ELECTION 2020

Theresa Greenfield: 'Everybody deserves a shot'

Democrat's family and business past now campaign topics

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield speaks with a reporter Aug. 11, 2019, at a picnic hosted by the Adai
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield speaks with a reporter Aug. 11, 2019, at a picnic hosted by the Adair County Democrats. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via AP
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DES MOINES — As personal stories go, Democrat Theresa Greenfield’s packs a wallop.

Married with a 1 year-old son and four-months’ pregnant, she lived one of every young mother’s worst nightmares in 1988 when her priest came to her Buffalo Center home to tell her that her husband, Rodney Wirtjes, a union electrical lineman, had been killed in a workplace accident.

A self-described “scrappy farm kid,” Greenfield, now 57, said the tragedy forced her to refocus her priorities and draw on the toughness she developed from the demands of her early years on a farm just north of the Iowa border and the power of community in getting through some trying times.

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“Undeniably, it has shaped who I am,” said Greenfield, a Des Moines businesswoman, city planner and mother of four making her first bid for statewide elective office in Iowa’s rough-and-tumble 2020 U.S. Senate battle against first-term GOP incumbent Joni Ernst of Red Oak.

Greenfield has spoken in TV and radio ads and during campaign stops of the difficult hand she was dealt, but she also is quick to point out that she was able to weather the emotional crisis through a combination of Social Security survivor benefits, workers’ compensation, her husband’s union assistance and the help of family, friends and community.

“I didn’t get here today by myself,” she said in a recent interview. “I got where I am today totally from the support of other people and then I had to put some elbow grease into it myself, too.

“I take away from that that everybody wants a shot, everybody deserves a shot, and they need us to lift them up, give them that shot and that opportunity, and I think that people will take it,” she added. “I do believe that people want the dignity of providing for their families if we can give them a shot.”

That’s part of the compassionate resolve Greenfield said she plans to take to Washington, along with a can-do, fix-what-needs-to-be-fixed attitude her parents instilled in her back on their southern Minnesota farm to “work with anyone” in the Senate to break partisan gridlock.

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“I got in this race to put Iowans first, hardworking families first, and I think that message resonates with people,” she said while pausing on a campaign stop that took her to Max Smith’s rural Knoxville grain elevator to talk about her vision of developing a long-range federal plan for upgrading the nation’s infrastructure and to pitch her humble roots that could appeal to the state’s sizable independent voting bloc.

“I want the divisiveness to end and I think we need leaders who are going to go lead with that attitude,” she said. “This idea that it’s Democrats this or Republicans that — that just makes that place a mess, and I know about messes. I’ve raised three boys.”

Having been raised on a farm near Bricelyn, Minn., Greenfield and her four siblings did myriad chores and tasks associated with a crop and livestock operation, such as “walking” soybean fields, driving tractors and grain trucks and feeding animals.

As a teenager, she got some early small-business management experience helping with her family’s crop-dusting business. She also took off-the-farm jobs, played basketball, ran track and was captain of her championship high school volleyball team.

“I will tell you that I’ve always been a scrappy farm kid. My siblings will tell you I was probably the scrappiest of us all and so that’s good because that’s really helped me in what life has put in front of me and certainly it’s toughened me up,” she said.

“But the other thing that it’s done is soften me up,” she added. “I think I have a real nice balance of being tough when I need to be tough but I will tell that I also know everybody’s got a little hurt in their heart that they’re carrying around.”

It was during her early years that she also got a taste of the political world and how events off the farm could shape everyday life. Her mom was very involved in politics, she recalled.

“We marched in parades, we door knocked. We did not do phone banking because back then there were no cellphones and we had a party line,” Greenfield noted with a smile.

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“My folks always had the radio on, so we were always talking about the news of the day, always watching commodity prices, the weather,” she said. “I remember the Russian grain embargo in 1979,” she added, and the impression it made on her “how those decisions made in Washington really affected our lives on the farm and it was starting to make sense to me.”

The news of the day for many Iowans during the 1980s was the farm debt crisis, which caused Greenfield’s family to struggle like many others. Armed with her small-town values and work ethic and the help of student financial aid and numerous part-time jobs, Greenfield put herself through college, studying first at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville and Iowa State University in Ames before graduating from Minnesota State University in Mankato.

It was during those years that she met Wirtjes, a journeyman lineman and Iowa Brotherhood of Electrical Workers member. “We eloped and got married and moved back to Buffalo Center where he was working and we lived,” she said, until at age 24 and pregnant with her second son she got the news her husband was killed at work. She returned to Minnesota for a time to adjust to life as a single mom.

“I can’t imagine as a parent how terrifying that would be to go through an experience like that in that situation,” said State Auditor Rob Sand. “She has such an incredible personal story — the things that she has been through and the things that she’s experienced I really think make her someone that we can trust to go to Washington and never forget what it’s like to really struggle in life and what that means.”

Greenfield worked for roughly 14 years as an urban planner before she joined a major Minneapolis-based developer and homebuilding company as head of the company’s Iowa division in Des Moines. She later became president of Colby Interests, a family-owned commercial real estate company based in the Des Moines area.

Her time at Colby has not been without controversy. Republicans have hammered her company’s handling of a Des Moines development project that displaced existing businesses by “kicking them to the curb.” But Loretta Sieman, a former city council member and friend of Greenfield’s, said the situation has been politically overblown.

“I was on the City Council when a lot of the issues happened with Colby,” said Sieman, of West Des Moines. “I know what she did and how she did it. I will tell you, honestly, I’m rather saddened by the way the whole election is running period, on both sides.

