The 2020 resurrection of Eric Gjerde’s campaign for Iowa House seat 67 will pick up where it left off in 2018, the candidate said, but a win is in better reach.
The Cedar Rapids special education teacher’s bid comes as Rep. Ashley Hinson vacated the Linn County seat in June, instead running for Rep. Abby Finkenauer’s 1st District U.S. House district. Gjerde said he feels confident in his second fight for the suburban swing seat despite concerns of campaigning during the pandemic — running a close race against Hinson last cycle makes him well-positioned against a relatively unknown 2020 competitor.
Hinson, a 35-year-old rising star in the Republican Party, took her 2016 House race in a landslide victory but was re-elected by a margin of only four points against Gjerde, 40, in 2018. He confirmed his 2020 run for the seat after Hinson launched her Congressional campaign in May 2019.
“I certainly didn’t rule out running a second time in 2020 after we had lost in 2018. I wanted to make sure we had a plan for how we would overcome that four-point discrepancy,” Gjerde said. “I think more people voted for Ashley Hinson than they voted for a Republican in the district.”
Gjerde, who holds a master’s and a doctorate degree from the University of Iowa, has taught special education for 18 years. He lives in Cedar Rapids with his wife, an early childhood special educator, his oldest daughter, 10, and twin daughters, six.
The candidate said his initial run for Iowa House was inspired by his twin girls, who were born early and have since suffered from phonological disorders. Gjerde’s insurance agency said it wouldn’t pay for speech therapy because his daughters were born with hearing loss, not affected by accident or injury. That was when he realized the need for healthcare and education reform in the state.
“Both my wife and I being special educators, we advocate for kids with special needs and their families every single day of our working lives and we were unable to advocate for our own daughters — two of the three daughters we love more than anybody else,” Gjerde said. “We realized if we are having issues and know the system as well as we do, there are certainly a lot of other folks that are out there having issues.”
The candidate is also a volunteer Linn County Sheriff’s Office Special Deputy. Gjerde said he was encouraged by the recent bipartisan police reform passed at the Legislature and sees a continued need for de-escalation and implicit bias training in local police departments.
“What has happened across the nation with the George Floyd murder has been very impactful … being in law enforcement and being a certified peace officer in Iowa, I respect law enforcement, but I also know that there is institutional bias and situations that we need to address as organizations in law enforcement, in communities, as a state and certainly as a federal government,” he said.
Gjerde said he was unhappy with Hinson’s voting record in the Iowa House, especially around collective bargaining, also leading to his bid in 2018.
“We gave it a heck of a run. We had a tremendous group of volunteers. We were able to raise a good chunk of money, we were able to knock thousands of doors and make thousands of phone calls. Had dozens of volunteers who would show up every weekend to knock doors, it was a really humbling experience,” Gjerde said. “Ashley Hinson said that she was going to run for Congress and I’d like to think that our campaign had something to do with that decision … she could see the writing on the wall.”
House District 67, encompassing Hiawatha, Robins and parts of Cedar Rapids and Marion, has swung a fair amount in the past decade. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly carried the district by less than 2% over Trump, while Hinson won her first term in the Iowa House by 25%. Fred Hubbell carried it in the governor’s race by 50% to 47% over Kim Reynolds in 2018.
The district, which touted a strong Iowa Caucus turnout, now has voter registration numbers for Democrats that surpass that of Republicans for the first time in over a decade. Gjerde said his 2018 campaign also pushed voter registration.
“I’d like to think we had some small part in that as well … We’d spend a day going out just to areas where folks are underrepresented as far as having their voices heard at the ballot box and knocking on doors and ensuring that folks were registered to vote.”
Republicans didn’t declare a candidate for the District 67 race until the March 13 filing deadline. Registered Nurse and Kirkwood Adjunct Instructor Sally Abbott announced her bid then. The Cedar Rapids resident has raised little money on the race so far with little social media or press activity.
“I want to keep Iowa an exceptional place to raise a family. As an educator, I want solid schools and promising opportunities for all students. As a nurse, I will work to improve wellness and prevention efforts, as well as address the staggering cost of quality health care,” Abbott said in the press release announcement.
One concern Gjerde said he had ahead of his second try for the Iowa House was if he’d get similar support from Iowans during his first run — Democrats in 2018 spent over a half a million dollars on the candidate’s race. But Gjerde said his supporters have been just as helpful this time.
“People at a local level, within eastern Iowa and greater Iowa have really doubled down in their support for us. Both their financial support and the volunteer time they’re willing to put in,” he said.
Iowa Democrats found their best success in the past election flipping suburban districts, turning five blue in the Des Moines metro, as well as one in Cedar Falls and HD 67’s neighboring Marion-based district.
“I think anybody that’s looking at the Iowa State legislature … realizes the path to flip the Iowa State House back to Democratic control goes right through House District 67,” Gjerde said. “We’ve committed to fight for this seat like the entire state of Iowa depends on it because it does.”
Having introduced himself in 2018, Gjerde said his 2020 run is able to be more focused on issues — he’s prioritizing education funding, environmental protection, workers’ rights, affordable healthcare and expanded voting rights.
“The first time we ran we spent a lot more time talking about me as a candidate, who I am and why I want to run and less time talking about the issues, because I do think a lot of Iowa voters do vote on who they think the best candidate is. And one thing I think we’ve been able to move to this campaign cycle and transcend from who the candidate is to what issues are really important to you,” he said. “We decided to pick up where we left off and still fight for ‘make Iowa work together.’”
The candidate said this cycle his campaign has been making phone calls focused on voter registration — they send absentee ballot request forms to residents who are interested. Campaigning is done over the phone and online this cycle because of COVID-19, Gjerde said.
“COVID happened and now we’re not able to knock doors,” he said. “I think that affects us both — that affects our campaign, it affects my Republican opponent’s campaign. I think the area that we’re fortunate is we campaigned really hard last time and got our name out whereas my opponent hasn’t.”
by Isabella Murray
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