Two weeks ago, Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer presided over the U.S. House chamber, sitting in the Speaker’s chair as the chamber discussed and passed a major flood relief package. The bill was of particular importance to Iowa, which has seen crippling flooding in recent months. Congresswoman Cindy Axne, who made history last year with Finkenauer as the first female members of the House from Iowa, stood in the well and explained her amendment that added funds for the state.
It was an important moment for Iowa, with both of their newly-elected female representatives prominently involved in a major federal aid effort that would have an impact for damaged Iowa communities for decades to come. This was Finkenauer’s third time in the big chair since being sworn in this year, the youngest woman to do so up until that day.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took over shortly thereafter in the afternoon, presiding over the time reserved for personal speeches (which that day was mostly just Louie Gohmert giving a long diatribe) and gaveling the chamber out for the weekend.
Predictably, Ocasio-Cortez’s brief time in the Speaker’s chair was what generated countless national news stories. Headlines lauded her for “making history once again” for her brief time overseeing a rather routine hour in the chamber.
It’s nothing new for Finkenauer.
“The first two months after the  election, I was known as ‘the other 29-year-old,'” Finkenauer joked in a conversation with Starting Line last month. “But I’m 30 now, and I own that.”
The Second-Youngest Congresswoman
For a brief few weeks last June, right after she won a four-way primary for Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, it appeared that Finkenauer (born December 27, 1988) was on track to be the youngest-ever woman elected to the House. Given the excitement in the Democratic Party over electing women and younger candidates, it seemed like she’d be in the national spotlight were she to oust incumbent Congressman Rod Blum (which she did end up doing, beating him by five points).
Then three weeks later after Iowa’s primary, Ocasio-Cortez (born October 13, 1989) won her upset primary victory in The Bronx. About ten months younger than Finkenauer, Ocasio-Cortez was now in line for the youngest-ever distinction, and her social media savvy and role as progressive advocate made her a national star.
That hasn’t frustrated Finkenauer, though, who has kept herself plenty busy with her own set of priorities during her first several months in office.
“My focus has been on trade, on infrastructure, it’s been on stuff that doesn’t make for great headlines or great tweets. It’s the bread-and-butter things I was sent to Washington to do,” she explained. “I’m never going to do something in Washington, D.C. because I want headlines or because I want a 10:00 cable news spot. I’m going to do my day-to-day based on what’s happening in my district and what I want to be up-lifting.”
Hard Work Leads To Leadership Positions
Finkenauer’s work behind the scenes has already gotten results. She was the first member of the Democratic freshman class to get a bill passed, one that makes it easier for small businesses to obtain government contracts. It was a bipartisan bill; Finkenauer worked with Republican Congressman John Curtis of Utah, whose office is across the hall from hers.
Finkenauer has also already earned some key leadership positions. She was entrusted with an Assistant Whip position, chairs the Rural Development, Agriculture, Trade, and Entrepreneurship (RATE) Subcommittee, and is the Vice Chair of the Highways and Transit subcommittee. That last subcommittee is of particular importance with its ability to assign billions of dollars worth of infrastructure funds – Iowa often ranks the worst in the country on deficient infrastructure.
“Representative Finkenauer is an outstanding member of Congress who is working hard for the people of Northeast Iowa,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement to Starting Line. “I’m also grateful for the perspective she provides leadership, including as a member of the Democratic Whip operation. Her insights as a younger, female member from the Midwest are important and unique.”
There wasn’t any particular trick to nabbing those leadership spots this early on in her service. She simply asked and did the work.
“It’s just been having conversations with my colleagues and telling them what my goals are and what I care about and what I want to do for Iowans,” Finkenauer said.
She serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the House Small Business Committee.
Making History In A Historic Freshman Class
Although Finkenauer entered Congress as one of its youngest members, it wasn’t like she lacked experience, nor familiarity with the chamber.
Finkenauer was a congressional page for Republican Jim Nussle in 2006 when she was a high school student, then served as the Speaker’s page to Speaker Pat Murphy in the Iowa House. When Murphy left his Dubuque seat to run for Congress, Finkenauer defeated three men in a Democratic primary to win her hometown district. She launched that successful campaign at age 24.
After two terms in the Iowa House, she made the jump to running for the U.S. House, challenging an incumbent Republican in a swing district that had trended away from Democrats under Donald Trump. A mostly working-class district that includes Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, and Waterloo, Finkenauer pitched her blue-collar family roots to voters and won.
“I replaced someone who was a Freedom Caucus member, essentially a libertarian who didn’t even believe in government,” Finkenauer said. “These perspectives from our district just were not heard. That’s been one of the most interesting things for this new Democratic majority is uplifting the voices of these Americans who didn’t have effective advocates on their end.”
When she arrived, she was part of a class heralded for its diversity, a group of elected officials that started to look more like the Americans who elected them.
“When you look at the entire freshman class, we are more diverse than any freshman class in history,” she noted. “That also means you look around and I think we all represent where we come from quite well, and that’s what the American people wanted in 2018.”
