Patty Judge was running a few minutes behind when she got her travel schedule last Thursday, full of meetings and event drop-bys in northern Iowa. She gathered with her campaign staff in her East Village office housed out of Jeff Link’s consulting firm.
“I need a fast car and somebody to drive it,” Judge told her campaign manager when asked if there was anything else she needed for the road.
The car they ended up taking was her own, a black Chrysler 300. The car has a nickname. She calls it “Dr. Dre.”
When she and her husband bought it last year, one of their grandsons pointed out that it was the same car that Dr. Dre promotes in a commercial. She wasn’t familiar with the former NWA rapper and asked her grandson to play some of his songs for her.
“Then when he got the music on, I said, ‘Oh my, that’s not very appropriate,’” Judge chuckles, but she liked the name for the car and kept it.
Soon they’re on I-35 heading north to their first stops in Mason City. On the way up Judge cracks open a binder full of political calls to conduct. It’s mostly thank-you calls to supporters and heads-ups to local activists in counties she’s planning on visiting next week.
“Oh, I know him,” the 72-year-old former Lt. Governor says to herself as she flips through the call sheets.
Having run four statewide races before, Judge goes back a long way with many of the key Democratic activists around the state. Her service in elected office began in 1992, when she was first elected to the State Senate from her southern Iowa home district in Albia. She came in to the Legislature with a famous class of fellow state senators, including Tom Vilsack and Tony Bisignano.
She never really quit her involvement in politics after her and former Governor Chet Culver’s defeat in the 2010 election. Unlike Culver, who has kept a low profile (partly due to his appointment from President Obama in 2014 to the Farmer Agricultural Mortgage Corporation board, meaning he falls under the Hatch Act), Judge popped up on many Iowa campaigns since. She did fundraising for House Democrats in 2011, served as a surrogate speaker for Obama in 2012, and helped Braley in 2014.
So jumping into the 2016 race to take on Chuck Grassley wasn’t completely out of the blue, but it still happened long after three other Democrats launched their campaigns and only once the Supreme Court controversy ensured a closer race. That’s one of the first things a Mason City Globe Gazette reporter asks her about in her sit-down with the paper, their first stop of the day.
“I have seen him since the rise of the Tea Party, since Obama became president, I have seen Grassley move farther and farther to the right,” Judge explains while sitting at the end of a long table in the Gazette’s conference room that’s being renovated. “There are nine members for a reason, and that’s so there can always be a majority and minority opinion, when necessary. Eight members, the court ties up very easily.”
She’s also questioned about the Prestage hog plant operation that got defeated in a city council vote a few nights before. She admits she doesn’t know much about the specifics on the failed Mason City deal, and suggests it turned out how it should – with local governments deciding whether they want a farm like that or not.
After about a 20-minute interview, Judge gets back in the car with her political director, Lucas Oglesbee. Their next stop is the home of Dean Genth, a major Cerro Gordo County activist and good Democratic donor. As they pull away from the newspaper office, Oglesbee’s GPS starts giving out directions in a British accent.
“Why do we have an English man directing us?” Judge questions, which leads to a conversation about the wide difference in accents from her southern Iowa home and Oglesbee’s northern Iowa hometown.
They pull into Genth’s neighborhood, but they have a problem: Genth is hosting a fundraiser for local State Representative Sharon Steckman and people are starting to arrive. Steckman endorsed Rob Hogg in the Democratic Senate primary and Judge doesn’t like showing up to other people’s events to promote herself. They’d hoped to had gotten there a little earlier so Judge could ask Genth in-person for a donation before Steckman’s event started.
So instead they park across the street and get out to speak with Genth and fellow Cerro Gordo leaders Gary Swenson and John Stone. Mostly they talk shop about 2016.
“The evangelicals may vote for him, but they won’t organize for him,” Judge predicts about Trump’s impact on the race.
The money ask of Genth will have to wait for a later phone call. Next on their agenda is an Iowa Democratic Party field office opening in Osage. On their way there Judge scans Twitter on her phone and starts to read off Grassley’s latest Tweets from his town hall forums that day.
“Ok, Bedford town hall, que… questions,” she begins in reading Grassley’s latest missive, tripping over some of his unique shorthand.
“His tweeting is strange,” she concludes.
Throughout the day Judge is often on social media on her phone, skimming through Facebook and Twitter posts of friends and political actors.
“Ha, have you seen this post from John Deeth?” she asks Oglesbee at one point.
Arriving in Osage, she heads into the new Democratic field office where a crowd of 30 listens to IDP chair Andy McGuire and others. There’s many placards on the walls for local Democratic candidates like Mary Jo Wilhelm and Tom Hejhal. If she’s successful in the primary next month, her signage will soon join them.
When McGuire gets up to speak, she notes that she’s actually related to Judge through not-so-distant cousins.
“You know Andy, there were only two boats out of Ireland, and they all had great big families and they all married each other,” Judge jokes of the many family ties. Judge is similarly related to AFSCME’s Marcia Nichols.
