4th District Congressional Candidate J.D. Scholten

Nov 2, 2018  | 27 min  | Ep 4610 | Podcast | Transcript


On Election Eve, Iowa democrats are dreaming of blue waves and a change election during the midterms. But will renewed democratic energy be enough to close the gap in Iowa's rural Fourth Congressional District? We sit down with the man challenging republican Congressman Steve King. It's J.D. Scholten on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. 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.


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, November 2 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: Iowa's Fourth Congressional District spans a massive section of our state from Sioux City on the west to Ames, Fort Dodge and even Charles City on its eastern edge. It's a rural district dominated in previous elections by 8-term republican Steve King. The man trying to unseat King is Sioux City democrat J.D. Scholten and he joins us today at the Iowa Press table. Mr. Scholten, thanks for taking time off the trail to be with us today.

Scholten: It's an honor to be here.

Yepsen: Appreciate that. Also joining us, Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Mr. Scholten, strikes me a fellow who spent most of his childhood and early adulthood trying to be a professional baseball player may not have aimed to be a politician. Can you describe for our viewers the epiphany moment that led you to run?

Scholten: Well, I think a lot of first-time candidates in this cycle were influenced by the 2016 election and I was, but the real moment was when I went to visit my grandma for Thanksgiving. And she has been a lifelong inspiration to me and inspiration to this campaign and she told me, eight days I spent with her, on the first day she thought I should work at the nursing home to take care of her. And I was like, grandma, that's a great idea but I don't think they're going to hire me because I didn't work in health care. And she said, you're probably right. And the next day she had another idea and another idea. But on day eight she said, J.D., you should move back to Iowa and take care of the farm. So that started to get in my mind. I was living out of the district and out of state and that started getting my mind into coming back to Iowa. And it was at a rural funeral, or a funeral at the rural church where she is an active member most of her life, that's where I felt that pull to come on home. And when I decided to go back to Sioux City, I looked in the Sioux City Journal for about a month and the best job I could find was $15 an hour and no benefits. And here I was working in technology and innovation in a booming economy and that just wasn't enticing. And so I created my own company and started being a freelance paralegal. And then I had to pay for my own health insurance and so how skyrocketing that is and then the farm got moved from my mom's generation to my dad's generation, or my grandma's generation to my mom's generation, and then you saw what is happening with the agriculture economy. And so all those things were pent up. And then for about a month nobody on the democratic side was in this race. And that’s when I said, I can't sit on the sidelines anymore.

Murphy: So you're running in a district, Mr. Scholten, that has 70,000 more registered republican voters than democrats. It's a big hill to climb. For a democrat to win you're going to have to get some republicans to vote for you. What has been your message to those, especially those conservative republicans in Western Iowa, who have been voting for Steve King eight times over the past 16 years and who will still see you as a democrat? What is your message to them?

Scholten: Well, I mean, growing up here I remember the time when republicans used to vote for Harkin and democrats used to vote for Grassley. You would vote on the person and that's what I'm trying to bring back. And my campaign is modeled after my two political heroes, Tom Harkin and Berkley Bedell and in 1984 80% of this district was represented by them. And so I came to the idea that if you got out to the people and you prove that you're trustworthy and prove that you're going to fight for the people of your district you're going to earn votes and that is what we have been doing for the last 16 months.

Yepsen: Mr. Scholten, one of the things we like to do on this program is to ask candidates about some of the negative things that are being said about them. So let me ask you to address your negatives. Negative is this, that you're an unsuccessful minor league baseball player who hasn't really done anything with his life or in the district. How do you respond to that criticism?

Scholten: Well, I'll agree that I was an unsuccessful, or I didn't have much success in baseball. But I'll say this, that the average person in Congress is 58 years old with a net worth of a million dollars. I am different, I'm different than that. I'm 20 years younger and I'm a million dollars short of that average. We don't have a Congress that has a voice of the working class anymore and that is one thing that I'm very frustrated with. And so I like to think I was a pretty successful paralegal. And so that just doesn't make much sense to me. But I'm a fifth generation Iowan, born and raised in this district, my dad is from Larchwood, the very Northwest corner, my mom is from Lake Mills, on a farm outside of Lake Mills in the very Northeast corner. My parents met at Mason City as high school teachers. And I was born in Ames while we were living in Nevada and at age 4 my dad got the head baseball job at Morningside College. And so I know the fourth district and geographically I know the fourth district.

Murphy: Your opponent, Steve King, has come under fire at times for some things he has said about immigration in particular. He's in a little bit of hot water over that right now again. But, isn't what Congressman King says often times representative of what republicans and many people in your district feel? When you talk to voters a lot of time in that district they will say that's how I feel about immigration too. How do you break through to those kinds of people?

