DES MOINES, Iowa - The two young men in neat oxford shirts stand on the shady front lawn and hug. Brand-new wedding bands gleam on their ring fingers. Cameras click. They are oblivious. Happy. And legally married.
"This is it," Sean Fritz told Tim McQuillan in August, after the rapid-fire ceremony in a Unitarian minister's yard here in the middle of middle America. "I love you."
As Iowans ponder whom to support in the Jan. 3 caucuses, their state is the first in the heartland to even consider legalizing same-sex marriage -- placing Iowa again in the vanguard and reminding the Democratic presidential hopefuls that progressives here help shape history.
Much of coastal blue-state America has long dismissed the Hawkeye State as it has the rest of "flyover country" -- all conservatives, cornfields and clapboard churches -- ignoring a succession of cultural and legal firsts and liberal politicians who made their way to Washington.
The tradition includes Henry A. Wallace, the vice president whom Franklin D. Roosevelt jettisoned because of the Iowan's extreme left leanings, and Sen. Tom Harkin, who bragged in a recent campaign e-mail that "in the Congress, there is no one who has stood stronger against President Bush than I have."
Iowa public schools were desegregated nearly a century ahead of 1954's Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka. The state was the first to admit a woman to the bar, in 1869 -- three years before the Supreme Court ruled that states could deny women the right to practice law. Iowa City, with its renowned writing program, became a nuclear-free zone even before Berkeley. And there is no death penalty in the state.
"I spend a lot of time talking to people about how Iowa is not like the states that surround it," said Lisa Hardaway, spokeswoman for Lambda Legal, a gay-rights group that brought the lawsuit that led to the Fritz-McQuillan nuptials. "It's not like Nebraska."
Iowa's long-standing progressive tradition regularly makes its mark on politics. As often as not, caucusgoers deny victory to the perceived centrist running for the Democratic nomination and give their nod to more-liberal contenders. Think 1984, when Walter F. Mondale beat John Glenn, or 1988, when Richard A. Gephardt bested Michael S. Dukakis.
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the national front-runner in polls, is struggling here in a tight race against rivals Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who are both perceived to be more liberal.
And as the campaign heats up, "the Democratic candidates are generally tilting to the left," said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political science professor. But "Clinton is trying to resist it as much as possible, to position herself for the general election."
In a purely political sense, Iowa is actually two states. The rural west of Republican Rep. Steve King -- who is referred to by some as "Iowa's own Pat Buchanan" -- has a strong social-conservative element, while the "liberal core" is urban and eastern.
The state also is currently "ascendant," said David Redlawsk, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, who notes that for the first time in 40 years Democrats control both the governor's office and the statehouse.
So how did a liberal streak take root amid the cornfields and silos, broad blue skies and small, neat cities?
Progressive Democrat Ed Fallon -- who served in the state General Assembly for 14 years and makes his way on foot or bicycle as often as possible for Mother Earth's sake -- believes that dirt is destiny.
The land, he says, helps mold the people. Iowa is rich, fertile and the basis for an agricultural economy that thrived because of farmers' interdependence. Though "the rest of the world can't replicate the Iowa landscape," he said, "it can replicate the tight-knit communities that foster tolerance."
That tolerance was written into Article 1 of the Iowa Constitution, ratified in 1857,which says:
"All men and women are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness."
For Gordon Fischer, former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, the proudest product of his state's tradition of tolerance is the very first decision reached by the Iowa Supreme Court.
In 1839, the court "abolished slavery" in the Iowa Territory, he said, a generation before the federal 13th Amendment. The case was called In Re the Matter of Ralph; Fischer called it an "incredibly bold" step.
Ralph was a Missouri slave whose master allowed him to travel to Dubuque so he could earn enough to purchase his freedom. Five years later, the master tried to bring Ralph back by force.
Not so fast, the Iowa jurists decided. Ralph was not a fugitive, because he had been given permission to move. He still owed his $550 purchase price, they ruled, but "no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery."
