SD 18 - Mathis fact-finding needs to become stand-taking

Liz Mathis greeted me with a handful of corn.

She had been out talking to farmers in state Senate District 18, where she’s the Democratic candidate in a special election Nov. 8. The corn was apparently hard proof of this rural fact-finding.

I bet Mathis was trying to convince me that she is, deep down, just an Iowa farm girl who became a well-known TV news anchor but never quite escaped the pull of the land. Maybe she was subtly trying to counter her opponent’s first TV ad, which suggests that Mathis is a slick celebrity candidate, just like our faded rock star of a president.

Or a hack columnist is looking way too hard for deep meaning in a handful of corn. Could be. Could be.

Perhaps another metaphor would be better. Football anyone?

“I feel like the field goal kicker in the last three seconds of the game,” said Mathis, who faces Republican Cindy Golding.

Control of the Iowa Senate and 2012 momentum are on the line, sports fans. If Mathis boots it through the uprights, Democrats hold a 26-24 majority. If Golding blocks the kick, it’s all tied up.

A month ago, Mathis was not a politician. So I guess it’s not shocking that when I attempted to kick some questions her way, she often pulled away the football. Frustrating, but not shocking.

Differences with Golding? “I haven’t really focused on what my opponent is doing,” she said.

Raise the gas tax? “I need to talk to more people on both sides of the issue,” Mathis said.

Cut income, corporate or property taxes? “I’m going to go back and talk to my constituents,” she said.

Right to work, labor issues? “I’d have to look at the wording of the legislation,” Mathis said.

On education, Mathis did point to “disconnects” in Gov. Terry Branstad’s school reform blueprint. She wonders how the same governor who tried to slash public preschool funding now wants high-stakes reading tests for third-graders. She also worries that too much testing will shove aside time for students to stoke creativity and imagination. Mathis taught at Wartburg and is a member of the college’s board of regents.

She said her current work at Four Oaks, a non-profit child welfare agency, has given her a sense of state budget issues, especially when the agency's funding was cut during the 2009 budget crisis. "It taught us a lot," she said.

But on many issues, Mathis is still dodgy. She seems more comfortable asking others about politics than staking out her own positions. Perhaps she’s falling back on the comfort of journalistic detachment.

Listening is great, essential, really. But fact-finding has to lead to stand-taking. Mathis has to find her voice.

Because questions will keep coming in the next three weeks. Voters may know her, but now they want to know where she stands on issues they care about. They want golden kernels of wisdom. OK, I’ll stop.Note: I'm scheduled to interview Golding on Tuesday.

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