Two square off for 84th District Iowa House seat
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – Despite having different opinions on many sides of the geopolitical spectrum, State Rep. Joe Mitchell and challenger Jeff Fager agree the 2020 general election is a unique time in voter impact.
The two are facing off on Nov. 3 for the 84th Iowa House of Representative seat, which district creeps into North Lee County.
Mitchell, (R-Wayland) is the youngest legislator in Des Moines and has already worked his way up to the vice-chair of the powerful Ways and Means committee. He is finishing his first full term after winning election as a 21-year-old college student in 2018.
Fager is on the other side of the career tract having 15 years as a college faculty member and then retired from Iowa Wesleyan University as Vice President of Academic Affairs, following a move from rural Indiana.
“Now is the time I felt the need to get into this,” Fager said in an interview with Pen City Current Friday.
“Being an academic dean dealing with faculty, I’ve dealt with strong opinions and arguing points forcefully and sometimes I needed those negotiation skills so that even though I may not get everything I want, we can find those compromises and move the institution forward.”
Fager was born in Indiana in a county he says is very similar to Henry County in it’s small town feel and base economy in agriculture. He moved to the area with his wife, Sally, and took a position with then Iowa Wesleyan College.
He retired from the university and still does a few adjunct courses in philosophy and decided to make Mt. Pleasant his permanent home.
“When we made that decision, we also decided to commit ourselves to its welfare,” he said.
“When I saw what was going on in Des Moines and things were moving in the wrong direction and Iowa was slipping, I wanted to take some of my experience as a college administrator and help Iowa become a better place by running for office.”
Fager said he this election cycle requires now, more than ever, civil discourse and clear thinking.
“One of the courses I taught was critical reasoning and I want to be able to apply what I taught in how to evaluate arguments to come to solutions based on reality and not on emotion,” he said.
Some of those issues he’s sees that are critical to Iowa’s future are rural health care, better support of educational systems from preschool to collegiate level, and providing access to broadband for all Iowans.
Fager is on the democratic line in saying that privatizing the state’s medicaid program has been “disastrous”.
“Our rural health care providers have been experiencing challenges for quite some time, but the passage of the medicaid management to the private sector has been disastrous for patients who had trouble getting timely responses, and are sometimes being denied access to health care,” he said.
“We have to get rural providers paid in a more timely manner as this truly threatens access to adequate health care. That’s a top priority for me.”
On the heels of that, Fager said as an educator by profession he has a personal investment in the foundations that help create solutions to today’s problems.
“Coming from my background, I know education forms the foundation for the solutions to the problems Iowans, and Americans, face today,” he said.
Fager said the state needs to bolster financial support for the entire education system from preschool to Iowa’s universities, but he said the respect for the teaching system in Iowa also needs rebooted.
“I want to help raise the level of respect for the teaching profession. We need to treat our teachers as well as we treat our football coaches. Let teachers teach and get politicians out of the classroom. Give them the support they need and let them do what they’re trained to do.”
Rural broadband is an issue that Fager said has been brought even more to the discussion table with the emergence of the COVID-19 battle. He said the answer has to be a similar approach as the country had when it made a priority of extending electricity to every home.
“It has to the be the same as we did 120 years ago with electricity where we had private and public partnerships and established cooperatives to get that service to everyone. It was necessary to function in society,” he said.
“We’re going into the third decade of the 21st century and in order to truly participate in the modern world, you have to have that access.”
He said the grant process at the state and national level has to be made easier for smaller Internet Service Providers to engage in.
“Major corporations are soaking up all that money and that hurts some of the local providers who have a better chance of getting that rural broadband out further into the state.”
Mitchell said the broadband access issue is really a bipartisan issue and has to be addressed.
“We have kids in lower economic statuses that don’t even have Internet. This argument that we all have to be online can’t happen until we have sufficient broadband in the state, which we don’t.”
But Mitchell said the state continues to increase funding to education, and the legislature has made it a priority.
“I think we’re funding it as adequately as we can. Money doesn’t grow on trees and we can look how history could repeat itself,” he said.
“Ten years ago under Gov. (Chet) Culver, they overspent and we went into debt, then we had to have budget cuts at the end of the year for multiple years at a time.”
Mitchell said he looks at state budgeting like family budgeting.
“You have to have a savings account and not overspend. Maybe you can’t buy the new TV or the new car because you have to have savings in case of an emergency,” he said.
“As House Republicans we’ve done that. But we still don’t know the real impact of the coronavirus, or really even the derecho that went through. But we have savings so we can help our businesses and farmers.”
The state recently released a budget report indicating that the state will have a $305 million budget surplus at the end of this fiscal year.
“This isn’t a chicken and egg, thing. You don’t have those funds unless you have people paying into the tax system and growing wages,” he said. “We have to make sure the first line of defense is protected so we can keep having these $100 million increases for public education, which is a good thing.”
Mitchell said his first term in the House has been an eye-opening experience despite having served as a page in the legislature since he was 17.
“It has been the experience of a lifetime. As a 21-year-old to be trusted by your district to be elected to represent 33,000 people there’s nothing I would change about it. There’s no better way to serve your community than to be a public official and directly impact what’s going on on your community.”
He said now the legislator needs to stay focused on being fiscally responsible, continue to fund public education, have policies that are small business friendly, and address child care shortages.
“People just won’t move to southeast Iowa if we don’t have reliable child care,” he said.
He said it’s also an important time to keep a focus on manufacturing retention and taking care of those that are already here
Two industries in north Lee County have announced cutbacks in workforce with Siemens Gamesa laying off 130 and Bagcraft in Fort Madison announcing its closure on Oct. 22 ending 103 good paying jobs.
“We have to focus on the manufacturers already there and keeping them there,” Mitchell said. “We have an extremely high corporate and S Corp tax rate pass through. Obviously, if they can go Texas or Florida and pay 0% they’re going to expand there. They could save millions and that’s where they can grow the jobs.”
Mitchell said two years ago the state had more jobs than people to fill them and things were very optimistic.
“Then COVID hit and we got flipped on the backside of our head. At this point we’re just trying to make sure we’ve got a balanced budget, but it’s a waiting game at this point,” he said.
“We don’t know how corona has affected the economy and in my opinion it’ll still be six months to a year from now until we see the side effects of this. My biggest thing going in is the budget. If you don’t have a balanced budget you can’t fund your schools adequately and your hospitals.”
Both candidates say absentee and mail-in voting will have a marked influence on the election, but Mitchell said the system in Iowa is state of the art and believes in the integrity of the system here, but questions the systems in other states.
“The way we do it is great, but we’re gonna see problems in places like Pennsylvania and New York,” he said.
Fager said Iowans will vote heavily by mail-in and absentee in the general election Nov. 3.
“I think there will be a pretty powerful increase in the number, but that’s not particularly surprising. What is less predictable is the political reaction on Nov. 4 and what’s going to end up in courts and that concerns me.”
Fager said now has to be a time of patience for Iowans.
“We don’t know the implications of COVID yet, and we may have some potentially tougher times ahead. We have to come together and be united,” he said.
“We have an absolutely terrible divided national political scene and it’s incredibly dangerous to our democracy and what’s going on in the country.”