Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a group known for its confrontational style of grassroots politics, posed tough questions to perceived Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney at the Iowa State Fair today, and other candidates may face the same treatment.
About 15 group members were present for Romney’s “soapbox” address Thursday morning, most sitting in the front row. The former Massachusetts governor and the activists exchanged shouts at times during a brief question-and-answer session.
Martha Scarpellino, a CCI member from Ankeny, said she can’t make it back to the Fair on Friday to see the remainder of the GOP candidates speak, but she expects other members to be present.
“I think they’re going to ask questions of as many people as possible,” Scarpellino said.
But David Goodner, a CCI organizer from Des Moines, said members just want to know where candidates stand on issues that matter to them, like Social Security, Medicare and balancing the budget by making corporations and wealthy people pay their fair share of taxes.
“I think it’s the same hope that every Iowan has when they come to see a presidential candidate speak. They want to learn more about where the candidate stands on the issues that matter to them personally, and that’s what we were here to do today,” Goodner said.
Scarpellino said she hopes the group can change some minds or at least let candidates know people are thinking about these issues.
“That’s exactly why we come, is to represent all the view points and to make sure all the candidates know that there are lots of people out here who are thinking about the issues and paying attention,” Scarpellino said. “Often (at) these things, it’s very much preaching to the choir, which it would have been probably if not for the presence of some people that wanted to make a point and get some answers.”
Joe Fagan, a CCI member from Des Moines, asked Romney how he would strengthen Social Security and Medicare without cutting benefits.
“I’m not going to raise taxes. That’s my answer,” Romney said. “I’m not going to raise taxes. and if you want somebody who’s going to raise taxes you can vote for Barack Obama.
Fagan said afterward he interpreted that answer to mean Romney isn’t interested in helping people who aren’t rich.
“Basically he said he wouldn’t do anything except maybe make you work longer before you get it, and that’s what he said,” Fagan said. “Otherwise it’s basically ‘tough luck guys, I’m not going to help you.'”
Fagan said he’s not sure if he’ll come see other candidates. He said he came specifically to ask that question, as he and his wife get two-thirds of their income from Social Security.
The solution, Fagan said, is to tax high earners on all their income instead of putting a cap on it. But Romney did not indicate he would support that, either.
“There was a time in this country when we didn’t celebrate attacking people based on their success, and we didn’t go after people because they were successful,” Romney said. “And I’ve watched this president go across the country attacking people.”
Romney went on to say that half the people in the country don’t pay income taxes, and that promises made to young contributors to so-called “safety net” programs must be promises that can be kept.
“I think it’s important for Iowans to know that’s exactly what he means to do, is to cut our benefits,” Goodner said.
Goodner asked Romney if he would close tax loopholes for corporations as president as a way of raising revenue.
“If there are taxpayers who find ways to distort the tax law and take advantage of what I’ll call loopholes in a way that are not intended by Congress or intended by the people, absolutely I’d close those loopholes,” Romney said. “But there are a lot of people who use the word loophole to just say let’s raise taxes on people.”
When the group yelled out to raise taxes on corporations, Romney said “corporations are people.”
“Of course they are,” Romney said when the CCI members reacted incredulously. “Everything corporations earn ultimately go to people.”
Scarpellino said it’s “exhilarating” to challenge candidates, but she was especially excited to find common ground on Social Security and Medicare contributions with a gentleman wearing a Romney t-shirt next to her.
“That’s encouraging that maybe we have some differences, but we also are thinking across the aisle, as they like to say in Washington,” Scarpellino said.
(Writing by Radio Iowa contributor Andrew Duffelmeyer of Des Moines)