An Interview With U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Candidate Tom Fiegen

May 22, 2016

 Four Democrats are on the June 7th primary ballot for the U-S Senate seat currently held by Republican Chuck Grassley.  He is the longest serving member of Iowa’s congressional delegation.  Grassley’s decision not to schedule confirmation hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee has attracted more attention to the Democratic primary contest.  This week and next, we’re airing interviews from all four candidates on that ballot. 

Tom Fiegen is a former state Senator.  He spoke with Ben Kieffer on River to River. Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Ben Kieffer: So, start us off. Tell us a little bit about your background, introduce yourself and tell us why you think you’re qualified, well-qualified for the U.S. Senate.

Tom Fiegen:  Well first of all people need to know that I’m the oldest of 11 children, so it means I started changing diapers when I was five.

BK: [laughs] All right.

TF: My parents’ farm, just retired, my dad’s 80, they farm north of Larchwood, Iowa, just across the line in South Dakota. One of things, my dad’s an ex-Marine, so everybody had a job. My job on the farm was to feed all of our fat cattle. We fed a couple hundred head at a time. When I was home, Ben, I fed them all by hand. I tell people, the funny thing is when I left home, my dad discovered electricity. Suddenly all those cattle I fed by hand all those years were fed by pushing two buttons. 

But when I left the farm, I came down here to the University of Iowa in the fall of 1984 to enroll in law school and I also pursued a graduate degree in economics at the time. And it was an eye-opening experience, it was during the farm crisis and there was a woman just south of here near Hills Iowa by the name of Joann Neuzil who started the very first farm aid clinic and I volunteered at that clinic. My parents experienced some financial difficulty and it really set the course for my life. I have been a bankruptcy reorganization lawyer for 28 years now. In addition I’ve taught economics, I’ve taken a break from teaching economics, micro- and macro-economics, and I tell my students that I have real world experiences that I can lay alongside the theories and the textbook and tell them how things really work.

I did serve in the Iowa Senate during Tom Vilsack’s term. I learned some things from that experience. One of them was PAC money and the influence of PAC money on politicians, Ben. And particularly for Democratic politicians, PAC money is a toxic poison and, for that reason, in this race, I have declined to accept any PAC money. And it really leads the politicians who accept money from the corporations and their political action committees to have divided loyalty. For Democrats, that’s meant that we’ve alienated our base. And let me just tell you a quick story from the road. I was to all 99 counties in 2015; I’ve already been back to 44 counties in 2016. But last fall I was in Dubuque, Iowa. They have a very active local food movement. They have what they call a ‘farm crawl’ where we visited seven farms that raise fruits and vegetables for the Dubuque area. And I went on that farm crawl and I went to all these farms out in the middle of nowhere. I get out of my pick-up truck and the farmer comes up out of his shed and I’ve only been telling people his first name, first name is Michael. Michael F-bombs me. ‘You effing, effing, effing Democrats.’ And we’re out in the middle of nowhere and I actually raised my hands because I thought, ‘I’m in trouble, they’re going to find me buried in a field.’ And I said, ‘What did I do? What did we do?’ And Michael said, ‘You Democrats, you tell us working people you’re with us, until Monsanto wants something, until Cargill wants something.’ Michael said, ‘I get the Republicans are for rich people but I’m tired of having my heart broken and being betrayed by Democrats.’

And one of the things I’ve been telling Democratic audiences: Michael’s part of our base. And the reason Democrats lost in 2014 and in 2012, and frankly have lost everything except the presidency in the last 4 voting cycles, is we have lost the working people, Ben, we have alienated them by, when push comes to shove, voting with the money, voting with the corporations, rather than the working people. And part of this campaign is to come back to them and to demonstrate unconditional loyalty, to say no matter what I’m going to stand with you.

BK: You are, among the candidates, one of the most outspoken supporters of Bernie Sanders. What you just said matches that very well. You’ve just addressed this, what is a divide, a surprising divide that has been revealed in the Democratic Party this election cycle. How do you match up your policies with those of Bernie Sanders? For instance, when it comes to free trade, are you in favor or against free trade deals like NAFTA, like the Trans Pacific Partnership?

