Sen. Boulton and Rep. Finkenauer

Apr 28, 2017  | 29 min  | Ep 4431 | Podcast | Transcript


Iowa democrats are reeling. It has only been seven months since the November 2016 elections and the consequences at the state legislature are significant. We sit down with a pair of up-and-coming legislative democrats to discuss their party's future. It's Senator Nate Boulton and Representative Abby Finkenauer on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at UIeCare is helping provide access to health care services to more Iowans. By offering online visits with a University of Iowa health care provider, UIeCare helps Iowans seek medical care without leaving home. Learn more at  


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, April 28 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.   

Yepsen: The American electoral pendulum can cause havoc for either political party. For democrats still reeling from the 2016 elections, many are just coming to grips with the phrase President Trump. While others have an equally daunting reality in that the Iowa legislative trifecta, both U.S. Senators and three out of four of our U.S. Congressmen are all seats controlled by republicans. For democrats, perhaps the best message is nowhere to go but up. And after an historic legislative session for republicans, the democratic base could be stirring. We'll discuss this stark political reality with a pair of Iowa legislators here for their first appearance on Iowa Press. Senator Nate Boulton of Des Moines and Representative Abby Finkenauer of Dubuque. Thank you both for coming in and being with us today. We hope you've recovered from the session okay.

Yepsen: Across the table, Kathie Obradovich is the political columnist for the Des Moines Register and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Representative Finkenauer, let's start with this question. What did democrats accomplish in the just concluded legislative session?

Finkenauer: Well, I will say this, we stood up for hardworking Iowans. When we saw everything the republicans threw at us this year and threw at people that are my friends, my neighbors and my family, from gutting worker's rights for 184,000 Iowans, from attacking worker's compensation, making it harder for hardworking Iowans who get hurt on the job to get the compensation they deserve, we stood up.

Henderson: But other than haranguing, did you accomplish anything?

Finkenauer: Well, we fought hard. That's what I'd like to say. We showed what our agenda would have been. We put in bills that never saw the light of day. That was one of the hardest things for me when I was first a legislator a couple of years ago, when we had really great ideas I could walk across the aisle and say, what do you think of this for paid leave, what do you think of this and we could have those conversations, you'd submit your bills and they would die in a subcommittee.

Henderson: Senator Boulton, what do you think you accomplished in the Iowa Senate this year as democrats?

Boulton: Well, I think a lot of what Abby was saying is right on the point. We showed Iowans that we're still here. We may have had some losses this last election cycle but democrats are still here and we are still fighting. And I think we saw a great reaction to that. We saw thousands of people coming to the Capitol, we saw hundreds showing up at forums, getting re-engaged and we showed that we have a strong message too.

Obradovich: One of the things I heard over and over at the Capitol was sort of a sense of shock that republicans were going as far as they were on collective bargaining, on TORT reform, on abortion, a lot of things that, in fact republicans have stood for, for a long time. Were you surprised, Senator Boulton, by their agenda?

Boulton: I think everyone was surprised by their agenda and just how aggressively they went for it.

Obradovich: Why were you surprised?

Boulton: I think the surprise was if you look at what the message was in 2016, republicans weren't out there saying, we're going to come out and gut collective bargaining rights, we're going to gut worker's compensation. Those weren't the things they were talking about. When the got to the Capitol and had a majority in the House, a majority in the Senate and the Branstad/Reynolds administration working with them they went after those things not only in a moderate way, not in a tweaking way, but really decimating people's rights. And I think that was the surprise.

Obradovich: Well, Representative Finkenauer, this anti-union planks on the republican platform, they have been a party trying to outlaw abortion for a long time, part of me doesn't really understand why democrats would have been caught off guard that this was their agenda at the Statehouse.

Finkenauer: I don't know if it was so much democrats being caught off guard as the electorate. What they were fed by republican lawmakers and people running for office this last cycle was that they cared about education, that they cared about workers and I actually, I watched Iowa Press when Dave Gross was on here --

Obradovich: Doug Gross?

