POLITICS

Iowan Who Almost Beat Steve King Wants Democrats To Take Rural America Seriously

"We’re becoming the Whole Foods party," but "Dollar General districts" will decide the next president, J.D. Scholten said.
After almost scoring a major upset in November's elections, Democrat J.D. Scholten has a new mission -- getting his part
After almost scoring a major upset in November's elections, Democrat J.D. Scholten has a new mission -- getting his party's leader to pay more attention to the challenges facing rural areas like his.

SIOUX CITY, Iowa ― J.D. Scholten, a lanky Democrat from northwest Iowa, is frustrated ― albeit in a polite, Midwestern kind of way.

Why wouldn’t he be? In November, the 38-year-old former paralegal and minor-league pitcher fought white supremacist Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to within inches of the incumbent’s political life.

Scholten, who drove his RV, “Sioux City Sue,” to all 39 counties that comprise Iowa’s vast, rural 4th U.S. House seat, came within 3 percentage points of winning in a district Donald Trump won by 27 points two years earlier and where King was used to cruising to victory.

Just two months later, King’s career is on the ropes following recent comments to The New York Times questioning why the terms “white supremacist” or “white nationalist” are “offensive.” House Republicans, who previously ignored King’s racism and relentless bashing of undocumented immigrants, have stripped him of his committee assignments. And state Sen. Randy Feenstra has already declared his intention to challenge King in the 2020 GOP primary.

“I’m appreciative of the Republicans who are stepping up and saying this is unacceptable, but on the flip side I’m extremely frustrated because [King] said the same damn thing in October,” Scholten told HuffPost in an interview in Sioux City on Saturday.

HuffPost caught up with Scholten over coffee just hours before he was due to host Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) during her inaugural presidential campaign swing. He discussed the “opportunism” of King’s new GOP critics, his future plans and why he thinks Democrats need to pay greater attention to the economic struggles of rural communities.

Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

What was your reaction King’s latest comments?

He said something similar on television in Des Moines [in October]. I didn’t know what to think of it. Like everything with him. You’re like, “Oh that’s awful. But will it get picked up or not?”

What’s the difference between this and past things? To call a spade a spade, I think it’s that I got within three points and he’s vulnerable. If he wins by 20, is this the story? Would Republicans rebuke him?

I’m appreciative of the Republicans who are stepping up and saying this is unacceptable, but on the flip side, I’m extremely frustrated because he said the same damn thing in October.

And here in Iowa, you had Gov. [Kim] Reynolds still as his co-chair, you had [Sen. Chuck] Grassley do an endorsement of him the night before the election, and you had [Sen. Joni] Ernst campaign with him the night before the election. For them to all of a sudden be high and holy on this is a little opportunistic.

Should King’s congressional colleagues expel him?

I’m not calling for his resignation, because he got voted in. We’re stuck with him. I’m not calling for his expulsion. I’m not calling for a lot of things.

I respect democracy ― and he won. It sucks, but he won. And I’ve accepted that. 

I’m at the point that if I don’t recognize the number [on my phone], it’s more likely to be a presidential candidate than it is a telemarketer. J.D. Scholten

Do you have plans to run again in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District or challenge Sen. Joni Ernst in 2020?

I’m waiting to see what happens with King. I’m trying to get my legs underneath my life personally. And regarding the Senate seat, I’m considering it. I’m not closing any doors at this time. I’m just kinda waiting to see.

Your district, ironically, thrives on immigrants. What’s your message to 2020 candidates about the immigration message that plays here?

We need a workforce. It goes with rural advocacy.

A rural Iowan life is getting harder and harder to live in a lot of different ways ― whether it’s [due to] school consolidation, or rising health care costs and shrinking accessibility. In a lot of towns, their grocery store is a Dollar General. They don’t have fresh produce and yet we’re in the heart of the second-most agriculture-producing district in America. That’s a little bizarre.

We have millionaire farmers and we have farmers struggling to survive and that middle farmer isn’t there any more. It’s representative of what’s happening in America where we haven’t found an answer to globalization as it affects the working class.

My message to 2020 [presidential contenders] is to understand the difficulties of what it’s like to be in rural America and to have a message that includes [its residents]. We’re becoming the Whole Foods party and that’s been well documented ― very urban and very suburban ― but it’s places like this, the Dollar General districts, that are going dictate the Electoral College, dictate Senate races. And if we want to be a sustainable party, we need to produce better in districts like this.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) talks to voters in Webster City, Iowa, shortly before he barely beat Scholten in November's election
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) talks to voters in Webster City, Iowa, shortly before he barely beat Scholten in November's election, winning a ninth term.

