Ryan Melton

Iowa Press | Episode
Sep 23, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Democratic candidate for Iowa's 4th Congressional District Ryan Melton (D - Nevada) will discuss his views, what he wants to accomplish in Congress and his campaign challenging incumbent Rep. Randy Feenstra (R - Hull).

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Clay Masters, lead political reporter and host for Iowa Public Radio, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



A new candidate is trying to overcome democrats’ electoral challenges in deep red Northwest and Western Iowa. We sit down with 4th District congressional candidate Ryan Melton 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. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, September 23rd edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: Our guest on this edition of Iowa Press is Ryan Melton of Nevada. He is a democrat running against Congressman Randy Feenstra of Hull. Randy Feenstra was invited to participate in an Iowa Press Debate and declined so we have invited Mr. Melton to join us at the Iowa Press table. He is running in the new 4th congressional district. Let me tell you a little bit about it. It includes all the counties that run up and down the Missouri River, it includes the cities of Council Bluffs and Sioux City on the west and on the east it stretches over to Ames and Marshalltown. Mr. Melton, welcome to Iowa Press.

Melton: I'm glad to be here.

Henderson: Joining the conversation today, Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Ryan, for those of us who have heard you speak at some various political events in these past few months, it almost could be interpreted to sound like you maybe begrudgingly entered this race as a candidate, in what is admittedly a difficult district for a democrat to run. Is that the case? Or is that just your humility coming through? Were you dragged into this race kicking and screaming?

Melton: Yeah, I think it depends on the day you ask me probably and how much sleep I got the night before. Well, this has never been part of my life plan, that's for sure. I've been asked to run for public office from time to time but I have a strenuous full-time job. I run a team of 19 at a Fortune 100 company. I have a wife and two kids. And so I've always had plenty of reason to decline those asks. But this time just felt different. And so --

Murphy: Why? Tell us why did it feel different this time?

Melton: Yeah, well first off, so JD Scholten, who I have immense respect for and who almost won in this district just a couple of cycles ago, so when he announced he wasn't running again mid-last year my initial interest was more of oh wow, who is going to run next, not thinking it would be me. But after some occasional check-ins with people in the party and realizing that by mid-January or early January of this year there was a real risk that there was not going to be a democrat on the ballot, it felt like I was obligated to do it. It was one of those situations where if no one is going to do it, I'm going to do it, because in the age of Trumpism that we're seeing and the age of anti-democracy we're seeing I thought it was absolutely untenable that there wouldn't be a democrat on the ballot. And so as far as begrudging, I wouldn't say I begrudgingly decided to do it. I'm honored to do it, I'm honored to represent the people and to give voice to those people whose voices are often not amplified as they should be. But it is certainly exhausting working a full-time job, trying to be a good husband and dad and running for Congress all at the same time.

Masters: There are some progressives within the Iowa Democratic Party and even those that are outside of the Iowa Democratic Party that don't want a moderate candidate. They might not be as happy with their member of Congress or President Joe Biden. Do you consider yourself a moderate democrat? Or how do you think of yourself within the party?

Melton: I'm always honest and I'll be honest here too. I consider myself a liberal democrat. I think a progressive title would be a good one. But I would call myself a practical progressive. So I think one example of this is when you harken back to the bifurcation efforts with the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better, there are a lot of progressives in Congress that said, I'm not going to vote for one unless we can vote for both. I wouldn't have agreed with that. I couldn't look an Iowan in the eye and tell them that I voted against the infrastructure bill in a state where we have more bridges beyond repair than any other in the nation. I couldn't look an Iowan in the eye and tell them that I was going to vote against fixing the bridges they drive on to get to work every day. And so I think practical progressive makes the most sense if you're looking for a title. But I've been called liberal democrat, populist. Yeah, I guess if you look at some of the nasty emails I get, Marxist Commie.

Masters: You've got a list going it sounds like of all those titles.

Melton: Or potato cannibal is my favorite insult I've received. They thought I was in Idaho. Iowa, Idaho, potatoes and apparently I look like a potato. There you go.

