Marcia Nichols: A legacy of advocacy

Photo of Marcia Nichols is by Charlie Wishman and published with permission.

AJ Jones is a writer. She is a creator of art and expresses herself across different mediums. She embraces her neurodivergence as a unique way to view the world and create a better future.

I remember the first time I met Marcia Nichols at my initial meeting with the Marion County Democrats. It was less than a year ago, and she was serving as ambassador to the Iowa Democratic Party. I was struck by how intently she listened to every word I said and gauged me steadily with her eyes. She asked clarifying questions, as if I had ideas which had never been considered before. Whether true or not, I felt seen and heard.  

Life happens and even remarkable events fall by the wayside. I learned of her death on a cold January day. People felt the impact as the news reverberated across the state. As Iowa geared up for a winter storm, people were making travel plans to see her one last time.

Sometimes you only realize later that you have been embraced by someone’s legacy.

Progress Iowa, an organization I have been involved with for the last half a year, recently sent out an invitation to their 12th birthday celebration. Included in the announcement was mention of the Marcia Nichols Advocate of the Year Award. I was naturally curious and emailed Progress Iowa executive director Matt Sinovic to learn more. 

“The Marcia Nichols award is one we’ve given out since 2016, when she retired. We gave the first one to her directly,” he said. “She was one of our founding board members, and there really wouldn’t be a Progress Iowa if it weren’t for her. I’m so glad I got to know her as well as I did.”

Marcia Nichols inducted into Iowa Labor Hall of Fame in 2019, with Danny Homan, Charlie Wishman, and Ken Sagar (photo by Maureen Nichols)

Wanting to know more, I contacted her sister, who put me in touch with Mitchell Stille, who’d worked with Marcia for six years. He explained that Marcia got her start working on various campaigns for years, then became a multi-client lobbyist. Continuing, Mitchell explained that Teddy Anderson, a beloved figure on the Hill who provided Nichols her entry point there, knew the ins and outs of politics and clearly saw how unbelievably talented Marcia was. Eventually, Marcia left being a multi-client lobbyist and spent the rest of her career with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

“If you want a history lesson, talk to [retired Iowa Senate Majority Leader] Mike Gronstal,” said Stille. “Mike’s known her in a lot of different capacities for a really long time.”

I caught Mike vacuuming the stairs to his attic.

I have about a million stories. The one that sticks out, encapsulates Marcia, as a little bit risky. There was a senator once — I don’t want to name him — but he said something on the floor of the Senate and kind of “indirectly” referred to the public employees (teachers, prison guards, nurses) as bottom feeders. People were pretty outraged that he referred to the hard-working employees that protect us from criminals and teach our kids, all those folks, as bottom feeders.

At this point, I pushed for a name and Gronstal wouldn’t give in, but did say that of course it wasn’t a Democrat because what Democrat would hate public employees? Gronstal continued, “So, Marcia shows up at the Capitol wearing a plastic/rubber giant catfish costume…”

“Like a bottom feeder?” I asked.

“Exactly. The catfish plastic was stiff, but I could pry the mouth open, and I stuck my whole head in and gave her a kiss on the cheek, and that’s what I did in front of an audience of hundreds of public employees at the Holiday Inn in downtown Des Moines.”

“Of course,” Gronstal’s voice lowered, “later we discovered that this particular legislator, over a three year period, got over a million dollars in farm subsidies, so I guess he was a top feeder.”

From Marcia’s obituary in the Des Moines Register: “Marcia’s legacy lies with many that she mentored over the years. Marcia never settled for complacency. She was a constant agitator for change and growth. She has been  described as a force of nature, a friend, an advocate, and someone you always want in your corner.” 

I believe we can all learn something from Marcia’s legacy, to pick up where she left off. To get involved. To make an impact. To guide the course for a state to be proud of.

On Friday, March 22, from 6 to 8 PM at the Tom and Ruth Harkin Center (2800 University Avenue in Des Moines), Progress Iowa will celebrate 12 years, with Jess Piper as keynote speaker. The Ruth and Tom Harkin Hero Award will be given to an elected official who promotes progressive values. And the Marcia Nichols Progressive Advocate of the Year, named after one of Progress Iowa’s founding board members, given to an Iowan who used their voice to stand for our shared values. 

On March 23, Progress Iowa will bring together motivated progressives for a day packed with training and information. Speakers include Rev. Rob Johnson, Liz (from Iowa) Fleming, Sam Helmick, Melissa Peterson, Anne Discher, Daniel Gutman, and Carolina Ramos.

Marcia Nichols inducted into Iowa Labor Hall of Fame 2019 (photo by Maureen Nichols)

About the Author(s)

AJ Jones

  • Marcia Nichols

    Marcia played an outsized role in LGBT legislative bills, especially the anti-discrimination law. With AFSCME’s support (I assume Marcia played a strong role in that endorsement) and Marcia’s ongoing advice, 2007 was an excellent year for LGBT and civil rights. So, thank you for your story. I hope Gronstal will tell more stories, too