WEST POINT, Iowa — It takes less than five minutes of visiting with Ron Fedler to understand that family, public service, and community are the true treasures in his life.
"They are what mean the most to me — and, of course, my love and respect for country," he says, sitting in his living room in this Lee County town, home to 966 people and the state's largest sweet-corn festival.
In a state where corn is the driving commodity, having the largest festival is a pretty big deal.
It takes not much longer to understand that Ron Fedler should be a true treasure for the Democratic Party. His living room walls are a kaleidoscope of family photos. Large and small frames are filled with children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, all dotting the walls of the modest red-brick home he built himself. To the left of his easy chair is a framed black-and-white print of his parents and 11 of his 12 siblings: "My older brother had already left for Vietnam and missed the family photo."
Across the room from his overstuffed lazy chair, an 11-by-14 framed color photo of former President John F. Kennedy sits atop a coffee table; it's a copy of the iconic 1961 official photograph by Fabian Bachrach, showing Kennedy seated at his desk in the White House — frozen in that innocent moment at the start of "Camelot." A moment of promise — before the Bay of Pigs, before the Cuban missile crisis, before his assassination.
"He is my hero; he will always be my hero," Fedler says, smiling broadly.
Fedler is not one of those Democrats who fled his party in this last election to vote for President Trump; he thinks the commander-in-chief is off-putting, without promise, erratic. Yet, despite his misgivings, he understands, at least partially, why fellow Lee County Democrats voted for him.
"This goes beyond frustration and anger; it really does," he explains. "Experts fundamentally misread the voters' motives who went from happily supporting former President Barack Obama to equally happily supporting Trump on election night. They liked Obama, but many of his policies hurt them and their communities, and they wanted someone who they felt listened to them."
Trump, he says, filled that void.
What concerns Fedler is that political reporters and his party still don't recognize that "Trump's support here is very strong." In 2012, Lee County cast 9,428 votes for Obama and 6,787 for Republican Mitt Romney. Four years later the numbers nearly reversed, with 8,762 votes going to Trump and 6,195 to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Trump carried every voting precinct in Lee, a county long dominated by Democratic registration, activism and elected officials and by unions.
In 2016 you had people who normally voted Democratic but stopped believing in the more-progressive policies of Washington Democrats — which are very different than Lee County Democrats — and went the other way.
Fedler is the perfect example of what a Lee County Democrat represents: The West Point native was born, raised and graduated from high school here; drafted at age 19, he served as a radio Teletype operator with a secret crypto clearance.
His clearances were so top-secret that he never told his wife where he was stationed, what he did or what his orders were: "That information goes to the grave with me. I made a pledge to my country not to divulge that information, and I will forever honor that."
The military brass were so impressed with the young Fedler that they offered him a prestigious appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., he says, and a life as a career Army officer. But Fedler wanted to return to West Point, Iowa, so he respectfully declined.
His commanders "thought I was crazy, but all I wanted to do was go home, be with my family in my hometown. It is the best place in this country to live, the greatest hometown in the world, you know," he says, eyes twinkling.
Not only did Fedler never leave, but he also became an integral part of his community. He also became an integral and respected steward of the local Democratic Party.
After attending the local community college, he worked as a mason for four years and then for an energy company, saving all of his money until he could afford to buy Dugan's Corner Convenience Store and eventually build a new one, which he ran for 30 years. After selling the store, he worked as a correctional officer at the Iowa State Penitentiary.
But that is only part of his story: Fedler ran for and won a seat on the City Council, then served three terms as West Point's mayor — two consecutively, then once again several years later.
When he retired, he decided to run for the Iowa statehouse as a Democrat, a race he lost. He ran again, lost again.
Today he is in his second term as a county supervisor. In all of his roles in government, he has had a history of compromise, consensus-building, attracting jobs and accomplishing projects; he is tireless, well-liked and, more importantly, respected.
When he discusses the opening of the Iowa Fertilizer Company plant last month in Lee County, there's no "I" mentioned, no grandstanding over one of the largest private-sector construction projects in the state's history and the first world-class greenfield nitrogen fertilizer facility built in the United States in more than 25 years.
Of the elections he lost, he sounds sensible; of the ones he won, he sounds humble: "What I do is not for me. It's for the community — we don't want our people to fade away; we don't want our communities to fade away. That's why I serve."
In short, Fedler is the perfect example of what the Democratic Party's leadership should covet — of how the party's candidates should model themselves.
This is not because Republicans are perfect; it's just that they are in power and still ascending, and Democrats up and down the ballot are divided, struggling and still in search of a unified message.
The folks at the top of the party aren't exactly role models for how to reach out to those Middle America voters who fled the party in droves during the past eight years. You do not lose 1,100 down-ballot offices — state legislative seats, U.S. House and Senate seats, governor's seats — in that time because you are connecting with working-class voters.
In reality, the party has lost those voters not only politically but culturally.
According to Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Ron Fedler has no place in the Democratic Party. Is that because he's white, or male, or older than 60? Thankfully not — but it is because Fedler is pro-life.
In April, Perez drew a line in the sand for Democrats supporting any candidates who oppose abortion rights. This is not the only reason that Democrats have lost public offices, but it is a large part of their problem: It is a position that is elitist, tone deaf, and shuts out a great amount of support that should naturally come their way.
The problem with Perez is that he is too ambitious; he allows his personal motivations to get in the way of his real job — raising money (his efforts have been awful) and building infrastructure (a weak effort, so far).
And, then, there is Hillary Clinton.
As one Democratic strategist said to me in an anguished email, "Won't she please go away?" This is from someone who supported her.
Last week, in yet another speech, Clinton vaguely admitted to some mistakes on her part in losing the election but spent the bulk of her time talking and talking and talking about the sly attempts to move support away from her and the party's alleged failure to raise money, provide campaign logistics, or back her in any meaningful manner.
Democrats have history on their side in the midterm elections of 2018: About 90 percent of the time, a president's party loses congressional seats in the midterms. The times that hasn't happened occurred during crises — Reconstruction, the Great Depression, after the Sept. 11 attacks.
What Democrats don't have on their sides are the right people in the limelight: Clinton needs to stop blaming everyone else, Perez should be more tolerant of different viewpoints, and the party needs to adopt a simple bread-and-butter jobs message.
Go on a field trip to West Point, Iowa, and learn from the Ron Fedlers of the party. He is not on Twitter, he is not that snarky, he works hard, and he compromises and gets things done.
And when he loses? He takes the blame.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.