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New era in Iowa 4th: Hull's Randy Feenstra heads for Washington
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New era in Iowa 4th: Hull's Randy Feenstra heads for Washington

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HULL, Iowa -- The genesis for the veer by U.S. Rep.-elect Randy Feenstra from business and sales into public service came in an unlikely spot -- outside a Cenex convenience store here.

As Denny Wright pumped gas next to Feenstra, Wright pitched Feenstra on applying for the vacant city administrator job in his hometown of Hull.

Feenstra left the pumps intrigued, ready for a new direction after working in sales at the Scheels sporting goods store in Sioux City and later the Foreign Candy Company in Hull.

"He had been very successful in sales. He had a drive, got along with people," said Wright, who, at that time of that conversation in the late 1990s, was a Hull City Councilman.

"It went from there. His interview was the best interview I've seen for any city administrator," Wright recalled.

Not only did Feenstra ace the interview, he got the post. After seven years as city administrator, he was elected Sioux County Treasurer in 2006. Just two years later, the Republican was elected to the Iowa Senate, running unopposed in the state's district with the most Republicans.

After winning re-election in 2012 and 2016 to the state Senate, Feenstra turned his political attention to the U.S. Congress, taking the audacious -- and politically risky -- quest of seeking to unseat a 18-year fellow Republican congressman, Steve King.

His campaign slogan was "Feenstra Delivers," a nod to his past results for Iowans at the city, county and state levels. Feenstra won the GOP nomination in a five-candidate primary in June, swamping King by nearly 10 points. In the November general election, Feenstra easily defeated Democrat J.D. Scholten, 62 percent to 38 percent, in Iowa's most Republican congressional district.  Feenstra, who received the endorsement of President Donald Trump, carried 38 of the 39 counties in the sprawling district covering most of Northwest and North Central Iowa.

On Sunday, Feenstra will be sworn into his first, two-year term. He will be the first Sioux County resident to serve in the U.S. House since 1965, when Republican Charles Hoeven of Alton wrapped a two-decades tenure.

Feenstra begins a new role that he envisions will deliver needed economic and quality-of-life pieces, just like his prior positions.

"Dealing with citizenry, dealing with people, from city administration to county treasurer to Scheels, I learned early on that people are customers...We have to see people as customers, and we have to do everything possible to help them," he said.

"I am here for the people. It is not about me. I am a servant leader," he added near the end of a lengthy interview in late December.

LONG TIES TO HULL

Feenstra, who turns 52 later this month, was the middle of three siblings raised in Hull, a town about 2,300. His parents, Eleanor and Lee Feenstra, were both school teachers.

A Boyden-Hull School District teacher, Wright knew Randy Feenstra, who graduated from the crosstown Western Christian, a private school where he was a standout basketball player. His jobs during school included working at Pizza Ranch and as a lifeguard at the city pool. Wright said he didn't hold it against Feenstra for one day kicking his son out of the pool.

"He probably deserved it," Wright quipped.

Feenstra added to his list of part-time jobs while in school. He delivered the Sioux City Journal and worked at a downtown bakery from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. so he could buy a car. After enrolling in Dordt College in nearby Sioux Center, he took a job at the SiouxPreme meat plant. 

"I lugged hogs then, to pay for college," Feenstra said.

Up until his election to Congress, Feenstra was a professor at Dordt, teaching business and public administration courses. He taught three courses this fall, while also juggling a full slate of campaign duties.  

Dordt, a four-year private college is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church of North America. Reformed Churches are abundant in Sioux County, where about 60 percent of the population has a Dutch heritage, Feenstra included. Today, he and his family attend services at First Christian Reformed Church in Hull, not far from Western Christian.

"My family and I are really faith-based, and we said it was God's will and in God's hands with what happens. I was OK with that, I just knew I was going to work as hard as I could, and let that play out," Feenstra said.

