The woman who recorded the exchange tells PEOPLE she wants to focus on the “heroic” campaign worker who handled the situation

By Adam Carlson
February 04, 2020 05:30 PM
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As activist and filmmaker Annabel Park wandered through a high school cafeteria in Howard County, Iowa, on Monday night, she live-streamed the goings on of the local Democratic caucus for her Facebook followers.

About an hour after she began filming, Park, 51, came across an unnerving interaction between a voter and former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign.

According to Park’s viral video of what happened next, the woman was surprised to learn that Buttigieg is gay and she didn’t want to vote for him because of it. In fact, she had already chosen to vote for him and wanted to change her mind, she told a Buttigieg campaign worker.

Park’s footage of the interaction has since been seen hundreds of thousands of times on social media, with many praising the campaign worker’s handling of the situation and her defense of Buttigieg.

While Park did not identify the homophobic voter, she said the worker, a precinct captain in charge of marshaling Buttigieg supporters at the caucus site, was Nikki van den Heever.

“I think it’s important for us to have these conversations and I just loved how Nikki handled it,” Park tells PEOPLE. “I would not have posted it otherwise, I want to show this is really a great model for how we should handle it.”

According to her video of the conversation, which picks up partway through, the voter appears to realize in the middle of the caucus that Buttigieg, 38, is gay. This makes her change her mind.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fsavemainstnow%2Fvideos%2F1888750134602361%2F&show_text=0&width=560

Pete Buttigieg (left) with his husband, Chasten
| Credit: KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP/Getty

“Are you saying that he has a same-sex partner? Pete?” the woman asks Heever, according to Park’s video. She had been standing next to Heever and another woman in Buttigieg’s group of supporters at the caucus site.

“Are you kidding?” the woman asks, with obvious surprise, after being told that Buttigieg is gay.

“He’s married to him, yes,” Heever says.

“Well then I don’t want anybody like that in the White House,” the woman responds. “So can I have my card back?”

While Heever then goes about figuring out the exact procedure for returning the woman’s vote to her, Heever also makes a defense of Buttigieg, who is the first major presidential candidate who is openly gay.

“The whole point of it is, though, he’s a human being, right?” Heever says. “Just like you and me and it shouldn’t really matter.”

But the woman cuts her off.

“Well, he better read the Bible,” she says to Heever, who replies, “He does, and he says that God doesn’t choose a political party, because—“

Again the woman interjects, saying, “Why does it say in the Bible that a man should marry a woman then?”

“I totally respect your viewpoint on this, I so totally do, but I think that we were not around when that was being written,” Heever says back.

The woman asks her, “How come this has never been brought out before?”

“It’s common knowledge,” Heever responds. (Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, were on the cover of TIME last summer and have been extensively covered by the press.)

“I never heard it,” the woman says.

Heever, as she tells the woman they will figure out the rules about how she can change her vote, also returns to a message of equality and tolerance. “What I would like you to just dig deep inside and think, Should it matter if it’s a man or if it’s a woman or if they’re heterosexual or homosexual if you believe in what they say? That’s my question to you,” Heever says.

“It all just went right down the toilet, is where it all just went,” the woman replies.

Pete Buttigieg (center) in Iowa
| Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Heever, with a calm affect that Park praised later in her PEOPLE interview, tells the woman at the caucus: “You have a total right to your opinion and I am not trying to tell you to think otherwise … but I just ask you to look inside your heart, because you sound like a Christian woman to me and I’m a Christian woman and my God wants me to love everybody.”

The woman, too, continues to press Heever for what she says is an incorrect religious argument.

“You know what the Bible says,” she tells Heever. And when Heever says that she does know the Bible, the woman tells her, “So you must not believe it then, if you think it’s okay for somebody to be married to a same-sex person.”

“No I think we’re just interpreting it different and that’s okay, because everybody gets to have their own beliefs,” Heever says. “But what I teach my son is that love is love and we’re all human beings, so. That’s just what I feel and you have every right to feel the way you do.”

“That’s not the way I was raised in the church that I went to,” the woman says. After a beat or two, she shakes her head and walks away, according to Park’s video.

The video shows that after the conversation, a caucus official walked over and helped the woman make a new voting choice — this time for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, though Park tells PEOPLE the Warren supporters were unaware of the woman’s homophobic convictions.

PEOPLE has not been able to confirm the identity of the voter in the video; Heever could not be reached.

“I just really wanted to focus on Nikki and how heroic she was,” Park says, “because it’s hard to organize in rural America.”

Pete Buttigieg (left) with Chasten
| Credit: Chuck Kennedy

“You have to have these conversations that you don’t really want to have,” Park says. Indeed, that’s why the Iowa caucus — even for all of the controversy over its complicated rules — is valuable, she says.

“I think this kind of physical contact form of democracy is important in a way, because that’s when there’s real deliberation, real persuasion, real interactions happening,” Park says.

“I want us to do more of it, not less.”

Speaking with CNBC, county Democratic official Laura Hubka confirmed the woman switched her vote.

“She just doesn’t want a gay person in the White House,” Hubka told CNBC. “I don’t know what her deal with it is.”

Hubka said the voter also failed to pick up on the irony that her next choice of Warren — and all of the candidates at the caucus — support gay marriage.

“Everyone tried to explain that to her.”