While raising her two young sons in West Des Moines, Cindy Axne found a problem: the school district claimed there was only enough space for half of local children to attend full-day kindergarten. A lottery system was used to decide who got to get in, which her first son lost out in. So she started working on a solution, lobbying the school board for eight months to expand it to everyone.
She ran the numbers of how it affected kids to show the district the inequity it was causing. But if that didn’t persuade them, she had backup options.
“If you guys can’t get this changed so it can go into effect next year, I’ll be taking this to the Board of Education or the Register, because you’re not living up to your mission statement,” Axne recalls warning the local board. They listened, and expanded access to all West Des Moines children.
It was one of her first forays into community activism, but not her last. Now Axne, a small business owner, is running for Congress in Iowa’s 3rd District, hoping to win a crowded Democratic primary to square off with Republican incumbent David Young. Axne, who worked for a decade in state government, looks to take her past problem-solving efforts in her community and for Iowa to help fix a broken Congress.
“I’ll try to work with anybody, but when it’s right, it’s right. And if I have to pull out my sharp elbows, I will,” says Axne, a former six-on-six high school basketball player for the Valley High Tigers. “We can’t have things that benefit some and don’t benefit others. When I see a problem, I’ll try to address it.”
Growing Up In A Family That Helped The Less-Fortunate
Part of Axne’s childhood was spent on Des Moines’ South Side before her family moved to West Des Moines. Her mother, who grew up on a farm in Warren County, was part of the PTA while Axne was at Lovejoy Elementary, and raised her with 4-H activities. Her father was a teacher for a time in Knoxville, but when his push to raise teacher salaries failed, he went into the insurance field in Des Moines. Most of his career was spent at Meredith Corporation, working at Better Homes and Garden.
Axne’s mother worked with John Kennedy’s race in the 1960’s, and both parents were politically involved. Most of all, Axne remembers her father teaching them about helping the less fortunate.
“My dad always taught us that we were blessed with who you are in this world … I grew up in a family that says you do things for others, because when a community does well, you all do well,” Axne remembers. “You’ve had opportunities that others didn’t have, and you need to make sure that you respect that and help others when you can. I grew up in a family where we never got hand-outs. I had to sign a loan with my dad to get my first futon to sleep on in Chicago, to pay it back with interest.”
Axne attended the University of Iowa, and then moved to Chicago. There she worked in retail for a while before running some of the largest stores on Michigan Avenue. She later went back to school at Northwestern to earn her MBA, then joined the Tribune Company as head of leadership development. After that, her husband and she started their own digital design business. When they had their sons, they decided it was time to move back home to Iowa to be closer to family.
Working To Develop Iowa’s Clean Energy Economy
After returning to Iowa, Axne went to work for the state of Iowa, serving as a director of training, a strategic planner and did leadership development. Under the Vilsack and Culver administrations, she was hired to do that on a large scale in the Department of Management.
“My job was to make sure we spend taxpayer dollars transparently and efficiently and as well as we could,” Axne says.
One of the biggest projects she helped oversee was the state’s energy and environment plan. Coordinating many agencies in state government, Axne worked in the push to move Iowa to an energy independent state.
“We created an industry that we didn’t have before that move,” Axne explains. “Not only are we now the second-largest producer of wind energy in the country, but we were able to work with the community colleges and set up training so that someone could go in and walk out with a degree in two years, working on the turbines, making 40 or 50 thousand dollars a year with a job that can’t be outsourced.”
She believes Iowa could still be doing more when it comes to solar and cover crops.
From Surrogate Speaker To Candidate
Axne volunteered a lot during the 2016 campaign, and after the election looked for more ways to get involved. She met with Rich Leopold, her friend and former colleague in state environmental work, and he recruited her to speak on his behalf at various events around the state.
Her big moment came when she spoke at the Scott County Democrats’ fundraiser earlier this year on behalf of Leopold.
“Why aren’t you running for office?” several people asked her afterwards.
That got Axne thinking, and she later had a meeting with IDP Chair Derek Eadon to ask what all it takes to be a candidate. She soon set her sights on David Young and the 3rd District.
“I’ve got the skills to do this, I’ve got the desire to do this. And my teenage boys don’t want me around the house anymore,” she jokes. “I’ve done a lot from an internal government perspective, but if you’ve got laws not moving in the right direction, you can do as much as you want internally and it’s not going to get you where you need to go.”
The biggest problem she sees with Young’s record was his support of the Republicans’ extremely unpopular AHCA bill.
“He told the people of Iowa that he would vote against it, then due to political pressure he voted for it,” Axne says. “24 million people stand to lose their health insurance, 38,000 in this district alone. Quite honestly, I’m really worried because I’m one of those people. I’m a small business owner and I don’t know where we’re going to get insurance at the end of this year. Then we go back to a time where I remember when we started our business and I couldn’t get maternity coverage. I literally had to sell wall art that I had and personal items to pay my medical bills off for my second son.”
The President’s recent withdrawal from The Paris Agreement on climate change is also particularly worrying to Axne.
“Iowa has been a leader in energy independence, and what we need to do is double down on that,” she says. “We can all benefit by cleaning up our environment and helping with climate change. We all know this is real.”
She also looks to focus in on wages and the ability of an Iowa family to actually make ends meet. Getting to a livable wage is high on her priority, but so is addressing the many other expenses that make it hard for working families to get by. That includes strong public schools and after-school programs so parents don’t have to pay out of pocket, like she did.
“We’re founded on our public education system,” she asserts. “It’s what creates the opportunity for people to help us with our economic future.”
And Axne also sees reproductive rights as a key component of that economy.
“Women’s reproductive freedom is economic freedom,” Axne says. “When they have the ability to control how and when they raise and grow their family, they have control over their education prospects, their economic prospects and their family’s success. If we don’t support that, we’re telling working families we don’t support you.”
It looks like Democrats could face a crowded field to take on Young in 2018. Theresa Greenfield and Pete D’Alessandro are strongly considering runs, and Anna Ryon, Heather Ryan and Paul Knupp have announced their candidacies. Mike Sherzan entered the race earlier in the year, but dropped out shortly after. Axne says she welcomes the competition, and is glad there’s so much interest in the swing congressional district.
“I’m ready to fight that good fight and represent every person in this state that is getting shut out by corporations and special interests,” she says.
by Pat Rynard