"I respectfully ask for the vote of every Iowan who is fed up with politics and government as usual." So reads the tag line on Jon Neiderbach's campaign website. Neiderbach was the second Democrat to join a field that may eventually include six or more candidates for governor.
Speaking to a packed room of activists in Des Moines recently, the 2014 nominee for state auditor described himself as a "policy wonk" but also "a community advocate" who has spent most of his political life "on the outside. As an advocate, as an organizer, as somebody who isn't happy with the status quo."
The basic principles driving Neiderbach's candidacy appear on his Facebook page:
In 2018 let's elect a Governor who believes Iowa needs to Stand Tall for our values and Aim High with our ambitions. A Governor who understands Iowans are FED UP with politics controlled by the wealthy and government that is unresponsive to the needs and concerns of our working families. A Governor who rejects big contributions so as to be beholden only to the voters, and who will fight harder and do more to shake up Iowa politics and government than anyone else you can vote for in 2018. I respectfully ask for your support and for your vote.
Neiderbach elaborated on those themes in an early version of his stump speech, which I enclose below. I also transcribed a short interview, in which Neiderbach shared his approach to finding common ground with some political adversaries, as well as thoughts on lingering divisions within the Iowa Democratic Party between those who favored Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
Since declaring his candidacy in February, Neiderbach has appeared at Democratic events in Davis, Decatur, Story, Polk, and Scott counties. He was a guest speaker at the Northwest Des Moines Democrats monthly meeting on March 21. A natural extrovert, he engages easily with people in small groups and does not come across as delivering a rehearsed text, which can be a problem for some candidates.
Before getting to the meat of his speech, Neiderbach thanked this group of activists, who mostly live in the Beaverdale area, for setting the standard for other Democratic neighborhood groups. He's vice chair of the Windsor Heights Democrats. He also praised State Representative Chris Hall, who had spoken before him, providing an update on the state budget and other major issues pending in the legislature. Neiderbach spent fifteen years as a fiscal and policy analyst for the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (now known as the Legislative Services Agency) and told Hall, "It's really cool to see a fellow Grinnell grad be such a policy wonk on state issues."
My transcript of the rest of his remarks:
By way of background, I've already said more than ten words, so you all can tell that I probably did not grow up in Iowa. If you can hear me at all, you know I grew up somewhere back East. I grew up in New York, on Long Island. [...] My grandfather was a cooper who made, who wound up starting a business that made water tanks that go on the top of tall buildings, and my grandmother was [...] maternal side was in pickles of all things. [...] Anyway, on my dad's side, small business in terms of cloth buttons. You would never think a living could be made selling replacement cloth buttons, but he made a good living doing that, and we have great letters from [First Lady] Bess Truman. He would send samples for some reason to Bess Truman, and these letters thanking him for the cloth buttons. I have no idea if she ever used them.
OK, I grew up in New York. When I was 18, I came to Iowa to attend Grinnell College, as I talked about a little bit. So I can say that New York was great, but as soon as I was old enough to make a decision for myself, I left. I moved to Iowa. I've been here ever since, except for three years in law school in Oregon. So Iowa is certainly my adopted home, 42 years here, my wife is a fifth-generation Iowan, I say in my defense. [She's] from southern Iowa, full of all the things that people do from southern Iowa. Anybody here from southern Iowa? OK, what do you call the pedal that you press to make the car go? All her family and all her extended family call it the "footfeet." I certainly never heard of such a thing when I moved here from New York. [...] So she's a longtime Iowan, and all her extended family.
Came here for Grinnell, went to law school in Oregon, came back. I couldn't stand being away from Iowa politics. Went to work for the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, fifteen years doing non-partisan budget analysis that both Republicans and Democrats, both House and Senate relied upon. So I learned the value of being non-partisan, and also I got an incredibly intimate knowledge of how the legislative process works, with all its warts, OK?
After fifteen years, went to work for the Iowa Department of Human Services. During that time, I was on the Des Moines School Board for four years, and before that spent an awful lot of time poking at the Des Moines School board for policy issues. I've been a community advocate--most of my life has been spent, in terms of politics, on the outside. As an advocate, as an organizer, as somebody who isn't happy with the status quo.
I know many of you--I suspect many of you are thinking, "How can Jon be so presumptuous to say, to come to us asking for support for governor?" Well frankly, I didn't expect to do this. I really thought after doing a statewide campaign for state auditor--'14 was a bad year--after doing that, I was kind of worn out from doing statewide politics, certainly. People, people sometimes don't realize how big Iowa is in terms of campaigning, because people are spread out all across the state, as opposed to some states, where there are mountains or deserts you don't have to worry about. Campaigning around Iowa is pretty exhausting. It's also very exhilarating, all the soup suppers, and all the meeting everybody. But it is exhausting. I did not plan, certainly, to do this.
