A passion for improving educational opportunities drives Charlie McConkey in the Statehouse. Raised by a mother with an eight-grade education working minimum wage, McConkey and his four siblings learned early on the value of hard work and determination. Born in Carter Lake, that geographical quirk of Iowa that’s essentially in Nebraska, he and his family moved to Council Bluffs, where McConkey is currently serving his first term as State Representative in House District 15.
A Working Class Life
McConkey’s father died early in his life, so his working mother raised the family of six herself, with McConkey’s oldest sister pitching in. “With help of family and friends, we got by,” McConkey remembers of his childhood. “My mom raised us five kids on basically minimum wage all her life … I look back on it, you never realize you were poor. And I never considered ourselves poor, we always got by.” Despite their situation, the family was always provided for, and McConkey was surprised to learn after his mother passed away that she had still managed to save up $100,000.
McConkey has since worked as a maintenance mechanic in a foundry for Griffin Pipe in Council Bluffs for 31 years, which makes iron pipes for sewage and water transportation. He took apprenticeship classes at Iowa Western Community College to land the job, and has been thankful for the opportunity ever since. “If it weren’t for being able to take advantage of the apprenticeship program and get the school I needed, who knows where I’d be now,” he says. McConkey’s also worked as a realtor, and owned a bar and grill for several years.
He and his wife have raised four kids in a blended family. They now have seven grand-kids and two great-grand-kids, most of whom still live around the Council Bluffs area.
Campaigning in the Streets of Council Bluffs
Though you’d be hard-pressed to find someone whose life more resembles the working class families of Council Bluffs’ west side, McConkey says he wasn’t the first choice of local community leaders to run for the Democratic-leaning seat held by Republicans in recent years. “I wasn’t received real well,” he recalls with a laugh. Others in town were concerned he hadn’t “paid his dues,” but McConkey felt he knew his community well with a background in neighborhood association involvement and local volunteering.
“I looked at the bills my predecessor was voting on and very little of it had to do with our district – it wasn’t beneficial for us,” McConkey says on why he decided to run. As he began campaigning, he ran into many voters that he saw hurt by cascading financial events that can cripple the lives of working class and poor people.
He remembered one woman in particular: “She was working in Omaha and her truck broke down, didn’t have money to fix it. She ended up getting fired because she was late to work too often. Now she’s working at a labor-ready deal, and they don’t get sent out as much and she’s about ready to lose her house.” McConkey discovered she was a veteran, and encouraged her to seek out specific government assistance programs.
Not everyone was too happy to see McConkey as he knocked door after door in Council Bluff’s perfect grid-like precincts. He had a gun pulled on him once, along with a few other mix-ups. “One nice lady, she was looking at my cowboy card and she goes ‘what are you running for,’ and I say ‘the House of Representatives,’ and the door slams,” McConkey recalls of another voter. “She was thinking I was running for the national seat … but I got her to open up her door and I ended up getting an absentee ballot for her.”
In a terrible year for Democrats, the Council Bluffs district was the only Republican-held House seat a Democrat picked up in the 2014 midterms. McConkey squeaked out a win by under 100 votes against Republican John Blue. “I just think I listened,” McConkey says, not thinking there was anything too unique of his victory. “And they didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, because I’m living there, I know what’s going on … I don’t guarantee them anything – you just them you’re going to try.”
A Focus on Education
“We’ve got to fund education,” McConkey insists, calling it his number one priority while in the Statehouse. “We’re short-changing Iowa kids … I know we’ve got the funding to fund 4%. It’s there.” He worries about the consequences of the continuing impasse over setting allowable growth funding, with Republicans sticking to a lower 1.25% proposal. “I want to make sure we don’t have to lay off teachers … that’s what we’re heading for right now if we don’t fund the schools. They don’t know what to do with their budgets yet. We’re not doing them any favors, we’re just hurting them.”
McConkey campaigned heavily on long-term preschool, and says, “I’ve been in the classrooms, I’ve watched the kids. Those kids are ready – they’re eager to learn, they love school … Talking to kindergarten teachers, the ones who don’t have that opportunity, it’s almost like teaching two different grades.” McConkey sees expanding that access as key to keeping Iowa’s education rankings high.
Long Hours at the Statehouse
The first three months of his service in the Legislature has been eye-opening to the Democrat. “Great ideas are not always great laws,” McConkey says of many various proposals he’s worked on in committee. He has found success in one initiative he’s fought for: a program to list and register veteran-owned businesses in the state. While it won’t be voted on by the full House, it’s already been taken up by the Department of Economic Development and Debi Durham for implementation. The end goal, McConkey says, is to provide a leg-up for veterans who own their own business.
There are other bills McConkey is keeping his eye on that he’d prefer not be enacted, like the “Stand Your Ground” legislation. “Do the research on that bill – Iowa’s got great laws already,” McConkey says, arguing there are plenty of measures in Iowa law to protect yourself. McConkey says he’s a gun owner himself and strong supporter of the second amendment, but feels this issue has been blown out of proportion, and only encourages vigilantism.
McConkey says he’s surprised a few Republicans with some of his votes so far. “I’m not just straight-party,” he remarks. “I’m not here to represent the Democratic Party, I’m here to represent the people of District 15, Carter Lake and Council Bluffs.” To do that he usually gets to the Statehouse early, arriving by 6 or 7 AM most days. Some of his committees have lasted late into the night. “It’s been busy, and a challenge – the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” McConkey says of his first year in the Legislature. “But it’s been the most rewarding thing that’s ever happened in my life.”
by Pat Rynard