The Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign kicked off in Indianola, Iowa this past week when six of the candidates made their pitch to Democrats at Summerset Winery. Well, that’s what Representative Scott Ourth, who hosted them at his fundraiser, wanted his event to be known as, anyway. It was a nice evening put on by Ourth, so let’s just go ahead and say that it all began there.
Before a crowd of about 100 Warren County Democrats, the gubernatorial hopefuls tested out their early stump speeches. In attendance were John Norris, Nate Boulton, Andy Mcguire, Todd Prichard, Rich Leopold and Jonathan Neiderbach. Ourth, who worked in Iowa politics and government for many years before being elected to the Iowa House in 2012, shared personal stories he had with nearly all of the candidates.
All six have been touring the state for at least a few weeks each, honing their initial pitch to interest Democratic activists and donors in their candidacies. The following is a look at the major themes each Democratic contender laid out, along with a few noteworthy quotes. They’re listed in the order they spoke at event.
“I am testing the waters for a run for governor. So far, I have found it high in nitrates, high in bacteria,” Norris joked at the start of his speech. “What’s going on in government today is toxic.”
Norris, who has served in countless political and governmental roles in Iowa – from IDP chair to Tom Vilsack’s chief of staff to Iowa Utilities Board commissioner – mentioned his experience, but mostly focused on the future.
“My background my whole life has been in agriculture,” Norris said. “The last 15 years I’ve spent in energy – I think those are two key components to rebuilding this state, particularly rural Iowa.”
Originally from Red Oak, Norris honed in on a rural Iowa message. He kicked off his campaign not with rallies in Iowa’s larger cities – where the Democratic primary-voting base lies – but with smaller conversation events in rural towns. He noted that’s a bit of a risk, but vital to Democrats’ success in the general election.
“As we said in the Vilsack Administration, we want Iowa to be a great place to live, work and raise a family,” Norris recalled. “Well, you have to be able to make a living … When half of the babies in this state are born eligible for Medicaid, we should know there’s a disparity of income. It starts with a government that invests in people.”
Norris also encouraged Democrats to lead by example when it comes to campaign finance reform.
“It’s embarrassing that Iowa has no limits on campaign contributions,” he said. “Our government really is for sale … If we’re going to get back on track on education, worker rights, decent wages and the environment in Iowa, it starts with reform of our political system. Once we achieve that, we can really attack the issues we have to face.”
Campaign paybacks are a big part of the reason for Branstad’s economic policies, he argued.
“I’m tired of the special interests getting special deals from this governor,” Norris complained, and offered his own vision for economic development. “I want to tell business and industry to come to Iowa. You’re not going to get any special deals, but we’re going to subsidize you with the best-trained, best-educated workforce in America. We’re going to subsidize you with an environment that you and your employees want to live in.”
The 36-year-old Des Moines senator started out mentioning his Columbus Junction roots and how his mother and step-father still live on a century farm in Louisa County. Boulton then turned to his history of suing the Branstad Administration over workers’ rights, which always proves to be an applause-getter. But he also used it to encourage hope for Democrats’ electoral chances.
“I’m here to tell you, when we stand up to Branstad and Reynolds and their agenda, we can win,” Boulton stated. “We’ve proven that. And we’re going to continue to prove that in 2018. Because that is what this whole election is going to be about: the very soul of our state. Make no mistake, we’re going to define what Iowa is for a generation in 2018.”
He talked about the fight that Democrats put up in Legislature this year, reminding activists that he has already led the party on some of its most important recent issues. Again, he transitioned that into a feeling of hope for the future.
“I was proud to stand there and debate for 26 consecutive hours overnight against that agenda,” Boulton said of the collective bargaining debate. “To stand up and show that maybe Democrats suffered some electoral defeats in 2016, but we were not defeated. We still have steel in our spine, we still have resolve in our spirit and we are not going to leave this go unchallenged.”
On the economic front, Boulton laid out how he would frame the Republicans’ record on jobs in Iowa.
“We don’t need a coupon-based Branstad/Reynolds economy where we could figure out how many tax credits and exemptions and give-aways we can to bring in low-wage jobs,” he said. “We need to use our economic assets of our workforce. Treating our workers with dignity and respect … Having employers who want to invest in something more than just a quick give-away. That is a quicksand economy. There will always be another lower bidder out there, more desperate than we are to attract those jobs.”
Ourth’s event was a familiar setting for McGuire, who traveled the state extensively as the chair of the IDP, hitting all 99 counties. She explained that during those travels she got a good sense of where the biggest concerns of Iowa voters lie by listening to people.
“You know what I hear when I’m sitting at a diner, when I’m sitting at someone’s kitchen table, when I’m at an event like this?” she asked. “I hear a lot about people who work really hard, get up early, work hard all day, and all they want is a fair shake.”
McGuire argued that’s not what Iowans are getting under the Branstad/Reynolds Administration, especially not after this past legislative session.
“The lack of respect for working men and women, the lack of respect for women’s health – which I will not stand for – we have to do something different here,” she said.
She spent much of her speech addressing healthcare concerns in Iowa, pitching her background as a doctor and medical business executive as a key way she can uniquely begin to fix the problems.
“Healthcare in Iowa right now has some serious problems,” McGuire asserted. “What they did with privatization is just horrible, on so many levels … [Branstad/Reynolds] didn’t talk to anyone. So we’re going to change something that’s a fifth of our expenses, affects 500,000 to 600,000 people, and they don’t talk to any hospitals, they don’t talk to any doctors, they don’t talk to any physical therapists or people who work with disabled people or people who do long-term care … Because of my background, I can fix that.”