Scholten: I disagree because when it comes to immigration and a lot of things there's democrats, there's republicans and 10 miles down the road there's Steve King. And especially when it comes to immigration because we have the pork plant in Sioux City that has been opened up for about a year and the pork plant that is going to be opening up in Eagle Grove and both of them have talked about the need for an immigrant workforce. And last harvest I was down in Greene County and they needed, for the harvest, their grain elevator needed 39 workers and they didn't get one American citizen to apply for that. And so there is a need. And when I went to all 39 counties originally, it was mostly a listening tour, and we were talking to small business owners all over the political spectrum and they all said the same thing, we need a workforce. And so I don't view that as an issue of his stance, Steve King's stance, that is similar to what the fourth district's needs are.

Henderson: You mentioned health care. You recently campaigned with Bernie Sanders and said that I think he has an idea that could fix this. Do you support Medicare for all?

Scholten: So, I think there is a two-step solution to this. We have an immediate step of putting in a public option so we can stabilize the markets. I believe that we need to have a Medicare buy-in, especially for 55 plus, to allow folks who want to retire to do so. But it also would allow for small business owners to compete with corporations on the benefits side. And then we absolutely have to get a handle on prescription drug prices. And then my long-term vision is Medicare for all. But every time I fill up Sioux City Sue, that RV, there is almost always a donation box for somebody who just got sick or somebody who just got in an accident. And we live in the wealthiest country in the world and people are begging to pay for their medical expenses and I think that is just completely nuts. And I'm very sympathetic to this because in my baseball days I wasn't that successful so I had to have jobs in the off season. And when I had these multiple jobs and training full-time I had to choose between rent or health care. And my mom would call me and say, do you have health insurance? And I hated that call because I didn't.

Henderson: How do you pay for a system that would be Medicare for all?

Scholten: Well, people ask that all the time and it's a fair question, but nobody asks how do you pay for tax cuts or how do you pay for the continued war in Afghanistan and Iraq? But here it is, there's 4% of the world are Americans, yet 41% of the world's wealth comes from America. And somewhere in there, there is an answer. If every other Western developed country can figure it out, we can too.

Yepsen: A lot of them do it with tax increases. Some of the tax burdens in those countries you mentioned are much higher than the U.S. So if you're going to have Medicare for all, sounds great initially, a lot of people like it, but you've got to pay for it. And that was one of the things that tripped up Bernie Sanders in his campaign was he couldn't really specify how he would pay for this.

Scholten: Well, we're already paying more than any other country in the world per person when it comes to health care and it is mostly doubled than what the other countries are. And so we just need to be more cost effective and I believe the Cook brothers even came out with a report saying Medicare for all would be more efficient and economical than other solutions.

Murphy: Mr. Scholten, you mentioned immigration and its relationship with labor in Northwest Iowa. I'm wondering what your immigration policy is? And how do you marry needing that workforce with meeting what a lot of people in your district feel about wanting to have secure borders?

Scholten: Right. There's no doubt we absolutely need to have secure borders. But immigration in this country is broke and we haven't had reform since 1986. And our first town hall was in Storm Lake and there was a woman who came up afterwards who said she just became an American citizen and she's voting for me with her first vote. That's pretty powerful. And she said, it took 17 years and $17,000 to become an American citizen. And that is a pretty long time and pretty darn expensive. And so just hearing the needs of the district we need absolutely secure borders, but we need to have a VISA program that matches our modern economy. And this is one thing, being the second most agriculture producing district in America and having a Congressman who doesn't understand the needs of his own district, because right now the VISA programs match for agriculture the Coasts, they don't match what we need, the year-round workers we need in our district. And so he has advocated, he as in Steve King has advocated his leadership for his own personal agenda on this. And so we need to modernize our VISA program to match our economic needs, we need a pathway to citizenship and even a pathway to residency. We need to find a common sense approach to this and it's very frustrating when you have a Congressman who has hurt your district economically because of his own ideology.

Murphy: You mentioned modernizing the VISA program. What specifically can be done there to make it a better fit for the fourth district?

Scholten: Well, there's a lot of different things. And I'm not going to dive into all that. But there's a lot of reform that needs to be done and even on the technology side. We have these kids coming from around the world that come to our universities and we invest in our public universities and by the time they graduate, they have their Ph.D., they're ready to start their own company and at that time they don't become a citizen, they're not allowed to work in this country legally and so they go back home. And it's easier to ship capital over borders than it is for people to go over borders. And so we're losing out on our economy like this.

Henderson: There are many voters in your district who view the abortion issue as a primary voting issue on both sides. What are your views on abortion?

