While a lot of eyes are on Abby Finkenauer’s bid to take on Rod Blum in the 1st District, one of the biggest contests on June 5 will be between the three Democrats looking to replace her in the Iowa House. Two of those candidates, Lindsay James and Brad Cavanagh, have been locked in a tight race for the seat for well over a year. The two announced in May 2017, have raised significant funds, are impressing locals and are running strong, professional campaigns.
House District 99 is a heavily-Democratic district which covers the southern and western parts of Dubuque. These Dubuque legislative seats have been home to several high-profile Democrats of late. Former Speaker Pat Murphy held this seat, while Finkenauer’s two terms helped springboard her to a major congressional run. Senator Pam Jochum represents the area in the Iowa Senate.
And many local Democrats in Dubuque are predicting that either Cavanagh or James, both relatively young, will play a big role within the party in the Statehouse and possibly beyond. Of course, they have to win the election first.
Early vote numbers show how much interest the primary is driving. 1,549 Democrats have requested to vote early in the district, the second-highest total for a house district in the state.
Both candidates have compelling and unique backgrounds. The primary itself hasn’t split among familiar lines, with local activists saying both contenders are drawing from a wide range of ideological and activist voters. Cavanagh is a professor of social work after having worked in the field himself, and has deep ties to the community. James is a pastor who moved to Iowa from the West Coast, has proven to be a serious fundraiser and has drawn backing from state and national organizations.
Cavanagh’s upbringing is one of your typical Iowa stories. He was born in Dubuque to parents from nearby rural towns in Jackson County. His mother was from Bellevue; his father grew up in Preston. For about five years the Cavanagh family lived in Miles, a town of 500 in Jackson County when his father opened up an accounting practice there. They lived right across from a corn field and hog farm, and Cavanagh would occasionally help out there. The rest of the time, he grew up in Dubuque.
He met his wife – also from Dubuque – when they both attended the University of Iowa. They moved to St. Louis for seven years where Cavanagh worked as a social worker. He began working with kids and families in schools and homes, mostly with poorer populations. Later he moved into working with older adults in nursing homes.
After his first child was born in 2008, they quickly made their way back to Dubuque to be closer to family. The next year, Cavanagh started working as a professor of social work at Loras College. Getting to train and send out new generations of social workers made him further reflect on the profession and how he could better help.
“What people don’t recognize is that social workers are trained to look at the whole picture,” Cavanagh explains. “When we’re working with our clients, we’re also thinking about how can we advocate for them on all levels. How can we go to Des Moines, shake legislators’ hands and figure out how we can make these people’s lives better?”
James’ journey to Dubuque was a little different.
“I have a bizarre background for politics,” James told Starting Line.
After growing up in Portland, Oregon, James studied theology at Santa Clara University, then went to Fuller Theological Seminary. She lived in several California cities and Boston before her husband, originally from Seattle, got a job teaching theology at the University of Dubuque. When they arrived in the picturesque city on the Mississippi River, it was “love at first sight,” James says.
Once here, James started working as a college chaplain and got involved in a host of local organizations. She co-founded the Loras College Peace Institute, serves on the local NAACP board, is on the Dubuque County Extension Council and is a pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church.
“My faith informs the way in which I see the world,” James says. “Its why I’m passionate about issues of injustice, inequity, inclusion. For me, when I think about what I bring to the table, I think about moral courage. There is a deep sense that my accountably is not to an interest group or political party. It’s important to me to be accountable to the faith commitments that I hold.”
A third Democrat, Pat Cullen, jumped into the race in January. He’s 22 years old, grew up in Dubuque, comes from a well-known Democratic family, went to the University of Iowa and runs a tutoring business. While he’s been campaigning around the district, he hasn’t raised much money and got started much later than the other two candidates, and likely won’t capture much of the vote on Election Day.
What Drove Them To Get Involved And Run
Several of James’ first inspirations to get involved in social justice came during and right after college. A year after graduate school, she worked with Stanford students, most of whom came from wealthy backgrounds. She would organize trips with them over to East Palo Alto, which at the time had some of the biggest gang problems in the country.
“The first human response is let’s fix it,” James says. “But for me, we need to go beyond just fix it, we need to know why these realities are the way they are.”
She relates that back to the story of the Good Samaritan.
“We see this man who’s been beaten and bloodied on the side of the road,” she explains. “The root of the story is the road they were traveling on was notorious for violence. For me it’s not just about picking the person up off the road, it’s asking why the road is so dangerous in the first place. Compassion lived out means we have to actually address issues of systemic injustice.”
Like many first-time candidates this year, Donald Trump’s election in 2016 spurred her decision to run. The night of that election, her daughter, then six years old, asked her, “Mom, does this mean we have to build a wall?”
“I think Trump speaks in ways that even six-year-olds understand,” James says. “At that moment, as a mom, you want so desperately for your kids to grow up in a world where the walls will be down, not up.”
James had recently been involved with the New Leaders Council out of Madison, Wisconsin. In those progressive young professional training sessions, she learned of how many times it takes women to be asked to run for office before they actually do so. After that election night in 2016, she didn’t need to be asked anymore and was ready for whichever electoral opportunity came up.
Cavanagh’s decision to jump in the race stemmed from that same night. He remembered standing in his kitchen in a robe at two in the morning, eating a bag of chips and watching with astonishment as Trump’s victory became clear in the results.