“I see a lot of familiar faces right in front of me, so I feel like I’m home,” Judge says as she begins her speech to the crowd of Democratic activists. “I guess I don’t do well with retirement. I’ve been upset with Chuck Grassley for a long time, and it’s just getting worse.”
When explaining her decision to get into the Senate race, Judge relates the story of her granddaughter born last year with a serious heart condition. She hesitated in launching another statewide campaign, but her son Joe told her she needed to do so to ensure her granddaughter had an Iowa that she’d want to live in in the future.
“I’m not a novice – this is the 5th time I’ve ran statewide,” she says. “People know me in this state, they know who I am. I believe I’m the person who can finally send Chuck home. He has never run against a woman farmer before.”
Before she can finish, however, a supporter of one of her more outspoken Democratic opponents, Tom Fiegen, challenges her on their debate schedule.
“Why don’t you debate Tom?” the woman asks Judge rather loudly.
“We have,” Judge responds calmly, noting they had two over the last two days and two more televised debates are scheduled later.
“Will you be making it?”
The woman is placated for the moment, but turns to Facebook later in the night to blast Judge as “lying” because the previous two meetings that week were “forums,” not “debates.” Fiegen and others have repeatedly pressed Judge on her environmental record as Secretary of Agriculture. If there’s one thing that could upend her comeback bid, it will be that.
The vitriol that’s started to enter the Senate campaign from fellow Democrats isn’t something Judge is unfamiliar with, but the intensity of it is new.
“There’s always people who have a gripe, or a political ax to grind, that element has always been there,” Judge says in a later interview in the car. “What does bother me, though, is the coarseness of campaigns now. People who have pulled farther to the right and farther to the left, and have less ability to find common ground to talk to each other. And so they talk past each other, and it’s in large part nasty.”
The same goes with elected officials.
“We used to talk about how we could have a good donnybrook on the floor of the Senate and then go out and have dinner with each other,” Judge says of working with Republicans back in the day.
Still, aside from the new aspect of social media’s impact on politics – only in its infancy when Judge and Culver ran for reelection in 2010 – the basics of campaigning remains the same for Judge. Retail stops are by far her favorite task on campaigns. She says that hearing people’s un-coached, personal stories in small settings is where she learns the most.
She also thinks that’s what Grassley has gotten himself detached from from his decades in Washington, even despite his frequent stops back in Iowa.
“I think he’s always been conservative, but I do think he’s changed,” Judge says. “He has always wanted to be the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and he’s waited a long time to get that plum assignment. And I think he does what Mitch McConnell wants him to do in order to keep that position. Which is unfortunate because I think he’s forgotten why he’s there. He’s not there to serve Mitch McConnell, he’s there to serve Iowa. Yeah, I think he’s changed.”
For his part, if Grassley is particularly worried that Judge’s rural background could pose a serious challenge to him in 2016, he doesn’t let on too much. He does emphasize that he takes every race seriously and knows that this one could be tougher. But when asked at one of his town halls in southern Iowa the day after Judge’s northern swing, Grassley preferred to subtly take a few jabs at his potential general election opponent.
“In regard to the Democrat primary, it seems to me that I sense some resentment among Democrats in Iowa, particularly those supporting Hogg, that someone in Washington is picking someone to run against them,” Grassley says, in reference to the sense the DSCC recruited Judge to run. “And I’ve noticed – and you can correct me if I’m wrong on this – of the 63 [Iowa legislative] Democrats who are backing Hogg, I haven’t heard of any of them backing off, and I’ve heard some of them express some resentment.”
He’s not wrong.
After the Osage event Judge and Oglesbee point the car west and then south, returning to Des Moines after a half day on the road. They make a stop by the famous Northwest steakhouse in Mason City on the way back.
The ride home isn’t entirely uneventful.
“Chickens!” both Judge and Oglesbee shout out as two large chickens run out onto the rural highway in front of the car.
“Did we get them?” Judge asks.
“No, missed,” Oglesbee assures her.
On the drive to I-35, a trio of wind turbines stand near the side of the road, not rotating. With the sun setting in the background it gives off an eerie look, three giant pieces of unmoving technology towering over a crop field.
“Almost looks like surrealism,” Judge observes.
She occasionally describes her own life in a similar way. Throughout the day Judge punctuates stories about buying Barack Obama a beer at the Iowa State Fair or standing next to a Kennedy family member at the national convention by noting what an odd and amazing journey her life has been for a farm girl from southern Iowa.
Despite a long and distinguished history in Iowa politics – including a fair deal of controversy that fuels detractors in this election – Patty Judge in person remains notably down to earth.
“I think my strengths of being from rural Iowa and being a plain-spoken person, it will play a part in this,” she predicts of her potential matchup with Grassley.
If she’s victorious in Democrats’ June 7th primary, Iowans will get a chance to see that prediction play out as Iowa’s famous farming Senator faces off against an old farm girl looking for one more election upset.
by Pat Rynard