But when I was going around the state in 2014, I picked up a really clear message from people. When you're running for state auditor, you really can't talk about issues. You can talk about how poorly the state audits are being done, but most people don't lie awake at night worrying about the quality of state audits. Obviously, most people have no idea what a state auditor really does. So I would go up to people and say, "How do you think Iowa government is working? How do you think government is working? Are you happy with your county government? Are you happy with your city government?"
And boy, when you go up to somebody in the Hy-Vee cafeterias, or--I don't want to offend anybody, but I went into Pizza Ranches [a frequent Iowa Republican campaign venue] and asked the same question. Or walking down main street in Atlantic or Lamoni or Decorah, and you ask that question, you get an earful from people. People are more than happy to give you an opinion on what they think about government.
You know, 2014, and I don't think it's changed since then--people are pretty fed up. People are really not happy with how government is working in Iowa. I'm not happy with how government is working in Iowa. What I hear from people when I go out more recently and ask, and also in 2014, is that people feel they have no voice unless they have a lot of money. They feel they have to pay to play, they don't have the resources they need to do that, and they feel things are happening that are outside of their control.
Frankly, I haven't really done this a lot since the legislative session started. I suspect I'd be hearing the intensity even more strongly now. Once it warms up, I'll, you know, get out more on main street, and I'm going to start campaigning more. But people are pretty fed up with the political system. And frankly, it isn't just, people are fed up with Republicans. People are fed up with both sides. Some people feel that there isn't a difference between the parties. I try and point out differences, but as Chris [Hall] pointed out, people get their information from all kinds of different ways, and there's an emotional and a rational component. Emotionally, people feel like the system is out of control, they don't have a say, and it really doesn't make a difference who gets in.
We know differently. It makes a big difference who gets in. But out talking to neighbors, I'm sure you'll all find, a lot of people feel that it doesn't make a lot of difference. And sometimes, sometimes we contribute to this, I have to say. I mean, everybody's talking about the business tax cut of a few years ago [the 2013 commercial property tax cut] that caused us to be in this huge fiscal mess. Well, the business tax cut didn't happen only with Republican votes. There were Democratic votes that put it through in the Senate. I know it was part of a deal [referring to Democrats agreeing to the property tax cut in order to secure Medicaid expansion]. But it really has hamstrung us, has really caused a lot of damage, and will continue to do so in the future unless we repeal it.
Let's talk about all these tax credits. Very frankly, you know, we have not been pristine on that. Yes, we have pushed Earned Income Tax Credits, we have pushed a lot of good tax credits for individuals. But we also have gone along with a lot of business tax credits that are causing a lot of damage to the state budget. People are fed up, and I think we won't have a lot of success until we recognize that and address it directly, and Chris talked about that.
As Democrats, I think it's really important that we stand tall. We have a great platform that was put together during the process of caucuses, county caucuses, Congressional district caucuses and the state convention. We have a great platform. We shouldn't shy away from it. Too often, we do. We're too afraid or too timid to go bold. We think we're going to alienate people. And instead, I would argue, we wind up not making it clear to people what we stand for. So I think it's really important that we stand tall and defend the platform. Go out there and be bold. Aim high.
There are ambitious things that Iowa needs. I think we all can talk about what those are. Obviously the very, very first thing, once we take power in 2018, is reversing all the horrible things Republicans have done. [applause] There's no question about that. Collective bargaining has to be fixed, there's a long list, we all know what they are, OK? We have to fund education adequately, the mental health, the Medicaid health system is frankly going to collapse, the privatized system is going to collapse under its own weight, because companies aren't going to stay around. So that's going to be something we need to fix. Lots of things we need to repair.
But we also need an ambitious agenda that doesn't just play on Republican turf. Things that we are defining. The very first thing I would say we need to do is campaign finance reform. [applause]
People talk about Republicans, and I--you know, maybe because I was non-partisan for so many years, I talk to a lot of Republican legislators on Facebook chat, OK? I mean, you know, I always try to separate the personal from the political, to some extent. And also, it's never a bad idea to be able to contact someone and say, you know, I know you are really politically bound on this thing, but this doesn't make any sense. Or something like that, sort of, without a lot of partisan stuff getting in the way.
They're not real happy. They're not enjoying this session. But they're stuck. I'm not defending them--what they're doing is horrible, offensive, gross, they should be ashamed of themselves. But they're also politically stuck. They promised these folks who gave them money, that when they took control, they would do a, b, c, d, and so on. And they're doing it. I mean, on one level, from a purely normative democratic theory point of view--kind of a jargon poli sci term--but in terms of how politics is supposed to work, they're doing what they said they'd do, as horrible as it is. But it's all because they took the money.