Scholten: Well, both sides are passionate and I completely understand that. And I think the thing that doesn't get talked about enough is reducing the number of abortions and that is what we're going out there and that is my goal. To make it illegal doesn't reduce it. And so how do you reduce it? Universal health care, through education, through raising the minimum wage, those are all things, making adoption easier and finding avenues to do that. And one of the most influential articles I read in the last year was about this pro-life group in Indiana and they talked about the most effective tool to convince women to continue with their pregnancy was enrolling them in Medicaid. And right now in Iowa Medicaid is not doing well with the privatization of Medicaid. And right now if we elect the same Congress they have been very clear, Mitch McConnell has been clear, Paul Ryan has been clear, if we have the same Congress they're going to cut Social Security, they're going to cut Medicaid, they're going to cut Medicare.

Yepsen: Another issue that many people in your district care about is water quality. How do you balance the needs of production agriculture to use fertilizers with those who want to have cleaner drinking water?

Scholten: Right, that's something that the federal, the state and the local government needs to come together on. Any time off the land, the nutrients come off the land, that's farmers losing some money too. So we need to find a cost share solution. We shouldn't put all the burden on farmers. Farmers are struggling right now after four consecutive years of low commodity prices, after a lot of things, and we can dive into agriculture economy here in a little bit. But I would love to find, and maybe tie it into an infrastructure program, and we need to be promoting soil health and those are some of the avenues that I would like to do to work with it.

Murphy: How about the topic of gun control? Are there places where you feel that we need more restrictions on our country's gun laws?

Scholten: Well, and this gets back to my point when I mentioned that I'm a different candidate and a lot of it is being 20 years younger and a million dollars short of the average Congressman, a lot of that is because I'm tired of the special interests and self-interests that dictate this democracy. And to have a bill that says you cannot study gun violence for the last 20 years is just ridiculous to me and that is straight up special interest. And so we need to study gun violence and find solutions to that. But at the end of the day my neighbor, great neighbor, in fact he took my, I've been on the road so he took my trash cans out yesterday, and he caucused for Trump, he has a truck the size of Texas, he has 5 AR-15's. He has never had an issue with the law, he is a great neighbor, he mows my lawn when I'm gone, I love the guy to death. We disagree on a lot of things. But we both agree that I don't care that he has 5 AR-15's because he's a responsible citizen. But we both care that the shooter in Parkland, the shooter in Orlando, the shooter in Las Vegas, Sandy Hook and on and on should not have those. So whether it's diving into mental health or finding solutions in there, that's the topic that Americans --

Murphy: So you're not for banning the AR-15 specifically like a lot of democrats have called for? You're more for --

Scholten: No, because if we ban that and keep the 20 other guns that are similar to that, that doesn't make much sense. What were you going to say?

Yepsen: I wanted to interrupt you -- I want to talk about the Farm Bill for a moment. The big hang up there with a lot of people is over, in Congress, is over whether there should be a work requirement to get food stamp benefits or not. How do you feel about that issue?

Scholten: In the last Farm Bill they already had a program for it but they haven't done a darn thing to start that up. So it's disgusting to see how partisan this House Farm Bill was and that's the problem with a lot of things. We can't even come together on the Farm Bill and that is extremely frustrating.

Yepsen: But how do you feel about should there be requirements to get food stamp benefits, working requirements?

Scholten: I want them to set that training, what they've already set up, to set that in place before we need to go on further with the conversation. But then you look at some of the other parts of the House Farm Bill and it just doesn't make sense. We're cutting conservation and there's only one thing I think in that House bill that the Senate bill did not have that I would really push for.

Henderson: Would you raise the minimum wage? And how far would it go under your vote?

Scholten: I would raise it. I think it needs to be a reasonable step because $15 an hour works in Chicago but it doesn't really work in Garner. And so I think if we're going to raise it, it's got to be tiered. And so I think it's a necessity that we do need to raise it at some point though.

Murphy: So, Mr. Scholten, we want to talk to you a little bit about politics, which we do on this show from time to time. Iowa has a new state law that eliminated straight ticket voting. Voters will now have to go all the way down the ballot, they just can't cross one box off for all democrats or all republicans. I'm wondering if that is part of the calculus in what your campaign sees as a possible path to victory given maybe some frustration with Congressman King and the hope on your campaign's part that maybe some republicans will just skip that, maybe not vote for you, but may skip that. Is that part of what your team sees as a path to victory?

Scholten: Absolutely. And so if you look at the 2016 election numbers, 4% of all the people who voted in my district, they under voted this race. They voted for President, they voted down ballot. And they to me, and this was at a time when you could straight ticket down, to me that is a republican who said I can no longer consciously vote for Steve King. And so now with straight ticket off they're going to have to see his name and make that decision and I see that getting into a lot of people's heads.

