Thomas Heckroth has a constant reminder of his small-town roots at home: his goldendoodle puppy, “Waverly,” named after the Bremer County town he grew up in. Back in 2006 he knocked doors in that county and nearby ones for his father’s successful run for state senate. Now he’s back in Iowa, following ten years out of the state for school and working in Tom Harkin’s office and in the private sector in New York, to run for Congress in Iowa’s 1st District.
“Serving the community and your country has been in my family for a long time,” Heckroth explained to Starting Line a while before his official announcement last week.
Both his grandfathers served in the military, while one of his grandmothers was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. His father would serve a term in the state senate, while his mother was a hospital chaplain. A sixth-generation Iowan himself, Heckroth first looked to carry on that tradition with his work for Harkin, where he spent almost three years working on agriculture, labor and education policies. He was later appointed by the Obama Administration to a post in the Department of Labor where he helped enforce trade practices.
“I’ve tried to embrace it,” Heckroth said of public service. “Watching my dad knock thousands and thousands of doors – and doing it with him – was a big eye-opening experience … He would always say that the great thing about public service is you can go to bed knowing you helped someone if they had a problem, or you can wake up every morning believing you had a chance to improve somebody’s life.”
After growing up in Waverly, Heckroth attended the University of Iowa, where he majored in sociology. He moved back home for a while to work on his father’s campaign, and then went to Washington D.C. for his job with Harkin and the Obama Administration. After that he went to grad school in Indiana for a MBA and met his now-wife there. Once they graduated they moved to New York.
“I wanted to move back home here, she wanted to move to New York, so we compromised and we moved to New York,” Heckroth joked. “I think a lot of married people understand that compromise. I spent the last three years working in New York for a company that makes kids clothing for Nike and Levi’s. I worked with all our factories overseas to try to improve how they treated workers and to make sure there was no child labor. People being paid on time and correct amounts. Really, exporting our values overseas.”
But he grew frustrated with watching the Republican-controlled Congress this year and particularly with Rod Blum, the incumbent in the 1st District.
“What has he done for people of this district?” Heckroth questioned. “I don’t see anything. There aren’t any major pieces of legislation with his name on it. There’s not a lot there.”
The healthcare vote and Blum’s temperament – especially after the congressman’s TV interview walk-out – is what Heckroth sees as key contrasts for a general election campaign in the Northeast Iowa seat.
“It’s more than just the House side knocking 23 million people off of health insurance,” he said. “I think this comes down to an easily understandable frame, which is we’re either spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for the wealthy, or we’re spending a trillion dollars on getting healthcare for people and making sure they have quality, affordable coverage.”
The other big focus of Heckroth’s candidacy will be pushing out an economic message that looks at revitalizing small business and manufacturing in the district.
“I want to present an economic message that is compelling, that is focused on the future,” he explained. “It’s focused on investing, innovation and growth. We need to create the economy of the future.”
He and his wife are already living that to a certain extent now that they have moved to Cedar Falls. His wife works remotely from a co-working space in town. And the Democratic primary for the 1st District should provide a unique perspective that voters don’t often get in Iowa races – three of the announced candidates – Heckroth, Abby Finkenauer and Courtney Rowe – are all 35 years old or younger. There would have been four had Stacey Walker joined the field as well.
“We are so mobile, or we try to be,” Heckroth said. “To have that freedom to work from wherever is also a huge advantage for Iowa. If we can get rural broadband figured out in a way that works it’d be an opportunity to bring back young people to Iowa.”
One major challenge for Democrats in retaking the 1st District in 2018 will be convincing voters who left the party for Donald Trump to come back home. Several of the counties in Northeast Iowa saw the biggest swings in the country in favor of Republicans last year. Part of that was due to voters seeing the Democratic Party as out of touch, or not authentic in caring about basic pocketbook issues. Heckroth hopes that his personal background in the district can overcome some of that.
“My story is very similar to parents or their kids or their grandkids stories,” he said. “Played little league at the Am Vets field in Waverly. I delivered the Waterloo-Courier during the week, got a little extra help from mom and dad on Sunday mornings. I was confirmed at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Went to Waverly-Shell Rock High School. Went to University of Iowa. Walked on to the Hawkeye baseball team and then earned my degree there.”
In his short announcement video, Heckroth sat on some baseball field bleachers and emphasized his experience in holding America’s trade partners accountable. He’ll have a four, possibly-five candidate field to first get through in the primary, held next June, before taking on Blum.
by Pat Rynard