At an age where many young people are still figuring out their direction in life, newly-elected State Representative Abby Finkenauer walks onto the floor of the Iowa House each day with a passion and purpose unlike many others. Elected from District 99 in Dubuque, Finkenauer, a 26-year old Democrat, already looks like she belongs because she does. Having accumulated a decade of experiences in politics and government, she entered elected office well-known and well-respected among the Capitol crowd. Yet despite her uncommon early success, Finkenauer strongly believes that her journey is not overly-daunting nor too ambitious for other young Iowans to accomplish.
Catching the Political Bug
Finkenauer grew up in Dubuque, daughter to a union pipefitter welder and a Dubuque Community Schools employee, in a family that was mostly non-political. A subscription to Newsweek at age 10, however, kick-started Finkenauer’s interest in politics. The knowledge came in handy when her grandfather, a Dubuque Lt. firefighter, and her uncle, a Republican lawyer, came over for dinner on Saturday nights after church. She joined them at the dinner table to debate politics and the news. “I learned at a very early age that even as a young girl I had every right to be at the table with grown men,” Finkenauer recounts of those discussions. “It gave me the idea that my opinion mattered.”
That interest led to involvement in Model UN and Mock Trial, and eventually to a summer stint as a page in the U.S. House for Iowa Congressman Jim Nussle. While working in the cloak room and seeing highly successful politicians’ personal interactions, Finkenauer realized they were really no different than most other people. “If they could do it, I could do it,” she says she thought at the time. And while she didn’t see eye-to-eye with most of the Republicans she served, she felt “90% of them were there for the right reasons, and you have to respect that even if you don’t agree.”
Saying “Yes” to Opportunity
Finkenauer later went to serve as a page in the State Capitol in Des Moines, where her enthusiasm and knowledge started to get her noticed, including by then-Speaker Pat Murphy’s administrative assistant, Carolyn Gaukel. In 2007 Finkenauer was applying for both Speaker’s page and chief clerk (her preferred spot). The decision was made for her, she remembers, when as she was heading into the chief clerk interview, “Carolyn busts in the door and says the interview’s over, she’s ours. I didn’t get an option, I just said yes.”
That just-say-yes mentality was deeply ingrained in Finkenauer’s psyche from her union household where her parents reminded her to always take every opportunity given to you. It later became a common and powerful part of her speeches on the campaign trail. This opportunity was particularly important, as it came with invaluable mentorship and guidance from the House Democrats staff. “Carolyn took an interest in me,” Finkenauer said. “They cared about me for some reason and they cared about what I had to say.”
2007 turned into one of Finkenauer’s most memorable and formative years, both for the exciting presidential caucus going on that year, but also for what was happening in the Iowa House. That year the Legislature passed a landmark measure outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. She remembered looking out onto the House floor and seeing countless people, many of which had worked so long to advance gay rights, with tears in their eyes. That solidified her desire to stay involved in state politics. “I watched as Murphy walked back to his office without saying anything,” Finkenauer recalls. “I felt so proud to live in this state and was proud to be a part of the moment.” After attending Drake University, she got her chance.
Finding Herself on the Campaign Trail
Self-discovery can come in many forms these days: world travel, overcoming traumatic events, spiritual awakenings, or even self-help books. For Abby Finkenauer, it came from a grueling 600-day campaign for State House.
When Pat Murphy decided to run for Congress in 2014, Finkenauer saw her opportunity to return to the legislative body she loved. What followed was an important journey for the then-24 year old. “You learn who you are and who you’re not really quickly,” Finkenauer says of her campaign trail experience. “When you’re young you’re still figuring things out. The campaign put me on a fast-track on figuring out who I am as an Iowan, a woman, and now as a legislator.”
Selling your story face-to-face to thousands of people whose doors you knock on will certainly do that. In fact, one would think Finkenauer’s biggest challenge is the pressure of entering the Legislature as a young woman. Instead, she says it’s “not as much of a factor,” having built her self-confidence in the streets of Dubuque. “When you’re campaigning you earn every bit of respect,” she explains.
Her conversations with working-class voters also fired up her passion for Democratic issues. “I’m so tired of people complaining about people not willing to work,” Finkenauer emotionally asserts. “No one’s looking for a free ride – people want to work and are willing to work. There’s people who have worked their whole life, just asking to put food on their table, and to send their son to baseball practice and their daughter to dance class. The just want a chance … I get really defensive when people try to minimize the working class or unions. They’re quite literally the people I grew up around. They work their tails off every day. These people are proud to be Iowans.”
Focus In the Legislature
Now in the Legislature, Finkenauer turns her focus to delivering for her constituents and pushing policy issues she believes in. “I’m interested in starting the conversation on student debt,” Finkenauer says of her top priority. “I’m happy we’re freezing tuition, but it’s not enough. We need to come up with ways to help people who already have the debt.” She’s helping draft legislation to help employees pay back their loans that she hopes can get bipartisan support, and is looking to some other inventive measures to provide additional relief. She also is exploring ways to use technology to open up government more – by letting citizens testify on bills via web video, and by finding ways to share the Legislature’s actions through social media.
What does she want to stop from happening? “Anything in regards to taking away a woman’s right to her own health care decision,” Finkenauer says, referring to the likelihood House Republicans will bring up restrictive health bills. “It’s ridiculous it’s 2015 and it’s still an issue. As a 26 year-old woman I’ll have to listen to a debate regarding my own reproductive health decisions. That’s something I’ll be standing up for.” She also wants to see allowable growth for schools set on time.
Anytime an ambitious, young person is elected to office people start to speculate. Particularly so for a state Democratic Party who’s seen its bench of rising stars decimated in the 2010 and 2014 wave elections. Many times, however, representatives elected in their 20’s will keep their head down for a while as they build up their base and respect.
Representative Chris Hall, elected at age 25 from Sioux City, has carved out a reputation back home as an even-keeled, thoughtful legislator, attentive to the needs of his constituents. All the while he has smartly worked his way up in leadership positions and increased his behind-the-scenes influence in the party. Finkenauer could surprise people with a different approach if she so chooses.
She certainly has the fundamentals down of a successful candidate, long before most politicians do in their careers. She has a compelling personal story of growing up in a hard-working family. Her rhetorical skills are easily apparent in her exuberant delivery of well-composed speeches. Take a look at the speech she gave a few days before being sworn in to get a sense of what potential she might have: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Right now, however, Finkenauer just hopes other young Iowans will look at her path to the Legislature and realize that getting involved in politics isn’t that daunting. “You don’t have to wait until you have absolutely everything together to run,” Finkenauer explains. “I’m still single, I’m still paying off student loans. I’m renting a house. Your life does not have to be that quintessential picket-fence life to run for office. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be if you have something to say. I want people to know that it’s accessible and that people will support you.”