I do not want to write about Theresa Greenfield. Not really. After all, what is there to say? She’s an exceptionally capable and competent leader and a Democrat. It’s almost boring in that comforting way of chicken and rice casserole and the world before where we could go a day or two without being constantly reminded of the disaster of our American politics.
She says lots of anodyne things: she’s listening and she cares, also she wants to “throw elbows to both parties.” She also is “talking to Iowans and understanding their needs.”
Our conversation is a bingo card of Iowa political buzzwords Ag, Farmers, subsidies, helping out the farmers, biofuels, Washington is broken, farm kid, farms, military, troops, also, farms, values, and farms. She and Joni Ernst have similar haircuts and in their ads, they wear similar clothes — jeans, button-up tops, and jackets or puffy vests. They stomp through cornfields near big red barns. Did she mention farms? Because, farms.
Greenfield is no leftist, she dings Republicans and Democrats for infrastructure issues and trade wars. In a recent ad she says, she’ll work with Trump, which makes me upset, but also happy, because it tells me she wants to win.
Greenfield grew up on a farm outside Bricelyn, Minnesota. Her parents had a crop dusting business, which they lost in the farm crisis of the 1980s. Greenfield remembers going to bankruptcy auctions where the contents of people’s homes were in cardboard boxes out on hay racks for friends and neighbors to rummage through and bid on — purchasing the remnants of someone else’s disaster.
In the wake of the farm crisis, Greenfield put herself through college with a mixture of financial aid and part-time jobs. She worked at a Pizza Hut while attending Iowa Lakes Community College, and at a Hy-Vee Deli and Target while at Iowa State. She also worked at a local canning factory in high school, as well as a Country Kitchen. She married a union electrical worker who died on the job when Greenfield was pregnant with her second child.
So: she went back to school as a single mom to study urban planning. She relied on Social Security, union benefits and her sister, Maria who moved in to help with the boys. I think a lot about what those sentences mean. The reality they evoke. It wasn’t that long ago I was asking friends for help with grocery money. Feeling that cold weight of sadness in my stomach when I had to tell my daughter “No, we couldn’t buy those scrunches, today. But maybe in a month.” Such a small expense, but knowing we needed milk and my last freelance check was late. And then feel her squeeze my hand and say, “It’s OK, I understand.”
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Like a Midwesterner, Greenfield doesn’t linger in the bad moments. It was hard, she says. But that’s all she’ll allow. She makes the issue broader, reminding me, “White women already make 70 cents to the male dollar. Black and brown women earn less. Women are the primary recipients of Social Security, because so often they have to step out of the workforce to be caregivers.”
And if, like in Greenfield’s case, disaster blows in like a hurricane and rips the walls of your life, that social safety net makes it so you can still find help. You can still feed your two boys and go back to school and start a new life where you are a successful business person, who remarries and has a nice home and more children, and doesn’t have to worry about buying milk and paying the power bill. In sum, a good life.
After graduating, she went to work for a property management company, and faced 2008’s Great Recession, when the real estate market collapsed in on itself like a dying star.
The Republican talking point about Greenfield is that she failed at business, because the company she worked for as a manager of their Des Moines division, Ruttlund Homes, went under during the collapse of the housing market. A 30-second ad funded by National Republican Senatorial Committee ominously intones, “Theresa Greenfield is not who you think she is.” Black and white pictures of Greenfield smiling are pasted over images of a courtroom and gavel. “Greenfield’s business was repeatedly sued,” the voice of a white sounding, very concerned woman says. “Greenfield’s business racked up millions of dollars in debt.”
“Theresa Greenfield is a failed businesswoman and a phony,” the ad concludes.
But Greenfield didn’t own the business and Rottlund Homes went under during the Great Recession, when every business failed. Just like in 2020, when we are all failing again. As far as scandals go, it’s pretty weaksauce. Barely interesting. A Gazette fact-check found that while the Rottlund Homes did go under, and did fail to pay some debts, as is common when a business goes under, that Greenfield wasn’t responsible for corporate-level decisions. She was neither founder, nor chief executive, and she too lost her job.
Greenfield is a compelling candidate precisely because she isn’t that compelling. Her scandals aren’t really scandals.
While Ernst captured national attention with an ad that gleefully declared she knew how to castrate hogs and if elected would go to Washington to cut pork, most of Greenfield’s own 30 second ads are a little less violent. She’s a farm kid and military mom, who will stand up and work for Iowans. If Ernst was gonna “make ‘em squeal,” Greenfield is gonna make ‘em shut up and get back to work. A little less flashy, but really comforting in a year of too much squealing and not enough working.
A lot of attacks on Greenfield don’t stick because she hasn’t held political office. Not because she hasn’t tried. In 2018, she ran as a Democratic candidate for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House but was disqualified because her campaign manager falsified names on the petition. It’s unclear why and Greenfield won’t throw him under the bus. But she does say, the night before the petition was due, he came to her and confessed. She was shocked and devastated. And she could have dropped out, covered up the whole thing. In fact, right after he told her, Greenfield says her team was drafting a news release saying she was dropping out.
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But she said, in her Midwestern vowels, “Heck no, let’s throw a Hail Mary.” So, the next morning, a Friday, she and friends and volunteers went around and gathered signatures, turning in the form right when it was due at 5 p.m. When the Secretary of State’s office counted, they were 150 signatures short.