She called Branstad’s budget cuts that reduced mental health beds in Iowa – which already ranks dead last in the metric – as “unconscionable.”
Better educational opportunities – especially community colleges – will be important in bringing good-paying jobs back to the state, McGuire suggested, recalling how a good teacher set her on the path to medicine.
“Back in my day there weren’t many women physicians,” she said. “And I had a teacher who told me I could be a doctor, that I was smart … I had never seen a woman doctor. I never would have thought of it. But there was a teacher who told me that. That’s how important education is.”
Speaking at his colleague’s fundraiser, Prichard started out his speech talking about the recent medical cannabis bill that got pushed through at the last minute in the Statehouse.
“What can be more cut and dry, right and wrong, than medical cannabis?” Prichard questioned. “Medicine for sick children suffering from epilepsy. To get in Iowa it’s hard.”
Prichard focused much of his speech on his biographical background and personal stories to give attendees a sense of what type of candidate and governor he may be. He referenced his upbringing in the West End of Davenport, which he called a “proud, fierce, blue collar” kind of community.
“The parents of those children I went to school with, they were hard, honest working Iowans,” Prichard said. “They’re the people who have crusty hands, hard, worker’s hands, and sunburned faces, and work clothes with pants that are always stained with oil and grease, and working boots. These are the people I grew up around – they worked at John Deere, International Harvester, Alcoa aluminum mill … The same hard-working, honest people who came to the gallery and watched Republicans take away collective bargaining rights and ruin labor unions in Iowa.”
Part of his speech touched on his time in the Army, where he served as an infantry officer, first stationed at Fort Hood, then in Iraq, telling a story about leadership and fighting against tough circumstances. He said Iowans have a similar fight ahead in which they need to better listen to working Iowans and form a coalition of all Democrats and some frustrated Republicans to defeat Reynolds.
“We know that we’re going to get outspent, but we’re not going to get outworked,” Prichard vowed. “They’re not going to match our passion to save this state. When we listen, we unite, we fight – we win. And we have to win.”
Ourth had the funniest introduction story saved for Leopold – when Leopold was director of the DNR, Ourth one day called him up to ask about a type of bird Ourth was seeing in his backyard. Although Leopold was a bit perplexed at why someone would call the head of the DNR for a simple question about birds, he had a background in ornithology and happily engaged in a 45-minute conversation with Ourth, which led to a lasting friendship.
Leopold’s days at the DNR weren’t always so fun, however.
“I hate to say this, but I have to say it almost every time: in the four years I was DNR director, the top environmental official in the state and a scientist, the water got dirtier,” he admitted. “I hate saying that, but it’s true. We did not have the level of resolve in the legislative and executive branch to do something about it.”
Leopold pitched himself as an unconventional candidate who could break through a political system that keeps meaningful action from happening on things like water quality. He mentioned that the outsider label worked well for Donald Trump in the state, but he jokingly promised he wouldn’t be making any “Make Iowa Great Again” hats.
“I am an outsider,” he explained. “I don’t owe any lobbyist any favors. I’ve never taken a bad vote. I’m not tied to any PACs or anything like that.”
Instead, Leopold gave his biography as a scientist who grew up poor with a father who worked in a packing plant. He was an Eagle Scout and went into the Army National Guard to pay for college.
He criticized Branstad and Reynolds for complaining about making cuts to education, workers and Planned Parenthood despite the state budget being nearly 20% larger than when Leopold was in the Culver Administration.
On the topic of renewable energy, Leopold said that the state’s investment in wind energy had helped big businesses like MidAmerican, but that he had specifically helped craft it so others could benefit from the tax credits as well.
“We wanted to make sure small and medium-sized producers could get into the game,” Leopold noted. “So we passed a series of transferable tax credits so that farmer co-ops, schools and individual land owners could get into the game too.”
Most of all, he argued that he would emerge as the most electable candidate for the general election.
“You don’t just need a good Democrat, you need someone who can win,” Leopold said.
Like Leopold, Neiderbach framed himself as an outside-the-box candidate who would differentiate himself from Democratic candidates of the past.
“How do we make clear that we are different from the Republicans?” Neiderbach asked. “We win on issues and we win on explaining to voters how we will change government.”
Neiderbach recalled that when he was travelling the state as the Democrats’ 2014 State Auditor nominee he heard from many voters who complained that government simply wasn’t working. They were frustrated that their vote wouldn’t change anything.
“There’s a feeling that corporations – those that have – are running the show no matter who wins,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s true, but we need to make it really clear to people that it isn’t.”
He also reiterated his $500 contribution limit, which he felt would keep a candidate from being beholden to any person. Neiderbach claimed that would show voters that Democrats are different, especially if they also embraced more of the party’s most-recent platform.
“If you look at the Democratic Party platform, there is a number of bold ideas in there,” he said. “I embrace the Democratic Party platform … One is how we pay for water quality. I don’t think that simply raising the sales tax solves the water quality problem. Basic economics: you have to make pollution economically unfeasible – not viable. You have to charge for pollution if you want to stop that. I think that is fairly controversial, but that is what the platform says and what I embrace.”
He also talked about his support for medical cannabis, which could help fund the prevention of dangerous drug use like opioids and heroin.
Finally, he offered his background in legislative research as a way to make the government “more efficient, more effective, and streamlined,” bringing back trust to the voters.
“When we have programs that are not effective, helping the people we care about, who gets hurt the most?” he questioned.
Mike Matson and Mike Carberry were not in attendance at Ourth’s event, but you can read some of their speeches in this earlier post. Fred Hubbell announced an exploratory committee this past week, but hasn’t begun travelling the state with public events yet.
by Pat Rynard