BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – With absentee ballots starting to go out Monday, local candidates on the ballots are honing their message and trying to reach voters in a still-restricted COVID-19 world.
Fort Madison Republican Martin Graber is a first-time candidate for office and will take on incumbent Jeff Kurtz, a Democrat from Fort Madison, for the Iowa 83rd District State Representative seat.
Kurtz won the seat two years ago with a win over Jeff Reichman. Reichman is challenging Rich Taylor for the state’s 42nd District Senate seat on this year’s ballot.
Graber has more than 30 years of service, including command service, with the Iowa National Guard and was deployed to Germany during Desert Storm. He held command ranks with the 224th Engineer battalion and at Camp Dodge, to name a few, and attended War College.
In his career life Graber’s been involved in industrial work, labor, human relations and financial advisement.
In contrast Kurtz spent the majority of his career in the railroad industry as a locomotive engineer and was a voice for the rail workers union in Des Moines.
Kurtz has been serving in the minority in a 53-47 House makeup and said things have been very difficult, but not impossible working across the aisle.
“They won’t do any of our legislation. We were starting to have some success, but then COVID came and just cut everything off,” Kurtz said.
One of the priorities he had in the last session focused on cybersecurity in the House’s Public Safety Committee. Kurtz also serves on Ways and Means, Labor, and Transportation committees.
He said he fears for hackers ability to strike the state and had reached some agreements with the republican chair Jarad Kline (R-Keota), but again COVID cut off the discussions and the short-lived reconvene that occurred to finish up the session left no time to revisit the issue.
He said being in the minority has allowed him to have influence on bills, through amendments and discussion, but the Democrats had very little chance of passing anything.
Kurtz said he’s spent a lot of his time on public service issues and unemployment has dominated things recently.
“At times it’s like pulling teeth,” he said. “I do what I can to help them out and have had some success so far, but it’s usually several weeks or months before we get people paid.”
One lady hadn’t had a paycheck in 19 weeks. She called in tears and we were able to get her paid and back-paid but that shouldn’t happen. For this to work this badly says something about us.”
Kurtz said government should work for people not against them. He said that’s one of the issues that separates him from Graber.
“They’re gonna try and paint me as a socialist, but I’m just looking for the best deal,” Kurtz said. “With Medicare, we tried privatization and it’s been horrible. Let’s go back to the system that works best.”
Kurtz said he doesn’t believe its a bad thing that the market and the government compete, but he wants to be shown how the market works better.
“Then I’m all in. But I don’t see how it works for Iowans if we get so dogmatic. We have to be flexible.”
Graber said Kurtz was the state co-chair for Bernie Sanders and that should speak volumes to Lee County residents.
“He was the most extreme candidate in the presidential race. (Sanders) says he’s a socialist and I do not believe that’s the path for America and it won’t get us where we need to go,” Graber said.
Kurtz said in dealing with public services and trying to help residents, he keeps hearing from department staffs that they are understaffed and under funded, but that doesn’t jibe with the Republican talking points that the state is financially sound.
“I’ve heard this with staff from the Department of Corrections, Department of Public Health and Iowa Workforce and others… that we’re underfunded and understaffed. What bothers me is that we’ve had years of surplusses, but can’t provide services?,” he said.
“Where is that money? I serve on Transportation, and Ways and Means so I see most of the money going through. And if were not funding basic services, what are we doing?”
Kurtz said Iowans are watching this election cycle very carefully. He said gutting collective bargaining, privatizing of medicaid and limiting taxing authority of municipalities are all things important to Iowans.
“Some of this legislation is just baffling to me,” Kurtz said. “But people are paying attention and they want to try something different.”
But he said he thinks the House has a very good chance of turning blue with Democrats taking control in January.
Kurtz said one of the things he’s learned in the past two years serving southeast Iowa is “old dogs can learn new tricks”.
“I spent a lot of time up here before working as head of the railroad unions’ legislative department, and to see it form this end… there is just so much more that goes into this,” he said.
“You have a big responsibility because people depend on you and they should. But I don’t think they all need to be political junkies all the time. They put us here to do that job and we should do it,” Kurtz said.
That’s one point Graber has the same take on.
“When it all comes down to it, my goal is to serve people of Lee County and Iowa and hopefully we make this a more unified and better place to live so when our kids and grandkids pick things up they inherit better than we had,” Graber said.
‘I’m willing to do whatever I have to to represent Lee County and be that voice so people in Lee County can feel someone in Des Moines speaks for them.”
Other issues place the two candidates on other ends of political spectrum.
Graber said Kurtz’ experience with the railroad narrows his field of experience in fully serving the people of Lee County and Iowa.
“I think my opponent’s experience is purely railroad and very specific in that he’s tied in with union movement,” Graber said. “I don’t think unions are bad and they do have a place, but if that’s your only focus that’s a potential challenge for you.”
Graber has his time with labor relations as well working for the former Dial Corp. as a human resources manager and employee relations and benefits coordinator. Graber attended Southeastern Community College and then graduated from the University of Iowa with a bachelor’s in business administration. He then obtained a master’s degree in business administration from St. Ambrose University, all while navigating a 32-year career with the National Guard.
Graber is now closing in on 30 years with AmeriPrise Financial, formerly IDS, or Investors Diversified Services. He’s also served as treasurer and chairman of the Lee County Republicans. Aside from his time in deployment, Graber has lived his life in Lee County.
He said his term as chairman of the county organization is when he decided to make a run.
Graber said one of the challenges of being the party chair is finding qualified and willing candidates to seek office. He said it was difficult finding anyone qualified and willing to commit the time to running. After discussions with his wife Coni, he decided he was really the only one to challenge for the house seat.
He said he’s not getting into the political arena to engage in politics, but to bring about change for Lee County and Iowa.
“Politics is a terrible game, and sometimes politics get in the way and perfectly good candidates don’t get to their full potential,”Graber said.
“During my time in the military I wasn’t political and I don’t intend to be political now. I want to do the right thing for the right reason and the rest will take care of itself.”
He said one of his top priorities will be trying to be a spark plug for renewed economic expansion in Lee County.
“One guy can’t make that happen, but I could be the spark plug that makes things begin to happen.”
He said Lee County has been under Democratic control for 30 years and has always had a history of high unemployment rates and people say that’s just the way it is.
“I personally don’t believe that paradigm has to be true,” he said. “It requires bringing in more industry and business and expanding the ones we have. We have to create an environment that people want to come here to run their business,” Graber said.
“IFC was a great one and I applaud the people that made that happen, but a lot of small businesses and industry don’t get the care they need.”
He said the other side of that equation is we have to have a workforce ready to take the jobs that are available.
“There’s work being done, but I just want to be focused on that. Look at our local high schools. Are just they training or selecting those that are going to be college attendees, or are they looking at those students and saying, ‘Hey want makes more sense for them?’.”
He said creating that pool of skilled workers will help attract new business and set Lee County on a renewed path
“That’s how we break the bubble, and that will pay dividends down stream. Get good wages, taxes, and new industry here and then we cause Lee County to expand into an area we don’t even imagine now.”
The general election campaign has hampered both candidates to some degree. Graber said he prefers in-person contact, but the coronavirus has forced a lot of communications to go over email and social media. He said the impact of absentee voting will certainly be felt locally and at the state level, but he hopes it doesn’t bleed into the presidential race.
“Voting is one of the greatest privileges and honors we have. It’s also one of the greatest responsibilities we have,” Graber said. “We should research candidates and find which one follows our path and vote that way.”
Kurtz said he thinks the influx of absentee balloting will extend the election past election night, saying it could be months before everything is settled and validated.