In 1868, the court decided that 12-year-old Susan B. Clark could not be denied admission to Muscatine Grammar School No. 2 because she was African American.
To deny children an equal education because of their race, the justices wrote, "would be to sanction a plain violation of the spirit of our laws [and] tend to perpetuate the national differences of our people and stimulate a constant strife."
That decision came 28 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that racial segregation in public accommodations was legal. Separate-but-equal classrooms weren't deemed unconstitutional until 1954.
But it wasn't just the Iowa Supreme Court pushing a progressive agenda. Hawkeye State farmers were at it too.
A few years after the jurists here desegregated the schools, the so-called Grange movement was taking hold in Iowa and several other agricultural regions, mobilizing farmers to get state laws passed to make shipping rates uniform and fairer.
Such action against the railroad monopolies, said Shelton Stromquist, professor of history at the University of Iowa, formed "the root of a farmer, progressive tradition."
The Iowa Farmers Union seceded from its national counterpart in the 1950s in a disagreement over the Korean War. The Iowans were against it. That group later formed the core of a new national organization, the U.S. Farmers Assn., which went on to protest the Vietnam War.
Iowa's progressive leanings have shaped the personal as well as the political.
This was the third state in the country to reject laws that prohibited mixed-race marriages and the second -- after California -- to institute no-fault divorce. It was also among the first states to protect married women from rape by their husbands. The years: 1851, 1970 and 1982, respectively.
Perhaps the best compendium of Iowa's social and political milestones is a thick friends-of-the-court brief filed as part of a case called Varnum vs. Brien, in which six same-sex couples sued the Polk County registrar in 2005 because they were denied marriage licenses.
Their view was that the Iowa Constitution protected their right to wed. On Aug. 30, Judge Robert B. Hanson agreed in a 63-page ruling.
That afternoon Sean Fritz, 24, heard about Hanson's decision in an instant message from a friend. He raced out to buy rings and flowers and got down on one knee to propose to Tim McQuillan, 21.
Then the two Iowa State University students stayed up all night downloading forms and figuring out a game plan.
First thing Friday morning they filed the proper documents and roused the Rev. Mark Stringer for the quick ceremony (which can still be viewed on the local television station's website).
Shortly after Hanson ruled that same-sex marriage was legal, the Polk County attorney asked for a stay to appeal the decision. That stay came midday Friday.
The matter is before the Iowa Supreme Court awaiting a final ruling. Similar cases in California and Connecticut are awaiting state supreme court decisions.
Although it's not clear what Iowa's high court will do, more than half of the justices were appointed by a Democratic governor, and the court has a long "tradition of independence," said Karen Thalacker, who teaches constitutional law at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
The strength of Iowa's liberal core is apparent on the campaign trail, where the candidates and their stand-ins are braving ice storms and holiday apathy.
It took Edwards just 30 minutes to hit nearly every populist high point at a recent event in Iowa City, the heart of "the People's Republic of Johnson County."
Bring "the few, the powerful, the well-financed" who are "controlling the government" down to size, he cried. Make "those millionaires on Wall Street" pay "their fair share of Social Security taxes." Give voice to the voiceless.
Two days earlier in Ames, former President Clinton reached way, way back to burnish his wife's progressive past, reminding the audience of her famous speech protesting the Vietnam War as a Wellesley undergrad.
Her husband's praise notwithstanding, Sen. Clinton faces a tough fight for Iowa's staunch left, the people likely to attend hours-long caucuses on a January night.
This month the president of the Progressive Coalition of Central Iowa circulated a lengthy e-mail voicing his "deep concern" over Clinton's candidacy.
She voted for the war in Iraq and "unlike others, never clearly expressed regret for having done so," wrote Vern Naffier. She said she was "open to carrying out military action against" Iran.
"While none of the other candidates is perfect," he wrote to his fellow liberals, "it seems to me that they offer us a much more encouraging alternative to our present situation."
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times