Local Iowa candidate takes campaign to DC

Local Iowa candidate takes campaign to DC
© Courtesy Photo

An Iowa sheriff candidate is taking his campaign to the airwaves in Washington, D.C., instead of his home state 800 miles away.

Libertarian Rick Stewart, a bespectacled 65-year-old retiree running in the state’s second-most-populous county, is airing four TV ads in the D.C. area through September to put politicians on Capitol Hill “on notice” about their role in the war on drugs. 

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He blames them for wasting trillions of dollars imprisoning drug offenders who are disproportionately African-American.

“The best way a sheriff in Iowa can protect the citizens of the county that they serve is to go after the drug warriors in Washington,” Stewart told The Hill. “It’s those people that are creating the problem.”

It’s unclear how many ads Stewart has booked in the D.C. area or on which networks, though they have appeared on MSNBC and CNN.

Stewart, a retired founder and chief executive officer of a multimillion-dollar herb and spice company, won’t share how much he’s spending or where the money comes from, saying those details don’t have to be revealed until an October filing deadline.

Advertising experts estimate he’s likely spending about $2,500 a spot during the day, a rate that could climb if he books during prime time.

But Stewart — who is challenging the incumbent sheriff of Linn County, which includes Cedar Rapids — has yet to air any campaign spots in Iowa.

In his first ad, which ran the first week of September, Stewart dismisses the presidential race as a “sideshow” and vows to go after “drug war criminals” who, he argues, are predominantly in Congress.

With a penetrating stare, Stewart yells into the camera, “If you come to my town, I will hunt you down and ship you to the Hague, where they have a special court for scum like you.” The Hague, Netherlands, is home to international courts.

In Stewart’s second ad, he says he is “unconvinced” that there should be reparations for descendants of slaves, saying slaves “are now kicking it back in heaven.” If his ancestors had owned slaves, he says, “are now roasting in hell for eternity.”

At the same time, he says, he does believe in reparations for “drug war victims” and argues the government should pay them “$50,000 for every year spent in prison.” He believes this could be funded by ending the war on drugs.

A third ad started airing Tuesday, and the fourth and final spot will run next week.

It’s an unusual strategy for a local race, but Stewart said his main goal is to grab the attention of those involved in Washington politics.

“I’m running them in Washington because I want somebody in Washington to say, ‘You see that.’ So right now, that’s all I’m doing,” Stewart said, employing a more subdued, but still passionate, tone than he uses in the ads. “I started in Washington, but I won’t end in Washington.”

While he acknowledged this strategy won’t get him many local votes, Stewart argued that he owes it to Iowans to protect them from the “drug warriors in Washington.”

“We are not going to sit back and allow our people to be destroyed by their actions in Washington anymore,” he said.

“So will that get me any votes? I think it will,” he continued. “It obviously won’t get me votes from people in Washington, because they can’t vote for me.”

This isn’t Stewart’s first run for office. He ran as an independent candidate for Iowa’s open Senate seat in 2014. He said he captured the most votes of any independent in state history and spent less than $5,000 on his campaign.

Stewart’s career started in law enforcement, though he said he was fired by the mayor of his town for refusing to shave his beard. He dropped out of college to travel the world but later returned to complete his education, earning degrees in business. 

He started a private herb and spice company in 1976 that he says is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Since retiring at age 48, he continues to travel and describes what he’s doing now as sometimes “self-indulgent.” He has studied several languages abroad and owns a property in Guatemala. He volunteers with a nongovernmental organization that takes tourists sightseeing, which benefits an elementary school in the Latin American country.

“He’s a pretty fascinating guy, and he feels strongly about his beliefs, and I think that’s why he keeps seeking office and putting effort into it,” said Todd Dorman, a columnist for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. The publication’s editorial board met with Stewart on Monday. 

Stewart is the only person challenging Democratic incumbent Brian Gardner, who has held the position for eight years and has been serving in law enforcement since 1980.

Dorman said that Gardner will likely win a third term, noting his popularity and that he easily won his last two elections. But he said Stewart could potentially get a boost from the top of the Libertarian Party ticket.

“I would be surprised if Stewart were to get close, although if Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonWhat the numbers say about Trump's chances at reelection Presidential race tightens in Minnesota as Trump plows resources into state The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden condemns violence, blames Trump for fomenting it l Bitter Mass. primaries reach the end l Super PAC spending set to explode MORE has some support on the ballot here, maybe other Libertarian candidates will benefit, but it would seem like a pretty uphill climb,” Dorman said.

Stewart’s D.C. ad effort is “a strategy we don’t really see at all,” said Josh Stewart, no relation, a spokesman for the Sunlight Foundation, noting that it’s not a common practice for more local races.

“It’s one thing to run online ads in D.C. to boost your fundraising or boost your profile among D.C.-types who maybe could give money or send resources, provide anything to your candidacy — but not for a sheriff’s race,” Josh Stewart said.

“To see a sheriff do it, a much more limited jurisdiction, is incredibly odd.”

The source familiar with local ad buys admitted that the spending could be one way for a candidate to make a splash.

“It’s a bizarre way to use your money … unless it generates a lot of earned media,” he said, using a term for organic press coverage.

Cedar Rapids, the main television market in Linn County, has a competitive congressional race, as well as the state’s U.S. Senate race, so “the airwaves are probably inundated,” he said.

A sheriff candidate spending a small amount of money “is probably going to get drowned out pretty quick” in Cedar Rapids amind more expensive races, the source said.

“But if you use this to parlay into a lot of earned media, it could be a way to break through.”