Finkenauer: Or I'm sorry, yeah Doug Gross, when he was talking about just the election and what he hoped to see for the session and he said, well I hope republicans don't get ran over by their own headlights. Not only are they getting run over by their own headlights, they're running over working families with them. And that's something we were, we're still fighting back against. Am I surprised they did it? No. But I'm sure and I know a lot of republicans that voted for them are surprised they did it.

Henderson: One of the post mortems about the presidential election was that making the election about how bad Donald Trump was, was not beneficial for Hillary Clinton. As a democrat, Senator Boulton, what are you going to offer voters as to the positive agenda rather than republicans rather did bad things?

Boulton: Yeah, no I think that's exactly right. When democrats win it is with a message that is positive and uplifting and I think certainly there is an opportunity for us to deliver that message. Yeah, we stood against some bad things that held back working Iowans that I think in the long-term will actually lower the quality of life in Iowa. But then we deliver that message that comes forward of what can we do? What can Iowa look like if we actually do fully fund education, if we actually do offer the most educated, skilled, productive workforce for the next generation of our economy? And that is I think exactly what we want to do.

Henderson: Is that a new idea? Democrats have been promising to support educators and the education community for many election cycles here. What sort of new ideas are coming out of the Democratic Party and democratic legislators?

Boulton: Well, I think that's part of the contrast that we're going to have from what we saw play out this legislative session. Democrats have been talking about the need to fully fund education. We haven't been able to do it because of a republican House and a republican administration. So now that we see when republicans have control of the House, Senate and Governor's Office, what is not being done and then now we can offer that clear contrast of what Iowa can be.

Henderson: Representative Finkenauer, one thing that republicans at the national level have learned is if you promise to roll back things that the other party did, I'm thinking about Obamacare and you don't get it done, voters are very unhappy. Is there a danger for democrats to promise to undo the collective bargaining law that republicans passed, to undo the worker's comp changes that were made, that you could fall into that same trap as a Democratic Party at the state level?

Finkenauer: I think what we need to be focused on as democrats is how do we make it better, how do we move forward? And one of the things we absolutely can be focused on right now is raising wages in this state. Our wages are just abysmally low compared to other states. I have friends who have moved away who are 28, 29, they graduated college, they live in Denver, they live in Chicago and would love more than anything to come home to Iowa right now and they're looking at those help wanted signs every single day. And our wages, I'm not just talking minimum wage, it's all of our wages are very low. And yes our cost of living is lower here but it still doesn't make up for that. So it's one of those things we have to start talking about raising those wages and how do we move forward on that end as well and then taking care of our workers in that way. But yeah, at the same time that collective bargaining bill was done in a bipartisan way and it was one of the best pieces of legislation we had because it helped not just workers but it helped management as well, they wanted it.

Obradovich: When it passed in the '70s?

Finkenauer: Yeah, yeah and it's going to require bipartisan, people working together again and getting things done for the state of Iowa. And if anything what we saw this last session, bipartisanship on the side of the republicans is slowly, well it's going away so there's not much there.

Obradovich: Some of the rhetoric I've heard from democrats though is the idea that republicans have defeated themselves by, as you said, overdriving their headlights and going too far, upsetting the sort of Iowans who expect incremental, modest change from the legislature. Do you feel like there's some sense of that in the Democratic Party that you can just sit back and let republicans kind of tie themselves up into a ball?

Finkenauer: No because if anything what we've seen, I grew up and I was told when there's work to be done you say yes and you do it, and after this legislative session it is clear there is so much work to be done for the state of Iowa. So the last thing I plan on doing is sitting back and watching it. We have to be involved, we have to be figuring out not just how do we fix what they just did to us, but how do we move forward and make the state a better place?

Obradovich: Senator Boulton, what we see in Washington is a lot of continued dysfunction and that the republican majority there is still working against each other, they're not advancing President Trump's agenda. Why do you think it was so different here in Iowa that they were able to write off all of these accomplishments on the republican side so quickly?

Boulton: Well, I'm not sure how they were able to keep everyone in line for all these bills, which I think we're going to see will be some very hard votes to be taken for a lot of these republicans in swing districts that appeared in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate for the first time this session. But they were able to do it. But I think in the long-term it's not going to be a good thing for the Republican Party.