Yepsen: I've got one more issue question before we continue with politics. Tariffs. Nobody in the Midwest likes tariffs. But how do we bring the Chinese to the table on intellectual property issues? They all agree they've been stealing our secrets for years. Are tariffs the only way we can do something about this?

Scholten: Well, especially the way that we didn't plan and it was just abruptly thrown on us, at a time when we had four consecutive years of low commodity prices this couldn't be a worse time to put tariffs in place. Do we have to hold China accountable? Absolutely. But you look at what is happening now, you don't see New York real estate getting hit, you don't see Texas oil getting hit, you don't see Silicon Valley getting hit. Iowa and the fourth district are bearing the brunt of these trade wars and that has got to end. And if there is a solution to China we've got to prepare for that and not just throw it and make our farmers and a lot of our manufacturing bear the brunt of this. That's unacceptable.

Henderson: Your opponent on Twitter has referred to you as a Socialist. Are you a Socialist? Are you a democrat? Are you a democratic Socialist? And what do those titles mean?

Scholten: So, I don't think that's accurate because I don't think he has referred to me on Twitter. But, to answer the question --

Henderson: I believe when Mr. Sanders campaigned --

Scholten: He might have called him. I don't think he ever called me. If you wanted to, I hate labels. My whole life because I was a right-handed pitcher, they thought I should be a certain way. And so in my mind I was a shortstop. I kind of grew out of the position. So I've always hated labels. But I will say this, I'm from the democratic side of the Democratic Party. And if you really had to label me I would consider myself a Populist and that's what we're lacking on the democratic side because growing up having Harkin, having Berkley Bedell, across the river from me in South Dakota we had Senator Johnson and Daschle. And those are the type of people that we're missing on the democratic side anymore in politics. And that's one thing that my campaign is about is having that Midwest democrat and that's what we're fighting for.

Yepsen: You mentioned a couple of names in Iowa's past. Berkley Bedell, Tom Harkin, Neal Smith, Jim Leach, all got to the U.S. House of Representatives on their second go. If you don't make it this time do you keep on running? Do you run again?

Scholten: I don't know. That's a November 7th question. I'm pretty darn focused on November 6th.

Yepsen: That's only a few days away, we thought you might have some thoughts.

Scholten: You'd think it would be only a few days away. For me it seems like a lifetime.

Henderson: You have been campaigning in the most rural district of the four congressional districts in Iowa. What is your advice to democrats who are trying to connect with rural voters? And in what ways do you think you have been successful? And in what ways do you think you have been unsuccessful?

Scholten: Showing up. That's the number one thing is just show up. And so I just remember going on our first 39 county tour and just listening to folks and seeing how increasingly harder it is to live in rural Iowa and just having that engagement. And then the second time you go around you start working with folks and they realize you're just not Steve King, not not Steve King, you're standing for something and you're standing for them. And this third time that we have come around, I mean in Sheldon, Iowa at 12:30 in the afternoon on a weekday we had standing room only for our town hall. In Dickinson County, in a county that Hillary Clinton didn't even get 30%, we had 182 people show up at our town hall.

Henderson: You have campaigned in the district criticizing your opponent for not debating you. Were he sitting here today, what question would you ask of him?

Scholten: Accountability and why are you not on the Farm Bill Conference Committee fighting for your district? That's the number one thing that gets me. He makes a lot of noise with a lot of controversial things and how that affects our district is that he's not finding our economical needs. And at a time when, again, we've had four consecutive years of low commodity prices, this Farm Bill could shape agriculture and get us going in the right direction. And he's not on that conference committee. And you ask why? One of two reasons, one he either doesn't want to be on it, or leadership won't allow him to be on it and it's probably the latter.

Yepsen: We've got just a few seconds left. What is the most important thing you want voters in that district to remember about you as they head into the polls?

Scholten: I would say that showing up and working my tail off and I've taken a pledge to do a town hall in all 39 counties every year I'm elected in office because we may not always agree on all the issues but I'll look you straight in the eye when I talk about my issues and I'm here to listen.

Yepsen: Baseball question.

Scholten: All right.

Yepsen: What do we do to shorten the game?

Scholten: Oh, I'm a purist. I love everything about baseball. I don't know.

Yepsen: Could we get rid of instant replays?

Scholten: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. We could do that and we can make the players a little bit quicker in and out of the innings.

Yepsen: Mr. Scholten, thanks for being with us, we appreciate it.

Scholten: It's an honor. Thank you.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press after the midterm elections next week. Now, next week you can catch Iowa Press on our .3 World channel Friday night at 7:30 and then again Saturday morning at 8:30. And we'll be back on our main Iowa PBS channel for a rebroadcast Sunday at noon. Plenty of midterm election drama to dissect next week on Iowa Press. 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. 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.


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