J.D. Scholten: The Informer Interview

4th Congressional District Democratic candidate J.D. Scholten speaks at London Underground in downtown Ames in 2017. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Update, 6/5/18: J.D. Scholten has won the Democratic primary in the 4th Congressional District and will challenge Steve King this November.

Fresh off his campaign launch Tuesday, Sioux City freelance paralegal J.D. Scholten visited London Underground, a bar and progressive haunt in downtown Ames, Friday evening to make his case for why voters should give him a shot at defeating Congressman Steve King in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District next year.

Speaking to a crowd of about 50, the 37-year-old Democratic underdog and former baseball standout described telling his father that he planned to challenge King by relating it to a personal story about sports. Scholten was 11 years old and playing basketball. With 30 seconds to go in one game, his dad watched, hoping his son’s team would run out the clock and take a game-winning shot. But when the ball was inbounded to Scholten, he had a wide-open three and took it right away, upsetting his dad — until he sank the shot.

“He told me at that dinner table, ‘J.D., ever since you were 11, I knew never to doubt you,’” Scholten said to laughs. “‘I think what you’re doing is absolutely nuts, but you have got my 100 percent support and go give ‘em hell.’”

Scholten visited London after a full day’s work, alongside the same two staffers who worked on Democrat Kim Weaver’s campaign until she dropped out of the race in early June. Before addressing his audience, he sat down at a table in the back of the bar to tell the Informer how he plans to build on the momentum her campaign had and convince voters in the 4th District, which stretches from deep-red western Iowa to the relatively liberal Ames, that it’s time to give King the boot.

You recently returned to Iowa after working as a paralegal in Seattle and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area before that. How’s your transition back to Iowa been so far?

Oh, awesome. This is home, and getting to see friends and family — last night, I got to spend the night with my cousin and his family, and it’s just absolutely wonderful.

We’re speaking at London Underground right now. What’s your drink of choice?

I’m a PBR guy. It kind of depends on the mood, but I’m mostly a PBR guy.

What about your paralegal background qualifies you for congressional office?

A lot of my paralegal background dealt with litigation, and every case we worked on we were the little guy fighting the big guy. I feel that is very parallel to what is happening right now in this campaign, both with the Democrats and this specific race.

Is there an example of that from your practice that stands out to you?

Last May, I was working as a freelance paralegal and I ended up going to do a three-week trial. We represented a small Minnesota company against a huge Canadian corporation. The Canadian corporation didn’t give any respect to us. They never thought it should have gone to trial, they were arrogant about it, and we took it to trial. And we were just that little guy that kept on working. I was the only staff member. We had three [attorneys]; they had about 12. The majority of my law firms were plaintiff law firms where we didn’t have a secretary or anything like that. It was bare bones, and it was high risk, high reward. You work hard and you do the extra little things, and if you end up winning it does well. [The case resulted in Scholten helping the company protect its intellectual property rights against the corporation.]

You’d been mulling entering this race for a while. If you had to single out one reason why you eventually chose to take the dive in, what would it be?

To step up for the Democrats. After Kim and after [Iowa State University political science professor] Dirk [Deam] decided not to do it, I felt there was a need. That’s the main thing. Because if nobody else is, I’m willing to do this. I want this.

Leann Jacobsen, a businesswoman in Spencer, is also considering a run as a Democrat against King. What makes you the better candidate?

I think it’s just that, the work ethic, the ability to go everywhere. I’m able to work remotely now, being a freelancer.

“A lot of people seem to have given up on this district.”

That was one thing that Kim Weaver mentioned when she dropped out, [her concern about having “to quit my job and shift to campaigning full-time.”]

Right. I’m not a wealthy guy; I live very frugally. So I have enough money, and I can earn enough money to continue this until next November.

But to get back to your question, I think this district needs a new energy, young, vibrant — somebody who is willing to just be a grinder and go out there and talk to as many people as possible. The other thing is, I’m a bit of a bridge. I’m a fifth generation Iowan, but I’m a first generation in [Sioux] City. The rest of my relatives all live in smaller towns or on farms. We still have our family farm.

So I feel like I can be that bridge between the rural and the urban, and a bridge between the traditional agriculture economy and the innovative economy. Coming from Seattle, I have a lot of friends who work at startups and a lot of innovative places. There are a lot of people who want to invest in districts like [the 4th], but they’re scared because of the controversy. They want to be risk averse.

Like David Duke inviting white nationalists to move to Iowa after King’s tweet [in March when he said, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”]

Exactly. When you’re a startup and you’re trying to be innovative, you can go anywhere with your money. Why would you go somewhere that has risk or controversy? That’s part of why I’m doing this. We can easily piggyback off the wind energy and get technology going in the state of Iowa. I mean, we’re not going to be Silicon Valley —

People talk about Iowa as Silicon Prairie, though.

Right, exactly. I guarantee you that Des Moines, in 10 years, it’s already booming but it’s going to be huge in technology. My uncle is the CTO at Principal, and he’s one of the leaders in technology. We’ve been talking a lot about what we could bring, specifically into Sioux City. We could easily get the data centers that are going into Des Moines, because we have everything they need. We have the power. Just south of Sioux City is Port Neal. We have the power plant for renewable energy, we have the river there for the need for coolant, and it doesn’t affect the environment. And it all stems from wind energy.