Yepsen: I want to put a finer point on a question I asked earlier here about what specific sorts of things democrats are going to be doing and saying to offer to voters. Senator, okay we get that you want higher wages. Okay, everybody is for that. We get that you'd like to return that collective bargaining law to what it was. But are there spec fic ways you go about increasing wages?

Boulton: Well, I think we look at a very different economic plan for Iowa's future. Right now we look at the biggest growing item of our general fund being essentially tax credits and exemptions that are costing the state millions of dollars. That is short-term economic planning. That is we are becoming the lowest bidder trying to attract employers to our state. What has made Iowa stand out in the past is that most educated, productive, skilled workforce. That is our long-term vision for the state, growing our state by having a quality education system that is producing skilled workers for the next generation and offering a quality of life that has quality employers wanting to come to Iowa. And that starts with infrastructure. I'd rather see us spending money on actual projects that help rebuild rural Iowa and get that economy going for long-term than giveaways for corporations that are here for the short-term.

Yepsen: Okay, everybody is against giveaways for corporations, even republicans are talking about it that way. But it's when you get into the weeds and start looking at a specific list of those, Senator, do you want to take away a research and development tax credit to John Deere and Company? Those are guys that are creating some good jobs. Well, maybe we don't want to do that. How do you go down through that laundry list and pick off those credits that you think are bad?

Boulton: Well, and I think that is again part of the long-term plan. I don't think you can shut them off instantly and get rid of them. But I think we have to look at how we cap them and what qualifications we allow for people to get these credits and I think we have to start saying we want verification that these things are actually turning into jobs, no more we will just send out a check and hope for the best.

Henderson: Representative Finkenauer, beyond the tax credit issue, republicans have made clear that tax reform will be priority one for 2018. How will democrats approach that debate? Because if you ask Iowans would you like your taxes lowered, I think the general answer is yes.

Finkenauer: Yeah, so one thing I would actually like to see us do and I know democrats have tried to do this before, so our income tax looks a lot higher in this state than it actually is because you can deduct your federal income tax from that. So I'd like to see reform there and even that up again. And we have to look at what do our revenues look like going forward and how do we make sure that the money that we are taking in is spent appropriately? And then at the same time that it's the working families, the ones who are working those 40 hours a week or more, some working on the weekends as well, how are they being affected by everything that we're doing and making sure that they have the resources that they need and are getting the best bang for their buck.

Obradovich: Do you think it's possible that there could be a bipartisan tax cut approved next year? Or are you looking at the state budget and the economy and saying, where's that money going to go, we can't afford it?

Finkenauer: I'm hopeful, I hope we do do something, like I said, that getting rid of that, lowering the state income tax and then getting rid of the federal deductibility out of that would be helpful. That's something we should actually do. And then moving forward it will depend on what we see because honestly every time I look at a tax cut whether that be on the federal level or the state level I look at how it's going to affect my friends and neighbors. And the ones that I have seen so far are ones that are the big business cuts, they're not the ones that are actually going to help the people that I know that are sitting there trying to pay their mortgage off. So that's really going to be the litmus test for me and what we do with it.

Obradovich: Senator Boulton, do we have a revenue problem in Iowa? Are we, are you willing to see actually a net increase in revenue that is being raised in various taxes or fees?

Boulton: Well, I think we have started to create a very severe revenue problem by some of the cuts we saw in the appropriations process this year. I think some of the things that we cut are things that actually generate revenue for our state and that is going to result in bigger problems as we move forward. So I'm very concerned about that.

Obradovich: Such as the Planned Parenthood?

Boulton: So Planned Parenthood is going to be a very expensive thing for us to, if we're going to try to maintain the same level of reproductive health care services to replace a network that was out there working with something brand new, I think it's going to be very hard to maintain any kind of level of service without making it very expensive for Iowa taxpayers.

Yepsen: Senator, everyone tosses around the word reform. And my experience is it's reform if you're not getting the shaft and if you are then it's not reform. That word gets thrown around. Even republicans today are playing around with a plan to do away with federal deductibility. That is a big change for them. They're even looking at, they say they're willing to look at some of these credits. What should, in the course of tax reform, should the state of Iowa try to take less from taxpayers, in other words, a tax cut? Or should we do a reform that is revenue neutral?

