Judge deflects criticism at meeting in Postville
By Henery C. Jackson
POSTVILLE, Iowa (AP) Lt. Gov. Patty Judge traveled Thursday to Postville, where she spent much of a community meeting deflecting criticism that neither she nor Gov. Chet Culver had visited the community since an immigration raid at its largest employer led to a seemingly never-ending series of problems.
Judge's meeting in the basement of a community building marked the first time since the May 12 raid at the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse that she or Culver had stopped in the northeast Iowa town.
Since that raid, nearly 400 workers have been convicted on immigration charges, top managers have been jailed and the company has sought bankruptcy protection. After closing due to its money problems, the plant has reopened this week on a scaled-back basis to process poultry.
Before the raid, Agriprocessors employed about 1,000 people, or nearly half of the town's population. The company's problems can be seen in the town, where businesses have closed and rental housing is now vacant.
About 70 residents who attended the meeting pelted Judge with sharp and occasionally heated questions.
''When there's a flood, the governor comes and gives people a hug,'' Maryn Olson told Judge. ''In Postville that has never happened. Postville's never gotten attention.''
Judge played down the importance of personal visits and said she and Culver have been monitoring the situation and dispatching all available aid to the area.
''I think there's a lot of frustration,'' Judge told reporters after the meeting. ''People are very tired and we heard a lot of tough stories. It's a tough and very sad situation here.''
Judge used Thursday's meeting to announce that three AmeriCorps volunteers would move to the city and that $700,000 in aid was now available for displaced workers. She said the AmeriCorps workers would help residents with a number of issues, including securing food, shelter, and health services.
Judge said workers could apply for the aid and use it to help pay back rent and utility bills.
''I hear you,'' Judge said at one point. ''I hear you. I told the mayor we don't have a silver bullet, but we want to help.''
Judge emphasized the importance of resuming production at Agriprocessors, saying it was a ''vital task.'' She said it was important, however, that the Rubashkin family, which founded Agriprocessors and built it into the nation's largest kosher meatpacking operation, no longer play a role in the Postville plant.
''I don't think this plant will ever be run by them again ...'' she said. ''That day, I believe, is over.''
Judge was about 40 minutes late to the meeting, where residents sat around folding tables. Many brought their children - and their complaints.
Larry Moore, a City Council member, pointedly asked Judge why farmers hadn't been paid for meat they provided to Agriprocessors.
''Why is everybody pussyfooting around?'' he asked. ''This shouldn't even be an issue. It's the law.''
Judge said would look into the issue.
The lieutenant governor wagged her finger and appeared flustered responding to another question, from the Rev. Paul Real of St. Bridget's Church. Real said Culver and Judge had ignored problems in Postville before the raid forced the town's issues into the public.
''I'm not going to argue with you,'' Judge replied. ''No one ever talked to anyone in the governor's office about this situation before the raid ... We have to go forward.''
Another man, William Smith, said he had come to Postville from Indianapolis months ago to work at Agriprocessors. Although Smith no longer had a job, he said he wanted to stay because he loves the community.
''My ID was stolen,'' he said. ''I can't get a job, but I want to stay here.''
As she did frequently during the meeting, Judge showed empathy but said she didn't have an answer. She told Smith to apply for the funding she came to the town to announce.
''Go ahead and get this thing filled out,'' she said. ''Let's get you signed up.''
The funding Judge spoke about is nearly $700,00 in emergency assistance grants to pay rent and utilities. That money came from efforts waged by volunteers – like Postville Radio's Jeff Abbas – not from anything the city or county did.
And, truth be told, on the state level it is the executive director of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, Ralph Rosenberg, who really made this grant and other assistance happen for Postville.
Judge, who as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture took large campaign contributions from the Rubashkin family and then refused to return the money when outed, visited Postville once before.
That visit was a Potemkin Village affair, where she was shown staged slaughter and praised Agriprocessors – even though the illegal throat-ripping that had temporarily shut down Agriprocessors would be resumed in modified form not long after her visit.