When Amy Nielsen ran for mayor of North Liberty in 2014, few expected her to succeed. It was her first campaign for public office in a city she had only lived in for seven years, up against an incumbent who had been involved in local government for 15 years. While her opponent criticized her lack of experience, Nielsen ran on a message of new ideas and a fresh perspective. She won with a convincing 55% of the vote.
In a sign of how dismissive the elected establishment had been of Nielsen, her opponent had few of the typically kind words that one says after a defeat, predicting the day after that she wouldn’t be too successful. But in the year and several months since her election, Nielsen has become a well-liked mayor, earned respect from the Johnson County community as a whole, been in the middle of the minimum wage debate, stared down gun rights activists who flooded a meeting on a new gun ordinance, and has focused the rapidly-growing city on new projects.
Now she’s running for State Representative in District 77, which became open in this election by an unexpected retirement from Sally Stutsman. If elected, the 38-year-old mayor and stay-at-home mother would add to the growing crop of younger legislators, as well as add experience from an expanding suburban community. She first must get through a primary with Abbie Weipert and then the general election for this strongly Democratic seat.
An Early Life On The Move
Amy Nielsen was born in Keokuk and lived there for most of her childhood with her parents and one sister. Her father worked in the auto industry, which moved them to Tennessee for a time before relocating back to Iowa. They settled in to the town of Hill, in rural Johnson County and Nielsen attended Iowa City West High School, graduating in 1995. Her mother worked at a local bank, now the University of Iowa Credit Union, while her father eventually switched from a job at an auto manufacturing plant to banking as well.
Nielsen attended Kirkwood Community College for two years, taking a banking and finance program there, until her husband graduated the University of Iowa and they started moving around the country for his job at Kimberly Clark. That led them all over the country, as the couple lived for various amounts of time in South Carolina, Utah, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Georgia.
“At first it was exciting because we were young and didn’t have kids,” Nielsen recalls of the many moves, the first three of which were over just 18 months. “I really liked the opportunity to meet different people … Getting to experience all that has been very helpful to me since I chose this new passion of representing people. I understand how you go into somewhere and you’re the different one and have to listen to people. You have to know your audience and get to know where they’re coming from so you can understand them.”
What she observed from those other states gave her some ideas for what makes a community run well or not. It was particularly useful for Nielsen’s future role in North Liberty, one of Iowa’s fastest-growing communities as a suburb/exurb of Iowa City.
“I saw a lot of racial inequality in the South,” Nielsen notes. “Wisconsin had a phenomenal school system when I lived there, pre-Scott Walker. Georgia was a real eye-opener … The way they were growing – a lot of people criticize North Liberty for being kind of haphazardly planned. But North Liberty is nothing compared to what they’re doing down there. You could be driving down a little country road and all of a sudden hit a massive subdivision, and then a little bit further you’d hit a massive trailer park, then there’d be nothing else for miles and there’s a huge shopping plaza with stores and restaurants. And it’s all on the same road. That taught me what bad planning looks like.”
From Stay-At-Home Mom To Mayor
In 2007 Nielsen and her husband, now with three kids, moved to North Liberty. A stay-at-home mother at that point, Nielsen started to get involved in the local schools her children attended, first serving on the PTO. Concerned about the state of school facilities, she worked on a revenue purpose campaign with the Iowa City school district, then ran Chris Lynch’s campaign for school board.
“The biggest thing that motivated me to be on the inside of what’s going on – I saw people who were short-sighted and only interested in one issue, or one side of town,” Nielsen explains, saying there were long-festering problems in the schools that hadn’t been addressed. “Not taking care of the facilities – where’s all the money that we should have been saving? It’s not there, so where did it go?”
She later ran Lisa Green-Douglas’ campaign for county supervisor and organized a “walking school bus” project for the local schools. Her interest in those public education issues led to a desire to jump into the electoral process herself.
“From there I was hooked – I saw what you do as an elected official, what you’re responsible for,” Nielsen says. “It planted the seed … It made me want to step in and ask the questions that needed to be asked.”
In May of 2014 the mayor of North Liberty died of a heart attack and Gerry Kuhl was appointed as the interim mayor. That left open a city council seat, which Nielsen applied for. She didn’t expect to get it and didn’t, but it motivated her to run for the mayoral seat later that year. Though it would be her first elected office, plenty of people offered her support.
“I had only a few nay-sayers say you can’t run for mayor first, but it was largely positive and encouraging,” Nielsen recalls. “Most of the people I spoke to thought it was fantastic. They were ready for change. I ran on a fresh voice, fresh perspective, new ideas platform. I knocked a lot of doors in North Liberty, and many people said they’d like to see some new things happening.”
Nielsen ran on several ideas of projects for North Liberty that would start to develop the character of the growing town, including things like a dog park and improved city transit. Her vigorous campaign was unusual for many local offices, but it paid off.
“I have the point of view of the majority of population of North Liberty: a young mother with a younger – though aging quite rapidly – family,” Nielsen says. “I think people felt a connection reflected back in the representation I was offering.”
The margin of her victory was a surprise to many in Johnson County. She took office in late November and notes that it’s been an adjustment within the family (whose children are now aged from 10 to 16) with the amount of evening meetings she’s had to attend.
In 2015 Sally Stutsman announced she planned to retire from the Legislature after the end of her current term. That opened up the house district that covers North Liberty, Tiffin, Swisher and parts of rural Johnson County. Soon people were asking Nielsen, who was just settling in to her mayoral job whether she’d be interested. She declined at first, but House leadership asked her to reconsider.
“In the back of my head I guess I always thought this is somewhere I wanted to go, I just didn’t expect it to be this quickly,” Nielsen says. “I could probably help North Liberty as a state legislator more.”
So she launched her campaign in February with a focus first and foremost on education funds.
“School funding is huge to me,” she explains. ‘I’ve seen what it’s done to the Iowa City school district over the past several years. It’s just not right what we’re doing to our kids. We should be investing everything into our kids, and instead we’re arguing over how little can we give them.”
She sees her experience in North Liberty as particularly helpful to having knowledge about growing suburban communities, which is where much of Iowa’s population development is heading now.
“Growing cities like North Liberty need funding to keep up with their growth; our rural municipalities need funding because they don’t have a huge tax base and their infrastructure is crumbling too,” she says.
Governor Terry Branstad’s shutdown of two of the state’s mental health facilities also has her greatly concerned. Some of her work at a local food shelter and seeing the difficulties people face with food insecurity and also mental health issues drew her interest.
“Access to mental health care is something we need to take a look at with the regionalizing we’ve started,” she notes. “I’m very concerned about it being harder for people to receive the help that they need. We need a better push for greater training for mental health first aid. I think there’s a lot of opportunities for everyday people to be aware of the signs of when they’re dealing with someone with a mental health issue.”
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in House District 77 by about 2,000 people, so whoever wins the Democratic primary will be the heavy favorite against either of the current two Republican candidates.
“I hope if I’m elected I can go in and support the other Democrats who are there,” Nielsen says. “They’ve been fighting a lot of nasty, political games. The people want education funding. The fact that it’s being blocked in the House is just ludicrous.”
Locals expect the primary to be hard-fought between Nielsen and Wiepert, though some note that Nielsen does come from the largest population center in the district. The primary is on June 7th. Nielsen visited the Statehouse two weeks ago and got a warm welcome when she visited the full Democratic caucus.
“The reception was very welcoming – it would be nice if every time I walked into a room people clapped,” she says.
You can read more about her at her campaign Facebook page.
by Pat Rynard