Five Democrats who might run for Congress in IA-01

Despite the huge swing toward Donald Trump and down-ballot Republicans in northeast Iowa last year, Democrats are gearing up for a major challenge to GOP Representative Rod Blum in Iowa's first Congressional district. Many Iowans considered Blum's 2014 victory a fluke of a GOP wave year, but he outperformed Trump by about 5 points while winning re-election in 2016.

Now IA-01 is in the top tier of pickup opportunities for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer Blair Lawton is already on the ground organizing for the Iowa Democratic Party in the district.

A competitive Democratic primary here is a near-certainty. After the jump, I've posted background on five possible candidates, in alphabetical order. I'd welcome tips on others who may be considering this race.

The 20 counties in IA-01 contain 164,485 active registered Democrats, 144,687 Republicans, and 189,606 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. The largest-population counties are Linn (the Cedar Rapids metro area), Black Hawk (Waterloo/Cedar Falls metro), and Dubuque, a traditional Democratic stronghold that is also Blum’s home base.

State Senator Jeff Danielson was just elected to a fourth term in Senate district 30, covering Cedar Falls or parts of Waterloo in Black Hawk County. He's the ranking member on the Senate Education Appropriations subcommittee and also serves on the Education and State Government committees. He could run for Congress in 2018 without giving up his state legislative seat, because senators serve four-year terms. Danielson considered a Congressional campaign four years ago but took himself out of the running in the summer of 2013. When I asked yesterday whether he might challenge Blum next year, Danielson told me, "All options are on the table."

Excerpts from the "Meet Jeff" page at the senator's website:

I was born in Waterloo and attended local schools in Cedar Falls and Waterloo.

After graduation from Central High in Waterloo in 1988, I joined the Navy. Kim and I first met at Edison Jr. High and later married, making us a Navy family.

I served from 1988 to 1994, completing deployments to the western Pacific and the Persian Gulf, earning the Navy Good Conduct, Armed Forces Expeditionary, Southwest Asia and National Defense Service medals. I left the Navy as a Petty Officer 2nd Class to come home with Kim and our son Brendan.

Back home, while working and raising a family, I utilized the G.I. Bill to earn an Associate of Arts from Hawkeye Community College, a Bachelors of Arts in Public Administration (Summa Cum Laude), a minor in Leadership Studies and a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Northern Iowa. Throughout my college career, I was a Golden Key International Honor Society member and earned UNI’s Purple & Old Gold award for meritorious scholarship as the highest grade point (3.96) graduate in the Public Administration program.

Being able to serve my community as a fire fighter is a privilege I do not take for granted. I began working as a fire fighter for the City of Cedar Falls while completing my graduate degree at the University of Northern Iowa and continue to work as a fire fighter while serving in the Iowa Senate.

I returned to UNI in 2006, this time to teach future generations as Professor of Public Policy. My family and I are strong supporters and fans of UNI athletics and activities and try to attend as many games/events as possible. I try to continue serving our community by volunteering for several community boards, commissions & organizations, including:

Iowa Department of Transportation Commission
City of Waterloo’s Planning, Programming and Zoning Commission
Hawkeye chapter of the American Red Cross
UNI Leadership Advisory Board
Black Hawk Economic Development, Inc.
Lifetime member of the Cedar Falls Amvets Post #49
UNI Alumni Association
Waterloo Exchange Club
Cedar Falls Firefighters Association
Iowa Firemen’s Association
Waterloo Elks Lodge #290
International Association of Fire Fighters

As a fire fighter and State Senator, I feel a strong responsibility to serve the people of the Cedar Valley to the best of my ability and remain active in our community. I enjoy attending community events like Iowa Irish Fest, Hudson Days, Sturgis Falls, My Waterloo Days and countless other events that highlight what makes our communities great.

State Representative Abby Finkenauer is serving her second term in the Iowa House, representing a district in Dubuque. She's the ranking member on the State Government Committee and also serves on the House Commerce, Economic Growth, and Transportation committees. Pat Rynard broke the news on Saturday that she is thinking about running for Congress:

“I’ve been listening to my constituents and friends across the 1st District who are asking me to seriously consider running,” Finkenauer told Starting Line. “The 1st District [has] people who work hard, want a fair shot, and hope to be able to make a living that allows one day for a down payment on a house or to sign their kids up for baseball or softball and maybe even college. It’s how I grew up. I also grew up knowing that you step up where you’re needed … I’d say I’m to the point in the process where I’m ‘stepping up.'”

Finkenauer criticized Blum for not holding a “real public town hall” to hear from the constituents that are worried over Congress’ actions since the election. [...]

