IOWA CITY — Albia Democrat Patty Judge recently stood on an outdoor veranda at the newly opened Hancher Auditorium near the Iowa River and took a moment to admire the fruits of her labors.
Not far to the south was the old site of the University of Iowa’s venerable performing arts venue, a place the former Iowa lieutenant governor in Gov. Chet Culver’s administration visited numerous times in her role as the state’s homeland security adviser during the darkest days of the historic 2008 floods.
“This was a real struggle. I was here when the water was up and the old building was full of muck and was deemed un-savable,” she said. But eight years and countless discussions later, Judge was able to see that the time she spent battling nature, bureaucracy and obstacles had a long-term payback as she toured the reopened building on the day of its grand return.
“This is an unbelievably beautiful building. It’s great that it’s back,” said Judge, whose memories take in the evacuations of St. Luke’s Hospital, the Linn County Jail and a large swath of downtown Cedar Rapids, along with the slow trek of rebuilding Iowa’s second-largest city from its worst calamity.
“The way we came through this flood in 2008 — both the response and the recovery. People ask me: What is the thing that you remember most or are proudest of in 20 years? That has to be it. It was also the most challenging and the one that just makes you want to pull your hair out,” she said. “I know this was a real struggle.”
Being no stranger to struggles has come in handy for Judge in her return to Iowa’s campaign trail after a six-year hiatus. She faces another seemingly insurmountable challenge in seeking to unseat GOP icon Chuck Grassley, a six-term U.S. senator who is making another bid for re-election Nov. 8.
Her David-vs.-Goliath quest to defeat Grassley — the only Iowa politician to garner a million votes in an election — captured the imagination of humorist Garrison Keillor, who traveled from his prairie home in Minnesota to champion her as an underdog trying to root out an entrenched incumbent.
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It was her can-do attitude that prompted her to jump into the political arena in 1992 while raising three sons with her husband at their Monroe County cow/calf operation after working as a registered nurse, running a real estate business and mediating disputes between farmers and lenders during the depths of Iowa’s farm-debt crisis of the 1980s.
Like Grassley, Judge got her start in the Iowa Legislature, serving in the Iowa Senate before taking the non-traditional path of parlaying her farm background into her first statewide political bid as a candidate for secretary of agriculture.
“I know a little about firsts, folks,” Judge recently told an Iowa rally for Hillary Clinton, a Democrat seeking to become America’s first female president.
“I was the first woman elected as secretary of agriculture in Iowa. I’m going to be the first person to beat Chuck Grassley in 42 years,” she said.
It’s that fighting spirit — be it for working families, rural communities, the underprivileged or the disadvantaged in Iowa — that drew pediatric nurse practitioner Pat Clinton to Judge. She credited Judge with taking on powerful medical interests as a state senator to enact one of the strongest bills in America to add full prescriptive authority to nurse’s scope of practice — a change especially beneficial for rural Iowa.
“If it wouldn’t have been for Patty, that wouldn’t have happened,” Clinton said. “Patty was just incredible for pushing that legislation through. That’s why I’ve been a huge supporter.”
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said Judge impressed him as a tough, hardworking advocate for rural Iowa during the years he sat next to her in the Iowa Senate and later when she served as ag secretary during the eight years he was governor.
“She knows how to work in a bipartisan way, which I think we need more of,” said Vilsack, who now serves as U.S. secretary of agriculture. “She’s a hard worker. She cares deeply about folks in rural Iowa and has dedicated her life to keeping small family farms viable.”
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U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Judge’s extensive background in public service and the private sector has made her “very grounded” with common sense. “Patty Judge is Iowa,” she said while campaigning for Judge.
Some of that experience for Judge has been a baptism by fire: farming and mediating through the debt crisis of the 1980s; being the first female ag secretary in a male-dominated industry; being second in command of a state government hard hit by the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression in 2008 when many saw their retirement wealth shrink by double-digits, such as the $4.4 billion loss to the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System; and wrestling with the decision whether to challenge Grassley or devote her nursing skills to caring for her granddaughter, Millie, who faces heart-related health issues.
In the end, it was her son, Joe, who told her: “You need to go run this race because you’re the one person who can take on Chuck Grassley. You can stand up to him and we will take care of Millie.”
Not everyone is on board with Judge’s return to Iowa politics, including labor groups displeased with Culver administration decisions and progressive farm groups who feel she was too close to corporate interests as ag secretary.
Chris Petersen, a longtime Democrat and former head of the Iowa Farmers Union, said he won’t be voting for either Judge or Grassley in the senate race.
“I’m going to write in another Democrat because I think she’s too close to industrial ag and entities like that,” Petersen said. “I understand the Supreme Court stuff and all that, but I just can’t vote for her. I just can’t.”
However, Vilsack he hopes Iowa voters, especially Democrats, take a longer view of the race.
“I think you have to understand that you have a choice. It’s not a choice between what you perceive to be the perfect candidate and Patty. It’s a choice between Patty and Chuck Grassley and, at the end of the day, Patty is going to be more sympathetic and more understanding of the struggling small farmer on issues involving the environment, on issues involving regulations, on issues involving markets and that kind of thing than Chuck is. For progressives, that’s the choice you have,” he said. “You don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”
Professional: farmer, mediator, retired registered nurse, real estate agent
Political experience: state senator, Iowa secretary of agriculture, Iowa lieutenant governor
Education: Iowa Methodist School of Nursing, University of Iowa
Family: Husband, John, three sons, four grandchildren