Has your run been a net-win for the district, because you have presidential candidates reaching out to you and it’s an opportunity for you to talk about championing the “Dollar General districts” through things like antitrust policy?

For years, I haven’t answered an unknown phone number. In the last month of the campaign, that changed. And now I’m at the point that if I don’t recognize the number, it’s more likely to be a presidential candidate than it is a telemarketer. That’s how surreal my life is right now.

I don’t have votes in Congress, but if you compare me side by side with what I’m trying to do for the district and what King is doing, I think it’s pretty damn comparable.

Behind the scenes, I’m working on opportunity zones that we can bring into this district. I’ve sat down with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). He was instrumental in bringing $70,000 technology jobs to Jefferson, Iowa, which is going to change that county for the better.

The Democratic Party talks about raising the minimum wage. That’s fine. But in this district, we need those $55,000, $65,000, $75,000 jobs. That’s what’s important. Because we have an economy in the 4th district that can’t absorb our kids.

You look at Iowa State ― they graduated 1,400 students in technology in 2017. In 2018, only 258 are still in Iowa. That’s 18 percent. That’s what I’m passionate about: bringing technology here. 

That’s what I’m taking to the 2020 folks: rural revitalization. I called it the new rural economy. And it’s three things: traditional agriculture; advanced manufacturing and having the workforce to prepare for that; and technology. 

The only label I’m comfortable calling myself is a populist. J.D. Scholten

There’s a lot of attention on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal idea. The New York Democrat has started a conversation about bolder climate change action and how it could be tied to economic revitalization. Do you see that applying in your district?

We’ve been the leader in wind energy in America. Look at the irony of Steve King in a district that leads the nation in wind energy. He hasn’t done a damn thing for it. 

The farmers know about weather. They’re experts on the weather. And it’s becoming so difficult for them to plan. We had huge rains in the spring and in the fall, when they plant and when they harvest, and then a very dry summer. That’s the opposite of what it had been and so they’re gonna have to adapt to these things. That’s one of the reasons why I’m passionate about climate change.

And the other part of it is, we have opportunities to help sequester carbon in what I call “carbon farming.” We could be at the forefront of that and that could help farmers with their profits. 

I don’t hear a lot from you about hot-button cultural issues, including much talk about President Trump. Why is that?

A large part of my race was not trying to make it a national race. We’re going to have the [cultural conversation] for years and people have strong views on both sides of that.  

But to the majority of people who are here and throughout the district, I’m talking about tangible things that affect their lives. 

My two personal heroes were [former Sen.] Tom Harkin and [former Rep.] Berkeley Bedell. They were Midwest populists. And we just have a lack of Democrats in the Midwest who are like that any more. 

You’ve got a lack of Democrats period.

When I go to these national trainings and there are all these fights about what kind of Democrat you are, I say, “Come to the 4th district where we’re just trying to fight to be Democrats.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) campaigned in Sioux City, Iowa, last weekend just after announcing her presidential candidac
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) campaigned in Sioux City, Iowa, last weekend just after announcing her presidential candidacy. Scholten is second from right in the background. He hosted her appearance, though he has not committed to back anyone yet in the nomination race.

Do you call yourself “progressive”?

I hate labels. The only label I’m comfortable calling myself is a populist ― and a lot of the populist ideas overlap with the progressive.

What does “populist” mean to you?

It’s fighting for the everyday person. I look at the area I grew up in. It’s a bunch of working-class folks who are just trying to have a good life for their kids. 

You’re about to meet Sen. Gillibrand. Do you have thoughts on her or any other 2020 presidential candidate?

As far as the 2020 field, I think it’s anybody’s game. It’s interesting to see who thrives and who takes control of it. 

Iowans, for the most part, we’re looking for a leader and we’re looking for authenticity. And for the most part we do not get fooled ― with the exception of [former presidential candidate and North Carolina Sen.] John Edwards. He was pretty well liked, especially in these parts. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigned for you. Do you want to see him get in the race again?

I’m excited to see everybody. I like competition and the more that folks are willing to come in and get Democratic policies talked about throughout the state ― that’s a good thing for Democrats.

I’m forever grateful to [Sanders for stumping for me]. So if he asks me to speak at an event for him, I would do so willingly ― he campaigned for me at a time when nobody else was willing to come here, and for that I’m deeply appreciative.

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