Jessica Kean did not plan on running for office this year. The 31-year-old mother was happily content raising her family in Maquoketa and working in her nonprofit job that helps children with cancer. Then Democrat Pete Hird withdrew his candidacy from the open House seat in July and Kean’s phone started ringing. House Minority Leader Mark Smith was in town, and her name came up as a smart, well-liked local community member who could take Hird’s place. After an impromptu meeting at a McDonald’s, Kean was convinced she could do more for the issues she cared about by launching her own campaign for office.
“I was given just a few days to think about it,” Kean told Starting Line. “I’ve always been interested in politics and working on issues that are important to me, especially issues that impact kids and families. But I never really saw myself as the candidate before, I always envisioned myself as working behind the scenes.”
Kean has two young children, and her husband encouraged her to consider the broader impact she could have on their and other kids’ futures.
“The easier answer would have been no, I have a good job that I know is impactful and makes a difference, and I can spend time with my children,” she recalled. “Then I thought this was a way to make a bigger difference for them – I could improve their schools … It was hard for me to say yes, but it was harder for me to say no.”
Now after a whirlwind campaign, Kean finds herself near the finish line in one of Iowa’s most interesting and crucial legislative races.
The Race For House District 58
This Eastern Iowa campaign will feature one of the more confusing ballot lines in the state, with Jessica Kean facing off against former Republican Senator Andy McKean. The similarities largely end at the name, but it’s added an unusual complication to the race.
“It’s been pretty interesting, people ask me if I’m related to him,” Kean said with a laugh. “I think there’s enough differences between Andy McKean and I on the issues that we can distinguish ourselves enough. People are meeting me at the door and then see the ballot, and I hope they’ll remember that I was the girl.”
House District 58 covers all of Jackson County, parts of rural Jones County and a few townships in rural Dubuque County. By voter registration numbers, it’s the most Democratic seat held by a Republican, and an oddity at that. Brian Moore has represented the district since 2010. He first ran as a Democrat in the state senate primary there, then switched to the Republican Party to run for the House seat, winning narrowly in both 2010 and 2012. He’s retiring this year.
Democrats see this as one of their top pick-up districts in the entire state, with 7,024 registered Democrats outnumbering the 5,246 registered Republicans. But there’s also 8,586 registered No Party voters and a growing tilt in Eastern Iowa toward Donald Trump this year, so both sides expect a very close race.
McKean is a former legislator who served in the 1980s and 1990s, works as an attorney and is very active in the Jones County community. He lives just on the district line outside of Anamosa, and has an advantage in that he used to represent part of Jackson County.
McKean denied a request to be interviewed for this story, and declined to pass along already public information like his announcement press release for simple information purposes.
Kean’s Passion For Helping Children In The Nonprofit World
Kean and her family are very unique for Iowa in one big way: they’re a young family that actually moved into rural Iowa, not away from it. Kean grew up in the Quad Cities and became interested in politics after the September 11th attacks. She looked at schools in Washington, D.C. and got a full ride to American University. She interned in Congress, but didn’t quite enjoy the experience.
“I found it to be too toxic for my tastes,” Kean said. “I turned to issue advocacy and got an internship for Tobacco-Free Kids. I really liked that I could see real progress happening on specific programs … It was cool to see a real impact of what I was doing on a daily basis, which I wasn’t seeing when I worked on the Hill.”
Kean tracked legislation and worked on messaging for the organization that fought to prevent kids from starting smoking or help them stop. She later joined the Children’s Cause for Cancer Advocacy, a nonprofit that helps kids with cancer and cancer survivors, advocating for legislation that would assist those children. That job has lasted for 10 years.
Eventually Kean wanted to move back closer to her family in the Midwest and offered her resignation from her job. Instead they suggested she could work for them from home with flexible hours as she started her own family.
So Kean and her husband Michael choose to relocate to Jackson County.