The wide array of ideologies within the Democratic Party has captured much of the attention in this new Congress, especially with members from the progressive wing of the party taking on high-profile roles. Members like Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Katie Porter have at many times garnered just as much attention or more in the press and on social media as Speaker Pelosi.
Finkenauer welcomes the attention they’ve brought to broader goals for the Democratic Party and Congress, but has largely kept her focus on what she can help get passed now.
“I think it is important to talk about the big ideas and big goals we’re working for, and at the same time walk and chew gum, and make sure we’re actually getting things done that can get passed by a Republican Senate and a Republican president,” Finkenauer said, adding she’s been involved in the prescription drug bill that Chuck Grassley is working on in the Senate. “We can figure out where that common ground is, but that also shouldn’t stop us about talking about those big ideas at the same time.”
For her part, Finkenauer has become close with several of her fellow freshmen members. She named Haley Stevens of Michigan, Lauren Underwood of Illinois, Angie Craig of Minnesota, Sharice Davids of Kansas, Antonio Delgado of New York, and Colin Allred of Texas as those she’s spent the most time with. Finkenauer shares a common theme with those six – they all flipped a red district to blue in 2018. Many of them also made some sort of history in their state with their wins.
“We just elected a lot of Midwest Democrats who also happen to be women,” Finkenauer added. “We get dinner occasionally, but we come home on the weekends, so there’s not that much time together.”
Back In The District
Finkenauer gets back home nearly every weekend, though “home” now is the district at large. She joked that she was just happy when her nephew met her at the airport recently and actually remembered who she was.
“Given how large the district is, you go home and you’re in Marshalltown, or the Cedar Rapids area, or Waterloo, or up north,” Finkenauer said. “It’s been hard even to catch up with family when you’re home on the weekends because you’re out trying to do things.”
When in Iowa, she’s focused most of her district tours on matters relating to her committee assignments, especially infrastructure and small business. Local leaders have quickly taken note.
“I’ve seen her more times already than I’ve seen any other representatives that came before, other than Bruce Braley, who lived here,” Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart told Starting Line. “On the local level, we’ve had incredible access to her and her staff.”
Finkenauer has been to Waterloo several times this year, once to look at aging bridges, another time to talk with minority-owned small business owners to figure out whether they’ve been able to access government grants. She’s kept an eye out for local talent, hiring Yeshi Abebe for her local district office there. Abebe worked in the USDA for eight years and recently ran an unsuccessful race for Black Hawk County supervisor.
“She is a quick learner – I was able to sit down with her when I was in D.C. in early January,” Hart added. “Hearing her philosophy of trying to reach across the aisle, trying to work with people and partner with them has been extremely refreshing from the new congresswoman. The relationship this far has better than I could have imagined … She’s not making policy decisions from D.C., she’s coming here, talking to people to develop her platform in D.C.”
Finkenauer has also enjoyed her meet-and-greets throughout the district, finding them a useful way to bat down misinformation about herself and Congress.
“One woman told me she heard I didn’t care about rural internet, and I said that’s exactly why I’m on some of the committees I’m on because I care,” Finkenauer recalled. “But she heard it on Facebook that I didn’t. So, to be able to have those real conversations where you’re looking someone in the eye, and they know you’re not just some meme on Facebook, but a real person who grew up in this district and who loves it, it’s been my favorite part of these last few months.”
Keeping Grounded In What Matters
The first visitors to Finkenauer’s new office in January were her parents, both of whom featured prominently in her campaign ads that stressed her blue-collar roots. It was her father’s first visit to D.C. A union pipefitter, he was working on a project when it was time to pick her up from her page job there over a decade earlier.
The night before they toured her office, Finkenauer’s family went out to dinner with the national president of the United Association, her father’s union.
“They told him I was the first family member of a United Association member to ever be elected to Congress,” Finkenauer said. “For him to now see that his working hard and giving us opportunities paid off, to come to D.C. and see his daughter’s name, his last name, on the plaque – it was special. They’re who I think about every day.”
I call this one: “A retired union pipefitter welder and retired public school secretary walk into their youngest daughter’s Congressional office” … My first visitors. ? pic.twitter.com/7uHeUYt9oP
— Abby Finkenauer (@Abby4Iowa) January 2, 2019
Finkenauer added that she essentially uses her father as a focus group of one, hearing about his conversations with friends back in the district to get a sense of what people are really saying about government.
“I might not have all the answers, but my job is to show up and listen to the folks who are living it every day and go to Washington and try to fix it,” Finkenauer stated.
So, while Finkenauer’s name may not be splashed across national headlines like other freshman-class members, nor is she a frequent face on cable news, her workman-like approach to her first year in Congress matches her upbringing. It’s being rewarded by leadership, and she’s already tallying legislative achievements that impact families like her own back home.
And it’s not like her parents don’t see what she’s doing. Since she’s been in Congress, they record the C-SPAN feed every day.
“They’re proud, and I think I’m prouder to be their daughter,” Finkenauer said.
by Pat Rynard