By Chloe Angyal
The food court is full of girls. Girls holding signs, girls filming the empty stage with their first cell phones, girls shifting restlessly from foot to foot and waiting for the show to begin.
At Sunday night’s rally for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, at the NewBo Market, an upscale foodcourt in Cedar Rapids where local vendors also sell snarky greeting cards and a wide range of products—cutting boards, coasters, earrings—in the shape of the state of Iowa, the crowd was large (the campaign estimated 900 people attended), and heavier on teen girls than any rally I’ve attended this caucus season.
One of them was Esther P., 12, who I found sitting removed from the crushing crowd, polishing off a plate of Mexican food (“Hecho en Iowa,” the stall’s sign proclaims) with her mother and grandmother. When I asked Esther why she had wanted to come to this rally, she paused, and her mom told her to be honest.
It was partly for Warren, Esther conceded, but partly for Warren’s special guest. “I’m a big fan.”
The special guest, of course, was Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, who endorsed Warren in September and, eight days before the all-important Iowa Caucuses, was in the state campaigning for her. Before coming to Cedar Rapids, he’d made a stop at Iowa City’s beloved gay bar Studio 13.
Like many of the girls I interviewed, Esther came with a political agenda, too. She cares about climate change, and gun control, and corruption, and even if this weren’t her second Warren rally (it was her mother’s third, and her grandmother’s fourth), she would likely recognize Warren from the relentless television, radio, billboard, and Instagram ads that have blanketed the state as the caucuses approach.
Esther’s mother, Erin, calls Warren “smart” and “focused on the things that matter.” And Esther’s grandmother, Linda, agrees. She likes that Warren, like herself, is a former teacher.
Esther agrees. “She’s a straight shooter,” Esther said. “She doesn’t mess around.” And, she said, “it’s empowering to see a woman who’s not about the fluff. She’s not afraid to take people on.”
When Warren and Van Ness took the stage, wearing a pair of black sneakers and a pair of stacked-heel gray leather booties, respectively, the crowd got a tiny dose of Van Ness, and a big helping of Warren’s stump speech. Van Ness gave brief remarks about the day he came to care about the cost of healthcare as a political issue: It was the day he went to fill a prescription for HIV medication and found it was going to cost him $3,500.
“I realized in that moment that this is a public health crisis. People need to have access to the medication they need,” he said. “I realized that Elizabeth Warren is the policy expert, and she’s a leader who I’ve looked up to for years and years and she has the policies to back it up. She has the plans to unify our country.”
“Whether you are someone who is a gun control voter, if you are an environmental voter, if you are a childcare voter, whatever your thing is that’s troubling you,” he told the crowd, “Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that. For me, it’s healthcare, it’s LGBT issues.”
After Warren was finished speaking, Van Ness joined her as hundreds of people lined up for selfies with the two of them. In the selfie line, I found Chloe K., a 6th grader from Cedar Rapids, who came to the rally with her aunt “because I wanted to leave my house.” But like Esther, she’s no stranger to rallies: Her aunt had taken her to a Hillary Clinton event in 2016, and to the 2017 Women’s March in Des Moines.
Chloe said she wanted to meet Van Ness, and was happy to hear Warren talk about climate change, and “rights, so that everyone has rights.” She had questions for Warren about what it was like to be a teacher (“I always want to know because I have teachers at school and they never tell us anything”) and about whether Warren has a Tik Tok, or a cat. (The campaign does not have a Tik Tok, and Warren’s dog, an obscenely photogenic golden retriever named Bailey, was right outside the venue, also granting requests for selfies).
Elsewhere in the line, 9-year-old Tiana H., wearing a Warren beanie, was waiting with her older sister and her grandfather. She said the issue she wanted to ask Warren about when she got to the front of the line was gun violence, “because I don’t like people getting killed.” It’s something she thinks about a lot, and that people talk about a lot in school, she said. Her grandfather said he wanted both girls to understand that voting is both a right and a duty.
It’s a right some of these girls won’t be able to exercise for a few more presidential cycles, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention. They’re watching as people barely older than them become national leaders on ending gun violence and environmental racism, and global leaders on the climate crisis. Generation Z is considerably more likely than the generations before it to believe that the government should do more to solve these problems, and many others. They know that the adults around them are about to vote, and that those votes will have generational consequences.
Thirteen-year-old Jenna M. hadn’t seen Warren speak in person before (“I’ve definitely heard about her, seen her ads and everything”) and ended the night a convert. “I think I really like her… She seems like she really cares about Iowans and people in general.” It was Jenna’s older sister’s idea to come to the rally (“we’re both big fans of Queer Eye,” said Hannah, 24), because she had heard Warren’s appearance on Van Ness’s podcast “Getting Curious” and, well, she got curious. As we spoke, it was Hannah who pointed out that it might be easier for Jenna to go to college if, as Warren has promised, it will be free.
Hannah N., 12, was just feet from the front of the selfie line and visibly excited when I found her. She had mostly shown up to to see Van Ness, “but after coming, I’m glad I came and I’m glad I listened to [Warren’s] speech.” Hannah’s most interested in LGBT issues and healthcare, “because I know a lot of close friends who are in the LGBT community, and also people who have things that they need with healthcare, and they need help.”
It might be true that the children are our future, but they’re our present, too, and in this present, they’re paying attention—if not to political contests, then certainly to political issues and the way their lives are shaped, or misshapen, by them. Today, they’re squealing at the sight of an HIV-positive reality TV host wearing a thick beard and glossy leather booties. But before you know it, they’ll be caucusing, and running, and winning. And you better believe their campaigns will have Tik Toks.
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