TF: I’m very much against the NAFTA-CAFTA duo, I’m also against TPP, Ben. I see it having really dire consequences for Iowa. Community after community has lost factories to Mexico and we have not replaced those jobs. What I hear from the Iowa workers that go down to Mexico to train their replacements is the workers do not have health and safety protection down there, there’s no environmental protection. And one of the things that I would advocate is that we re-write our agreements to provide a level playing field for Iowa workers and U.S. workers compared to workers in underdeveloped countries. We really have to rewrite our economic model and one of the things that’s really weighing on my mind as I travel across Iowa, for all the politicians promises, Ben, life has been getting worse and worse really since the Reagan Administration. And I think this election, this cycle, Bernie opened people’s eyes to the economic reality that is a rigged economic game. And one of the things that I would hope to do, I will do, in the United States Senate is to change the rules so that working people have an opportunity to get ahead again to provide for their family, to earn a living wage.

BK: Where do you see yourself among the other three Democratic candidates I named there, former Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge, state Senator Rob Hogg and Bob Krause of Fairfield. On the spectrum, where do you place yourself?

TF: I’m the most progressive of the four. I’m most outspoken for working people, I’m the most outspoken on labor economy issues. I view Rob and Patty as corporate democrats; I view them as Farm Bureau supporters. I will tell you frankly in my household, my parents were members of the farmers union and Farm Bureau was actually a four-letter word in my house. And I’m advocating environmental policies that none of them are following up on. Interesting thing is, with regard to, for example, the Bakken pipeline. The Iowa legislature actually had an opportunity to block Bakken, Rob Hogg had a bill but he didn’t introduce it. It was Senate File 506 for people that want to check it. Rob didn’t introduce it until May. And anybody that follows the legislature knows that if you want a bill to pass you start by introducing it in January and after it was on the books for a short period of time there was a unanimous consent asked by the Senate leadership to defer it to judiciary to kill it. Rob gave unanimous consent. Now we’re facing a very, very severe economic and environmental impact. My parents I mentioned earlier at the top of the show, farm in South Dakota, the Keystone Pipeline sprung a leak in Freeman, South Dakota and even though they’ve claimed to have fixed it, Ben, it’s still oozing oil and we face that very real possibility here with the Bakken pipeline, that the fracked chemicals that they include in the oil are corrosive. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but only ‘when’ on that leak. And I differ from Rob on that.

BK: One of the other standout issues that we have in the ag-sector. The renewable fuel standard has become a lynchpin of the ag-economy here in Iowa.  You have said that you are against corn-based ethanol. What do you say to the Iowa farmers, to the others attached to this, what has become a huge industry, who depend on that revenue for their livelihoods?

TF: I say to them we need to take the prairie ground around the country, not just in Iowa but on the high plains, Ben, that was plowed up when we had $7 corn. When we brought 5 million acres of prairie into corn production, really very bad erosion and even in Iowa. We’re losing soil at 11 times the rate it’s replaced by natural processes and I’m saying to them, ‘If we take those marginal acres out of production we can maintain the corn price.’ But the other thing is I’ve been saying to the corn farmers, ‘You need to go back to the sustainable management practices.’ My ag-teacher is also a seed inspector and he has talked to me about cornfields that he’s been in that have been continuous corn for 30 straight years, Ben. And he said to me, ‘Think about the insect problems, the weed problems, disease problems.’ And one of things with corn-ethanol is it caused farmers to override environmental concerns, good skills and to grow corn on corn on corn. If we were to have them come back to sensible rotations, I believe that we would sustain the price of corn even as we backed away from the renewable fuel standard for corn ethanol.

Mike in Des Moines: Hi, I really appreciate your sentiment on political action committee money. There’s a huge issue of fundraising for the political party once you get into office, so how will your stance change when you get into office considering the fundraising necessities for the Democratic Party?

