SIOUX CITY | U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, knows Miles Inn and Tastee Inn & Out are good places to grab a loose meat sandwich in Sioux City.

She visits the city -- hometown of her husband, Gail Ernst -- about five times a year to see relatives. And in running for the Senate, she drove through plenty of Interstate 29 detours.

"I love it, because it is a small big town. I feel at home there and I feel welcome there. It is a beautiful community," Ernst said.

Sioux City officials hope her familiarity will pay off.

Ernst, of Red Oak, was elected in November and fills the seat held by Democrat Tom Harkin, who decided not to seek another term after three decades. She is the first woman Iowa has sent to the U.S. House or Senate. 

Ernst had been a state senator and Montgomery County auditor. She was elected following a bruising campaign against U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo.

Now she's familiarizing herself with how Washington works. Iowa groups are beginning to line up for help. Sioux City officials will be pitching issues such as transportation needs and tax changes in upcoming weeks.

Whether Ernst's Sioux City connections give city initiatives a leg up in the six years ahead remains to be seen. Such familiarity certainly helps, Siouxland Chamber of Commerce Vice President Barbara Sloniker said.

"It makes the education piece go quicker," Sloniker said.

'WE WERE VERY PROUD OF HER'

Ernst first came to Sioux City near the time she married Gail Ernst in 1992. Her siblings-in-law, Monty and Kim Ernst, live in the city with a son. Father-in-law Earl Ernst also resides here; mother-in-law Beverly Ernst died in 2013.

Monty Ernst said he sees Joni and Gail Ernst up to 10 times a year, with several of those visits in Sioux City. They'll have cookouts at Monty's home or eat out.

"One of my new favorites is McCarthy & Bailey's Irish Pub," Joni Ernst said, referring to the Pearl Street establishment operated by state Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City.

Monty Ernst, who drives a city bus route, flew to Washington to see her sworn into the Senate on Jan. 6.

"It was very awe-inspiring. We were very proud of her," he said. "She is great. She is a very down-to-earth person, and she has a huge amount of common sense."

Sloniker saw Ernst's vitality on the campaign trail. She expects Ernst to work hard to distinguish herself among 13 freshman senators. With the high-profile Ernst win, Republicans swept control away from Democrats.

"She has a lot of energy, and you need that in D.C.," Sloniker said. "She has a very approachable demeanor and is a big thinker. She likes to get information and make decisions based on that information."

LOBBYING TRIP PLANNED IN APRIL

Two weeks into Ernst's six-year term, City Manager Bob Padmore said the city hasn't pitched projects to Ernst at a time her office staffing is still ramping up. Padmore and Sloniker said Sioux City needs will be firmly laid out to Ernst and other federal officials during the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce annual Washington lobbying trip in April. That list of priorities will be set in a few weeks.

Padmore said he plans to lean on Ernst for federal funding that has previously helped city infrastructure projects. An example was a $1 million Department of Transportation grant in 2014 that helps plan street and railway crossing improvements in the Hoeven Corridor near Floyd Boulevard.

"Hopefully her connections to Sioux City would be even that much better in opening connections with her," Padmore said.

Ernst's profile is rising. She will deliver the GOP response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott said there is a considerable impact in losing Harkin's 30 years of knowledge of the city. He notably helped boost the $101 million, 20-year effort to channelize Perry Creek to prevent floods and launched the Siouxland Community Health Center for health needs of low-income people.

Scott noted Ernst's relative working for the city could help.

"We'll hope that her brother-in-law can talk to her about transit needs. It certainly can't hurt," Scott said.

Monty Ernst said his sister-in-law has a strong career ahead.

"She knows what needs to be done and she knows how to get it done. She is very straightforward. She looks at a problem and figures it out and gets it fixed," he said.

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County and education reporter

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