BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
MT. PLEASANT – He’s probably the most politically seasoned candidate in southeast Iowa, but after just turning 21 this year, he’s also one of the youngest in the state to seek office.
Joe Mitchell, a Wayland native and early graduate of WACO High School, is hoping to put his four years interning and staffing some of Iowa’s top political figures, to work for southeast Iowa.
Mitchell is running against Mt. Union Correctional Officer Jason Moats for the 84th District House seat being vacated by Mt. Pleasant’s Dave Heaton, who served for 23 years in the Iowa House of Representatives. Mitchell has served as a page in the Iowa House and Senate, worked for Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, and Gov. Kim Reynolds, and as an intern for a lobbying firm that represents health care, taxes, and regulation. He was Reynold’s first intern picked during the transition period from Gov. Terry Branstad’s departure.
The 84th district represents all of Henry County and part of Washington, Jefferson, and parts of rural north Lee County, including Houghton, St. Paul, West Point, and Donnellson.
The often soft-spoken Mitchellwill graduate this fall from Drake University with a business administration degree and wants to put that education to work for his parents’ company in Wayland, MD Orthopedics, which manufactures pediatric orthopedics for babies with club feet. The company currently employees 30 full-time employees.
His campaign thus far has focused on what’s best for the communities in his district even if sometimes slightly adrift from party lines.
He said he went to Drake so he could continue to work at the statehouse. He served as chief clerk for Senator Bill Anderson, who was chair of the state commerce committee where Mitchell coordinated all the committee meetings and staffed out other clerks.
During the past legislative session, Mitchell worked for a lobbying firm and then heard the news that Heaton was retiring.
“Running for state rep has been one of these things that, since I was a page, was always in the back of my mind as something that would be really cool to do for your community,” Mitchell said.
“When it happened I thought, ‘Man is this the time I should do it?’ and so I talked to a few people in the legislature who I trusted and asked if I should really do this. Sen. Anderson told me I had the experience and a couple people said there’s never a perfect time, so just do it.”
Mitchell said he knocked on more than 2,000 doors during the primary and won with 38.5% of the vote. If the no candidate had received more than 35%, the nomination would have gone to delegates and he said due to his age, he was concerned he wouldn’t get that nod.
“A lot of times knocking on the door people would say, ‘Are you old enough to run for office?’ and I would say, “Well, yeah. Just barely.”
“There’s a lot of reasons I’m running, but this is one of the reasons. I want to get back to understanding each other and coming back to our core beliefs as Americans and Iowans because I think we have more in common than we disagree with. If you look at legislature right now, 90% of the bills passed are bipartisan bills, a lot of times unanimously because they are good for Iowans. Then you have 10% of the bills that are partisan and those are the bills you see on the news.”
Mitchell said he probably wouldn’t have voted for the Chapter 20 overhaul in 2017.
“I would have voted no because I think correctional officers should have been included with police and state troopers who were mostly excluded for that bill. I’m not going to say I wouldn’t have voted for a bill that restructured Chapter 20, but it went too far all-in-all.”
“My big thing is rural Iowa and District 84 first, and make sure I’m voting on stuff for the district and not for the party,” he said. “I don’t think that was good for my district.”
Mitchell said there’s some confusion in the district as to how the state privatized public health care, indicating that it was an executive move from Gov. Terry Branstad and not the legislature’s work.
“This was an action by the executive branch. A lot of legislators, Democrat and Republican, didn’t know this was going to happen. Now we’re in a tough spot because it’s not working out for everyone. But I see both sides of the issue. The Branstad Administration did this because Medicaid was rising 20% a year in cost so it wasn’t sustainable. They had to do something to try and reign in the cost for the rest of Iowans.”
He said it hasn’t worked out perfectly and the legislature has tried to pass some oversight over the Managed Care Organizations and will probably do more of that this year.
“Nobody thinks this is running right, so we have to get more oversight and then the governor, since this is an executive branch thing, hopefully she’ll make some good changes. It has to start with the governor’s office.”
Mitchell said he’s spoken to every superintendent in the district and they are telling him that a 3% allowable growth should be the target for funding next year from the state.
“If elected I’m gonna try to get as close to that and fight for that, but the main thing for them of what’s realistic is getting the SAVE penny sales tax that goes to all the schools renewed. It wasn’t renewed last year and expires in 2020. We need to do that sooner than later so it can give stability to the district so they know what money is coming in. That will be a big thing for me, making sure that’s renewed.”
He said children’s mental health is also critical for educators.
