Far from both parties’ activist cores and the state political press, a Northeast Iowa legislative race might hold the key to which party controls the Iowa House next session. The Decorah-based House District 55 features an open seat where both parties have fielded strong candidates. On the Democratic side is Pat Ritter, a 34-year-old attorney and former Marine from West Union, the more-Republican side of the district. Republicans nominated Michael Bergan, a well-known former Winneshiek county supervisor who has deep family roots throughout the Democratic side of the district.
House District 55 covers almost all of Winneshiek County, including Decorah, along with the north half of Fayette County and the Elkader part of Clayton County. Politically, this region of the state is historically swingy, with a considerable amount of split-ticket voting. With its rolling hills and rivers creating the best recreation area in the state, this corner of Iowa gets many retirees moving in. That lessens the strength of long-time incumbents, and many higher-educated voters gravitate to Decorah, home of Luther College.
Republicans hold a registration advantage in this district, 6,585 to 5,733 Democrats, but No Party voters make up a good chunk too with 6,412. Barack Obama carried the district with a healthy 55% in 2012. Democratic Representative Roger Thomas retired in 2014 after a very close race in 2012, and Republican Darrel Branhagen is retiring after just one term. That leaves the seat open, and both sides had two-way primaries where Bergan easily defeated Alex Popenhagen and Ritter triumphed over Steve McCargar in a hard-fought race.
Starting Line traveled to Decorah a few weekends ago to sit down with Ritter.
A Former Marine’s Perspective
Pat Ritter’s choice to enter the Marine Corp right after graduating from high school in Waterloo was a relatively straight-forward one for a kid raised by a single father after his mother was killed when he was five.
“I needed a job, I needed health insurance, I didn’t think I was ready to go to college right away,” Ritter said.
That took him to the Marine Corps, where he was stationed in North Carolina and Des Moines, eventually attaining the rank of Sergeant. He was named the “Marine of the Year” in his 2,800-person unit in 2001, and left the service after four years to attend Grinnell College. Those years informed a lot of his thoughts on how a divided state legislature should work.
“You learn how to be direct with people, and how to be in conflict with people without it being uncomfortable,” Ritter noted. “If I’m out on a door and someone disagrees with me and wants to argue over policy, it’s no big deal. I don’t get emotionally invested in it. If someone yells at me and tells me to get off their lawn, fine, I keep trucking. You definitely get toughened up mentally.”
He also sees how that mentality could hopefully break the logjam over issues like clean water – extremely important to people in Northeast Iowa – that have gone nowhere thanks to statehouse partisanship.
“When you get a group of 20 marines together, you’re going to have disagreements over how to complete the mission,” Ritter explained. “You’re forced to work with people with whom you disagree with on many things and you still have to get the mission done. That’s kind of what we’re looking at with clean water in 2017. It’s not an option to go down there and just argue for three or four months. We have to have a solution. We have to have something this year.”
After leaving the Marines, Ritter went to Grinnell College.
“It was quite the cultural shift pretty much overnight,” Ritter said. “The last thing I did was deploy our unit to Iraq … I left the Marine Corps in late June and got to Grinnell for football practice in early August.”
A bad back quickly ended his football participation, but he remained close with his teammates. A few years after Grinnell, Ritter went to the University of Iowa’s law school, got married, and later moved to West Union where he began practicing law.
A Primary Race That Mirrored Democrats’ Larger Struggle In 2016
Throughout the primary and general election, Ritter has found himself navigating through a microcosm of the larger national political trends rocking both the Democratic and Republican parties this year. Ritter, a self-described “middle-of-the-road” candidate, faced off against Steve McCargar, a Bernie Sanders-supporting activist from the more-liberal Decorah. McCargar ran on an anti-CAFOs platform and was a longtime activist in the district’s population center, where he was a co-manager at the local food co-op for many years. Many from the local Sanders groups backed him in the primary. But even though Sanders handily won Winneshiek County in the Iowa Caucus, Ritter was able to snag just enough of the vote there to pull off the win.
“It was a tough one,” recalled Ritter, who won the primary by just 66 votes. “I went straight to Decorah – I knew to win I had to get as many votes here as I can. I got beaten in Decorah 60-40, but if I had got beaten 70-30 I would’ve lost the race.”
Ritter built his final winning margin by piling up large leads in his home of West Union, as well as doing well in Elkader. We won the three West Union wards by a combined vote of 65 to 6. Afterwards, he said that the progressive volunteer base in Decorah has come around to his campaign, and that he learned a lot while listening to those voters.
“I’ve had a much stronger message about clean water and I’ll go to Des Moines and fight for it,” Ritter said, pointing to Decorah residents’ strong stance on the issue that helped push it up his priority list.
But like the Democratic Party is seeing as a whole, Ritter sees an opportunity to appeal to the moderate voters who feel put off by a Republican Party intent on slashing all government services.
“I start talking to my friends who are pretty moderate, and I say, ‘If you’re an Iowan in 2016 and you support public education funding and you support keeping mental health facilities open, you’re already a Democrat.’ We don’t have to move on from there,” he said.
To carry his district in November, however, he’ll also have to get the students at Luther College to show up to the polls. That requires a different type of message.
“We have this dichotomous conundrum – we need to move to the center because we’ve got these voters who are being alienated and who support public services, versus we have these young voters who have other issues,” Ritter explained. “They just feel alienated from the party and the establishment, and they want to just have a voice – which Bernie Sanders gave them – so the party has to pay attention to that and bring them to the table … And we’ve got a pretty good contingent of far-left people in Decorah, and they’re great as people and voters and they’ve had successful projects in Winneshiek County. They’ve done a lot on the local level and they stopped frack-sand mining from being able to come into Winneshiek County. The party needs to listen to them.”
Ritter is cautiously optimistic those young voters will still get out to the polls, spurred on by Donald Trump and a concern about climate change.
Keeping Rural Schools From Shutting Down
Outside of water quality, Ritter’s other main focus in his race is education funding. He’s seen rural Northeast Iowa struggle and suffer from a lack of it thanks to Iowa Republicans.
“Education funding is my big selling point,” Ritter said. “I’ve got a five-year-old and a two-year-old so they’re going to go to public schools … We have districts consolidating up here all the time. North Fayette Valley is consolidating, probably adding another district, doing grade sharing presumably next year, Winneshiek just merged with another one. People are worried that the mergers are going to happen because of decreased funding.”
Part of the problem is that the rural school districts don’t get any additional funding from the state despite having much higher bus transportation costs.
“There’s this underlying feeling that if your school district dies, your town dies,” Ritter said. “So most people here are supportive of public schools.”
That’s his biggest point of contrast with his opponent, who would likely add one more Republican vote in the Iowa House to less school funding that’s been delayed every recent legislative session.
“State revenue in Iowa has been solid,” Ritter explained. “You can prioritize what you want to with that. Whether you want to cut corporate taxes like Republicans, or whether you want to fund schools. We don’t need to have new tax money to fund our schools at that level, we just need to give our schools their slice of the pie.”
That’s the message that’s given Republican candidates difficulties all year as they struggle to get out from under Governor Terry Branstad’s recent unpopular policy moves. With that pitch to voters and the same hard work Pat Ritter showed during the primary, the former Marine could be headed back to Des Moines next year as a state representative.
by Pat Rynard