This Iowan could become the youngest woman in Congress. But first, she has to beat incumbent Rod Blum.
1st District candidate Abby Finkenauer remembers wearing her Dad's holy work shirts as pajamas growing up. Long days welding caused the holes and now remind Abby of who she is working for as she runs for Congress. Courtney Crowder and Brian Powers, The Des Moines Register
DUBUQUE, Ia. — In Abby Finkenauer’s office, there’s a blue sweatshirt with worn-out elbows and tiny holes rippling across its arms like a wave to shore.
For most of her childhood, Finkenauer assumed that all “dad sweatshirts” ended up that battered. But after receiving countless T-shirts with hole after hole, always tiny and slightly singed on their edges, she realized that wasn't average wear and tear — they were the signs of the sparks that flew in all directions as her welder dad worked.
“He was literally burning his skin to make enough to feed our family and to ensure that we had what we needed,” Finkenauer said Wednesday. “For me, it’s a reminder of where I’ve come from, and, now, the hard-working people who I represent.”
The sweatshirt traveled with her from her parent's house in Sherrill to the Statehouse, where she has served as a two-term state legislator from Dubuque.
Now, the 29-year-old hopes the sweatshirt will make the trip to Washington, D.C.
Finkenauer, who easily won Tuesday's Democratic primary in Iowa's 1st Congressional District, will face U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, a Republican, in a race that is already drawing national attention.
If she wins, Finkenauer would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
In May, Roll Call, a national race-handicapper, listed Blum as the most likely U.S. House member to lose in November, and Democrats have targeted the seat in their bid to regain control of the House.
But Blum may be a difficult opponent to unseat in a state that heavily favored Donald Trump and is seeing an unemployment rate below 3 percent.
He made it clear that he will make the strength of the economy a key part of his campaign message.
"Overall, the economy is growing at twice the rate it did under former President Obama," Blum said Wednesday in an email response to questions. "People are making more money and their take-home pay is greater. Unemployment is at historic lows … and optimism and confidence in the American economy is reaching historic highs."
Finding common ground with Trump
Finkenauer describes herself as "a millennial" who’s "still paying off student loans" and "unabashedly Democratic."
But some of her talking points — the idea that those in D.C. don’t understand what life is really like in the middle of the country; that she wants to speak for “the people left behind”; and that she wants to take our state and our country back — mirror those of President Donald Trump.
“They tapped into something — that people want to be talked to on a real level — and I get that,” Finkenuaer said of Trump’s campaign and administration.
“I agree with some of the stuff President Trump talked about, including investing in infrastructure (and) fixing health care, but he hasn’t done a dang thing to do it,” she said. “Quite frankly, I feel like Blum and the folks in D.C. feed folks here a bunch of lines and haven’t delivered on anything.”
Blum said in his email that he has delivered, pointing to his vote on the tax cut bill and the CHOICE Act, which allows veterans to use VA health care or an outside doctor, as recent accomplishments.
The 63-year-old entrepreneur, who lead a software company that grew from 5 to 325 employees in five years, was first elected in 2014 and was re-elected, with 54 percent of the vote, two years ago. He has been supportive of President Donald Trump in his policy positions, most of which Finkenauer has opposed.
Finkenauer sees politics as intensely local, citing her local union endorsements and energetic volunteers. Politics doesn’t just happen on CNN, she said, it happens at coffee shops and football games.
“People have said that politics shouldn’t be personal and you shouldn’t take politics personal, but that’s what’s wrong with politics,” she said. “If the policies that will be affecting your constituents ‘aren’t personal,’ then how can you really be effective?”
Learning politics early, at home
The youngest of four, Finkenauer grew up in Sherrill, fishing and 4-wheeling through the nearby woods where she and her siblings would pick buckets of mulberries. Her eldest sibling, Angie, is 15 years Abby’s senior; Nick, the only boy, is 5 years older; and her sister Jess is 3 years older.
For all the time she spent in the country, she’d in equal measure run around Dubuque with her cousins and aunts and uncles, who lived within blocks of each other. She would sit and talk with her grandfather, a Dubuque firefighter, who nurtured her early love of politics.
“When she was, like, 10, she would sit at the table with my dad and my brothers and talk politics and the news,” said her mother, Deb Finkenauer. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do at all, but she loved it, so I thought, 'OK, maybe there’s something here.'”
What really stuck out to her was the respect at the heart of those conversations.
“They would really get into it, but at the end of the night, they were hugging — and that’s how we should be working,” Finkenauer said. “We can get into heated debates about stuff that matters, but we have to respect each other at the end of the day.”
On that point, Finkenauer and Blum agree.
Soon after Finkenauer’s victory was announced, Blum issued a statement congratulating her, adding that he was “looking forward to a respectful race in which we can discuss the issues.”
The Finkenauer house did have its trials. A union pipefitter/welder, her dad would cycle in and out of work as jobs and projects came and went, Finkenauer said.
As a 10-year-old, she memorized the name of her dad’s business agent so she would recognize it if it showed up on caller ID and answer immediately — no matter what.
“When that name showed up, we knew Dad had a job,” she said. “And there were stretches where that name was just not showing up — and that was tough.”
Those memories convinced her to make safety for working families and living wages marquee issues in her campaign. Her dad’s “good union job” provided for her in the same way her grandfathers’ did for her parents, she said.
"They were able to make a living and have a life — and that’s what’s on the line here," she said.
After two terms in the state Legislature, where she joined bipartisan efforts to crack down on human trafficking and opioid addiction, the 2017 session pushed her to take the next step in her political career, she said.
Her fellow Democrats had spent two days fighting a bill to restrict collective bargaining when it finally came to a vote. She remembers looking up into the gallery as she voted "no."
“There were all these hard-working people just trying to have a good life, and I thought that Legislature just went out of their way to make it more difficult and hurt people,” she said.
“I thought to myself, 'That is not how we treat people in my state or our country,' and I was going to do everything I could to bring common sense and decency back to politics.”
Tom Townsend, 51, a union electrician and the business manager for the IBEW Local 704, has been a Finkenauer supporter since her first campaign.
His family jokes that he moved from western Illinois to Iowa just to vote for her. (The move was for his grandchildren, he assured Tuesday night.)
"She came out of the chamber after the collective bargaining vote and she was crying and she gave me a hug and just said, ‘I am so sorry,’” Townsend said. “She’s that kind of person."
Trying to win in Trump country
In the 2016 general election, Trump carried the 1st District, which covers 20 counties in northeast Iowa, including the cities of Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Dubuque.
The district's voters are about 32 percent Democrat and 29 percent Republican, with most of the rest identifying as no party.
To win, Finkenauer must persuade some of the people who voted for Trump to support her. She is confident she can connect with them.
“You can read about all the data in the world, but to actually have it be your life — that is the difference,” she said. “When you hear stories from constituents, those become your stories, and you can’t forget and you can’t leave those people behind.”
Getting ready for what’s next
Democrat Abby Finkenauer celebrates her 1st District primary victory as she heads into the general election against Republican congressman Rod Blum. Courtney Crowder, email@example.com
When Finkenauer was declared the winner Tuesday, the Smokestack in downtown Dubuque erupted with the kind of bar exuberance typically reserved for touchdowns and home runs.
Finkenauer said she doesn’t foresee a lot of changes in her campaign strategy as she turns from the primary to general election.
“The people in my ads are my family,” she said. “I have told everyone around me that I won’t be forced into poll-tested talking points.”
This race isn’t going to come down to Democrats versus Republicans or rural versus urban; it will common down to values, Finkenauer said.
“We all want the same thing,” Finkenauer said. “We want to work hard and make a good life for our family."