When introducing herself to voters at a Fort Madison sandwich shop, Theresa Greenfield didn’t just highlight her youth on a farm in Minnesota or her successful professional career.
Greenfield got personal, telling the small group about the day, at 24 years old, she found out her husband had been killed at work. A union electrician with “great wages,” a vast skill set and the ability to save for retirement, Rodney Wirtjes died at his job, leaving behind his wife, a baby and another child on the way.
“I’m here to tell you that I wouldn’t be standing here today, fighting for this seat, fighting for you, for the opportunity to put Iowa first, if it were not for Social Security and hard-earned union benefits,” said Greenfield, one of four Democratic candidates running to defeat Republican Sen. Joni Ernst.
On the night of her husband’s death, Greenfield said, IBEW union leaders came to her home to tell her about the Social Security funds and health insurance she still had access to because of Wirtjes’ union membership.
“And so, I was able to go back to college,” Greenfield said. “And a few years later, I got my very first job as a single mom with two kids for $8 an hour and I couldn’t have been prouder. And you know why? I got my dignity back. I’m here to tell you, absolutely everybody in America wants the dignity of providing for their families, and young widows do, too.”
She now is the president of a family-owned real estate company in Des Moines.
“I want you to know that I haven’t forgotten the lessons of my life,” Greenfield said. “I’m not going to forget those lessons when I go to serve you in the United States Senate. It’s what drives me to stand up and run. I want you to know that my grit, my resolve, is rooted deep in rural America, and I’m going to speak up and put Iowa first when I represent you in Washington.”
Around the same time Greenfield met voters in Lee County, Ernst was 250 miles away in Carroll County for a town hall. There, the Iowa senator defended President Donald Trump’s mental state, tried to justify her votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and refused to recognize the impact climate change has had on Iowa.
Lee County, in the far southeast corner of Iowa, is represented in the Iowa House and Senate by Democrats, but voted for Trump in 2016. Its manufacturing sector and strong union history make it a key county for Democrats, though its voters have been known to flip flop.
The last time a U.S. Senate race was on the ballot, in 2016, Sen. Chuck Grassley won re-election with 53.3% of the vote in Lee County. The Democrat in that race, Patty Judge, only won Johnson County.
But in 2014, Ernst’s first election, Democrat Bruce Braley won Lee County with 49.5% of the vote. That year, Braley won 14 counties, though he ultimately lost the election to Ernst by 8.5 percentage points.
For Greenfield, one of the top issues that got her “hot under the collar” about her Republican opponent, was Ernst’s suggestion at an August town hall that politicians should “sit down behind closed doors” to hash out a fix for Social Security.
“I’m here to tell you, the Republican solution to Social Security is to cut it — a program that we all pay into, a program that we all agreed to support, to take care of one another in our time of need,” Greenfield said. “And I know I sure needed it. I wouldn’t’ be here today without Social Security.”
At this point in the race, Greenfield’s stump speech is mostly biographical, though she did mention high health care costs, education, job security, dark money in politics and climate change as issues top of mind for her and the Iowa voters she has met.
The farm economy, particularly in the wake of Trump’s trade war and undermining of the ethanol industry, also was a major concern.
“I’m here to tell you, Joni Ernst is no friend to our farmers,” she said. “Between the reckless trade, between reckless tariffs, between what I call the ‘Ernst ethanol policies,’ net farm income is down 75% since 2013.
“What I really want is for all of you to help me fire Joni Ernst in 2020 and put somebody in the United States Senate that’s going to put Iowa first,” she continued. “Not big oil, but Iowa first. That’s what I’m most interested in, and getting your help to do that.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
Photo by Julie Fleming