When an interview surfaced this week that brought Sen. Cory Booker’s vegan lifestyle to the forefront, it seemed like the New Jersey senator would be forced to do the first damage control of his nascent presidential campaign.
Iowa ranks as theNo. 1 pork-producing state in the nation, after all, and the state Farm Bureau reports that 95 percent of Iowans eat meat at least weekly.
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But it turns out Democratic voters aren’t biting on the controversy. Despite Booker’s remarks about the unsustainability of “billions of people consuming industrially produced animal agriculture” and much mocking on the right about his out-of-the-mainstream diet — a Fox News panel discussed “Booker’s beef” with plates of burgers and ribs on set — Iowans seem to be greeting the revelation with a shrug.
“There have been vegans and vegetarians in Iowa for decades now,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats, who host an annual steak fry event. “If you’re voting for somebody based on what’s on their dinner table, then you’ve got bigger problems.”
Chris Peterson, a part-time farmer in Cerro Gordo County who does advocacy work for rural America and family farms, said he pays no attention to what candidates consume. Peterson attended one of Booker’s campaign events in Iowa last weekend and asked the senator a question about agriculture policy.
“It’s what they talk about and what they stand for and how they present the issues” that matters, Peterson said, crediting Booker for introducing legislation last year that would put an 18-month moratorium on ag mergers, a process Booker said hurts small family farmers and rural communities.
“He’s talking my talk, and I’m happy about it, quite frankly,” Peterson said.
Booker, who became a vegetarian in the 1990s and a vegan in 2014, has said his last non-vegan meal was on Election Day that year. But he’s been clear that it’s merely a personal choice, not anything he’s interested in legislating.
He addressed the issue Saturday in New Hampshire when asked if he would call on Americans to eat a vegan diet.
“I think that whatever you eat is a very personal decision and everybody should eat what they want to eat. That’s America. That’s freedom. Here it’s live free or die,” Booker said, referring to the state’s motto. “The last thing we want is government telling us what to eat.”
While photo-ops of meat-eating presidential candidates are a staple of the Iowa State Fair — both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were photographed chomping on a pork chop on a stick — Mindy Williamson, the fair’s marketing director, said Booker will have no shortage of other foods to choose from this summer.
“We know through our survey work that the top attraction that people like to come see and do is food. We have 100 vendors, 200-plus food stands and anything you could want on a stick, for sure,” Williamson said. “But we have plenty of food options that are for people with restricted or special diets. We get a lot of requests for gluten-free, vegetarian, budget-friendly healthy foods or even vegan.”
Booker is already looking ahead: He told “The View” this month that while he won’t be eating pork chops on a stick at the Iowa State Fair, “There will be lots of deep-fried stuff that I will be able to eat.”
Still, the New Jersey Democrat has been forced to endure considerable derision from Republicans over his vegan diet, and questions about how it might play in the general election.
Among the taunts: House GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) tweeted that she supports PETA — “People Eating Tasty Animals.”
“Trump is blessed with the best enemies of all time,” Fox News host Jesse Watters remarked. “It’s almost like he’s casting his political opponents. He’s the McDonald’s president and he’s running against a vegan.”
Dal Grooms, communications director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said there’s no concern among local pork producers that as president Booker would harm the industry because he doesn’t personally eat meat.
“I don’t think that’s what people will sit down and judge him on. In the end, I think they’ll judge him on what kind of policies and practices he’ll talk about when he comes to this state and whether those policies and practices are the kinds of things that Iowa pig farmers could support,” Grooms said. “What would be concerning is if he says, ‘Hey, we need to put some policies in place that encourage people not to eat meat.’ Just because he’s made a personal choice not to include meat, fish, dairy products — all of those items — in his diet, I would hope he’d not influence others to make that same choice.”
In South Carolina — where Congressman Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry” is a must-attend early state political event and barbecue is king — Democrats appear just as nonplussed by Booker’s diet.
When Booker attended a fundraiser with hundreds of attendees in Orangeburg, S.C., last year, “Nobody paid any attention to what he was eating or what he wasn’t,” recalled Democratic state Rep. Jerry Govan, who chairs the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus. “People were captivated by what he was saying, and I think that’s what’s gonna happen with the rest of the country.”