Boulton: Well, right now I think we can do a reform that hopefully is revenue neutral which also gets after, again, a lot of the exemptions and a lot of loopholes and we can simplify our tax collection process and make it better. That's going to help us for the long-term. We aren't in a dramatic economic crisis right now in terms of revenue, we just need to reel back a little bit to make that work.

Yepsen: I want to shift gears, it's never an official Iowa Press show unless we talk some politics. So both of you have, are being touted for and thinking about running for higher office. Representative Finkenauer, is there talk about running for Congress up there in northeast Iowa? Are you going to go for it? Where are you in that thinking?

Finkenauer: Well, I've been saying for the last few months now that I just really, I wanted to get done with session and I wanted to be able to get home, talk to my friends, talk to my family and I've been able to do that on the weekends at some point. But you'll probably be seeing more, a definite decision in the next week or so.

Yepsen: Senator, what are your plans?

Boulton: Well, you know what, I've been approached by a lot of people, frankly I've been very honored to be put out in front on some of these major fights this year by my Senate colleagues and entrusted with some major lifts in this legislative session. I've been talking with people and it's a big decision and I hope to be making it soon.

Yepsen: About running for Governor?

Boulton: About running for anything, but I talked to my family, I talked to the people that I work with, talked to my community members and hopefully we'll get to a decision soon.

Obradovich: What is your assessment of the health of the Democratic Party? There's no escaping the fact that the party got its lunch handed to it in 2016. So where is the, where do you feel the party is in the process of picking up the pieces right now?

Boulton: Well, I think it's, to me there were some lessons from 2016. Number one, people want to be excited about a message and it was very unclear for a lot of democrats what that, if I knock on my neighbor's door, what is the message this year for electing a democrat? So we've got to embrace that message and I think this legislative session handed it to us. It's about an economic vision for our state that is long-term and improves the quality of life in Iowa.

Obradovich: What's more important though, that people can be excited by the message? Or do they really need to be excited by the messenger? And I'm not hearing huge changes in the message from Iowa democrats, Representative Finkenauer. But is it more about the messenger?

Finkenauer: I think it's a combination. I think people want to see somebody running for office who looks like them, talks like them and understands what their life is like. And so when you are, when I'm thinking about running right now I go home and I talk to my friends, I talk to my family and, again, these are the ones that are just struggling to make their mortgage payments if they're lucky enough to have one. I know people that can't even afford to buy a house right now because they can't afford a mortgage so they're renting their homes. This is happening not just in the cities and towns but rural Iowa as well. And they want to have somebody who gets what that is like in a very real way, not just somebody who gets online and tweets about it, but somebody who actually doesn't just say what it's like but understands what their life is actually like.

Yepsen: I want to go back to this question of what's wrong. Is it just that Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate? There's a new book out called Shattered that just says she was a bad candidate and ran an incompetent campaign, didn't go to Wisconsin, lots of mistakes that are starting to be talked about. Why did she lose, Senator?

Boulton: You know what, I think if the Democratic Party is going to succeed we cannot keep relitigating the 2016 election and the 2016 presidential preference caucuses and I really believe that.

Yepsen: You've got to do a post mortem on what went wrong.

Boulton: And I think we've been doing it and we've been doing it and we've been doing it. I think at some point we have to get past that conversation. So I just want to preface my answer with that because I think that is too much of the attention. That said, I think there were a lot of things we can look back on and say, this part of the campaign should have been run differently. When we look at Senate campaigns I think we probably spent too much time putting stuff into people's mailboxes and not directly interacting with them.

Yepsen: What is your take on why Hillary Clinton lost?

Finkenauer: I look at that and I look at why did democrats lose Iowa? Why did we lose Wisconsin? And I think it has a lot less to do with Hillary Clinton than it does about the fact that we had a national message saying that everything is great, we have great job numbers, everything is great. Yeah, so Obama did a great jobs and in terms of job numbers all of that, great. However, Iowa had been controlled by republicans for the last six years. Wisconsin has been controlled by republicans. So we haven't seen a minimum wage increase since when I was in high school when I was a Speaker's page sitting there when they raised the minimum wage. Life is tough for Iowans, it hasn't gotten any better. So when you have that dichotomy --

Henderson: So when you look to republicans to solve that, what new are you going to offer those formerly democratic voters? Look at Dubuque County, surprise, surprise, Donald Trump did very well there. So what do you need to do to change the ingredients for your soup to make them want to eat it again?