“I think we need to really go back to our roots of being the party that understands what it’s like to be working class, to say, you know, the system isn’t working for everyone and our wages are way too low and our families and neighbors are struggling,” Finkenauer said. “We also need to not forget that we can fight for better wages, better education, but also equality and inclusiveness. There’s room for everyone and I’m not going to forget that, and our Democratic Party can once again be a place of hope and champions for all families who deserve a fair shot.”

Since Iowa House members serve two-year terms, Finkenauer would have to give up her state legislative seat in order to run against Blum. (Anesa Kajtazovic gave up a Waterloo-based Iowa House seat in 2014 but did not win the Democratic primary in IA-01.) Here's more background on Finkenauer from the "About" page of her campaign website:

Abby Finkenauer grew up a daughter of a Union Pipefitter Welder and a 17-year Dubuque Community Schools employee. She was taught at a very early age that in a working class household, you must say,”Yes,” to every opportunity and when there was work to be done, you do it. Her late grandfather, a Dubuque Lt. Firefighter, instilled the importance of public service and giving back to the community. These values lead Finkenauer to be chosen as a Congressional Page for the US House of Representatives at the age of 16. She then graduated from Hempstead High School and became Speaker’s Page for the Iowa House of Representatives in 2007. She sat next to then Speaker Pat Murphy as Iowa raised the minimum wage and added sexual orientation to the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Through this experience she became aware of the value of state government and stayed involved in the process as she went on to work as the State of Iowa Volunteer Coordinator for VP Biden’s presidential campaign in 2007 and later graduated from Drake University. The last few years, Finkenauer was a legislative assistant in the Iowa House for Representative Todd Taylor. She currently works for the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque and is actively involved in various community programs. Finkenauer has been endorsed by AFSCME Council 61, Plumbers & Pipefitters 125, and Dubuque Building and Construction Trades Council consisting of representation from 18 labor unions. She believes that it is imperative to the future of Dubuque and Iowa to actively engage and retrain it’s young people while striving to combat inequality through supporting Iowa’s education system and it’s labor force.

UPDATE: Here's a video of Finkenauer speaking on the Iowa House floor during last week's debate on the horrible collective bargaining bill:

Brent Oleson chairs the Linn County Board of Supervisors. He was among the first prominent Iowa Republicans to support marriage equality and has long been a vocal supporter of conservation and environmental funding. Oleson switched to the Democratic Party in 2015 and became a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention last year. Last week, he spoke out against the Republican collective bargaining bill.

Oleson told me yesterday,

I was encouraged by supporters to consider the race given my history of independent thought and following my convictions rather than the establishment class of either political party. The people who know me best know my passion for conservation, public lands and parks, environmental issues, my work on labor issues and views on fair trade deals, and that I'm very proud of my rural, Catholic, working class roots being raised in a family of ten supported only by our father on the third shift of a United Auto Workers (UAW) manufacturing job.

The working people of eastern Iowa are clearly not being represented in Washington, DC by Donald Trump sycophant Congressman Rodney L. Blum. Congressman Blum has accomplished nothing in his tenure, failed on every trite political campaign promise he has made, and appears to be taken not very seriously by his colleagues, given his limited and inconsequential committee assignments.

I will be in Washington, DC at the end of February to keep working on his failed flood recovery response for Linn County and get a better sense if I could make a difference on other issues as well. I'm haven't made any decisions on how to best serve my community and won't take these urgings lightly. Given the state of political affairs in Iowa and Washington, DC, clearly there is a need for people who can fight for fairness and find a way to make our institutions of government work for everyone instead of the political extremists of either party.

Excerpts from the "About Brent" page of the Oleson for Supervisor website:

Supervisor Brent Oleson is a dedicated, passionate public servant who is involved in the community and committed to making Linn County a desirable place to work, live and grow. Oleson’s professional experience includes as an attorney in the private practice of law, working in state government with the Secretary of State’s Office, the Legislative Services Bureau, and serving as Senior Legislative Counsel to the Majority (2006) and Minority (2007-8) Leader’s office in the Iowa Senate.

Brent resides in Marion with his children, Kennedy and Quinn. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa (B.A. Political Science, Communications, 1995) and the University of Iowa College of Law (Juris Doctorate 2000).


• Brent is the current Chair of the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency Board of Directors. He is also a member of the Marion Economic Development Company (MEDCO) and the Prospect Meadows Ball Fields (PMBF) Board of Directors.
• Brent represents Linn County in the Iowa State Association of Counties (ISAC) as a member of the Land Use and Rural Affairs Committee and the Supervisors Affiliate Executive Committee.
• On the national level, Brent serves as a member of the National Association of Counties (NACo) Environment, Energy and Land Use Steering Committee and is the Vice Chair of its Land & Solid Waste Subcommittee. Oleson is also a member of NACo’s Green Government Advisory Board.

