'What will it change?' Rural Iowa has better things to watch than a State of the Union

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Jack Marlowe, left, and Jerry Farrell watch a Maquoketa High School girls’ basketball game in Maquoketa, Iowa, on Jan. 30. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

MAQUOKETA, Iowa — The scuffle broke out around the same time Donald Trump began his ceremonial walk through the U.S. House chamber to deliver his first State of the Union address. Two girls jockeying for possession of the ball before the halftime buzzer had collided and fallen to the ground in a blur of tangled limbs and thrashing ponytails before the ref blew a whistle and signaled a pair of free throws for the hometown Maquoketa Cardinals.

In the stands, there were whoops and fist bumps from the crowd of 200 or so, a pretty good turnout for girls’ basketball on a frigid Tuesday night deep in the heart of Iowa’s rural Mississippi River Valley, roughly 888 miles from the nation’s capital. The Cardinals girls’ varsity team was struggling to keep pace with their visiting rivals, the Mount Vernon Mustangs, in the hope of turning around a middling season.

As the clock ticked down to halftime, some in the crowd jumped to their feet, yelling encouragement to the girls on the court. There were students, parents and others with a personal connection to the game. But many in the stands were there just to be there — locals more interested in cheering on the hometown team than watching Trump’s State of the Union address.

“You ask me what I would rather be doing, watching Trump or sitting here, and this is where I would say every time,” said Marlowe, right, sitting with Farrell. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

“You ask me what I would rather be doing, watching Trump or sitting here, and this is where I would say every time,” said Jack Marlowe, an 81-year-old retired sportswriter for the local paper who spent nearly 40 years chronicling high school sports here in Jackson County.

Seated in the stands right behind the basket, he cheered as a Cardinals player sunk in two points. “It’s not just the game, though I love it, and I love these kids,” Marlowe said. “But why would I watch? What in that speech will change anything?”

Entering the game with a record of 10 wins and nine losses, the Cardinals seemed out of the race for the conference league championship. But in the team’s effort to finish well, to keep pace with their rivals, some here saw something emblematic of the larger problems faced by this small town. Like the team, it has fought to stay in the game.

Here in Jackson County, residents have watched their factories close and job prospects fade. Though the local unemployment rate is roughly 4 percent — slightly higher than the state total but lower than the national average — that number doesn’t account for those who have simply given up looking for work, as many here are well aware. The per capita income, $25,865 in 2017, is below both the state and national averages. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 13 percent of the population lives below poverty level, also higher than average.

A store closing on Main Street in Maquoketa. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

When Donald Trump spoke of running to represent the “forgotten people” and “forgotten towns” of the country during his bid for the presidency, his message resonated with people here and throughout rural Iowa. In a sweep not seen in any other state, Trump flipped 31 counties in Iowa on the way to his 10-point victory here over Hillary Clinton in 2016. More than a dozen of those counties were strongly blue before Trump came along — including Jackson County, where Barack Obama won by 17 points in 2012. But in a victory that was echoed in rural counties all over the Mississippi Valley, extending up from Iowa into bordering Minnesota and Wisconsin, Trump reversed the trend, winning Jackson County by 19 points.

A year into the Trump presidency, however, many here question whether the real estate mogul will deliver the jobs and economic progress he promised to small-town America. Though some in Jackson County still wave the Trump flag — including one resident who erected a Trump flag on property along state highway 64, one of the main roads into town — some voters who supported Trump in his unlikely path to the presidency seemed let down by his first year in office.

Speaking during the first quarter of the game, Janie (she declined to give her last name), a registered Democrat who backed Trump, said she had believed the former reality television star was the “lesser of two evils” compared with Clinton, whom she saw as a politician who was “more of the same.” But she has been disappointed by what she called the “endless chaos” of the Trump presidency and his inability to cut through Washington’s gridlock. “Not all of that is his fault,” she said. “But I hoped he would be able to do something.”

A Trump flag flies on a property along state highway 64 in Maquoketa. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Many here declined to talk about Trump — including one woman who sighed and replied, “What did he do now?” Some said they saw the game as a place of retreat from the political turmoil. “I see it on television, hear it on the radio,” one man said. “You just can’t escape, though I try very hard to.”

Jerry Farrell, a retired farmer, described himself as the Cardinals’ No. 1 fan who would never miss a home game. But he also admitted he had no desire to watch Trump’s speech in full and would rather catch the highlights after the game. “I watch and listen to him, and I just feel worried,” he said. It wasn’t the lack of job creation or his failure to deliver on promises to small towns like this. He expressed concern about Trump’s aggressive rhetoric toward other countries and the risk of war after decades of being caught up in overseas conflicts, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It really worries me, the potential of loss of life,” he said.

By the fourth quarter the Cardinals were down significantly, hurt by their own offensive missteps and an aggressive Mustang defense. As the clock wound down, the silence of the crowd on the home team side was suddenly interrupted by Trump’s voice. Cathy Pickup, whose 16-year-old daughter Carolyn was on the court, had pulled up the speech on her phone. Shushed by another basketball fan, she stood and walked to the far end of the gym, holding the phone’s speaker to her ear with one hand while cheering on her daughter with the other.

“I couldn’t control myself,” Pickup admitted.

A self-described “hard-core Democrat,” Pickup said Trump’s rhetoric and behavior are hard to ignore, no matter how much she tries. “In all honesty, I wanted to see if he was going to mess up and what he was going to say,” she said. “You can’t look away. … When he goes off the cuff, it’s a train wreck, and it scares me, for my family and for my country. The fights he picks … you never know what he’s going to say or who he’s going to say it to and what the consequences are going to be.”

At the final buzzer, the Cardinals had lost, 54 to 40. The players on both sides shook hands and gave high fives. In the stands, spectators stood and applauded. As he walked out the door into the high school lobby, past the glass cases of trophies from championships of years past, toward the freezing Iowa night, Marlowe smiled.

“People say it’s just a game, but the truth is, Trump could probably learn a few things from these girls about teamwork and working together,” he said. “Congress, too.”

Cathy Pickup watches the State of the Union address on her phone during the Maquoketa High School girls’ basketball game. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)


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