Finkenauer: Absolutely, it's the local message, it's the Iowa message, it's not the national message. It's not somebody saying it's working for the entire country. It's about what is working for Iowa. And the fact is, like we have seen the last six years, republican message, republican policies are not working for Iowans. So when we can sit down and we can talk about that and say yeah, I know you're struggling, yeah, I know you're hurting and yeah, I know your wages are low, not just the ones making minimum wage, all of your wages are low, we have to address it that way.

Obradovich: When you look at the future of the Democratic Party people say well, the demographics of the country are changing. Younger people are, they're more socially progressive, we have the growing aspect of the population is minorities. So do you feel like this is a bump in the road and that democrats really just sort of have to wait for the country to catch up?

Finkenauer: No. It's like the question before, are we just going to sit back and watch what republicans are doing and not do anything about it? No, that's not the answer. It's keep having those tough conversations with our friends and families who might have voted republican in the last election. And I have had those conversations and they're frustrated and they're hurt and they feel duped.

Obradovich: Senator Boulton, in Iowa there's talk about sort of the anti-Des Moines bias. We have the rural areas have gone for Trump, the urban areas have been more democratic, but it's sort of also like the rest of the state against Des Moines. You're from Des Moines, you want to have a bright political future in Iowa. What do you do to address that?

Boulton: Well, first of all, I grew up in Columbus Junction, so came through Des Moines after college and law school. But I don't know that Donald Trump checked a lot of boxes for rural Iowans, of he gets me because he's from rural upstate New York. No, he's from Manhattan, he's a billionaire. It's about message and it's about getting an effective message out there that people believe in.

Obradovich: There's also sort of an anti-lawyer vibe, some of I have to say the legislative session sort of underscored that with their TORT legislation, they were trying to take work away from lawyers. Is that also a sort of a hurdle for you to overcome being a lawyer?

Boulton: I think when we talk about my law practice, the people I have represented, working Iowans across the state, they're the people that need an advocate right now.

Yepsen: But I gather you're going to talk more about growing up in Columbus Junction than being a lawyer in Des Moines, is that correct?

Boulton: We'll see what happens.

Henderson: Representative Finkenauer, you have said you're going to make a decision in a week. Is it because of fundraising? Do you not yet have a message? Why aren't you making that decision and an announcement right here, right now?

Finkenauer: Well, like I said, I just really want more time to talk to my friends and family and we had a long session. It's time to just, honestly I want to go fishing with my dad in my dad's back yard.

Yepsen: Aren't republicans the ones breaking the glass ceiling in this state? Senator Ernst, you're going to have the first woman Governor. Aren't democrats a little behind the curve in breaking the glass ceiling?

Finkenauer: Yeah, that's a great question. I really did think I was going to wake up the day after the election and Monica Vernon was going to be my Congresswoman. And when I realized that not only was she not going to be Congresswoman, Donald Trump was going to be my President, I knew that there was a lot of work for women in Iowa that we had to do because I'm not somebody who just votes for women because they're women or would ever ask someone to do that for me. I support women because if they're advocates for women and families.

Yepsen: 30 seconds, Kathie.

Obradovich: How big is the democrat's tent right now? Are you willing to accept, for example, pro-life democrats up in Representative Finkenauer's neck of the woods in order to win some of these districts back?

Boulton: We had Senator Joe Seng who was a pro-life democrat in the Iowa Senate so I don't think it's ancient history to have pro-life democrats taking active roles in our state.

Yepsen: Senator, Representative, thank you both for being with us today. We're out of time. Look forward to seeing you again.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Yepsen: That wraps up this edition of Iowa Press and our current season on Iowa PBS. We'll be back this fall to cover the latest issues across Iowa. But until then, stay tuned to the many in depth public affairs programs on this network. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen, thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at UIeCare is helping provide access to health care services to more Iowans. By offering online visits with a University of Iowa health care provider, UIeCare helps Iowans seek medical care without leaving home. Learn more at   

More from this show

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa