From flat tires and empty gas tanks, to icy roads, speeding tickets, and, yes, deer in the headlights, I’ve enjoyed every minute of every mile. Even in the midst of a pandemic, I’ll go the extra mile — following public health guidelines — to continue meeting with Iowans in every county, every year.
On Sept. 3, in Clinton County, I wrapped up my 40th consecutive year holding at least one Q&A in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. No matter the setting, whether the courthouse, hospital, school, factory floor, coffee shop, nonprofit center, service club, or local business, Iowans who take time out of their busy schedules to talk to me set the agenda.
My 99-county meetings originated as a way for me to hold myself accountable and keep in touch with “We the People.” As a United States senator for Iowa, I’m one-half of representative government. Iowans are the other half. Throughout four decades listening to people who’ve attended 4,000 or so county meetings — I reach many counties more than once a year — I can vouch Iowans are well-informed and have a lot on their minds. 2020 is no exception.
Getting to all 99 counties in a single year brings its fair share of challenges. First, my availability is dictated by the Senate calendar, where I haven’t missed a single vote since 1993 and hold the longest consecutive voting streak in Senate history. After many seasons on the road, I learned not to schedule county meetings in the dead of winter in the northwest corner of Iowa. Road construction and harvest traffic are factors during the summer and fall.
No matter the season, I strive to uphold three Golden Rules: Be punctual. Be honest. Be respectful.
Some people ask what keeps me going year after year, from one county to the next. The simple answer: I love my work. I enjoy helping people and making sure government works for Iowans, not the other way around. Holding in-person meetings provides a reality check on what really matters in people’s lives. Hearing stories of hardship from hard-working heroes in the heartland drives my effort to solve problems.
From the 1980s farm crisis in my first Senate term to the 2020 pandemic in my seventh term, I tackle the challenges and champion the successes of rural America. From my chairmanships and committee assignments, I’m able to leverage legislative expertise and seniority I’ve earned over decades of public service to shape public policy that benefits our state. From taxes to health care, immigration, criminal justice reform, renewable energy, trade, infrastructure and agriculture, I’ve got my ears on the ground, a seat at the table, and a finger on the public pulse to fight for 3 million Iowans.
I’ve witnessed tears of joy, sorrow and hardship. Parents share profound gratitude for assistance navigating an international adoption. Military families take pride accepting medals awarded posthumously for a service member. Small businesses tell me they’re surviving the economic fallout from the pandemic with Paycheck Protection Program money. Despite natural disasters and low prices, farmers will work themselves to the bone to protect their livelihoods, pay the bills and preserve their way of life for the next generation. Parents, patients and seniors urge action on cutting prescription drug prices. Survivors of human trafficking, elder abuse and addiction strive for healing and recovery. Iowans want action on infrastructure, especially broadband to improve connectivity for online learning, telemedicine and remote working arrangements.
Looking back at 40 years, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s an exhilarating and extraordinary experience. Among my memorable meetings - ice storms in Belle Plaine caused a power outage at the local library. So, we improvised the Q&A as a drive-through from my car window. Overflow attendance in August 2009 led to meetings in the town square. At every meeting, I tell people to ask me anything under the sun. Young people at our schools typically do.
By my measure, 99.99 percent of my 99-county meetings reflect “Iowa Nice.” Of course, people get passionate during an election year and pretty fired up about issues sacred to their beliefs. At those moments, thick skin and an open mind help me to listen, learn, lean in and lead the discussion among neighbors with civility.
At the end of the day, that’s what defines Iowans. We’re neighbors who look out for our neighbors. From the pandemic to the derecho, to nationwide protests for racial justice that have been sabotaged in some places by criminal violence, many Iowans wonder what else 2020 has in store.
No matter what happens next, I’ll continue our dialogue. Keeping in touch through social media, phone, email, postal mail and traditional media also keeps me connected, transparent and accountable to Iowans.
In just four months, I’ll start my 99 county meetings all over again. I look forward to meeting with as many Iowans as possible. In the meantime, I’ll wrap up my 40th year in a row with you know what: an extra scoop of ice cream.