TF: Ben, my answer is that we’re going to continue to follow the Bernie Sanders model. We’ve been living on ActBlue [a PAC that allows individuals and groups to channel their dollars to candidates and movements of their choosing, used primarily for Democratic candidates], our average contribution is $7, we’ve had somewhere between three and four thousand contributors. Once we secure the nomination we’re going to reach out to the same organization that does Bernie’s email to do the small donor. I will tell Mike and the other listeners, I don’t ever anticipate accepting corporate PAC money. I’m just not going to go there, I’m going to continue to maintain my loyalty to working Iowans, not to corporations. 

BK: How will you then in a general election scenario with Charles Grassley, how will you then match that money, the fundraising the money that you would need for what would be a big campaign?

TF: I’m never going to match the money. It’s not my goal. Chuck’s got five and a half million dollars in the bank. We believe that we can run a competitive race for about 20% of that. If we get to a million dollars, and if you look at our social media presence and the videos that we’ve produced we’re doing it on a budget and we believe that we can be competitive with Chuck for a fraction of the money. One of the things I want to remind our listeners of is the 2014 race between Bruce and Joni. Between them they spent $85 million. Joni Ernst and her supports put $43 million in; Bruce Braley put $42 million in. And the question I’ve asked Democrats is: If Bruce had had another ten million would he have beat her? The answer is no.

Lori in Columbus Junction: Well, actually, I just wanted to tell you I’m -- against Chuck Grassley. I think he’s been in office way to long and is totally out of touch with reality of the modern working person.  

BK: We had a drop out there at the beginning, did you identify yourself as a republican?

Lori: I am, yes, I do, but I am not voting for Chuck Grassley and I’m very impressed with your guest today and the things he has said. I don’t believe that we need to put a lot of money into an election. I would actually vote for somebody that had less money. But you have a lot of good ideas and I just wanted to say I’m very impressed.

BK: Lori, thank you for your comment from Columbus Junction.

Danielle from Woodward: I’ve actually contributed to you and some of the other Democratic candidates because I think you sharpen each other up and Ben has asked questions that I was going to ask so my question to you is, as a rural resident and someone whose very concerned about water quality, what could you say to me and other rural residents and sustainable farmers who are tired of subsidies that actually poison our water?

TF: Danielle, I am on your side. I am the only Democrat that supports Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit. I believe that our farmers have to clean up their act and the interesting thing about the water conversation, we’re talking about nitrate and it’s good, I’m glad it’s finally on the table. But we’re not talking about two other water quality issues that are huge in Iowa. The first is soil conservation, as I mentioned at the top of the show, we’re losing soil 11 times the rate at which it can be replaced naturally. The other thing we’re not talking about is Roundup herbicide, and its active ingredient glyphosate. Last year we applied 300 million pounds of Roundup in this country. It’s now so pervasive that it’s in 75% of the rain falling from the sky. National Geographic did a study a year ago, they found 90% of our soybeans contain Roundup. We need to back away from that chemical addiction. I’ve advocated that our farmers go to less chemical intensive, if not organic, farming. We need to find other ways to grow crops and grow food without poisoning ourselves. The last point I would make on that is the farm wives, or more correctly, the farm widows get it. I was at an event where a woman came up to me and she had a scar on her neck just like my mother, so I knew she has thyroid cancer. And this women said to me, ‘I feel like I’ve been struck by a bolt of lightning.’ And I said, ‘Why is that?’ She said, ‘Every time my husband sprayed he came down with flu-like symptoms. He died of non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. I’ve had thyroid cancer throughout my body.’ She said, ‘I now realize we’ve been poisoning ourselves.’ And that conversation has happened again and again, Ben, where farm wives, farm widows, have come up to me and said they realize we need to do something differently.

Jim from Woodamore: Tom, there is a bill out there, it’s called Glass-Steagall. Are you familiar with it?

TF: Jim, I love Glass-Steagall, when I was teaching economics to my students and it was repealed I said, ‘This is bad.’

BK: Remind us of Glass-Steagall, for those who don’t know.

TF: It is a financial separation bill that requires banks, insurance companies, and Wall Street to be owned separately. It was passed in 1933, repealed by the Financial Modernization Act of 1999, it prevented the meltdown. While it was in place, we only had one bank-failure.