Henderson: The 4th congressional district, the new 4th has a voter registration edge as of September 1st of 87,000 more republicans than democrats and democrats are actually the third level of registered voters in that district. I heard you give a speech to a democratic fundraiser in April where you said, hey, this is an uphill battle but I need every democrat to turn out. How do you do that in a district like that?

Melton: Being honest, being open, not being owned by corporate interests. It's going to take more than just democrats to win this thing obviously. The good news is, is I always pre-advertise my open forum events to everyone so I have plenty of republican and independents and libertarians that come to my forum events. And I've had a number of independents and a number of republicans that after sizing me up and asking me some questions say they're going to vote for me because they can trust me. At the Clay County Fair Democratic Party booth I had a former Steve King voter walk up to me, ask me a number of questions as far as what my affiliations are, how my campaign is funded. I reject corporate PAC money, for example, while my opponent feasts on corporate PAC money. And after she heard that I am opposed to carbon capture pipelines and have been since day one, she said after sizing me up that she is going to vote for me. So there's going to be a lot of independents that vote for me and there's even going to be some republicans that vote for me too from my experiences on the campaign trail.

Masters: You bring up the carbon capture pipelines. People that are watching this program are probably familiar that those three that have been proposed in the state or in the headlines a lot. There is a coalition that has kind of formed among environmentalists and landowners that are standing in opposition to those. I think one of the first aspects that gets talked about is eminent domain. I can probably guess the answer to this question. But do you see eminent domain as a proper -- is eminent domain a proper thing to be using when you're talking about carbon capture pipelines?

Melton: Absolutely not.

Masters: Absolutely not. The other issue has to do with the way that these companies are talking about this as a way to help curb climate change, to reduce the carbon load. Is this part of the solution in climate change?

Melton: It's a failed climate change solution. We are facing an existential crisis when it comes to climate change. We need bold action. Marrying ourselves to the status quo with a failed technology it's not the way to go.

Masters: Even when there's -- we've also seen that there are labor unions that are coming in support of it. Do you dismiss those --

Melton: I'm a big supporter of labor unions. I'm a big supporter of collective bargaining and unionization, no doubt about it. I disagree with them on carbon capture pipelines. I have been opposed to carbon capture pipelines since day one. It's definitely a failed climate change solution. If you go look at the record, there have been plenty of carbon sequestration plants that have opened and closed because they over promise and under deliver. It's not the bold action we need and it's defraying a lot of resources we need on more bold action more firmly entrenching us in a status quo situation.

Murphy: Is the union issue what is hindering more democrats from taking a similar position to yours? And I'm wondering because you mentioned the voter that came to you and talked about this and I have also heard from voters who say they're republican voters but they are so adamant about this specific issue that they are shopping for other candidates this cycle. So it seems that there's maybe when you look at talking political speaking there is an opportunity for democrats to maybe bolster some, add some range of support if they take a similar stance to you on this issue. Why haven't more democratic candidates done that? Do you think it's the union thing?

Melton: Well, I can tell you that since this campaign began and I have been so outspoken about it since the beginning that more and more candidates have come to my position over the course of the year. I think a lot of it is the carbon capture pipeline companies are attempting to green wash these projects as environmentally friendly projects when all they're really going to do is take the liquefied CO2 and grab more harder to extract oil. It's not a climate change solution. But it is sold that way. And so the more and more I talk to people about it, the more and more that people find out about it, the more they realize it's a boondoggle. And so I've actually seen a dramatic increase in the number of democrats that have come to my position since the year began.

Murphy: And have you talked to your fellow democratic candidates about this issue and said hey, you should be --

Melton: Oh yeah, John Norwood, for example, we've had -- I consider John a friend. I didn't know him before this year.

Masters: The democrat who is running for Secretary of Agriculture.

Melton: Thank you. I consider him a friend and we've had a lot of open and honest conversations about it and he is now in line with my position. I know that Deidre DeJear has done some coordinated campaigning with me out in Western Iowa and per my conversations with her has expressed some real concerns about it too --

Murphy: And Deidre is a candidate for Governor.

