If you know nothing about this challenger with a tough-to-pronounce name, maybe you know the man she’s looking to take down, State Senator Brad Zaun. Zaun’s history as a legislator, no matter what your party affiliation, either baffles or makes one want to run for the hills. Oftentimes, both. Still, his apparently amiable demeanor and longtime history of public service ― first as Urbandale City councilman from 1996 to 1998 and then Mayor of Urbandale from 1998 to 2004 ― has given him the name recognition and political clout needed to secure and retain Iowa’s Senate District 20 for the last decade. The seat covers Urbandale, Johnston, Grimes, and Jefferson Township.
Despite his credentials, Zaun is a peculiar fellow to be sure. He does not raise money very well, and when he is not fundraising poorly he is proposing strange bills in the Iowa Senate. Bills that seem to show that this is a legislator who doesn’t understand the basic premise of public policy. Bills like the one he so flippantly proposed in 2012 that would have abolished the Iowa Department of Education. Fortunately, it was universally condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike, then scuttled quietly.
After losing the 2014 Republican primary for the 3rd Congressional District to David Young, Zaun was unhappy. He went on Facebook and wondered aloud whether he should abandon the Republican Party, but his loyal followers convinced him otherwise and so, reluctantly, he has remained as a State Senator since. Not long after, Zaun was the first legislator in Iowa to publicly endorse Donald Trump for president. Senator Zaun’s record is, of course, principally important in understanding the opportunity that is presented in the candidacy of the Democratic challenger, Miyoko Hikji (Me-Yo-Ko Hee-Kee-Gee).
Although the numbers suggest otherwise, some would say Iowa Senate District 20 may have a savior in Hikiji. While some have noted that Hikiji had less preparation to run than others and prefers to do things her way, what she lacks in political experience and policy savvy she certainly may make up for in pure gumption and fortitude – Hikiji’s demeanor truly reflects that of a good soldier, showing noble resilience in the face of daunting odds and accepting missions of service that most would shy away from.
Hikiji received some political acclaim in 2014 as the primary spokesperson and volunteer advocate for the Veterans National Recovery Center during the lobby for the Iowa Military Sexual Trauma bill. Since the campaign’s launch in 2015, Hikiji has presented her candidacy as one of honorable intentions: to bring a unique perspective as a mother and military Veteran, reinstate Iowa-quality common sense to political discourse in the statehouse, and ultimately bridge the divide between Republicans and Democrats as someone who is vested in neither of the parties’ interests.
Still, Hikiji has faced an uphill battle in the traditionally conservative district of suburban Des Moines. She’s unafraid to espouse her left-of-center beliefs and policy positions, or to promote her endorsements from groups like Planned Parenthood. She also tosses a fair share of digital haymakers online at Zaun for his endorsement of Donald Trump and his continued pressing of bills that control women’s healthcare choices.
The real difficulty here, though, is not that Hikiji is a staunch Democrat in a decidedly Republican district, or that she is getting little support from the Democratic Party.
Being a mother is the second toughest job in the world and all of the women candidates in Polk County share this amazing responsibility. But being a single mom is the toughest. On top of running for office, Hikiji juggles the equally demanding work of being a mental health team leader for Candeo, quite possibly launching herself into the top 10 list of the most trying jobs to have in 2016 (along with being Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Hillary Clinton’s PR person, and a FactChecker for this election cycle, respectively). All of this in the most contentious election cycle America has ever seen.
That said, out of all the women candidates running for office in Polk County, Hikiji has, by far, the most difficult race to run in terms of electoral numbers and personal or professional commitments. Her campaign truly highlights the everyday struggle of many fearless American women with ambition faced with the choice to pursue careers that fulfill them while taking care of their families, as if the two cannot be mutually viable. You have to respect the drive it takes to keep pushing onward in this political climate. The only other word that comes to mind to describe this is “badass.”
Besides ideology, this is the clearest distinction between the incumbent and challenger in this least satisfying race: one candidate is faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of being a single mother working full-time while on the campaign trail absent of some of the most fundamental support systems most of her peers are able to leverage in their respective races, such as a manager or a spouse. The other is just plain lazy. And yet Hikiji remains the best senate candidate to ever run in District 20 in 11 years because that’s about as long as the incumbent, Senator Brad Zaun, has sat in that seat. Although Zaun has about twenty years of cumulative experience in elected office within the district that he currently represents, his ability to produce for Iowans completely plateaued years ago: he no longer has anything to offer to Iowa as a public servant on any level. Zaun has grown too comfortable. He raised a negligible amount of funds for his re-election, has not put out any platform of any kind, and did not start doorknocking until September.
Miyoko Hikiji, on the other hand, is a new face and has great potential. She just needs appropriate support. Compared to Senator Zaun, who has all but resigned his post in either protest of or disillusionment with his own party, it is preferable to have someone who actually wants to serve and at least try to make a meaningful difference. Despite the shortcomings of both campaigns, as Irish novelist Samuel Beckett brilliantly put it, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The Hikiji campaign has followed this mantra well and that is more than enough reason to give her your vote.
Democrats should consider this as the most excellent circumstance to defeat Republican Senator Brad Zaun to have ever come along. Further, with his early endorsement of Donald Trump, Zaun has galvanized Democrats in District 20 while alienating more practical conservatives. Miyoko Hikiji’s decision to step up when no one else would in one of the most serious and historical election years we have ever had is commendable. As stated in an earlier profile, women are hardpressed to run for office for a variety of reasons, many of which fits the bill for the District 20 challenger, but when they do, they are just as good as men if not better.
The Democrats of the Iowa legislature have shown remarkable foresight and resilience in their approach to governing under Governor Branstad in the Senate and in the House in the face of major challenges. The Iowa Senate is in a precarious position with only a slim Democratic majority, so if you’re a registered voter living in Johnston, Urbandale, or Grimes, you should definitely give Hikiji a chance to widen the margin and fulfill the promise of what it really means to be an Iowan, to look out for each other, by voting for her to replace Brad Zaun in District 20 next week; that is a bet worth making if we want to move forward.
Disclaimer: author has contributed to and/or has volunteered for several of the campaigns listed within six months of this writing.
by CJ Louis