John Paschen, one of the Democratic candidates vying for the uphill fight against Congressman Steve King in 2018, already knows a good deal about overcoming skepticism. Born in the suburbs of Chicago, he moved with his family to Iowa as a teenager, settling down on a farm outside of Camanche in Clinton County. Looking to embrace life in the rural community, Paschen got involved in 4-H, but the local instructors weren’t sure what they could task a city boy with.
“What could this kid from Chicago raise?” Paschen told Starting Line his 4-H instructor had wondered at the time. “Chickens will die on him. A cow will kill him. A pig will kill him. Sheep. He’s got to raise sheep. So, he got me set up on raising sheep. I didn’t raise them as you traditionally do because I had no experience, but one thing I learned quickly is that they come when they’re fed. So, we got the idea that every time we fed them, every time we shook the bucket of feed, we’d call, ‘sheep, sheep.’ And that got them out of the field.”
Near the end of summer, Paschen, who was 15 at the time, was ready to show off his 4-H project. He noted that farmers in communities like his particularly enjoyed seeing each other’s farms and what their neighbors were working on, and many showed up to the Paschens’ acreage.
“Well, they all wanted to see what this kid from Chicago did,” Paschen said. “So, I go out in the field – they’re all sitting on the fence, it looked like something from a Norman Rockwell. I called out, ‘sheep, sheep,’ and they all started laughing. And then pretty soon six sheep in a row came out of their hut and came and surrounded me, and I turned to the crowd and said, ‘These are my sheep.’ I got a good applause.”
Now he faces a different challenge, though one with a similar audience – rural Iowans and farmers who have voted in increasingly larger numbers against a Democratic Party they perceive as out-of-touch.
Those voters’ feelings of mistrust have frustrated a party desperate to oust Steve King from his Northwest Iowa-based district after years of racist and divisive comments from the congressman. Despite King’s preference to talk more about European fringe politics than the price of pork back home, he’s easily won reelection time and again against a wide variety of Democratic opponents, weak and strong. This year three Democrats have put together serious campaigns to compete for the 4th District nomination: Paschen, J.D. Scholten and Leann Jacobsen.
Paschen hails from the most-Democratic part of the district in Ames, where he’s practiced medicine as a pediatrician for the past three decades. He originally went to Iowa State University to become a veterinarian, but was convinced by an adviser to switch to medical school. While in school, he met Cindy Oppedal, who he’s now been married to for 35 years. Paschen later went to the University of Iowa, then spent three years in pediatric residency in Minnesota. When their first daughter was born, they decided it was time to move back to Iowa.
“Children’s issues have always been a concern of mine,” Paschen said. “I’ve always been concerned about healthcare. I’ve always been concerned about children’s health and welfare. I was very excited when the Affordable Care Act got passed – in fact, I was really excited about the public option.”
He saw firsthand how President Obama’s signature accomplishment changed people’s lives. Paschen explained that they had much fewer people coming into the hospital without health insurance – so much that they were able to shut down a free clinic. But the consequences of a potential repeal have also been evident over the past year.
“Insurance companies are seeing this and they’re starting to raise their rates,” he said. “They have to make them a year in advance. A lot of my families are getting very concerned and nervous about that, especially my family on Title 19 – Medicaid – because of the debacle with the state legislature privatizing Medicaid and it’s failing … I had one family who has a severely disabled and medically fragile young man that were told recently that the home-health nursing services were going to be cut dramatically. And that would mean that he would have to go into a nursing home – and that would more than likely shorten his life significantly.”
The post-2016 world has not been an easy one for doctors like Paschen to contend with. Even though he hadn’t been heavily involved in politics in previous years, it was finally enough to push him into his current run.
“The election in 2016 struck us all,” he explained. “The final straw was when Steve King got on CNN where he said he wanted to cut the SNAP program to build the border wall. Basically, he wanted to take food out of poor babies’ mouth to build a border wall, and at that time I said I just can’t sit back on this anymore.”
Healthcare policy and solutions stand at the center of Paschen’s candidacy. He’s pitching a different approach in his congressional campaign, one of “repairing, renewing and refinancing” the ACA. Part of what he proposes is re-establishing cost-saving resources where the federal government would underwrite insurance companies so they could write off not very cost-effective policies for sick Iowans.
“The federal government does this with crop insurance, they should be able to do this with health insurance,” he said.
And Paschen also hopes to correct one major mistake he sees that happened during the ACA debate: the lack of a public option.
“I really feel like a public option would be a great dry run for single-payer in this country,” he added.
While conservative Western Iowa hasn’t always been too keen on the idea of Democrats’ healthcare policies, Paschen sees reality starting to catch up with partisan viewpoints. He explained that farmers are seeing drastic increases in their personal policy premiums, that Medicaid cuts are keeping them from getting their parents into safe nursing homes and that critical access clinics face closures.
“These hospitals depend on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement,” Paschen said. “If they get their Medicaid cut any more, they’re going to start closing. Instead of going ten miles for your heart attack, you’re going to go 80 miles. And people will die.”
Beyond those issues, Paschen looks to hone in on King’s inefficiency in Congress and how the bombastic Republican’s incendiary comments have only isolated and hurt the district.
“He says this because he thinks he’s invincible,” Paschen said. “He’s got a stinking Confederate flag on his desk, for God’s sake.”
That will require a lot of conversations with independents and some Republican voters to bring them over to the blue side in 2018. It’ll also take some money to compete in both the primary and general, and he’s holding a fundraiser in Des Moines this evening.
No matter what the political outlook of 2018 shapes up as, plenty of political eyes will be on what happens in the 4th District so long as King stirs up controversy on a weekly basis. For Paschen to pull off the upset, he’ll need to hope that the voters line up to come to him when he calls out their name next year.
by Pat Rynard