“I’d spent a lot of weekends here growing up, we went to Maquoketa Caves a lot,” she said. “I had a lot of great memories here from childhood … It’s worked really well for us, we’ve been here for about four years, we plan to stay here for forever. We have a huge yard right by the river. But our rural communities have a big problem with young families moving away.”
Kean’s Vision Of Making Rural Communities Attractive To Young Families Again
Her family’s journey in getting to Maquoketa, and their experience living there, has driven much of Kean’s passion and focus in her campaign. Being a work-from-home mother in a smaller Iowa town has had both its advantages and challenges.
“We need better internet in our rural communities,” Kean said. “There are plenty of times I’m kicked off my conference call because my internet’s just not good here …. We have infrastructure needs.”
She also hopes more families could have the same flexibility she’s had in working and raising her children.
“I recognize how fortunate I’ve been able to work from home with my kids, and how much that has benefited our relationship,” she noted. “It breaks my heart to think about the working parents who a few days after birth are back doing retail. I was fortunate enough to sit on my couch with my laptop and get paid for it. We need to do better with our paid family leave programs.”
The next step is making sure families can have faith that their kids will get a solid education in Iowa, something that’s been questionable after years of the legislature underfunding K-12 education.
“I come from a family of educators,” Kean explained. “My sister is a kindergarten teacher. My mom is a preschool teacher, owns her own small business. Public schools are big for me and one of the top things I’m talking about to people.”
Her family ties have also informed her on the other big topic facing Iowans: mental healthcare and veteran services.
“My brothers are both army veterans,” she said, noting her little brother served in Afghanistan. “He came back with some problems with mental illness and substance abuse, as a lot of vets come back with problems. It was hard for our family; it was hard for him. He eventually found treatment that worked for him in Iowa City at the VA. And now he installs fiber optics, which he learned in the army. We did okay for him. We provided some level of treatment.”
Campaigning Face-To-Face In The District
While she’s only had a few months to campaign in a key race that both parties are spending considerable money in, Kean has made good use of her time in knocking doors throughout the district.
“I’m getting a really good reception from people,” she said. “People like the idea of new leaders in the Statehouse. They’re ready for some new faces. I think we need new people with new ideas to get things done.”
Sometimes, however, that face is a little too fresh for some. While many Iowans will tell you in public they’re all for young people getting engaged, they don’t always vote that way, preferring to stick with people they know from their own generation. Every now and then, they do voice that opinion to young candidates’ faces.
“’How can you get this accomplished with young kids at home?’ is a question I sometimes I get,” Kean said. “It’s 2016, so I can actually go have a job outside of the home, but also it feels like such a disservice to my husband when people say that. He’s a really good dad, he does arts and crafts with our daughter every day, he can bake dinner and do bath time. It’s something that would never be said to a man, and I knew that would happen, but when it’s actually personal and coming at you, it’s hard not to get defensive.
Still, most of Kean’s conversations with voters center around the issues she would actually take on at the Statehouse. And while she may be a younger candidate, she has a considerable amount of experience on legislative topics, just as much as a veteran lawmaker might.
“I’ve been working on issues like Medicaid on the federal issue, specifically related to children with cancer,” she said. “Mental illness cuts are a big problem, they’re closing too many facilities. Lots of people know someone who’s affected by Medicaid privatization.”
Kean has gotten a lot of help during her campaign from organizations like ISEA, the state teacher association, as well as a group of former Bernie Sanders activists who drive down from Dubuque. The Democratic legislators from Dubuque have largely adopted Kean in her campaign, with Chuck Isenhart helping her out on water quality issues and Abby Finkenauer informing her on women’s issues.
Both campaigns have worked hard on the ground, generating high numbers of absentee ballot requests and early votes for both Democrats and Republicans. 720 more registered Democrats have voted early than registered Republicans, but Republican requests are higher than usual in Jackson County. In just a couple days the majority of voters in the district will head to the polls and determine who represents this swing district next in the Statehouse… just as long as they remember which one is Kean and which one is McKean on the ballot.
by Pat Rynard