Brent is a member of or active in the following groups:
• St. Matthew’s Catholic Church
• Friends of Linn County Conservation
• National Rifle Association
• Indian Creek Nature Center
• Linn County Trails Association
• Iowa Sierra Club
• University of Iowa Alumni Association
• Linn County & National I-Club
• Linn County Pheasants Forever
• Cedar Valley Humane Society
• American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
• Animal Rescue League - Iowa
• Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
• Linn County Farm Bureau
• Trees Forever
• Iowa Prairie Network
• Iowa Bar Association
• Iowa Water & Land Legacy Fund

Courtney Rowe is an engineer based in Cedar Rapids. She was a state convention delegate and alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention for Bernie Sanders in 2016. Rowe discussed her campaign goals with Bleeding Heartland last month. Here's more background information:

Courtney has a B.S. from Purdue University in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, with a minor in both Aerospace Studies (Air Force ROTC) and Political Science. Currently she works as a Sr Systems Engineer in Commercial Systems Fly-by-wire Flight Controls.

In the community, she currently serves as the Treasurer of PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays]. She has served as an engineering mentor for the middle school Future City competition. In college she served as Regional Executive Officer for Region VI for Silver Wings, a professional organization dedicated to creating proactive, knowledgeable, and effective civic leaders through community service and education about national defense. In the past she has served on multiple church mission boards, served as a mission board chair, and on a search and call committee. Faith is an important part of her life. She is married to Raven, who serves as the chaplain in the behavioral health and chemical dependency units at a local hospital.

She has volunteered on several campaigns, both presidential and local (including [Barack] Obama, [Bernie] Sanders, [2016 IA-01 Democratic nominee Monica] Vernon, and [Iowa House Democrat Liz] Bennett). She is involved in the local Democratic Party, serving as an Associate Member on the Linn County Democratic Central Committee. She attended the county, district, state, and national conventions in 2016 as a delegate (1st District Alt to National Convention) and as a credentials committee member (district, state, national).

At the state convention, she added two planks to the Iowa Democratic State Platform through petition, and floor vote. This included creating single sheet background papers to explain complex technical issues to a non-technical audience. One was to support the research and the removal of Orbital Debris, which currently threatens our satellites in LEO, including those monitoring and collecting data on Climate Change. The second was on responsible Patent Reform. There are efforts to make patents only valuable to large corporations, by making it legally impractical for small entities to defend their patents. This could be disastrous to our scientific and engineering research communities. One of these disastrous bills was authored by Iowa’s very own Sen [Chuck] Grassley.

Rowe has been planning a Congressional campaign for several weeks. On Sunday I asked her whether other candidates entering the race would affect her decision.

No. I welcome them entering the race. I think we should have a lively debate on issues and ideas in a primary. I would be disappointed to find myself alone in the field. I consider Supervisor Olesen a friend. We have differences on issues, that I believe will stimulate discussion in the party. I do not know Rep. Finkenauer, but I know she is friends with a fellow district 1 delegate to the National Convention, who I consider a friend.

I think we have lost the purpose of primaries in the recent past. The purpose is for our party to have the necessary discussion about what issues and ideas matter most to us, and what we are looking for in a candidate for the position. This allows us to unite behind that candidate, and to champion the platform of that campaign.

I intend to run an issue and idea based campaign, and would welcome anyone in the race who intends to do the same. We need more discussion, not less. The only thing that would disappoint me, is if this becomes a negative mud slinging affair. That is destructive and counter productive to the goal of having the best nominee to win in November. We should certainly be critical of ideas and fairly characterize records and experience, but we should not lower ourselves to petty personal attacks in a party primary. We will need to overcome those attacks in the general, and I believe the best way to do that is with enthusiasm around ideas that appeal to a variety of voters.

Steve Sodders represented Marshall and Tama counties for two terms in the Iowa Senate before losing his 2016 re-election bid. He considered running for Congress four years ago and told me yesterday, "I am currently keeping all my options open on a possible run for public office. I am meeting with folks in the next couple weeks to determine what I believe will suit my family and where I can be most effective for Iowans."

From the "About Steve" page of his Iowa Senate campaign website:

Steve Sodders is a father, Deputy Sheriff, and State Senator representing Marshall, Tama, and part of Black Hawk County.

For 26 years, Steve has served his community in the Marshall County Sheriff's office. As Deputy Sheriff, he spends his days working to keep the county safe. He's also been a detective on the Mid-Iowa Drug Task Force and an instructor in the D.A.R.E. program.

In 2008, he decided to increase his service to his community by running for State Senate. Steve brings his common-sense, bi-partisan approach to solving community problems to the Capitol, and has been an advocate for the people of his district from day one.

Steve lives in State Center with his wife of 23 years, Carrie, and together they have two children: Adam, a Cyclone studying at ISU, and Maggie, a future Hawkeye.

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