Meet the Democrats vying for Joni Ernst’s Senate seat

Iowa Senate candidates (from left to right): Eddie Mauro, Kimberly Graham, Michael Franken and Theresa Greenfield

Four Democrats are running for their party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate. Attorney Kimberly Graham was the first candidate to enter the race that will determine which Democrat faces incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst in the November general election. She was followed by insurance company owner Eddie Mauro, real estate executive Theresa Greenfield and retired Navy Admiral Michael Franken. A fifth candidate, Cal Woods, joined the race but dropped out.

For two of the candidates, Franken and Graham, this is their first run for elected office. Both Greenfield and Mauro also ran for Congress in 2018 in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District.

Greenfield’s 2018 run was derailed when she discovered her campaign manager had forged signatures on the candidate petition she submitted. Greenfield fired the campaign manager and withdrew the petition. She wasn’t able to collect enough signatures on a new petition before the deadline, and so she didn’t appear on the ballot.

Mauro did appear on the ballot in 2018. He finished second in the three-person Democratic primary — Cindy Axne won with 58 percent of the vote. Mauro received 26 percent of the vote, and the other candidate, Pete D’Alessandro, got 16 percent. Axne went on to defeat incumbent Republican Rep. David Young in the general election.

Greenfield has the backing of the national Democratic Party. Just three days after she announced her candidacy on June 6, 2019, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) endorsed her.

“We don’t need a primary,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said about the Iowa Senate race, Time magazine reported in June. Greenfield has since received other major endorsements, as well as the backing of national Super PACs.

Schumer’s attitude and the DSCC’s quick action didn’t sit well with many local political leaders in Iowa. In August, Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker called the Iowa Democratic Senate race “a primary contest that was already heavily skewed in favor of one candidate” in an essay explaining why he chose not to run. The following month, Walker endorsed Graham, describing her as one of the “bold, progressive candidates … our party and our country needs.”

Early voting is already underway in the primary, which will be held on June 2. Little Village has compiled some information about each of the Democratic candidates in the primary. Ernst is running unopposed for the Republican nomination.

More information about about all of the candidates can be found on the League of Women Voters’ site, Vote 411.

Michael Franken

Michael Franken grew up in rural Sioux County, Iowa, and currently lives in Sioux City. He returned to Iowa after serving in the Navy for almost 40 years. Franken reached the rank of vice admiral, and retired in 2017.

Franken grew up in a family with a history of military service, and during his naval career, served in a variety of capacities.

“In 2002, Mike made the toughest decision of his career,” according to his campaign website. “He was the only member of the Iraq War planning board to vote ‘no’ on the invasion of Iraq.”

Although this is Franken’s first run for office, he is no stranger to Washington D.C. and politics. During his naval career, he worked with Congress as the Navy’s chief of legislative affairs. Franken was also assigned by the Navy to work as a staff member for Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. After he retired, Franken worked as a consultant in Washington. He moved back to Iowa to run for Senate.

“My emphasis is to convince Iowa that the Democratic Party represents Iowans,” Franken told the Des Moines Register when he announced his candidacy in August. “We represent national security. We represent health security, and fair play, and non-special interests, and corporate fair play and a future that’s not belaboring our children with the deficit.”

Asked by the League of Women Voters to name his primary goal if elected, Franken explained how his military experience would help him with important issues like health care.

My first priority is to address the health care crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has unveiled deep and appalling inequities in our health care system. For everyday Americans without cushy health care plans, health care is too expensive, of uneven quality, or just inaccessible — and as the coronavirus overwhelms our unstable medical system, we are seeing the consequences of a country where 28 million Americans are uninsured.

The military knows the importance of health care and how to provide it. Every American should enjoy the kind of access that those in uniform enjoy — whether they’re an admiral or a seaman. Care must include quality dental, mental and preventative care.

The path to universal coverage and quality, affordable health care starts by putting a Medicare option on the exchange. The health care crisis is too dire to afford sloganeering or policies which tumble in popularity when explained to voters.

Kimberly Graham

“I’m running because it’s time for us to be represented in the Senate by a working person who knows what it’s like to pay skyrocketing medical insurance premiums and to have too much month left at the end of our money,” Kimberly Graham said when she announced her candidacy on May 3, 2019.

Graham is an attorney specializing in collaborative law, which is an approach to divorce and family law that stresses reaching agreements without adversarial court proceedings.

Graham moved to Iowa from California in the 1990s to attend Drake University Law School, but her family has roots in the state. Her father was born in Des Moines, and her grandparents on both her mother’s and father’s side were from rural Iowa.

When she announced her candidacy, Graham offered a list of her beliefs as a candidate.

I believe health care is a right. Our country has the money to provide good medical and dental care to all, but so far, we don’t have a majority of people representing us who have the will to get it done. We need medicare for all, now.

I believe climate change is a national security threat, an environmental health threat, an economic threat and a threat to our existence, ultimately. We need major, significant action on climate change, now.

I believe we need a higher minimum wage, affordable day care and affordable, decent housing. We need all of those to lift more people out of poverty.

I believe in equal justice for all. We need to dismantle the school to prison pipeline and ensure the fairness of our justice system. We need criminal justice reform.

I believe mega-corporations have been allowed to become far too big. They are steamrolling our small towns and running our family farms and farmers into the ground. We need to strengthen and enforce anti-trust legislation to create a more level playing field for small farms and small businesses.

