two-year contract and I would have to make the most of it no matter what.

A Rich Political Environment

I descended on DSM after a week of training at my main TV station in Cedar Rapids without knowing a soul and quite literally thinking, pardon my French: “what the F**** am I doing?” It was several months before the legislature would reconvene at the statehouse — a big piece of my job description — and I didn’t know how Iowa politics worked or how or what was truly newsworthy in this town. The learning curve was large and took a bit of time to level out, but soon I found my groove. That was thanks, in part, to the immense kindness the journalists in political press corps showed me in helping launch me off my feet. We are all competitors yet you never feel it, because in the end, we all feel we are on one team in the pursuit of bringing viewers, readers and listeners the facts and stories that matter. Over two years later, this is still true and they are among the most wonderful people I call friends here.

Covering my first legislative session was a whirlwind, but I felt — and still feel — great pride in my work because what lawmakers do at the statehouse, I realized, affects people in a more direct way than any decisions made by leaders in D.C. There is never a shortage of stories in state government. And what I love so much is that Iowans truly follow along with what is going on under the ravishing golden dome. I also learned to appreciate that Iowa journalists generally enjoy much more access to their state leaders than our counterparts in other states. For example, some veterans in the business have told me that Capitol reporters in other states don’t have access to the chamber floors during debates between state representatives and senators. We have press benches that sit squarely in the front looking on.

For Iowa’s rich political environment in its own right, every four years it captures the national imagination, too: the Iowa caucuses. When I first moved here I was like, “what….is….this…?” Admittedly, I’ve yet to experience that cold (likely snowy) February evening in a church basement or school gym where Iowa voters physically congregate in corners of the space for their candidate, but I am *SO EXCITED* and eager to learn the ins and outs of this unique nominating process. I’ve been waiting to cover the 2020 caucuses since the moment I moved here.

Read about the return of the Iowa Caucus Consortium in 2020.

Unfettered Access to Presidential Candidates

Over these last several months — especially recently — there has been practically one of the two-dozen candidates for president in Iowa every single day. Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, for example, has been making trips to the state for the past two years—since 2017! I’ve covered candidates at local nursing homes, ethanol plants, breweries, neighborhood picnics and Iowans’ homes. 

I’ve sat down for one-on-one conversations with high profile Washington politicians now seeking the highest office in the land, pressing them about their policies and vision for the nation. It has been the thrill of a lifetime and I do not shy away from the fact that this opportunity to be on the front lines of history as it happens is because I’m living and reporting in this city and state.

It’s not just reporters like me who have access: it’s Iowans. It’s a unique experience of residents in an early state like Iowa to not only see presidential candidates, but also see them again. And again. Once, twice, even three or four times. I was covering South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — a virtually unknown candidate just months ago who out-fundraised every other candidate in the race this past quarter — at an event of his in Ankeny a few weeks ago and there was a Q&A portion of the program.  A woman gets to the microphone and before she begins her question, tells the 37-year-old mayor that it’s nice to see him again. “I feel like we’re becoming like old friends since I’ve seen you four or five times now. And you keep getting better!” she said to audible laughter and cheers from the crowd. I smiled, too, because that just about sums up the Iowa experience: you have a real opportunity to get to know your candidates here. And might I add: Iowans expect the candidates to show up and take the time to get to know them, too. Caucus-goers I’ve met are educated and diligent, asking smart questions of these presidential hopefuls that inform my own reporting. It’s a real treat to witness.

A Life Outside of Work

I love my job, (I get paid for following presidential candidates around? Alright, awesome) but what’s more is that I genuinely cherish the place where I get to live and work. I’ve become the “Iowa ambassador” to friends who’ve visited me from D.C., San Francisco and San Diego and to network reporters from CNN, NBC and CBS who have moved to DSM ahead of the February 3 caucuses. It’s such an honor showing this great place off to them, as I hope they’ll find that they can have a home here — albeit temporarily — too. DSM has so much to offer and it doesn’t take long to realize that. (My dear friend from San Diego has visited twice and intends to return, which is a testament of true friendship, of course, but also of Des Moines—her “favorite little city.”)

[Find out how to become a DSM USA Ambassador.]

I didn’t even know what the famed Iowa clothing store Raygun was back then—that day I left my whole world behind in Washington, D.C.—but its signature “Des Moines: Let us exceed your already low expectations” t-shirt would soon become emblematic of my time here. 

And my expectations were exceeded beyond my wildest dreams. I love this place: its rich cultural events; its wondrous public art; its size — a city, but one that captures a small town feel; its eclectic local businesses — like my beloved coffee spot run by some of the most down-to-earth folks (Horizon Line Coffee), my treasured late night bar (Black Sheep DSM) and my favorite brewery (Peace Tree Brewing Co.) and the delicious Australian-inspired masterpiece that is St. Kilda (every location). What makes DSM such a lovely place, though, is not its abundance of restaurants, boutiques and art — rather, the warm, beautiful souls that inhabit it. It’s true what they say about “Iowa nice.” I’m grateful beyond measure.

Are you interested in moving to Greater Des Moines (DSM)? Relocation Packets offer information on everything from neighborhoods and shopping to parks and local attractions. Or, kick start your career by checking out the DSM USA Career Center. It has over 10,000 jobs listed!