“But at least we tried,” she says.
She’s not a politician yet, but she knows the art of a parable. “That’s the kind of person, I am,” she says. “I don’t quit.” She also, she points out, doesn’t lie.
If there is a theme to her story, it’s that Greenfield has seen that hard work only works when the world isn’t falling apart. But sometimes, so many times, the world does fall apart and then where are you? Where are any of us?
Preserving this America that catches you when you fall is why Greenfield is running.
I’ve met Greenfield twice and she is so gently competent. When we talk, her soft Midwestern vowels render farms to ferms and zoom to zum.
It’s hard to get her to go off topic. I try, but she glances at me through the “zum” screen and smiles, “I’ll answer that, but I want to finish telling you about why I wanted to run.” And returns to her story.
Before the call, I had frantically made the bed in my guest room turned pandemic office. It’s where my daughter sometimes sleeps when anxiety dreams force her awake. I tell this to Greenfield who is sitting in her kitchen, her husband walks in and out of the frame, getting something from the fridge, her daughter is just out of frame too. Greenfield tells me she’s wearing a business blouse but comfy bottoms. It’s the zum life. And she’s been living it for months now, trying to hold events safely and get to know the voters, safely.
It’s so hard to get to know candidates in a pandemic. I’d met Greenfield just once the summer before when I’d stopped by a campaign event so I could meet her and get to know her. I’d had my kids with me and was late and she was kind and her campaign had patiently waited. Perhaps understanding the complexities of single mom life. She was listening then, she told me, listening to Iowans. She’s still listening and what she hears is everyone is tired and frustrated. Everyone feels lost and overlooked and left behind in our own disasters.
Truly the only problem with Theresa Greenfield is that she’s a middle-of-the-road centrist. She’s not exciting. She’s relentlessly sensible. On health care she wants to strengthen our current system, not overhaul it. Jobs and the economy? She wants to increase small businesses access to capital, she supports the USMCA, supports a living wage, and unions. It’s not castration, it’s just work.
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She wants to work with Republicans and Democrats. She wants to fix roads. There is no whiff of socialism about her. She doesn’t want to defund the police. She wants to help farmers.
In the end, the most exciting thing about Greenfield is that she’s not exciting. She didn’t enable a corrupt regime that lied while hundreds of thousands of Americans died. She has not, as Ernst has, falsely claimed that doctors are lying about the pandemic. She has not refused to impeach a president for lying and for corruption, only to then have him continue to lie and be corrupt.
I’ve been told I should be excited that two women are in the running for one of the most influential offices in American politics. Iowa, after all, is a storied land of corn and ethanol, of big Ag, and bigger pork, and where political kingmaking at the caucuses is the real cash crop. And I would be more excited, if the past several years of political leadership in Iowa hadn’t proven that women can be just as disastrous leaders as men.
Ernst, the Republican incumbent, has proved to be not much more than a GOP-bot. Push a button on her back and you can hear how “Democrats want socialism” or “communist China” or something vague about “the radical left” and the dangers of “Joe Biden’s America” — as if Trump’s America wasn’t at this very moment burning to the ground. She repeats these meaningless phrases, over and over, while Americans die on ventilators. As of this writing, nearly 200,000 people are dead from COVID-19. Deaths that didn’t have to happen. And thousands more will continue to die. This didn’t have to happen. Do you know that?
How quickly we accepted that people would die. How easily we adjusted to the inevitability of their end to make ourselves more comfortable. Because it’s easier to sling conspiracies about “Wuhan” than put on a mask. In New Zealand, which has nearly 2 million more people than the state of Iowa has, only had 24 deaths from COVID-19. Iowa has over 1,200.
It is now abundantly clear that the president lied to the American people about COVID-19, downplaying the severity.
And Ernst, who rose to political prominence on a platform of fighting government corruption and greed, got to Washington and gleefully enabled both, acting as a rubber stamp for a president who openly violates the law.
Our governor, also a woman, has done little to stop the virus from killing Iowans. Kim Reynolds, in fact, opened the doors of the state wide open and invited it into our homes, when she lifted restrictions in mid-May and has refused to issue a mask mandate. Reynolds has also engaged in some truth manipulation — not reporting the correct numbers of meat packing plant outbreaks, backdating positive case numbers, not tracking or reporting cases in schools, and now, as a whistleblower lawsuit by former Department of Human Services spokesperson Polly Carver-Kimm alleges, actively withheld information, vital to the public safety.
This is where we are: Exhausted, wind-destroyed, coughing, confused, and now off to vote.
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I don’t have to worry about buying milk anymore. But I sent my kids to school the other day, in masks, and cried in the car, because I’m sending them into an invisible war, because I had no other choices. I tell them we are OK. It’s a lie so I can stop crying and go back to work. But we are not OK. My friend and book editor contracted COVID-19 in March and she still hasn’t recovered. I have neighbors who had their homes blown off around them, and lived in their cars waiting for five days for help, while our governor attended political fundraisers with the vice president, laughing, eating, and not wearing masks.
In some ways, it’s ridiculous for me to want a politician who is exciting. After all, screams America in 2020, haven’t we had enough excitement? Can’t we just hold still for a moment and breathe?
Theresa Greenfield will let you breathe.