A pioneering Iowa Democrat: Don't tell Josh Turek what can't be done

State Representative Josh Turek talks with 6-year-old Hayes Hofmeister in Des Moines during a recent summit on advocacy for people with disabilities. Photo by Douglas Burns.

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa journalist. He is the co-founder of the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation and a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative, where this article first appeared on The Iowa Mercury newsletter. His family operated the Carroll Times Herald for 93 years in Carroll, Iowa where Burns resides.

Six-year-old Hayes Hofmeister of rural Cedar Rapids, a Springville, Iowa farm kid, can’t stop talking about Josh Turek — “that guy in the wheelchair” — the one who plays basketball and has Paralympics gold medals. The one who inspired him at Camp Sunnyside.

Born with Spina Bifida, Hayes, a bright-eyed kindergartner excitedly rolled his own wheelchair toward State Representative Josh Turek of Council Bluffs at the Easterseals Camp in Des Moines on a recent fall Saturday morning. They started talking, one on one, as Hayes’ mom and grandmother beamed.

Turek, too, is in a wheelchair. In fact, he’s Iowa’s first permanently and visibly disabled legislator. Coming of age in an Iowa basketball family, Turek won three medals in the Paralympics as he represented the United States. He then played basketball professionally in Europe before returning to Iowa and winning one of the closest state legislative races in Hawkeye State history.

“You know, Hayes,” Turek, who also was born with Spina Bifida, told the boy. “You can do anything. Do you like basketball? You can play. Right over there. Head to the gym and get a ball. Just go get a ball and see if you like it. Find something you like to do. You can do anything you want.”

The exchange continues to motivate Hayes, his mother, Hanna Hofmeister, an eastern Iowa livestock farmer, said in a phone interview earlier this week.

“It was just nice to see Josh in that capacity, and for Hayes to see that,” said Hanna Hofmeister. “He’s still taking about ‘that guy in the wheelchair playing basketball.’ We live in a rural community. The only people we see in wheelchairs are the elderly.”

Turek is 44.

Now, Hanna says, her son Hayes is watching Turek’s Paralympics basketball games on YouTube.

“I think probably 85 percent or 90 percent of the people who are in my sort of condition, or with similar disabilities, this situation breaks them and they don’t go on to live meaningful, successful lives,” Turek said in an interview during a drive with a reporter on Interstate 80 from Council Bluffs to Des Moines. “But the ones who do come through are stronger and those make the most interesting, hard-core people. Some of those that get broken become harder in the broken places. it’s totally true. The struggle builds the character. If you can get through that and it doesn’t completely break you, it makes you stronger, a much more interesting individual.”


The streets of Council Bluffs stubbornly turn quickly and jet up hills — and it can be a long walk from the street to a door.

Door-to-door retail politics is more challenging here than in flatter reaches of the state where the horizon isn’t interrupted by hill after hill after hill. Even candidates in the best of shape find the task arduous.

But this is the city from which Iowa’s first visibly permanently disabled state legislator emerged.

A Council Bluffs native, Turek, a Democrat in his first term, returned home to build a life and run for office after representing his country in the Paralympics, winning the two gold meals and a bronze in basketball.

In the 2022 race Turek climbed and “crawled” — the latter his own description — to 14,000 doors in House District 20 — Council Bluffs and Carter Lake. He won the seat by just six votes — 3,403 to 3,397.

“Not every individual with a disability has that ability to do so,” Turek said. “I just crawled stairs, crawled with my wheelchair up there, won by six votes. Now. I’m here.”

Turek is a three-time medal winner for the United States Paralympics basketball team

Speaking a Latino event in Bayliss Park in downtown Council Bluffs recently, the Pottawattamie County Democratic Party chair Lisa Lima said Turek’s work ethic is among the best she’s seen in local politics.

“He really put in the work, he was there every day, he was knocking on doors, having conversations with people,” Lima said. “I think that’s what makes the difference. I see him going far. He’s a dynamic personality. He’s a man that doesn’t settle for mediocrity. He has great plans.”

“I did some door knocking with him last year and I am just amazed,” Lima added. “I thought myself, an able-bodied person, should take the harder doors, but no, he’s doing it, overcoming those obstacles, just to talk to those people. He’s representing all people. We need that.”

Linda Nelson, a force in Iowa Democratic politics, a former Iowa House member and one-time president of the Iowa State Education Association, the muscular public school teachers’ union, sees Turek’s work ethic much as Lima does.

“As spring arrives again we can count on Representative Turek to be out in the neighborhoods across his district of Carter Lake and Council Bluffs, knocking on doors and listening to concerns and asking for votes,” Nelson said.

