When Kristin Sunde and her husband Matt took care of two foster children in their West Des Moines home, they started to become concerned with what they saw in the complicated and sometimes-frustrating Department of Human Services system. The state’s Medicaid process presented problems, too – at one point the Sundes were on the hook for a $15,000 emergency room bill for one of those children that Medicaid wouldn’t pay at first.
“Once we started fostering kids and saw what we saw, I told my husband I should really call [Senators] Janet Petersen or Matt McCoy and talk to them about this and let them know,” Sunde told Starting Line in an interview this week. “Because there’s been so much in the news lately, they should really understand this.”
The Sundes’ foster children have since moved out, and now that things are a little quieter around their home, Kristin started to wonder if perhaps she could take those experiences to the Statehouse herself.
“Maybe instead of talking to somebody else about what should happen, maybe it’s time for somebody like me who is interested and cares a lot to step and say, hey, maybe I can make a difference myself,” she said.
Sunde heard earlier this year that no other Democrat had announced yet for House District 42, which Republican Peter Cownie currently represents. After some discussions with friends and family, she decided to make the jump into the race, kicking off her campaign today.
It will certainly be one of the most-watched races in 2018. Republicans hold a 58-42 majority in the Iowa House, but Democrats are optimistic that a good year for the party could see them capture the chamber. Seats like HD 42, a suburban district located mostly in West Des Moines, will be on the top of the target list.
Hillary Clinton won the district over Donald Trump, 51% to 42%. The Des Moines suburb was one of the very few places in the state that actually saw a large shift in favor of Democrats. Cownie has represented the district since 2009, enjoys the benefit of a well-known family name and always sees strong fundraising totals, but he’ll be one of the most-endangered Republican incumbents in 2018.
Sunde, who has a background in public relations and small business, has lived in West Des Moines since 1999, though she started life north of the Iowa border. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, she was adopted by two parents that would soon move to Omaha when Sunde was very young.
Her mother worked for Northwestern Bell for a time, but Sunde’s parents grew up in small town Iowa and decided they wanted to raise their three children in that kind of setting as well. So, they set off from Omaha to Northwest Iowa, moving to Newell, Iowa, a town in Buena Vista County that today has a population of just 867.
“I had a class of about 500 in 8th grade and then a class of about 35 in 9th grade,” Sunde explained of her move. “And then nobody told me about how the rules of six-on-six girls’ basketball worked.”
While living in Northwest Iowa, she took up a job at a local turkey meatpacking plant, working the night shift for some extra money.
“I worked in this room that was 40 degrees, working in sweatshirts, giant rubber boots, the hairnet and the hardhat and the earplugs,” she said. “It was quite an experience.”
After graduating high school, Sunde got a degree in electronic media from the University of Northern Iowa. Graduating in 1995, she got her first full-time reporting job with the ABC affiliate in Sioux City. Like many journalism jobs, it didn’t pay too much.
“I think my salary the first year was $13,000 a year,” Sunde said with a laugh, adding that she later moved to the morning anchor job.
Local TV news didn’t seem like her long-term passion, so Sunde started working in public relations jobs. At one point in the early part of Tom Vilsack’s time as governor, a deputy communications job opened up and she was hired for it. Sunde spent about a year and a half working in the Vilsack Administration, her first real role in public service or politics, and she was particularly proud of the work she got to do on education and children’s safety initiatives.
She would later leave for a position at Strategic America, where she worked for 10 years before joining Trilix, a local ad agency and public relations firm. Throughout all this time, she married her husband, Matt, and they had a son, who’s now 11 years old.
They would later decide to be foster parents, which Sunde described as “really, really rewarding, but also frustrating.” There were a lot of breakdowns in the DHS system that made things difficult at times. She added that it wasn’t that DHS workers didn’t care, it just that there wasn’t enough of them to handle all the cases. One of the most challenging moments came when Medicaid initially denied a major hospital bill for one of the kids.
“We went to urgent care, they said go to the emergency room, we went to the emergency room, they said she needs to be admitted, so we admitted her. We were just following what doctors told us to do,” Sunde explained. “Happily, I had DHS to say, help me … We handed it to DHS and they took it from there. But what if we didn’t have that? If we were a family that was working hard, trying to get to our jobs and our kids to school and run a business, and now we’re dealing with a $15,000 bill.”
Uncertain situations like that aren’t uncommon for families living in neighborhoods’ like Sunde’s, which she believes will help her connect on the campaign trail.
“I think I can represent a lot of the voices in West Des Moines because I think a lot of these families have the same hopes and concerns that my family does,” she said. “I think plain language about what people really care about is where to go with it. The things that affect us – our kids, having good, affordable housing, having jobs that can pay enough and healthcare – those kinds of really basic things that matter to Iowans.”
To be successful in November, Democrats will likely also have to reach out to many parts of the West Des Moines community that often go unnoticed – a growing immigrant population housed in the many apartment complexes tucked away from the main streets. To those potential voters, Sunde sees family concerns as a key common value as well. She also has some personal history growing up in a diverse community – her mother held a human resources job at a packing plant in Storm Lake.
“She had a soft heart for the immigrants that worked there,” Sunde said of her mother. “I remember a Christmas where we had a group of Somalians at our house, hosting them for Christmas, and my mom had a lot of Hispanic friends. We had a lot of people of different cultures and colors at our house while growing up, and it never occurred to me that there would be any reason why we wouldn’t want that. That was a message I learned from my family … everyone’s got the same kind of heart on the inside.”
An important way to keep people feeling welcomed in a growing community is making sure children are taught values of inclusion and respect at an early age, Sunde noted.
Her campaign for HD 42 launches today, with her website up here, a Facebook page here and a Twitter account here. Now that it’s official, Sunde says she’s most eager to get out and listen to voters’ concerns and personal stories.
“I have a lot to learn and a lot to hear, but I think if we can stick to issues people really care about, we can be successful,” Sunde said.
by Pat Rynard