And quite frankly, I won't go into detail, but the shoe is on the other foot too. There are times that bills do move forward because we have taken money, big donations, or bills don't get moved forward. We need to clean up campaign finance. And there's a lot that can be done even in the context of [the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling] Citizens United. We can't solve it without a constitutional amendment, but we can address it.
The second thing I would say in terms of going out there and inspiring Iowans is eradicate hunger. Iowa is the leader in the production of--I'm not going to list all the things we're the leader in production of--obviously, many, many agricultural products, and the things we're not the leader in, we're, you know, second or third. Iowa is one of the leaders in almost every category of food production. Why do we have hungry people in the state of Iowa? [applause] We can create jobs, we can [fill] the food pantries, where our county supervisors have done a great job working on that, and figuring out where the holes are, and trying to coordinate better, lots of good progress. We just need a government/private/religious/non-profit partnership that says we're going to eradicate hunger.
Three, is student debt. And frankly, I don't have to explain to anybody. I don't know--if you're older, you may well have kids who are taking out large amounts of student debt, or maybe you're still paying your own student debt. If you're younger, you're doing it yourself. How did this happen? When I went to school, we wound up with student debt, but it wasn't the kind of numbers, and the kind of paying it back for decades that we have now. I mean, it happened because we kept cutting higher eduction, financial aid doesn't keep up. But as a policy we need to put money towards the goal of saying higher education or college and vocational should be debt-free. [applause]
The other one I'll talk about, and I want to get to questions, is tax reform. Chris talked about some questions about these credits, which are ridiculous. We've been throwing around money for tax credits for years, and it doesn't count as an expenditure. And yes, they're taken off the balance sheet on one level, but still, it's awfully freely given out. The tax credits are absurd. As Chris talked about, we need to make sure we protect the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Adoption Tax Credit, the Child Care Tax Credit. [applause] They're refundable, and should be refundable.
But more than that, we could have a postcard--we could have a non-postcard state tax, where the Department of Revenue simply takes the information from the IRS, and what you filed, and just issues you a refund. Or if you have to pay, you have to pay your bill. But we could simplify things so much. Yes, there are differences, I know, I haven't quite figured out how to deal with the marriage penalty. But there are ways of doing this. Obviously, the federal marriage penalty exists, and the state does not. But let's--if we go up to people and talk about simplifying state taxes, that is something that really has a lot of appeal. You don't have to change the distribution, you don't have to make anybody pay any more. In fact, you can do some things real easily by lowering the federal tax rate, and it lowers taxes for a lot of Iowans, but raises them for other groups of Iowans. But simplifying taxes.
There's a lot of other things: having micro-lending for economic development in rural areas, lots of different [programs for] water quality paid for by the polluters, not by sales tax. [applause] The sales tax may be an interim first step, but eventually, have the polluters pay for it. There are a lot of things we can talk about, but the point is, aiming high. Having proposals that people on the main streets of Atlantic, Lamoni, or Decorah--I don't know why I always pick those three cities, some of my favorite ones, maybe because they have good restaurants. But there are plenty of issues that people in those cities, all across Iowa, Red Oak--I'm trying to think of northwest Iowa places too. You know, Steve King country would like many of those issues. We need to aim high and get out of the traditional mold, is what I'm arguing.
So I'll probably stop there and just say that there are two things I'm promising. I've watched a lot of politicians, you know, I've worked with a lot of politicians over the years. And they always tell me never promise anything that you can't deliver, because it will come back to haunt you. I'll just promise two things. One is, I will fight tirelessly for campaign finance reform, and not take any contribution of more than $500. You know, if you aren't--if you can't be the change you want, you're not very credible.
And number two, is there is no candidate you can vote for in 2018 who will shake things up in Iowa government, county government, and local government more than I will.
I spoke with Neiderbach for about ten minutes as the March 21 event wound down. Here is the audio clip, for those who want to listen. I didn't transcribe the first part, regarding the previous evening's election of Sean Bagniewski as the new Polk County Democratic Party chair. Neiderbach serves on the Polk County Central Committee and supported Bagniewski (one of Hillary Clinton's leading Iowa supporters before the 2016 caucuses) in that election. Having known Bagniewski for decades, he considers him an outstanding organizer with the ability to the "build the party and do it in a way that welcomes everyone."
As we began talking about his gubernatorial campaign, Neiderbach said he is looking forward to traveling around the state. In addition to meeting with local press and attending Democratic events, he finds it "very exciting and very invigorating" to approach people on main streets, in coffee shops, and in grocery stores.
People like to talk. Iowans like to talk about politics. I have this great story--in Decorah, it was minus 6 degrees, and I was needing a few more signatures [on his 2014 nominating petitions] to get that county. And people would stop and talk about state auditor. It was minus 6 degrees on the street. Iowans like to talk politics. [...]