“They’re dealing with a very high rate of depression and anxiety and suicide. I can’t believe some of the things that are going on with kids biting and hitting and using profane words. It’s nothing like anything I’ve ever seen. In my day, which wasn’t that long ago, you’d have a couple of disruptive kids who had to stay after school, but it’s out of control.”
He said schools are severely lacking in guidance counselors and counseling isn’t being done because the guidance staff is so busy building schedules.
“We’re going to have to do something about that for sure,” Mitchell said.
He said the state aid formula per student needs revamped.
“It’s fair in the sense that it’s the same number all over the state, but where it gets skewed is that the rural area schools spend thousands and thousands more on transportation. That needs to be reevaluated. It’s 40 or 50 years old, but the challenge is no one wants to mess with it because it’s gonna be a really big fight.”
Mitchell said he reiterates whereever he goes that a couple bad apples in the party have said something about IPERS, but no one really wants to touch IPERS.
“I’ve said that multiple times. Gov. Reynolds said something a few months ago about tweaking it, but has reversed her statement on that because it’s just not worth it.”
He said he went to Des Moines and sat with officials in the IPERS office and said it’s a great system that’s 82% funded for the next 40 or 50 years.
“If we ever switched people to a 401k those people wouldn’t be paying into the system and eventually someone wouldn’t get their pension. We’ve got to keep IPERS the way it is,” he said.
Governor’s Rural Iowa Initiative
Mitchell said Reynolds grew up in rural Iowa and the initiative is not election-year pandering, but a sincere effort to address rural issues. He said with his rural upbringing, it’s very important.
“Bringing financing and investing to rural Iowa is one of my big things. I see a lot of big projects going on in the metro area and nothing’s going on down here. I also see, something that I disagree with the governor on, is we’re bringing Google, Apple, and the Fertilizer plant in and giving them huge tax credits. I don’t agree with that because none of those businesses are benefiting my district at all. I would rather see those credits go toward our small businesses here in Iowa. People and places that are stationed here in Iowa and started here and aren’t trying to get a free ride coming in.”
Small Business assistance
Mitchell said taxes are a big obstacle and the state should look at lowering the business taxes so owners can use that money to grow instead of giving it to the state.
“My dad started his small business and sometimes it’s hard to get loans. He had to put up the house. So making it easier for entrepreneurs to borrow money would also be helpful to start-up and small business owners.”
He said helping with the cost of health insurance by sustaining the Hawk-i program, as well as watching out for bills that may help larger corporations, but could hurt small businesses has to be done as well.
“It’s not about passing more laws, but stopping bad laws,” Mitchell said. “People might propose things that put more regulation on small businesses or a bill that would hinder small businesses by eliminating this program or that. We have to be a protector for small business and look at things closely to see if a bill is good or bad for businesses in my district.”
Water Quality in Iowa
He said there was a measure passed last year to put $270 million over the next 12 years into water quality improvements.
“That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Any way we can encourage farmers to work in an environmentally safe way, we should look at and it starts with cover crops and no tilling, that seems to be the best way to just naturally deter chemicals getting into the watershed.”
“A natural resource and recreational trust fund was passed by voters and that is funded with a small increase of 3/8 of a cent to the sales tax. 70% of Iowans support that. Passing that bill would be a good thing. This is something that a private company isn’t going to fund because there is no profit in it. It’s something the state needs to do to attract people back to our rural communities. We have to do things like that.”
Mitchell said he thinks the $127 million surplus announced in August was a byproduct of frugal spending.
“You’d rather be on the safe side and not spend every single penny you have and have a little savings. Having more sales than you think and more revenue is good thing,” Mitchell said. “Governor Reynolds has smart people around her analyzing the budget and they knew how much would come in, they just happened to have more and that’s a good thing for the state.”
“I think I’m the best choice because I have more experience than my opponent. I said this in the primary, too, against my opponents. I’ve been there and I know how the process works. I have relationships built and I can get stuff done faster for the voters of District 84. I think Rep. Heaton did a great job of being bypartisan and really representing people on either side of the aisle and you saw that in his votes. He looked out for his constituents and, if you talk to any legislature on either side about who has been the most bipartisan legislator, they will tell you it was Dave Heaton or he was in the top three. And Dave has endorsed me.”
“I don’t care who you’re going to vote for across the state, I don’t think you should be running because you’re tied to a party ideology. You should run because you care about the people of your district and care about representing those people’s values and views, and protecting the workers there. I would just ask for your vote because I really do care about this district. I grew up here, my parents own a business here, and when my kids grow up here someday, they grow up in a better Iowa than even I did.”