Responding to the League of Women Voters’ question regarding her top priority if elected, Graham stressed the need for putting people, not corporations, at the center of politics.

In speeches I often say my goals are to 1. Repeal and replace Senator Ernst and 2. Become “The Best Senator Money Can’t Buy.”

The latter is a campaign slogan we borrowed, with her permission, from Senator Elizabeth Warren. What I mean by this is that corporations and corporate money have far too much influence in our government. Our government does not serve the interests of its people. We must place people over profits. I believe that the majority of our country’s problems stem from this undue influence of money in politics, and that we cannot fix a problem by being part of it. This is why I have pledged to not take a dime from corporate PACs or corporate lobbyists.

We can and must have profitable companies, but for too long the balance has shifted and we place profits over people too often. My primary goals as a U.S. Senator are to stand up for what people need to live lives of health and dignity and to place people over profits.

Theresa Greenfield

Theresa Greenfield, president of Colby Interests, a real estate firm in Windsor Heights, stressed her “farm kid values,” when she launched her campaign.

“I’m a proud farm kid, with farm kid values,” Greenfield said in her announcement video. “I worked my way through community college, became a community planner and today, I’m the president of a small business.”

The video recreated scenes of Greenfield growing up in rural Minnesota. It was also the only 2020 candidate announcement video to use the word “castrate.” Greenfield was referencing Joni Ernst’s famous 2014 “Make ‘em squeal” campaign commercial.

“Listen, folks, she didn’t castrate anyone,” Greenfield said. “She cast her vote to let the corporate lobbyists keep feasting, like hogs at the trough. You want to really ‘make ’em squeal’? Ban corporate PAC money, take away their loopholes and special tax breaks.”

Greenfield published her own “Plan to End Political Corruption” in February. In it, she called for legislation to override the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, ban dark money and corporate PACs, pass new restrictions on lobbying and overhauling the Federal Election Commission.

According to Greenfield, “we must make big changes in the way politicians conduct business and pass tough new anti-corruption measures to get big money out of politics and make sure that Washington is working for Iowans, not ultra-wealthy donors and giant corporate special interests.”

Greenfield also focused on these reforms in her reply to the League of Women Voters regarding her top priority if elected.

As a businesswoman, mother of four and scrappy farm kid, I’ve been through tough times and believe all Iowans want the dignity of supporting their family. While we’re facing every day challenges like rising health care costs, threats to Social Security, and farm bankruptcies, Washington only seems to work for insiders and big corporate PAC donors. I’m not taking a dime of corporate PAC money and will always put Iowa first.

When she announced her candidacy, Greenfield listed a variety of priorities “from investing in education, to making it easier for small businesses to thrive, to cutting health care costs.”

Eddie Mauro

“We need a United States Senator that will fight for Iowa’s middle-class families, our family farms, the small businesses on Main Street, protect and improve access to affordable health care for all Iowans and invest in our renewable energy economy to create jobs and combat the climate chaos and challenge before us,” Eddie Mauro said when he announced his candidacy in May 2019.

Mauro taught and coached in Des Moines area schools for many years, before starting a commercial insurance business. Three months before launching his Senate bid, Mauro played a leading role in creating Midwest Victory PAC. According to a press release announcing the formation of the PAC, it is “a new statewide coalition of Iowa Democrats” with two immediate goals: “defeat Sen. Joni Ernst and win back the Iowa General Assembly in 2020.”

Mauro describes himself as progressive Democrat. He’s come out in favor the Green New Deal, but has also said he believes it doesn’t go far enough.

“We need a Marshall Plan level of investment across both public and private sectors to make the United States a ‘net-zero’ CO2 emission nation by 2030,” Mauro says on his campaign site.

A “Marshall Plan,” is, of course, a reference to President Truman’s major spending program to stabilize Europe after World War II. In his policy statement on responding to COVID-19, Mauro evoked the language of another Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, calling for a “New Frontier.”

“We believe that now is the opportunity to propose a bold and progressive vision for how we not only respond to the crisis before our great country but also to make changes that rebalance the economy in favor of the workers, small businesses and family farms that built the American middle-class,” Mauro said, describing his version of a New Frontier. “It is time to distance ourselves from those in positions of political and economic power that choose to restrict our vision to one of limited possibilities that serve to benefit their own interests and agendas.”

Responding to the League of Women Voters’ question about his top priority if elected, Mauro focused on electoral reform.

Iowa deserves a Senator that will lift up working people and fights for those often left behind. Iowans in both urban and rural Iowa’s have been left without a voice in Washington for too long. Whether it is climate policy, economic policy, or social benefits policy, we need to recognize how deep, historical inequities in our society have only amplified, and do more at the Federal level to reverse these trends. We need to institute reforms across our electoral processes to put power back in the hands of regular people again. This means getting corporate money, dark money and special interests out of the way in favor of regular folks. This will involve campaign finance reform, creating a national holiday for Election Day, ending gerrymandering and recognizing that institutional discrimination continues to keep many voters out of the process.

Candidate debate

Iowa PBS will host an in-person debate featuring all four candidates on Monday, May 18. The debate is scheduled to start at 8 p.m., and in addition to being broadcast, will be livestreamed on Iowa PBS’s website, as well as its Facebook and YouTube pages.

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