Jim: I just wondered if you were for it or against it because as long as this has been out, since ’99, I can remember when my banker went to Des Moines and said, ‘This is wrong, okay?’ and we sit there and we looked. Is there a chance that that bill can get passed? Because there’s only a few Democrats on it, there’s only a few Republicans.

TF: Jim, I look forward to partnering with Elizabeth Warren to pass it and I have said to all the presidential candidates I want to be the senator that lays the 21st Glass-Steagall on your desk. I’ve said I will not vote for Chuck Schumer for Majority Leader unless he assures me he will let it come to a vote in the Senate and allow us to pass it and put it into law again.

BK: According to the information I have, while in the Iowa Senate you supported a bill that would require women to receive pamphlets regarding abortions and impose a 24-hour waiting period. How would you approach women’s health on a federal level as a U.S. Senator?

TF: At this point, Ben, I support Roe v. Wade, I agree with the late Justice Harry Blackman that it’s a delicate balancing right. I don’t intend to support any further restrictions on women’s right to choose. I did vote in favor of that, in consultation with then-Governor Vilsack. I visited with him extensively on it and he assured me that he had my back so I knew he was going to veto it. He told me to vote my district.

BK: Of course, the national buzz in the last few days, last couple of weeks has been about so called transgender bathroom controversy. Broadly speaking are you in favor of LGBTQ rights, and maybe specifically a comment on this bathroom controversy?

TF: Every one of us just wants to be left alone and live our lives. I believe that regardless of people’s gender identity and self-expression, they should be allowed to live freely.

BK: What about the fear of people posing as the other gender to come into a bathroom that’s been raised?

TF: I believe that’s overstated, Ben, the people I know that are transgender, it’s not a choice they came to lightly and in fact I have a former colleague in the Linn County Bar that made the decision to transition from man to woman, and I visited with him during that time, he went through two years of counseling. Again it’s not something that he arrived at lightly. I think if we’re worried about high school students or middle school students, their family, friends, the faculty are going to know which ones are transgender and which ones may be taking advantage of a situation.

BK: Senator Grassley has been in the Senate since 1981, he’s been in Congress since before that, ‘75. How would you as a newcomer navigate a system that would be completely new to you and do better for Iowa than a 40 plus year veteran?

TF: Well, the interesting thing is Chuck Grassley has been Mr. Press Release but no new bills. In fact I was at a forum on Friday, Channel 4, and the question was asked: ‘Name a bill that Chuck Grassley has passed.’ And the Republican on the panel paused, couldn’t think, and then said, ‘Oh the bankruptcy bill in 2005.’ The sad thing is with all that seniority it really hasn’t amounted to anything for Iowa. I’ve told people I intend to spend 24/7 with briefing books, both with my staff and committee staff. I also intend to, Ben, to what I call punch above my throw-weight as the junior senator from Iowa. I’m 6’6” when I stand up and I will be leaning into my fellow senators. I look forward to building relationships with them. I actually think that there are a number of senators there that I can form coalitions with. I mentioned Elizabeth Warren, Senator Brown from Ohio, Senator Merkley from Oregon. I see a group of people there already that I can work with to pass legislation.

BK: You were part of a forum with the three other candidates discussing foreign policy. In broad terms, how would you describe your foreign policy positions?

TF: I’m a peace activist. I think that my natural view is butter over guns. I do take very seriously the advise-and-consent with the president. And I’m mentioned Sunday that one of the role-models for that was Richard Lugar from Indiana. He was a Midwest senator but he became a very respected voice on foreign policy and balance in U.S. international relations.

BK: How would you evaluate President Obama’s foreign policy?

TF: Generally it’s been intelligent. The one area where there’s blood on his hands is our drone policy. We have been using drones to kill people in countries that are not in war with us. I think it opens the door for other countries to engage in drone strikes.

BK: What do we do about ISIS, do we take the fight to them more than we have at this point?

TF: Actually, ISIS, I believe, is a proxy for the Saudis, not necessarily the Saudi family, but I think the way to combat ISIS is to lean on Saudi Arabia and say, ‘Withdraw your support.’ If they withdraw their support, ISIS goes away.