Turek’s intense focus is Council Bluffs. In fact, he quickly dismisses media speculation about his potential for statewide office.

He’s everywhere in this western-most Iowa city. Sometimes four or five events in a day. At Rotary meetings getting an update on the Army National Guard, then off to a meeting on dock and water issues at Carter Lake. 

The next day: working on a bipartisan plan to improve the relative tax situation in Council Bluffs to attract more residential and commercial development. He’s competitive and wants his city to develop.

And in polarized times, key Republicans like working with Turek, a Democrat they see as moderate, and results-oriented — and a man they like personally.

“Obviously, he works very hard and he’s had a good first session,” said State Representative Brent Siegrist, a Republican from Council Bluffs. “He’s all over the community — very thoughtful, very smart. We collaborate well. In terms of Council Bluffs, he’s a good representative for Council Bluffs.”

A veteran Republican and party leader, a former speaker of the Iowa House and nearly a congressman (save for a final GOP convention sprint by U.S. Representative Steve King, R-Kiron, two decades ago) Siegrist, of course, can’t actually endorse Turek — a Democrat. But Siegrist, whom Turek considers a mentor, comes close to sounding like Turek’s campaign manager.

Siegrist said Turek is a pioneer for the disabled in much the same way Black or Latino legislators were a generation ago, when the Iowa Legislature might only have one elected minority figure.

“It’s a lot of pressure on him because he is a permanently disabled person,” Siegrist said. “He is the focal point for anybody in the state of Iowa that may be disabled. They have somebody to call now. So that puts a lot of weight on him. That’s their guy.”

About 15 percent of the American population is disabled, making the community one of the more underrepresented in American government, Turek notes.

One of the leading advocates at the state capitol for people with disabilities is Carlyn Crowe, the public policy manager for the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council. Turek is a leader on policy, to be certain, she says. And his presence is vital for thousands of Iowans whose lives he understands more directly than most people, Crowe said.

“Most people need to see something visibly,” Crowe said. “His disability is visible. When you have to retrofit an old building (the Iowa Capitol) for however long Iowa has been the capitol, so somebody in wheelchair can get into the Legislature, and the building wasn’t even equipped to handle a person with a wheelchair, then some other issues that surround the disability community, then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Hmmnn, are we doing enough?’ It opens the discussion for more.”


The main thing about Josh Turek is he’s Council Bluffs through and through, says long-time Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh, a Republican.

“For the things he did, for a freshman House member, I felt it was unusual and I only anticipate that as he gets some seniority he’s going to do even better,” Walsh said. “People in town knew Josh before he got into politics.”

Walsh said Turek is “researched” and “spot on” with how he views Iowa’s current state of affairs, and its future.

“Josh came to see me earlier and it was evident he was a little smarter than the average bear,” Walsh said. “We developed a good friendship and I think the surprising thing in these days of politics is I can tell when I’m in Des Moines that he’s well respected by members of the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party. He relates well to our Republican elected officials from Southwest Iowa. They respect his opinion.”

Walsh said Republicans gave Turek a second look not afforded other Democrats.

“I don’t know that you get a third look unless you produce, and I think they like his perspective that he’s a listener, a doer, and has valuable input on stuff,” Walsh said. “He dove in and is learning that job at an accelerated pace of what I think typically would be the case.”

And the local ties can’t be underestimated, Walsh said.

Turek’s father, John Turek, is retired. His mother, Luellen Turek, also retired, was a state social worker for people with mental disabilities.

He has four siblings — three sisters — Ulette, Rachelle and Elisha.

Elisha is a Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln High School alum who went to Oral Roberts University and played professional basketball in Spain.

Turek’s brother, John, went to University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he played basketball. He also played 11 years of professional basketball in Europe.

“He (Josh) has a hell of a story to tell,” Siegrist said. “I think people understand that. The Turek name in Council Bluffs is kind of well known because his brother and sisters all played basketball.”

For his part, Turek maintains a vigorous exercise regimen. Friends and constituents often shout words of encouragement — or questions and comments on politics — as Turek nearly daily wheels or “pushes” from his home on Parkwild Drive in the Council Bluffs hills with sweeping views of downtown Omaha to the west to the YMCA a mile and half away.

“Josh has an inspiring story,” said State Auditor Rob Sand, a Democrat. “He’s got a really strong work ethic, and a bright future as a leader here in Iowa.”


As of press time for this column Republicans have not fielded a challenger for Turek’s Statehouse seat in what is a swing district, one in which a strong GOP contender would have a solid chance of snatching the seat, even from a local leader as popular as Turek. The tribalism and national identification with party, Democrat or Republican, is that defining. The election margin in 2022, after all, was 6 votes.

