The race for Iowa Governor in 2018 got kicked off on the Democratic side today, with Polk County Conservation director Rich Leopold announcing his candidacy. Leopold made his intentions official with a video of his announcement in his town of Huxley on his Facebook page, and he spoke with Starting Line yesterday.
“I’m a scientist by trade, a biologist, but I’ve never run for elected office before,” Leopold told Starting Line. “I’m tired, like most people are, of what the politicians have been up to. Regardless of intentions, the results have not been there, whether we talk about education, water quality or mental illness. I think I’m going to bring a real unique perspective that’s going to get some things done.”
Leopold plans a campaign slogan of “Let’s Go Outside,” serving double meaning for both his outsider role in politics and his long history of environmental work. His work career has run through all levels of conservation management, including serving as the Iowa DNR director during Chet Culver’s administration. He noted that after the losses in 2016, he thought Democrats would be that much more open to someone outside of the regular political establishment, joking that he probably wouldn’t be the party’s “anointed” pick. His press materials promised “a campaign like no other.”
Leopold’s early announcement is important for a candidate like himself who isn’t very well-known in most Iowa activist and donor circles. He does have plenty of contacts throughout rural Iowa and the environmental movement thanks to his work history and will lean on that to get his candidacy started. But he’ll have to quickly make a name for himself in this short time period before other candidates with much larger followings and higher name ID jump into the race as well. Many believe State Senator Liz Mathis and IDP Chair Andy McGuire will launch campaigns of their own, while others see former Senator Steve Sodders, Representative Todd Prichard and Senator Chaz Allen as potential candidates as well.
The Leopold campaign will get kicked off with a week-long tour of over 30 small communities around Iowa. They plan on sitting down with small town newspaper editorial boards, meeting with county party chairs and going on local radio programs.
“You do see a lot of politicians now who are taking their tie off and trying to do the same thing, but this is who I actually am,” Leopold said. “It’s not just positioning, we’re going to talk about how we take care of our own, what we’re going to do to take care of our countryside.”
He sees a large part of the 2018 debate centering around the topics in this past election, but wants to focus in on better solutions for working Iowans.
“We talk a lot about jobs, but in my mind it’s a bigger discussion than do you just have a job,” Leopold said. “We have a lot of underserved and underemployed people who are struggling just to make it. We’re going to talk a lot about minimum wage discussion. The last five or six years we’ve incentivized these low-paying, out-of-state or out-of-country jobs. We gave $150 million to an Egyptian firm to build a fertilizer plant. When I served in the DNR, we worked with the wind energy industry and we got good-paying jobs building blades, turbines and towers right here in Iowa.”
He also hopes that the opioid epidemic gets discussed during the 2018 campaign – he’s volunteered for 30 years for programs that help people struggling with addiction.
Looking forward to a potential contrast with soon-to-be-Governor Kim Reynolds, Leopold is critical of the results Iowa has gotten from the Branstad/Reynolds management of the state budget.
“We have more money in the state than we ever have,” Leopold noted. “The state budget is actually $1.5 billion bigger than when I was there, but we seem to have less services. There’s a lot of this crony capitalism going on, you see a lot of boards and commissions with appointments that make absolutely no sense, privatization of things with very little performance standards.”
Leopold believes his executive experience in running a large department for the State of Iowa will give him better insight into that management role.
One issue he hopes will help him stand out in both a primary and general election is his past work with water quality. Democrats have struggled significantly in rural areas of the state in recent elections, and part of that has come from rural voters’ concerns over too much government regulation of their farmland and property. Leopold points to his past collaborative work on water quality as a path forward.
“When you talk about water in the state, you need to talk about lakes, rivers, streams, farm drainage and drainage districts,” Leopold said. “You have to put everything together – water monitoring, regulations, productivity of agricultural lands, in-field treatments, cover crops. What we have typically done over the past 20 years is a lot of half-measures … Nothing gets done, the water gets dirtier. You need a system where you get agriculture together with environment, science and urban, get all of those at the tables and decide where we want to go … Some of it is voluntary and incentive-based, some of it is regulation that we already have – it’s not like we need more regulation to do anything, we have it, it’s just not fairly or properly enforced.”
Leopold’s wife, Kathleen, is an elementary school teacher in Des Moines, and they have two children together. He has another son who lives on a Crow reservation in Montana. Leopold has seven grandchildren. Rich is no relation to the famed conservationist, Aldo Leopold, though he does have a grandson named Aldo.
He plans on staying at his job at Polk County conservation for as long as it’s feasible with his campaign schedule.
by Pat Rynard
Photo via Rich Leopold