Candidates for President: Which Side Are You On?

05/19/2015 10:46 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016

Saturday, at Iowa State University, more than 500 active leaders from 56 organizations spent a day in general sessions and workshops uniting around issues and strategies at the Working Families Summit. I had been to Iowa in previous presidential election years as Presidential campaigns warmed up, but Saturday's conference was not about a candidate or even a platform. It was broader than that.

Recognizing that the leading candidates who are eventually the party nominees will raise and spend in excess of $2 billion, on Saturday, Iowans were energized by the longer road through the nominating process, the 2016 election and beyond. Big money in politics has changed our democracy but, on Saturday, populism was alive and well -- despite the hard path ahead.

We were labor and green, students and seniors, farmers and community organizers, urban and rural, immigrants and native born, all realizing that more than ever, we have a common narrative based on democracy and economic justice that goes beyond our organizational silos, as important as those silos may be.

In years past, hosts of a meeting like this might have invited presidential candidates. But these 56 organizations with tens of thousands of Iowa members realize now that the path to real change on the national level is blocked by structural issues in our democracy and will likely continue to be blocked for years to come.

For a presidential candidate, the current debate on Fast Track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership is central to credibility on any claim to a populist agenda. The issue in Iowa is not trade or no trade, as some apologists for Fast Track try to argue. The issue is what kind of ground rules do we want so that we can evaluate trade deals after 20 years of corporate trade agreements that mostly are meant to protect the investment profits of multinational corporations.

For example, why is the U.S. the only nation of the 12 current TPP partners considering Fast Track? Under Fast Track, Congress all but signs off on adoption of trade deals for the next six years with no authority to amend, and agrees to quick up or down votes. This goes well beyond the TPP and President Obama, since Fast Track would likely last for six years. Eight of the 12 TPP nations are democracies and their parliament or Congress will read the full document before taking any action. With 90 percent of the TPP already negotiated, the only real reason for Fast Track for the TPP is the growing realization that the TPP never would be adopted if it was subject to careful review and meaningful congressional oversight.

Why has there been little modification in the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) process in the leaked chapters of TPP despite rising global opposition? ISDS means private and virtually secret tribunals where multinational corporations can sue national and local governments for any governmental action that limits the corporation's future profits. Currently there are 500 such cases pending.

Philip Morris has sued Australia and Uruguay for implementing plain package cigarette labeling. Occidental Petroleum has won a $2.3 billion judgment against Peru for limiting its right to drill based on environmental concerns. The U.S. Trade Representative answers the criticism by saying the U.S. has not lost a case yet. But Ambassador Froman knows full well that ISDS provides incentives for moving investment outside the U.S., by guaranteeing that future profits are insulated from stronger environmental or other regulations in other nations.

Democratic presidential contenders campaigning in Iowa need to step up now and tell us "which side they are on." The President controls trade policy so what these candidates say on trade is far more consequential than on issues that require congressional approval.

For Democrats campaigning in Iowa, the case is even clearer. Two-thirds of Senate Democrats and 80-plus percent of House Democrats are opposing Fast Track. Are we going to nominate a Presidential candidate who turns her/his back on those who are running for office at the same time? Just as importantly in Iowa and across the nation, the entire base of the Democratic Party is saying "No" to Fast Track.

Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders and other Democrats in Iowa owe it to the Party to speak out now when it matters. Particularly in the House, the vote in several weeks will be very close. Dodging the issue will lead to little accountability in the campaign and in the years ahead.

Saturday was inspirational for so many reasons. For me it renewed my hope that working families in Iowa and across our nation are ready to Stand Up and Fight Back!