116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In Senate District 41, a Republican fifth-generation farmer and business owner faces off against a Democratic child care advocate who sees unmet needs in Eastern Iowa’s rural communities.
The new district encompasses Cedar County, most of rural western Scott County, and the townships of Montpelier, Moscow and Wapsinonoc in northern Muscatine County.
The Republican, Kerry Gruenhagen, may benefit from a slight advantage in Republican voter registrations: 12,076 to the 11,689 registered Democrats. The largest bloc, with almost 13,000 registration, is not affiliated with any party.
Kerry Gruenhagen, a grain farmer from Walcott, was inspired to seek election by his experience running a small business in Davenport. He’s a former president of the Muscatine County Farm Bureau and co-host of the Quad City Conservative Breakfast Club.
“As a small-business owner, I know firsthand the challenges facing those in the Iowa Quad Cities,” he told The Gazette in June. “Being close to the border of Illinois, it is important we combat increasing crime and work to keep our communities like Davenport safe and protect Iowa’s quality of life.”
In his June primary, Gruenhagen was one of a large majority of Republicans who supported private school tuition aid vouchers. Unlike his primary opponent, he supported the vouchers without reservation.
Occupation: Fifth-generation grain farmer and business owner
Public office: None
“While public schools are important for our communities and educating the next generation, they are not the solution for every child,” he said in June. “The (Education Savings Account) program would allow this … opportunity for life-changing success to other struggling students.”
Other top priorities for him include supporting law enforcement and “protecting life,” through abortion restrictions. In The Gazette’s last survey of him before the primary — and before Roe v. Wade was overturned — he said Iowa needed to wait for the outcome of court decisions before planning a path forward on “how we can best protect life in Iowa.”
Gruenhagen, 52, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
With experience working in rural child care and writing nearly two dozen policy proposals on child care, poverty, health care, disability and small business issues, VanderGaast, 54, said her life’s work makes her the most suitable candidate to represent Senate District 41.
“The work that I do puts me in touch with working families, to see their struggles and work with them,” she said. “I’ve been preparing my whole life (for the Senate). … It’s not something I woke up one day and decided to do.”
In addition to a body of work as a national child care advocate cited by national publications, VanderGaast found success in legislative efforts with the passage of the 2015 Epinephrine in Schools Act.
But as a child care provider whose business was forced to close this year under the myriad strains facing the industry, child care and public education are among her top priorities. She said she also would advocate for affordable housing and an economy “that works for all Iowans.”
Occupation: National child care advocate and former child care center owner
Public office: Appointee to Tipton Board of Adjustments for seven years and currently its chairwoman
“The No. 1 beneficiary of child care is employers,” she said. “Fixing the child care crisis won’t fix all of our problems, but it would certainly address a good portion of them.”
The Democrat opposes the private school tuition vouchers championed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, which she said would damage rural school districts already suffering from closures and district mergers. Instead, she proposes that schools receive a minimum 4 percent annual increase in funding and use funding mechanisms to help children in property-tax-poor school districts, as other states do.
“Why are we wanting to give (private schools) more? If I choose to put a swimming pool in my backyard instead of using the public pool, I’m not going to expect the state to pay for it,” she said. “So what happens? (Private schools) take the kids who have all the advantages in life, put them in private schools, and leave the kids who need the most resources with the least.
“It’s a backhanded way to do school segregation,” she added.
In a state struggling to fill jobs, the desperate need for many Iowans is child care so they can work.
“I understand firsthand the struggles that working parents have with child care and the need for public safety nets,” said VanderGaast. “Bad things happen to good people, and we shouldn’t keep calling them lazy and saying it’s their fault. We have a system that … doesn’t give them a chance to pull themselves out of poverty.”
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