“I stood there for an hour thinking, what do we do?” he recalls.
That got him thinking back to his concerns with government that he’s encountered on a daily basis with his social work.
“I was consistently frustrated when working with people one-on-one,” Cavanagh says. “I loved it, and I think I was good at it. When they would come to me with certain issues, I could help them so much. But everything else in their life that was not going all that well had something to do with the rules we all created. It had something to do with privatizing Medicaid. Or they couldn’t get an education they needed. I always thought we could do more.”
In December of 2016 he decided he wanted to run for office, and as soon as it became known that Finkenauer would run for Congress, he started making plans for his house campaign.
When out on the campaign trail, Cavanagh is seeing many of the same problems in the community that he encountered from his social work. Chief among them is families struggling with the new Medicaid system. He says that he hasn’t met a single hospital leader, doctor or administrator who thinks the privatized system is better. But the tougher stories come from the patients.
“What’s really tragic is what’s happening to the patients and families,” he explains. “There’s a mother who has a son with Down syndrome, I talked with her for a half hour at her doorstep. She told me all these stories of everything that’s gone wrong with them since the switch … She has to make phone calls all day long to figure out which doctor they can go to. She has been shuffled from one doctor to the next.”
There’s many issues within DHS that he looks forward to working on with his experience, and he notes his top priority will be better school funding. But another major topic he encounters on the doors is mental health.
“We have a serious shortage of psychiatrists,” Cavanagh says, adding that he’s looking to propose incentive programs to train and bring more of them to Iowa.
And substance abuse issues come up often as well, especially as it becomes a larger problem in Northeast Iowa.
“The thing about heroin that people cannot get their head around is the fact that you can’t just stop people from doing heroin,” he says. “It doesn’t work that way. You can’t just take their needles away. You have to figure out a way to treat them. We need that treatment to work. I want to focus more on treatment than punishment.”
James’ top issue also revolves around education.
“I’ve seen our education system not be fully funded, I’ve seen our teachers stressed under all the weight of the burdens they carry,” she says. “It’s heart wrenching to me when you’re wanting to give all our kids their best chance in life … Our teachers function as social workers as much as educators, and we need them to have the resources they need.”
She also wants to come up with solutions to get more women in the workplace.
“There’s a lack of safe and affordable childcare in Dubuque,” she notes. “We sat on a wait list for a year when we moved to Dubuque.”
And mental health concerns come up the most when knocking doors for James as well. She also says she’ll be focused on issues of race, poverty and finding ways to break the cycles of both.
The Campaign Trail
Few other legislative races in the state have been as hotly-contested as this Dubuque one. That’s usually a good sign for how effective and involved the eventual winner will be in the Legislature.
On the local level, both candidates have some key endorsers. James has the backing of three city council members, a county supervisor and the local firefighters and letter carriers union. Cavanagh has the support of the county auditor, recorder, a city council member and several well-known former elected officials.
James’ candidacy has captured the attention of several state and national organizations. EMILY’s List chose her as one of their first six Iowa legislative candidates to back, and the Iowa Women For Progressive Change group has endorsed her. So has Run For Something.
She’s also drawn some notice for her impressive fundraising abilities. James has brought in $64,265 for her campaign, one of the best totals in the state for a first-time candidate. It’s even more impressive considering she doesn’t come from a well-connected Iowa family and doesn’t have years of in-roads into the usual Iowa Democratic donor crowd. Cavanagh has raised a respectable $21,406, still enough to stay competitive and get out mailers.
But James’ advantage has allowed her to invest in a major digital ad effort and even get up on TV with a 15-second ad, something rarely done in legislative primaries.
The rest of the race will be won on the doors. For that, both candidates are uniquely experienced to be good listeners.
“I’m meeting people who have huge burdens and painful realities that they’re facing,” James says. “As someone who is a chaplain at heart, I have always inserted myself into painful places with people’s stories. At the doors, I ask people what keeps them up at night.”
“I love hearing people’s stories,” says Cavanagh. “It’s one of those things I don’t think politicians do well at all, really putting themselves in somebody else’s shoes and understand what they’re experiencing. For me, it’s been my entire professional life – empathizing with clients.”
Cavanagh has personally knocked on over 4,000 doors throughout the campaign. Any face-to-face effort from Democrats is helpful here, especially since Dubuque had so many voters switch to Trump in 2016.
“You have to go door-to-door and stand face-to-face with people, look them right in the eye and listen to what they say and not like it all the time,” he explains. “We’re not always going to agree, and we don’t need to and shouldn’t. We as Democrats should have some healthy debate and argument within the party. We have to listen to what people say, and that means everybody.”
For James, her background in the faith community has helped her talk to voters on a level that other Democrats don’t often do with religion. But she notes that she also has a lot of support from atheists, many of whom are happy that she can talk in those terms.
“A lot of them talk about how excited they are for someone with faith commitments to be on the left side of the aisle, and that I am fluent in a religious language, so when there are conversations or religious abuse in politics, I can hold people accountable for that,” she says.
The primary will be on Tuesday, June 5. One Republican, Pauline Chilton, has filed for the seat, but this will be a safe Democratic district in November. While only one of the Democrats running will end up in the Legislature this year, keep an eye on both James and Cavanagh regardless of the primary outcome. Their candidacies have impressed Democrats locally and beyond, and both will be figures to watch in Iowa politics in the years to come.
by Pat Rynard