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"For me, it was humbling that God had a plan that I go to Congress and that he chose me to do that, a little-town kid from Hull, Iowa."

Feenstra and his wife of 28-years, Lynette, still reside in Hull. The couple have four children, Taylor, Erika, Dawson and Savannah.

An avid runner, Feenstra likes watching sports and attending theatrical musicals.

His daughter, Erika, is a standout basketball player at Dordt. In October, he mulled not being home on election night, so he could travel to see her play in an early-season game in South Dakota.

Ultimately, "I got talked out of that," so he stayed at the family house to see the results roll in, and Erika arrived home by about 11 p.m., when the victory over Scholten was called.

START OF POLITICAL CAREER 

Growing up, Feenstra took an early interest in government during a multi-week family vacation to Washington, D.C

"I just never forgot that. It made me see our nation and the power that exists in that area," Feenstra said.

He served three, four-year terms in the Iowa Senate, never drawing a challenger. He rose in the Republican caucus to become assistant majority leader and chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax policy. In that role, he was a key architect of legislation that overhauled the state's individual income tax system and produced the largest tax cut in the state's history, according to GOP backers.

"I found my niche," Feenstra said, while earning a master's degree in public administration from Iowa State University. "I sort of fell in love with understanding tax...I wrote my thesis on tax-increment financing. I did the deep dive."

Wright said Feenstra has good people skills and understands finances. He cited the years as city administrator for Feenstra pushing forth new housing developments, an industrial park and a modern pool.

"He will tackle anything and do it with a plan - - 'Here's what we want to do and how we will do it,' " Wright said. "He was a great state senator. He will be a great congressman. Not everyone will agree with everything anyone does. He'll have a reason for what he's doing and why he's doing it.

Feenstra began thinking about running for higher office after the 2018 midterm elections. Scholten, a former professional baseball player and paralegal who had never held public office, surprised most pundits by losing by only 3 points to King, who had coasted to victory in his eight prior elections. That set off alarms with Republicans.

King found himself in more hot water soon after starting his ninth term. In a January 2019 New York Times article on immigration, King was quoted as asking, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?"

The published remarks fueled a national backlash, which resulted in Republican House leaders stripping him of committees, which he has not regained. King has repeatedly insisted the Times reporter misquoted him.

Feenstra announced his candidacy for the 4th District a day before the Times story was published. Overwhelming support from Feenstra’s state senate district, which includes Sioux County, Iowa's most Republican county, and two other reliably red Northwest Iowa counties, O'Brien and Cherokee, helped fuel his double-digit primary victory.

Feenstra said he doesn't need to mend any fences with any former King supporters, adding, "I thank Steve for his 18 years of service." Feenstra declared he'll be less quotable than King, who found himself in many national news cycles for controversial comments on race and culture.

"I am a policy person, I am strictly policy. I'm not going to be the person on Fox News that is yelling and screaming. I am going to be the person that creates policy or defends policy, or does case work for people," he said.

To that end, Feenstra plans to maintain congressional offices in Sioux City and Fort Dodge, where King now has some, and ponder others once settled into 2021.

Feenstra said he'll take a different approach in the House than King, focusing on listening to Iowans and delivering for them on tax reductions and balancing federal budgets. He admitted there is a big adjustment into the position, which involves House members planned to have 101 voting days and 59 committee work days, for a total of 160 days.

Feenstra will typically fly out of Sioux City or Sioux Falls Monday mornings, for a work week that runs through Thursday, then jet home Thursday evenings. He said that will allow him to have family and constituent meeting times on the weekend, while carrying out the weekday work on Capitol Hill, in part through a team of congressional staffers.

Eldest son Taylor went with Feenstra to a second week of House freshmen members training in December. Now, the Feenstra congressional era is at hand.

"I want people to understand that I am here to passionately be an effective congressperson for them, to make sure that we are delivering for the 4th District...For me, it is all about helping others, so they can be successful in this America," he said.

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