Q: Why do you still go to every county in Iowa every year?
A: My 99-county tour is one of the most important things I do to make sure I’m representing Iowans well. When Iowans first elected me to Congress, I represented 18 counties in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District. Since day one, I made it a priority to keep in touch and keep my nose to the grindstone. I held in-person meetings across my district as often as possible throughout each of my six years in the House of Representatives.
When I decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1980, I overheard a conversation among Iowans at a local restaurant. They made the observation that it “must be election time” because politicians were in town. That stuck with me and reflected the cynicism people have about government. When I won the election, I made the decision to hold at least one meeting in every county, every year.
Iowans place their trust in me, and I work hard to keep the public trust. On Sept. 1, after a town meeting in Adair County, I wrapped up my annual 99 county meetings for the 41st year in a row. It takes a lot of effort to reach every county in every corner of the state.
But every meeting is worth my time because it reinforces the spirit of representative government. Nothing compares to a face-to-face meeting. It allows me to keep my finger on the pulse of Iowans.
From time to time, I get an earful when somebody’s fired up about something. And that’s one of the purposes of my meetings. It allows people to tell me what’s on their minds. Listening to Iowans and learning about their work, successes, hardship and struggles informs my work on their behalf.
Some say I’ve set a standard for representative government in Iowa, as many political candidates campaigning for president have replicated my 99-county tour. I would argue Iowans set the gold standard by taking civic participation seriously and showing up to ask questions and hold officeholders accountable.
Q: What issues stood out to you in your 41st year of holding county meetings?
A: Although my route changes from year to year, the format stays the same. Iowans set the agenda. No question or issue is off limits. I hold meetings at local high schools, hospitals, libraries, businesses, factories and service clubs to reach a cross-section of people.
I’m always encouraged about our nation’s future after a Q&A with students. They ask informed questions with an appreciation that the work I do on their behalf matters because it impacts their families, their freedoms, their futures and their way of life.
Even though I’ve crisscrossed the state 41 years in a row to hold Q&As in all 99 counties, I learn something new each and every time, and I’m constantly impressed with all that Iowans accomplish year in and year out. I’ve come to the conclusion Iowans don’t brag enough.
This year I’ve seen extraordinary resilience among Iowans to claw back from the devastating derecho and once-a-century pandemic. I’ve seen the strong Iowa work ethic, ingenuity and entrepreneurism reflected by a non-traditional fish farm in Ellsworth; a direct to consumer meat supplier in Story City; and a world class foundry in Creston that produces parts for military and commercial helicopters. And these are only a few examples.
In recent years, Iowans often ask me: “How come people in Washington can’t get along and get things done?” When partisanship is set aside, Congress can get things done.
Last year, we passed five bipartisan pieces of legislation to deliver urgently needed pandemic relief to ramp up vaccine development and help unemployed workers, households, small businesses, hospitals and farms to stay afloat when the economy shut down. In August, I supported the bipartisan infrastructure package that passed the Senate with more than two-thirds majority.
For years, I’ve been hearing from Iowans, farm commodity groups, chambers of commerce and local businesses about the need for better roads, bridges and broadband to connect our people, products and places. Investing in infrastructure will improve our quality of life, boost exports and expand economic opportunity across our state.
My annual road trip to every county in Iowa is one way the rubber meets the road in representative government. And it also gives me a first-hand look at how the rubber literally meets our roads. There’s no doubt in my mind Iowa would put this historic infrastructure investment to good use for a better future for Iowans.