Over the two-week congressional recess, 2chambers visited Iowa to explore how the state’s redistricting process has spawned two races likely to be among the most competitive and expensive in the country.
The race in Iowa’s 4th Congressional district pits Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) against Christie Vilsack (D), wife of Tom Vilsack, the state’s former governor who now serves as President Obama’s agriculture secretary.
Vilsack spoke with 2chambers at her campaign office in Ames, Iowa. A transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity, appears below:
2chambers: Why should you be elected to represent the 4th District?
Vilsack: “I’m a problem-solver. And I think what people in this district need, as I’ve talked to them, I went on a listening tour before I made the decision to run. And I’ve been listening to people in all 99 counties of Iowa for the last 14 to 15 years, but I wanted to know what’s on their minds right now. And it seems to be that they’re eager to repopulate.”
“My district has 39 counties, and my job is to help each of those 39 counties or help the towns within the counties or help the regions to create layers of economic opportunities for each of those places and help maximize their potentials.”
Your opponent, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), says that you decided two years ago to challenge him wherever he decided to run. True?
“I think the decision has been like 61 years in the making, because I’m a product of the place that I’m from, and the place that I’m from is not much different than anywhere else. Being the product of a small town, I know that the way we get things done in small towns is we get along.”
King says that your campaign is a proxy war in a years-long struggle between your husband, Tom Vilsack, and him.
“That’s his problem. I’m a political person in my own right. I’ve been in politics since long before I met my husband. I started the Young Democrats Club in my town with seven people when I was a sohphomore in high school. I was campaigning for John Kennedy in high school and my dad took me to see Harry Truman when I was three. I met Tom Vilsack and the first thing he said to me is who are you going to support in the election, Humphrey or Nixon?
“I’ve been doing politics for a long time and I’ve made my name in politics separate of him with all the presidential campaigns I’ve been involved in, starting with Joe Biden… standing with John Kerry, standing with Al Gore … I’ve traveled on a lot of people’s behalf. But I’ve also been an educator for 35 years and I’ve been a national leader on education for a long time. … I just have always seen myself as separate from my husband, so I don’t quite get that characterization. My husband’s been quite busy. He has a department of government to run. I’m really proud of everything that he’s done in politics, but I see this as really separate. And I wish that he [King] would see that too. I think I’m a worthy opponent as I am apart from my husband.”
“Women broke the sod here in Iowa. And the land that now produces all that corn and bean and eggs is because women came out here and lived this life and were pioneers. And almost every woman in this state my age or older didn’t have much choice about which jobs they had, and most of them were teachers. So if you’re going to suggest that women haven’t done anything or what I’ve done in my life isn’t worthy, then I think you’re going to offend a lot of people.”
How has the transition from spouse to politician been for you?
“In a way it’s easier to be the candidate than to be the spouse. You’re actually involved in it and you’re doing it. Being the spouse is always hard, because you’re a little bit on the outside watching and you want to be protective of people, protective of the person that you care about. It’s hard sometimes to do that. I was always the one every morning who got up and read the newspaper and reported in what they were saying. It was always hard for eight years, 12 years and see what they were saying on the front page of the paper.”
Have you talked to other spouses-turned-candidates?
“Over the years. Not since I’ve chosen to do this. Janet Huckabee ran. So did Cathy Keating. ... I’ve talked to first ladies who’ve run for things before.”
[Editor’s Note: Janet Huckabee ran unsuccessfully for Arkansas Secretary of State in 2002, the same year her husband won reelection as governor. Cathy Keating, wife of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R) ran unsuccessfully for an open House seat in 2001.]
How about Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton?
“Well, I campaigned with her, but I haven’t had a conversation with her about that particular issue.”
What is different for women running for office now as opposed to 20 years ago?
“It’s hard in Iowa. We’ve been running women for 30 years and we haven’t been able to elect one yet. I think that’s more circumstantial than anything in particular about Iowa. If you go back and look at the individual races, whether it was the year or the time or something personal that happened. I think today people are more willing to accept a strong woman without hesitation. I think that’s probably happened in the last few years, the idea that women can be strong. That there’s a difference between being tough and being strong.”
How did that happen? When? Who would have inspired it?
“I think it’s been evolutionary. It’s just gradually evolved that the more you see women in positions of strength and you see women leading and I think this is about leadership. It’s how we lead. It’s not about men and women so much and I think in this race it’s really more about how we lead, how we see the job. I think that Congressman King sees the job differently and it’s just about leadership. So I don’t know – through the years, someone would have to analyze that, especially in Iowa, but I think it’s also about confidence.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m 61 years old and running for the first time. You gradually realize that you can do this. In terms of my spouse, he’s been a really good mentor in that regard. He often points out, of course this is something you can do, it’s no different than any of the men who are running. And he’s been great in that regard in terms of having been through it before.”
“I grew up in a town that produced the first woman admitted to the bar in the United States. I didn’t ever know about her until I came back to teach there. There’s nothing in my community that suggests that she existed. So how do young women grow up in a small town (and come) to know that in 1869, Belle Babb Mansfield became the first woman admitted to the bar in the United States. So I went out and raised the money and built a statue. She’s nine feet tall. I’ve been in Washington and around the world enough to see men on horses with swords that you have to look up to. I didn’t want any child to grow up in my town not knowing that this woman did this thing.
“I don’t want anyone growing up thinking that because you come from a small place that you can’t do anything. When my dad gave me the keys to the car and the map and the compass, and told me keep going East, you’ll get to New York eventually, which is how I got to college. And he said when you get there, you look at those people in New York and tell them that the land in Mount Pleasant, Iowa is the richest farm land in the world. And I realized later that what he meant is that I didn’t have to take a back seat to anyone because of where I was from. I think that defines a lot of who I am as a candidate and also who I want to be as a congressperson.”
Regarding Steve King and his position on fiscal policy:
“He voted for two wars, which he didn’t pay for. And he voted for a prescription drug bill that he didn’t pay for. And then he gave tax cuts to the rich, so there was no offset there. I don’t know what that says about him, but it doesn’t seem like he’s a conservative in the traditional sense. I don’t quite get that.”
Regarding King’s focus as a congressman:
“I see it completely locally. And I think he sees the job more through a Washington lens, a more national lens, and I think he’s using the job to promote himself and promote an agenda that doesn’t have anything to do with the economic interests of the people in those 39 counties. I think you can see that on national TV or he’s out ranting about one of the issues that he’s concerned with. It doesn’t have anything to do with Iowans.”
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