“Yes, she had a job; yes, sometimes things are not easy. Sometimes you may get into a situation where you may do something that you’re not necessarily excited about but you do it because it’s your job. You work it out or you go to your boss and say, ‘How do we fix this, how do we make it better?’ And that’s what I feel Theresa did,” she said, noting many of the displaced businesses were moved to other locations.

The political attacks are something Greenfield takes in stride as she makes her first run as a Democratic nominee after an ill-fated 2018 bid for Congress. That run ended when she was forced to drop out of the primary when it was revealed her campaign manager falsified signatures on her candidate petition and she was unable to meet the requirement before the deadline.

“When you get into a race like this, of course, you’re going to expect some scrutiny. You would hope that it would be fair and it would be honest, but I can’t do anything about that. However, I will tell you as I travel this state, people want the divisiveness to end and it is one of the reasons that I got into this fight,” she said. “They want those nasty attack ads that ruin their football games and ruin their YouTube videos to end and they don’t want to wait until Nov. 3. They want them done.”

Her life experiences have driven her political focus to a certain degree. She references investments in education made while Republican Robert Ray was Iowa’s governor as helping her manage her college expenses, and she wants to pay it forward by advocating for “debt-free” trade schools, technical schools, community colleges, and apprenticeship programs that are integrated into the educational system.

A Democrat in favor of abortion rights, she also is pushing for campaign finance reform, expanded health care coverage and options, lower-cost prescription drugs, paid sick leave for workers and further federal financial stimulus programs for individuals and businesses hit hard by the pandemic.

But the issue that she said gives her the most “street cred” especially among Iowa’s sizable elderly population is the assurance she makes in resisting efforts to weaken or privatize Social Security or Medicare, two federal programs that Americans have paid into all their working lives and expect it to be a crucial part of their retirement security.

“I’ve heard it from seniors. They were talking about ‘she understands,’” said Dr. Andy McGuire, a close friend and former Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman. “When she talks, people get teared up in the audience. It was a lifeline and it feels like a lifeline to them and so, yeah, they feel that genuineness that she knows and she will never do anything” to jeopardize those programs. “That’s kind of different than just saying it.”

Another political ally, former Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson, said Greenfield’s personal story speaks to someone who “has deep-rooted values” that are consistent with the Democratic Party.

“I think it really cements your feelings about the need for programs that are a safety net,” Pederson said.

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Greenfield also projects genuineness and credibility, Pederson said, as someone Iowans can trust to fight for their interests, given the road she has traveled.

“I think that just tells you she absolutely would fight tooth and nail to preserve that and probably expand it or enhance it because she recognizes how essential it is. It’s a lifesaver,” Pederson said. “Social Security for older people is especially important, but this points up that it isn’t just a safety net for people as they retire, it’s also there for people who have something happen in their lives that’s unexpected. Any of us can have something unexpected.”

Prakash Kopparapu, a Johnston man who has worked with Greenfield on political volunteering and advocacy issues, called her a pragmatic and refreshing problem-solver who “saw things very clearly, and she was very approachable.”

“She’s very quick. She asks very interesting questions,” said Kopparapu, who described Greenfield as grounded, “quite down to earth” and one text message away. “She’s a very go, go, go personality.”

While challenging an incumbent as a political newcomer is an uphill climb, some Democrats point out that Iowa voters have had a contrarian streak at times, turning out Sens. Dick Clark in 1978, John Culver in 1980 and Roger Jepsen in 1984 before returning Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley to the Senate for multiple terms.

However, Drake University political-science professor Arthur Sanders didn’t put much stock in that, noting “a good portion of the people who voted in those elections in the ‘70s, quite frankly, are dead now.”

Sanders said both sides have invested huge amounts of money for a job that pays $174,000 a year with health care, pension and free parking benefits and allowances. Republicans and their allies have spent heavily to “demonize” Greenfield — although he said she continues to show strong poll numbers for a challenger — and to suppress turnout. Meanwhile, Democrats and their allies have leveled attacks against Ernst for failing to keep campaign promises and her support of President Donald Trump and his pandemic response.

Sanders said the economy, COVID-19 and Trump are probably the topics that are going to decide the Nov. 3 election “one way or another.”

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Knoxville’s Smith said he would like to see term limits, but Ernst told him that wouldn’t address the root problem unless federal bureaucrats who implement many of the things citizens find objectionable could be limited or replaced.

Smith said Greenfield’s “interest and sincerity to bring people together” was good and he liked her stance on infrastructure.

“I think they both have good points and they both have some weaker points,” said Smith, who employs 100.

“I need them to represent Iowa and I’m just not sure how much of that is going to happen,” said Smith, after separate meetings with both candidates. “I guess my overall opinion is I feel like when they go to Washington they seem to forget about things that happen in Iowa and are more interested in satisfying the president or the speaker. I wish they would concentrate more on Iowa stuff — that’s both parties equally.”

Greenfield is remarried and she and her husband, Steve, 59, owner of a marketing and communication business, live in Des Moines. Together they have four grown children, including a son who serves in the U.S. Army, although she confided to The Gazette editorial board that “I love being an empty nester.”

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

Theresa Greenfield at a glance

Age: 57

Political Party: Democrat

Family: Steve, husband (M: 1991); four children

Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in design and human environment, Minnesota State University, Mankato; Iowa State University, Ames; Iowa Lakes Community College, Estherville

Professional: Urban planner; president, Rottlund homebuilding company’s Iowa division; president, commercial real estate firm Colby Interests; full-time campaigning since late 2019

Website: greenfieldforiowa.com

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