I know there's a lot of cynicism that we can find common ground. And obviously, there are many people you can't find common ground [with]. I can't find common ground with [WHO radio host] Simon Conway. I have tried, OK? But I know I can find common ground with [WHO radio host] Jan Mickelson. I mean--
Bleeding Heartland: What's the common ground with Jan Mickelson? Wasteful tax giveaways--
Neiderbach: Right--he wants more efficient government. And we waste a lot of money right now. I mean, you can't go into all the details, and we have fifteen months before the primary. Our structure of government is so outdated. I'm not saying take anything away from anyone, but consolidate services, some bureaucratic layers are simpler. Not in Polk County or in the counties that are large. But some of these little counties, you can't do a real audit, because, I mean--you know there are problems, because they can't have separation of duties. You know there are problems, because there are no economies of scale. You know, there's a lot of inefficiency out there.
So some of the same things I talked about in 2014 apply, in terms of saving taxpayers money. They're not glamorous, and they're not, you know, politically sexy, but they are things that appeal to conservative voters. But you know--Bob Vander Plaats is not going to want to have the adoption subsidy in the same pool as the corporate taxes [as under a proposal from Iowa House Appropriations Committee Chair Pat Grassley], because there won't be any money left for the people who are getting the adoption subsidy, which is something near and dear to him. So there's always common ground.
I mean, I have never seen a situation, I have never met any politician who I disagree with on everything. Some people want to say, if you disagree with them on, you know, a list of issues. The most recent conversation I had was abortion. If you disagree with them on abortion, you shouldn't deal with them at all. And I don't think that's the way the world works. Everything is constantly changing coalitions, if we're going to make better, more progressive policy.
BH: In the environmental movement, you know, to get the solar tax credits [through the Iowa legislature], they worked with the Pork Producers on that.
Neiderbach: Right, right.
BH: On water quality, they're totally on opposite sides, but it's like, I'll work with the Pork Producers on solar tax credits.
Neiderbach: If you go--at the State Fair now, who is huge on alternative fuels, you know, has all those boilers out there for alternative fuels? It's all the farmers, and all--I mean, they're the ones using it because it makes sense. They can have wood pellets, they can do all this stuff.
BH: They have big energy inputs, so, yeah.
Neiderbach: So there's always people you can compromise with. Obviously, I'm, you know, I'm 100 percent pro-reproductive rights. But to say that anybody who doesn't agree with you can't be talked to--I mean, nobody who does politics at all--Bernie wouldn't say that.
Neiderbach: And people get a little--when I say those things about him. I have to say, I respect where they're coming from and the motive and where their heart is. It's not how I look at the world.
BH: I know you've only done a few events so far, but when you are talking to people, do people ask you whether you supported Hillary or Bernie?
BH: How often does that come up?
Neiderbach: It happened tonight, somebody at the bar.
BH: And do you feel like--
Neiderbach: I mean, there is going to be--there is going to be a cleavage. Not because of who they supported, but because of what they advocate. How it breaks out, I mean, we may wind up with six or eight candidates for governor.
BH: That's right.
Neiderbach: I mean, there are a lot--we may have seen another one today [alluding to Chris Hall]. (laughs) I wouldn't be shocked. There will be a difference of opinion on a lot of issues, but I think--it may be related, I mean, not everybody made their pick of [presidential] candidates based on issues, with Bernie versus Hillary. There were lots of other things going on too.
Neiderbach: So it may not be a one-to-one correspondence, but there will be some differences of opinion.
BH: Do you feel that it's--some people are of the opinion that this is holding back the Democrats now, that some people are perpetuating the Hillary and Bernie split, and that we need to move on from that and not be talking about that.
Neiderbach: I grew up in New York. People in Iowa don't know what a split is in the Democratic Party. (laughs) With all respect--I mean, I was very involved when I was in high school, OK? I was very involved in the New Democratic Coalition, the reform side. I mean--I was never involved in this, but in some places in Brooklyn it got physical. I mean, people were--
BH: Those machines were serious.
Neiderbach: Yeah, the Brooklyn machine was insane, and Queens wasn't nothing either. I mean, you know--yes, it's an issue. We have to address it directly, I think by--
BH: Do we have to address it directly, or could it--is it just going to blow over eventually? People will stop talking about it.
Neiderbach: Well, I'm not sure you can do anything about it, but everything you do has to be aware of it. I mean, an example, a missed opportunity was the Democratic National Convention [when no Sanders delegates were involved in announcing Iowa's votes for the nominee]. I mean, we have to make sure that doesn't happen, because that, every time is like, "Here's salt, here's wound." And it's not good.
But the weird thing about this race [for governor] is that nobody has the foggiest idea how it's going to shape up. I mean, it could be five candidates, it could be eight, or it could be--I think it's highly unlikely it's the current three [Rich Leopold, Neiderbach, and Todd Prichard].