Melton: Yes, yes and Admiral Franken, U.S. Senate candidate, who I have done some coordinated campaigning with has also shared similar concerns. So I actually think that the tone is moving in a direction that more aligns with my stance on it. I agree with you, maybe back in January there were more democrats that weren't in alignment with how I view it, but that is certainly a different picture right now.

Henderson: You recently tweeted that the status quo on agriculture in Iowa is not working. How so?

Melton: Well, this came up in the Iowa Corn Growers Forum, which was a closed forum, it was not a debate and there was very minimal, if any, press. Congressman Feenstra continues to talk about how successful our ag sector is. My argument is you can't judge the success of our ag sector just based on productivity alone. If you do that, yes, obviously we're very productive. But when our current system is driving unsustainable amounts of topsoil erosion, massive waterway pollution, dramatic increase in chemical load in our environment and is more firmly entrenching our farmers on the ground in markets that are going to reduce over time as electrification increases and as we've seen massive population declines in rural Iowa and as we've seen massive farm worker decline there are a lot of problems with our current ag sector that put us on a really unsustainable path, both ecologically and economically.

Henderson: What is your view of ethanol as an industry?

Melton: Yeah, I think it should be one of many options in a diversified portfolio for two reasons. One, we're going to face an extractable fossil fuel end point here possibly within this century. If you look at the British petroleum study, they found that that end point for extractable fossil fuel may be in the next 50 years. And so we need to be diversified in that space to make sure that we have a wide variety of different options to fill that gap when it comes. And also with climate change mitigation, we need to have a much wider diversification of options because no politician and no scientist can sit here right now and tell you which of those options is going to be the silver bullet answer for climate change mitigation. But as far as expanding corn ethanol, I don't really think that is the right approach. I think we should really be spending a lot more of our resources on next gen renewable energy, wind, solar, while still maintaining corn ethanol because, again, we need diversification.

Henderson: President Biden came to Iowa this spring and said he was taking an executive action that made E15 available year round for this year as a way to lower prices for consumers. You're not a fan of E15?

Melton: No.

Henderson: Why not?

Melton: I disagree with him. Well, the reasons I've cited. If you look at all of the inputs and outputs that come along with corn ethanol production, when you account for everything it is not a climate change mitigation solution that is bold enough compared to the existential threat we're facing. That is number one. Number two, I have talked to many farmers on the ground who grow corn who say look, I am grateful for the short-term financial benefit that the corn ethanol market gives me. I also can see what is coming. I know that in the mid-and-long-term corn ethanol is not going to be a winning bet for me. I need politicians, I need government officials that are not afraid to call that out and who are going to help fund programs, innovation and research that gives me a more sustainable option environmentally, ecologically and economically. And so right now we have politicians that are afraid to say these things because it's politically expedient just to say let's keep expanding corn ethanol. More and more research makes clear that that's not a great option for us economically or ecologically.

Murphy: And as you say that, that includes members of your own party. Iowa democrats are very supportive of ethanol. How do you -- you have sort of explained it a little bit, but how as political messaging do you break through that existence of the ethanol industry here in Iowa and convince people that what you're describing is the way to move forward?

Melton: Yeah, let me make clear again I'm talking about how I'm opposed to expanding corn ethanol because there's bills in Congress right now that are wanting to expand ethanol blend up to 20%, 30%. I think there are a lot of deleterious impacts that would come from that. But as far as breaking through on messaging, I don't have a paid Washington D.C. consultant that tells me what to say, I don't have any paid consultants that tell me what to say. My words are my own. I have a master's degree, I'm a smart guy. I can look at the data in front of me without bias, without corporate influence and make conclusions that I think are sound and reasonable. And so in this space as far as political messaging, I don't say anything that I have first put through the ElectionTron 5000 to make sure that it appeases enough voters. I say the truth. I try to do the right things regardless. But in this case, go talk to a corn grower on the ground. Don't talk to a processor, don't talk to a fertilizer company, talk to a farmer on the ground. And ask them, okay, give me both a short, mid and long-term assessment of whether what you're doing right now is ecologically and economically sound and they'll tell you no, I'm really concerned, but I don't have enough politicians that are talking about the nuance there and I don't have enough politicians that are caring about funding trade development programs and market development programs beyond corn ethanol, so I'm really on shaky ground here. I need more brave people to stand up for me. And that is what I hear over and over again from democrats, republicans, independents and libertarians on the ground. And so I just speak the truth and that is what I'm going to keep on doing.