You grew up playing baseball, in high school, college, and then professionally in seven different countries. Now you’re back in lily-white western Iowa, and of course Steve King is constantly drawing controversy on immigration, comments on African Americans…. Is there a way to relate your multicultural experiences to the 4th District, to maybe explain how some of these views are problematic?

The statistics show we’re a predominantly white district. Growing up, I had a disproportionate exposure to diversity because of sports. The other day, I played a pick-up basketball game at West High School in Sioux City. I was the one white guy. I didn’t realize it until somebody made a comment. This district, I understand it. Growing up, I had teammates from small towns who didn’t meet a person of color until they got to college. I didn’t have that experience, because I was surrounded by [diversity], but I understand where they’re coming from.

I’m 100 percent for equality; I think that’s the Democratic way. Civil rights, equality, and opportunity — Democrats are at their best when they embrace these things.

You went to Morningside College in Sioux City. What do you make of its former business professor Sam Clovis being tapped for the USDA’s chief science post despite having no background in science, and also no background in food and ag policy?

I think it’s just consistent with the [Trump] administration, with what’s happening. There’s a lot of people who are getting jobs who don’t have the experience. I’m a little bit offended by it, because just because you’re from Iowa doesn’t mean you’re an agriculture person.

Given the national trends, 2018 is likely shaping up to be a wave year for Democrats —

Well, hopefully [laughs].

With the endless controversies surrounding Trump, there’s at least that potential. So for a Democrat in Iowa, what makes it worth their time to contribute to or volunteer for your campaign when there’s [Iowa GOP congressmen] David Young, Rod Blum, who may be more likely victories?

After talking to a lot of people in Iowa but outside the district, a lot of people seem to have given up on this district. And I know it’s not easy. If it was easy, there would be like 12 people in this race [in the Democratic primary]. It’s going to be a battle, it’s going to be uphill, but why they should [support me]? Because what I plan to do is be everywhere. I plan to be in as many small towns as possible. I plan to be in every city. I plan to be constantly on the road. And if it doesn’t benefit me, it’s going to benefit Iowa in the long term.

“When [King] talks about things that are 1,000 miles away, it pisses me off.”

Let’s use Sioux County. The last few elections, the [Democrat] in this race has gotten 19 percent. [In 2016, Weaver got 16 percent of the vote in the county.] What would happen if I work my butt off and get that to 25 percent? Maybe that’s just enough so we can elect a governor.

So is your goal to win, or to lay the groundwork [for future King opponents] and help other candidates win?

My goal is 100 percent to win. But to have a secondary goal to go with it, it’s bigger for the state. But I fully intend to win this race, and I fully intend to outwork any opponent, whether it’s Steve King or anybody else. That’s why I’m doing this.

Maybe that goes along with what Dirk Deam told the Iowa State Daily this spring. He contrasted King’s “extremely ideological” viewpoints, saying, “I don’t want to simply replace conservative ideology with liberal ideology. I just want to try harder to find out what the district is concerned about and represent them better.”


Is that the key for Democrats to unlocking the 4th District?

Well, that’s my strategy. Is it the key? We don’t know, because there’s no playbook on this. We’ve seen what’s happened in the past. Every election’s a different election. Is it the key? I think it’s the best approach, and that’s going to be my approach.

Kim Weaver endorsed you soon after you entered the race. Is she contributing her campaign funds to yours?

She mentioned she was going to do what she could. I think she’s only allowed to give $2,000 from campaign to campaign. She mentioned doing that. She wants to help the district out the way the money was meant to be used, and she’s going to interpret what that is. Some of the options I’ve heard from her I think are great, and I think it’s going to benefit the district. I’m not going to say what those are, but I think she’s doing a good job and not going through this lightly.

Weaver gained a lot of momentum, particularly after Steve King’s tweet in March. But she also faced criticism, from the right for what it said were her out-of-touch liberal positions and from the left more recently after the Des Moines Register reported on her past as an internet psychic. Is her endorsement an asset or liability to your campaign?

I view it as 100 percent an asset. I don’t really fully know what happened with the online psychic stuff — I read the article — but in the last election she stepped up when no [other] Democrat did, and there’s something to be said about that. I applaud her for that, and I appreciate her endorsement.

Steve King’s not known for passing legislation but for his spotlight-grabbing statements. Do you think he’s more of a troll, or is he genuine in his beliefs?

I… don’t know [laughs]. I haven’t met him.

Do you think he’ll agree to debate you?

I hope so, because the people deserve it. The people deserve a town hall. He’s a representative, and you’re supposed to represent your district. The biggest thing I’m frustrated with, and one of the reasons why I’m doing this and I’m so adamant about it, is that I feel the people aren’t being represented here. It’s excruciatingly frustrating when you have the incumbent talking about things that are 1,000 miles away when there are urgent things that need to be done. Seed prices have doubled since 2013, and farm prices for three consecutive years have gone down, for the first time since the Farm Crisis….

When he talks about those things that are 1,000 miles away, it pisses me off. And that’s why I’m doing this.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.