“I know the party’s working on it but no names so far,” Siegrist said. “I suspect they will try to find somebody in the end, but right now, I would say it appears he won’t have a formidable challenger. But that could change.”

Walsh, who has served as mayor for 10 years and in elected office for 28 years, said Turek has an essential attribute in politics at a high a level — empathy. It makes him both an effective policymaker and politician, Walsh said.

“I think the handicap brings benefits as well as detriments and that is empathy for the struggle of those that maybe haven’t been dealt the full set of cards they need to be successful in life,” Walsh said in an interview after a recent Council Bluffs Rotary Club meeting. “So he’s fought through that and knows what it’s like to break those barriers. I think he’s empathetic to those who need an ear.”

Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, a Windsor Heights Democrat, said Turek’s victory in 2022 was a huge step for statewide Democrats.

“He’s been up to the task for sure, and we’ve really seen him rise to the occasion,” Konfrst said.

The Iowa House Chamber was not accessible for people with disabilities before Turek’s arrival, Konfrst said.

“It was a really visible change to the chamber in a good way,” she said. “We were able to see through his eyes just how inaccessible the chamber was and we are glad it is more accessible now.”

Konfrst sees Turek’s background as leading to potential opportunities for higher office.

“Having an athlete in the caucus is always good because you know you are going to have a really competitive candidate and a really competitive legislator, and that’s certainly been true,” Konfrst said. “We know what motivates Josh. When we talk about how he only won by six votes we remind him that that’s only because he knocked doors that last day.”

Konfrst said Turek is known for wanting to get things done.

“I think without question Josh Turek has the ability to win statewide, whether that’s taking back Tom Harkin’s Senate seat, whether that’s running for governor, whether that’s running for a statewide office,” Konfrst said. “He has appeal across the state, and he has the work ethic to get it done. He has a good mix of confidence and humility, which is always hard to find in politicians.”

Former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin headlined a fundraiser for Turek in Council Bluffs on November 30

Turek recently met in Washington, D.C. with former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Harkin is largely out of the public eye now, save for appearances on non-partisan policy work for the disabled at the Tom and Ruth Harkin Institute on the campus of Drake University. But Harkin headlined a fund-raising campaign event for Turek’s Iowa House reelection in Council Bluffs on Thursday, November 30. 


In February 2021, then 17-year-old Owen Hansen of Council Bluffs suffered a devastating injury while snowboarding in his hometown.

The accident left him largely paralyzed from the shoulders down.

It’s a long fight, not just with the medical and physical realities of his new life, but with the state’s Medicaid system and other bureaucratic hurdles.

Turek works with one of his constituents, Owen Hansen of Council Bluffs, during a recent forum on Medicaid services. Photo by Douglas Burns

Hansen, 19, plans to start taking classes at Iowa Western Community College.

“I am interested in being a sports psychologist,” said Hansen, who enjoys watching football, wrestling and golf.

He’s also coached cheerleading in Omaha.

Turek is often by Hansen’s side. He was there for a hospital visit in Omaha in September, and just weeks ago, Turek sat with Hansen during a forum on Medicaid in Council Bluffs.

Turek and Hansen are working toward the latter’s independence, striving to create spaces where Hansen can achieve in his personal and professional life.

Hansen said it’s ironic that he’s represented by a legislator with a disability.

“It’s really, really comforting knowing that I have someone like that on my side,” Hansen said. “It’s not just that he’s my representative. It’s more like a friendship.”

And with Turek’s encouragement, and the advent of artificial intelligence and other technical advances, in medicine and life more broadly, Hansen said he allows himself to think of a more complete recovery.

“It’s kind of cool to think about maybe something like that may come up in my lifetime,” Hansen said. “I don’t want to get my hopes up or anything. It’s definitely in my mind, just more toward the back. I have what I have right now and I want to exercise that.”

“I think there is a connectedness that is really inside everybody,” Hansen said. “Everybody interprets it differently.”

Turek listened intently as Hansen described his life during a meeting at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.

“In a lot of ways I am more fortunate than you because I was born this way,” Turek said to Hansen. “I don’t miss running. I don’t miss walking. I can’t miss what I never had.”

About the Author(s)

Douglas Burns

  • this isn't about individual effort or ethics but community values (for better or worse)

    always good to have more representative government but have to note how much emphasis here is on his ability to be able-bodied enough to do what other candidates do which undercuts much of the message, and he isn’t succeeding where other folks aren’t because of some work ethic, also what is this ““I think probably 85 percent or 90 percent of the people who are in my sort of condition, or with similar disabilities, this situation breaks them and they don’t go on to live meaningful, successful lives”. Of people are being denied meaningful successful lives it’s the community that has failed not the individuals broken and abandoned.