In the first week of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton and her team sought to have a “grassroots” effort with a road trip to Iowa where she focused on small, intimate roundtables with voters.
But it takes extensive planning and cloak-and-dagger manoeuvring to stage simple events for a former first lady and Democratic front-runner, who has a Secret Service detail and media circus following her every move.
Clinton started the final day of her first campaign trail trip on Thursday by having coffee with a group of five local leaders in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Business Insider spoke to most of the attendees and they explained the high level of secrecy that surrounded the event one of them dubbed “the thrill of a lifetime.” There were warnings about leaks, drives to undisclosed locations, and a campaign staffer who confiscated the guests’ mobile phones ahead of the sitdown.
For Pottawatamie County Democratic Party Chairwoman Linda Nelson, her meeting with Clinton began “a couple weeks ago” with a phone call from Troy Price, a veteran Iowa operative who’s working on the campaign. Nelson said Price asked her to join him and Matt Paul, another Iowa-based Clinton campaign staffer, for breakfast on Thursday.
According to Nelson, she and Price have met before when he was in Council Bluffs, so she didn’t think the plan was unusual. However, after Clinton launched her campaign last Sunday and word got out that the candidate would be in the area, Nelson began to suspect this meeting with Price might have a special guest.
“I texted Troy Price and said, ‘Hey, is Mrs. C going to be at breakfast?’ And boy, my phone rang right away,” Nelson recounted. “He called me, he said, ‘I am authorised to say that you are having breakfast with Matt Paul and Troy Price.'”
Despite Price’s evasiveness, Nelson was convinced she would be meeting Clinton. She teased Price about it and said he responded with a warning: “If the media finds out it’s over.”
Some of the people who had coffee with Clinton only discovered what they were in for on Thursday morning.
Mike Yowell, a local LBGT activist said he was expecting to talk with Price about having Clinton speak to his group, the Council Bluffs Community Alliance, at some point during the campaign. When he got to the place where they planned to meet, the Village Inn, Yowell realised Clinton would be in attendance when Price asked him to sign a form.
“I get there and the first thing he said was, ‘I need you to sign this release.’ And I said, ‘Why? Who’s going to be here?'” Yowell explained. “
The people who had coffee with Clinton had to sign the release forms because the event was filmed for a video the Clinton campaign released on Friday. However, everyone who spoke to Business Insider said they weren’t able to get take their own pictures of the meeting because Price asked to take their phones prior to the encounter.
“I was so excited,” Yowell said. “But then they took our mobile phones and I was like, ‘But I can’t call and tell anyone?'”
“We had to turn our mobile phones into them before we went in,” Nelson recounted. “We all handed them over.”
All of the attendees who spoke to Business Insider said they didn’t mind being asked to turn over their mobile phones prior to meeting with Clinton as it allowed for privacy.
“I think they didn’t want us saying, you know, emailing our friends while were there,” Nelson said. “That place would have been mobbed.”
Yowell pointed to the fact Clinton’s first stop on the campaign trail on Tuesday attracted a pack of reporters who chased after her van.
“I understand because … her first stop in Eastern Iowa was like a feeding frenzy for the media and the paparazzi,” Yowell said. “So, you know, she wanted to meet with us and not have all that extraneous stuff. … I understand that and I’m OK with that.”
The secrecy didn’t end with the phones being confiscated. After initially meeting at the Village Inn, the guests piled into a two-car convoy.
“On the way, [Price] said, ‘We’re going to an undisclosed location in downtown Council Bluffs,” Yowell said.
Once the cars stopped, the group was still not told where they were going.
“They wouldn’t tell us,” Nelson said. “And then we parked about a block-and-a-half away. And it was like, where in the hell are we going?”
They walked to the Main Street Cafe and Clinton arrived soon afterward.
“She walks in the room, she gives each one of us a hug, we sit down, we all have coffee, and she said, ‘I want to hear from you,'” Nelson said of Clinton.
In addition to Nelson, Clinton, and Yowell, the group included Penny Rosfjord, the chairwoman of Iowa’s Woodbury County Democratic Party, and Jennifer Herrington, the chair of the Page County Democrats. Rosfjord’s husband was also there. According to Nelson, the conversation touched on education, LGBT issues, climate change, and mental health issues.
All of the attendees who spoke to Business Insider said coffee with Clinton was an extremely positive experience. Rosfjord described it as the “thrill of a lifetime” and said there was “never a lull in the conversation.”
“When we were sitting there, you know, you kind of lose yourself in the conversation and you just feel like you’ve been sitting there talking to your best friend,” Rosfjord explained. “Then you realise, you look over, and you’re like, ‘Wow, you used to be the secretary of state.’ It’s kind of surreal.”
All of Iowa’s Democratic county chairs have made an agreement not to make endorsements this early in the campaign. Yowell also said he’s not ready to back an individual candidate just yet. Still, the group was clearly impressed with Clinton.
“When you can personalise a national candidate like that, it’s really important,” Rosfjord said.
According to Main Street Cafe owner Dianne Bauer, Clinton’s visit was also a “pleasure” for the restaurant’s staff. Despite the secrecy surrounding Clinton’s stop, the restaurant was not closed to customers while she was there, Bauer said Clinton spent a good deal of time greeting diners and staff. Clinton also signed a mug at Bauer’s request.
“From what we’ve heard before, you know, that she wasn’t really too sociable with people prior when she ran,” Bauer said. “But she was very pleasant. She spoke to everybody.”
In fact, Bauer said Clinton’s staff had trouble getting her to leave on schedule.
“She gets to talking and I don’t think she really cares what time it is,” Bauer said, adding, “But that’s good.”
Clinton isn’t the first presidential candidate to visit the Main Street Cafe. Republican Mitt Romney held a roundtable there in 2012 and Bauer subsequently said she felt he and his entourage treated the staff poorly. Bauer said she had a far better experience with Clinton, whose staff left a “very generous” tip for the waitress.
“I’ve had a few others through here and I was lucky to get the time of day out of them,” Bauer said. “She was very pleasant.”
In the end, all of the people who discussed the event with Business Insider said they appreciated the steps the campaign took to ensure the event was an intimate gathering.
“I think that it was a smart thing to do. Obviously, with the entourage that she has to have, it’s going to have to be that way,” Rosfjord said. “I really felt like, because they did it that way, she was able to sit and have a regular conversation.”
Yowell specifically said he was glad they were able to avoid the campaign press corps.
“I appreciated that fact that I could just talk to her and, no offence, not have any of the news media there,” he explained. “That was kind of nice.”
Clinton left Iowa and returned to her home in New York on Thursday afternoon.
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