Masters: We're coming up on ten years since the Nutrient Reduction Strategy came out, which is a laundry list of different environmental practices that farmers can implement to keep nitrates out of the water, to help with the Gulf  Hypoxic Zone and just the water quality in the state. We're coming up on ten years of that. We're seeing some buy-in but there's no kind of mechanism to regulate this. There have been some researchers who talk about having policy that would make polluters have to pay. Do you support that? And what kind of answers would you have in trying to solve water quality issues in the state?

Melton: Well, we need to get to the root of it and the root of it is this, I talk to plenty of farmers on the ground who say look, I would love to practice more sustainable ag practices, I care about the fact that I'm losing massive amounts of topsoil, I care about the fact that we can't swim in a lot of our lakes and rivers. But I don't have a lot of control over price point. There's so much corporate consolidation in ag that I am struggling to keep my nose above the water line. And so if you give me a regulation it's more likely I'm just going to leave farming because I can't afford to live up to the regulation. What we need is, is we need to get corporate power that is disproportionately impacting the writing of our Farm Bill out of that space and we need to get back to being more mindful about what the farmers on the ground need. They need to have the financial strength to give them the flexibility to adopt these practices, which often includes a change in tech, a change in the way of doing things, which if you are struggling just to pay the bills and our farmers have a higher debt load than they have ever had before, they are in an inflexible position. So it's not the farmers to blame for what is going on here as far as topsoil erosion, downstream waterway impact and increased chemical load in our communities. It is the massive corporate consolidation we're seeing that are manipulating our farmers every day and forcing them into a situation they don't want to be in.

Henderson: So would you support breaking up these monopolies that you describe?

Melton: No doubt. There's a reason why we have anti-trust legislation on the books, right? So having a master's in history I can talk to you all day every day. We've had centuries and centuries of boom and bust cycles in our economy. It feels like that is kind of baked in at this point. As such, we have had legislators that have come to the table and have said, we need to find robust mechanisms to protect the worker, to protect the people on the ground, hence why we have things such as anti-trust legislation. Unfortunately, over the second half of the 1900s and through now there has been this hesitancy to use anti-trust legislation. But it's there for a reason and when it is used it drives a lot more price accountability for the consumer, it brings a lot more protection for the worker and in the ag context it brings a lot more power to the farmer on the ground so they have the flexibility to do things such as mitigate waterway pollution from our current ag practices.

Masters: The Inflation Reduction Act also had something in it that extended the Production Tax Credit for wind energy. When you were talking about different industries that you're in support of you mentioned wind energy. I was out in Woodbury County covering the board of supervisors' meeting out there where they basically kind of hindered any kind of large wind farms to be built in that county because of how far away the turbines can be. As you see wind energy scale up, how do you make room for it where you are seeing there being more opposition in the state to wind energy?

Melton: Well, I think the --

Masters: And would you have voted for the Inflation Reduction Act too? I was going to throw that in there.

