Knoxville — Erin Siedler with the Obama campaign responded to questions regarding the presence at Helping Hands on Monday.
"We were invited to be there," Siedler said. She added that if the campaign knew people were uncomfortable with their presence, the Obama staff member would have left.
Obama staff member Kader Toovi was registering people to vote as they stood in line to receive food baskets yesterday. Helping Hands is a religious mission, formerly operated under the auspices of the Knoxville Area Ministerial Associaiton. KAMA no longer oversees Helping Hands, due to liability concerns stemming from the transient housing located in its upper levels. Individual church members of KAMA continue to offer their support to the mission. Campaign materials, including a sign that read, "Rural Iowans for Obama" were on display.
"We're not trying to be in places we're not wanted," Siedel said.
Chuck Galeazzi, with Helping Hands, confirmed that.
"They didn't approach me whatsoever to do this," Galeazzi said. Galeazzi returned from a recent vacation and approached his partner with Hope Builders about what more he can do to get those in need to help themselves. Voting was one way Galeazzi felt they could do this.
"That sounds like a very small thing, but it's the only thing I could think of," Galeazzi said.
Galeazzi and his partner are Democrats. The party was contacted in Des Moines, and later, Toovi contacted Galeazzi, and was invited to help register voters.
"I want the people I work with to have the opportunity to have some stake in the game," Galeazzi said. He also wants a level playing field for everybody and felt he should have invited Republicans to come as well. The Marion County Republicans are meeting tonight, and Galeazzi plans to attend and talk to them.
As for the comment that food stamps, now known as the SNAP program, could be lost if Republican Mitt Romney is elected, Galeazzi said that would have come from him. The difference is that he phrased it as though the program would drastically change if Romney is elected.
There was also concern that an employee with the Department of Human Services was there, seated next to Toovi, who may have advocated for Obama. DHS employees are not allowed to do this, according to Roger Munns, DHS Spokesman. DHS also does not make it a habit to send its staff members into food pantries. DHS contracts out for this.
The woman who was there, Cindy Jones, is the SNAP Outreach Worker for the Iowa Food Bank Association. Her organization has a contract with DHS to act as its outreach arm. Jones tries to come to Knoxville once a month, or at least every two months, to get people registered for SNAP benefits. One of the program's major target areas is the senior community, as many who are eligible for the program are not registered. Jones was unaware that she would be seated next to a campaign staff member on this trip.
"I didn't know that he was going to be there," Jones said. She added that she would have preferred to be separated from him, to avoid any potential conflict, but couldn't due to Helping Hands' tight quarters.
Jones said she did no campaigning, though she encouraged people to register to vote. She did not encourage people to vote for Obama.
"I'm prohibited from that," Jones said. "I don't do any political work in my job."
She concurred that it was Galeazzi who made the comment about changes to the SNAP program. Changes may inevitable as Congress completes the Farm, Food and Agriculture Bill. SNAP benefits are the largest component of this bill.
We also sought comment from the Romney campaign and the Iowa Campaign Ethics Disclosure Board. Megan Rooker with the Iowa Campaign Ethics Disclosure Board said they have no jurisdication over federal elections. If Helping Hands violated terms of its nonprofit status through its actions, that would be an issue for the Internal Revenue Service.
Siedler also indicated that two, maybe three people in Iowa, with the Obama campaign are allowed to go on record with the media, which is why Toovi could not comment. He is instructed to stick to the campaign's talking points when at an event, such as the one Monday at Helping Hands. Some of these talking points are getting people registered and promoting early voting for Barack Obama.
We'll continue to try to learn more about this for a full report in the upcoming print edition.