Janice Weiner believes her long career representing the U.S. as a diplomat gave her the skills needed to deal with the Republicans in the state legislature.
“Everywhere I went, I had to get to know people and build relationships across the political spectrum in each country. I had to understand what was important to them, and why they were making the decisions they were,” said Weiner, who has served in Canada, Mexico, Turkey, Germany and Poland. “That doesn’t mean I liked them or agreed with them, but I had to figure out what they cared about to be effective, and I had to be able to work with them.”
Weiner, a native of Coralville, is one of three candidates running in the Democratic Primary for the open Iowa State Senate seat in District 37, which covers not only Coralville, but also part of Iowa City, western Johnson County, as well as Cedar County and a small slice of Muscatine County.
Weiner left Coralville after graduating from West High School (class of ’76) to attend Princeton University and Stanford Law School. She then spent 26 years working as a foreign service officer for the U.S. State Department. Weiner and one of her two daughters moved to Iowa City after she retired from the State Department.
“[Serving as a diplomat is] very similar to the military in that people very often have second careers after retiring,” Weiner explained.
When Bob Dvorksy announced last year that he was stepping down after 40 years of representing Coralville in the Iowa Senate, Weiner saw a unique opportunity.
“It tends to be when people get elected, they stay in office,” she said. “So, this is a really unusual ‘small-d’ democratic chance for people to participate fully in the democratic process.”
According to Weiner, the motivation for her run came from what the Republican-dominated legislature has done during its two most recent sessions, and the nationwide changes brought about by the Trump administration.
“Looking at what’s been happening in the Iowa legislature in last couple of years, and looking at what’s been happening on the national stage, I decided that I really, really wanted to put everything I had into this to help Iowa move forward again,” Weiner said. “And I that wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t try as hard as I could.”
Weiner said her top priorities as a state senator would include securing adequate funding for public education. “It’s been underfunded for at least the last eight years. That includes pre-K, it includes our community colleges and the state’s universities,” she said.
“We also need economic development that really works for every size town, and is not just throwing a lot of money at big corporations to come in from out of state. We have to be spending money on our homegrown companies and manufacturers, and connect them with the resources they need.”
“We have to deal with some of the huge failures of Medicaid privatization, particularly for persons with disabilities and serious mental health issues, and many of our elderly,” Weiner continued. “We need to make sure we’re taking care of vulnerable people.”
Weiner also cites improving the state’s poor water quality as a priority: “It’s an issue not just for us, it’s an issue of what we owe to future generations.”
And there’s the need to address what the legislature has done to women’s health care in Iowa — which Weiner described as a “constant effort to roll back women’s access to reproductive health care.”
Weiner thinks the skill-set she built up as a diplomat will be essential in dealing with these issues.
“A lot of people will say that at this point the Republicans are too extreme to work with, but the foundation of democracy is built on the idea of being able to talk to each other and being able to compromise,” she said. “Whether I agree with someone 5 percent of the time or 95 percent of the time, we have to be able to communicate.”
Weiner regularly visited Coralville during her years as a foreign service officer, but she is still struck by how much her hometown has changed.
“The city has just exploded in a whole variety of ways. In terms of businesses and population and the area it covers, but also in terms of diversity,” she said. “It’s remarkable how much more diverse the entire area is, not just Coralville, and it’s a real positive.”
Weiner said she’s also been impressed by the level of engagement she’s finding among voters as she goes door-to-door.
“The extent to which people are really tuned in to important issues and are taking this election seriously is really remarkable,” Weiner said. “People are talking about the problems they are encountering and the changes they want to see.”
“These kind of primaries, these kind of opportunities, don’t happen very often and people are very involved,” she said. “It’s what’s been driving my campaign.”
Weiner is facing off in the primary against Eric Dirth and Zach Wahls for the District 37 Senate seat.