Melton: Yes, good question. So there are plenty of good things about the Inflation Reduction Act, but there are plenty of things that I don't like. The fact that it seems to prop up carbon capture pipelines, which I'm strongly opposed to. I think overall collectively I would have voted for it because again I consider myself a practical progressive. I think there's a heck of a lot more good that comes from that bill than the bad and we can still target through advocacy and legislative action the bad and continue to whittle those down. As far as your question on wind farms, sure a lot of this is making a persuasive argument and presenting a deal to landowners that is enticing enough that they understand the benefit not just to them but to the greater common good. And so with these carbon capture pipelines, for example, you tell them we want to take your land away via eminent domain if you don't agree to voluntary easement for a carbon capture pipeline that marries us to the status quo and you, landowner and farmer, know that the status quo is not going to work for you much longer and it puts your emergency management personnel in rural Iowa in a position where they don't have the resources to mitigate the impact from carbon capture pipeline leaks. There's a reason why these companies are having a really hard time convincing many of these landowners to give their land up voluntarily for these carbon capture pipelines. They can't make a good case. I think on the other hand with wind farms and solar panel farms you can make a better case for a wide variety of different reasons. I think the challenge is, is you have plenty of voices in that debate right now that are disincentivizing wind and solar power because they are paid by the status quo. And so the challenge is up to us, to politicians and advocates and public officials and scientists and educators to just continue to be resilient, to continue to show resolve and perseverance in the face of that because I think mid-to-long-term that is going to be the winning solution in combination with next gen biofuels and renewable energy. So it's just about keeping up the good fight every day all day and that's what we're going to keep on doing.

Murphy: Some rulings earlier this year by the U.S. and Iowa Supreme Courts put abortion as an issue very central to this campaign and now democrats, a lot of democrats are hopeful that it will motivate their base to turn out and maybe even swing some no party, middle of the road voters in their direction. But I'm curious to ask you as a candidate in the district that we described, the most conservative area of the state, what has it been like for you, what has your experience been talking to voters in that district about that issue?

Melton: Yeah, I'd say the top three concerns that come up over and over again are Governor Reynolds' assault on public education, carbon capture pipelines, especially the more north and west you get and reproductive rights. And like I said, my opponent does nice photo ops in really controlled spaces and posts those pictures on his social media after. I advertise where I'm going to be and when before the event so that people from all political affiliations can come in and often they do and we have very cordial conversations. I've had a number of people that consider themselves pro-life that come up to me and say this is too much because not only in my district are we represented by a Congressman that celebrated the downfall of Roe, he wants to go further than that. He is pushing for a federal abortion ban. And when KTIV asked him if he would have any exceptions, he didn't say any, he just said I want the voters to know how pro-life I am. So to me that looks like a federal abortion ban with no exceptions. And so I've had plenty of pro-life voters come up to me and say, that is too far, that is too much. And then I've had a number of people that have come up to me who were nurses and doctors before Roe and have recounted horror stories to me of what happens to pregnant people when you don't have safe abortion as a medical protection for you. And so regardless of political affiliation, I think that not only the downfall of Roe, but my opponent's stance on amplifying the downstream impact from that, is really scaring a lot of people. I've had so many people tell me number one, that this election will be a make or break decider on whether they stay in the district or not and maybe even the state. That's number one. And number two, I have had so many young people come up to me and tell me that they are making plans to never get pregnant, even if they would never have an abortion, because it is typically medically indistinguishable whether there is a miscarriage happening or a self-induced abortion. And so a lot of our young people are alarmed by the fact that if they lose control over their bodies they know they are going to lose control over their future, especially in a situation where women face such high amounts of sexual violence in their communities. And we have republicans like Greg Abbott saying, oh we're just going to end rape. Absolutely unconscionable how insensitive those comments are and how unpractical his ideas. Our people in the district are very, very afraid and the fact that my opponent gleefully celebrates the downfall of Roe without showing one ounce of empathy in this space for pregnant people is jarring.

Henderson: Mr. Melton, I have to say we are out of time for this conversation. Thank you for joining us at the Iowa Press table.

Melton: Thank you. You said this was going to go really quickly. It feels like I've been here for 30 seconds.

Henderson: Well, a quick programming note for those of you who are loyal Iowa PBS viewers, on Monday we begin our series of Iowa Press Debates with the two candidates for Congress in Iowa's 1st District. Republican incumbent Mariannette Miller-Meeks and democrat Christina Bohannan will debate the issues live on air and online at 7:00 p.m. Again, that's Monday night at 7:00. We hope you'll join us. You can watch every episode of Iowa Press online at iowapbs.org or join us at our regular broadcast times, 7:30 on Friday nights and Sundays at noon. For everyone here at the network, thanks for watching.


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. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.