Can Cathy Glasson Be the Dems’ Anti-Reynolds?

By building on a groundswell of progressive populism, could the union organizer have what it takes to win the Democratic nomination for governor this year?

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cathy Glasson at a campaign event Dec. 16 in Ames. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

One week ago, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds delivered her first Condition of the State address at the Capitol building in Des Moines, defending the Iowa GOP’s controversial legislative achievements in 2017 that included large cuts to education funding, the repealing of local minimum wage increases, and the gutting of collective bargaining rights.

“I hope that I can be an inspiration to every waitress, every grocery checker, every overworked and stressed out mom, and the little girls who dare to dream,” Reynolds said — an appeal to some of the same residents who have likely been hurt by her party’s recent policy changes, which also include the bungled privatization of the state’s Medicaid program. “In Iowa, if you’re willing to work for it, those dreams can come true.”

Downstairs from the House chamber, dozens of protesters organized by the progressive activist group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement called for the restoration of union rights and a $15 statewide minimum wage. Among them was Cathy Glasson, a nurse and union leader from Coralville and one of several Democrats vying for her party’s nomination to challenge Reynolds (or, less likely, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, who is challenging the governor in the GOP primary) in the 2018 election.

A recent poll showed Glasson in a fairly distant third place for the nomination, behind Des Moines businessman Fred Hubbell and state Sen. Nate Boulton, also of Des Moines. But Glasson, who’s been endorsed by ICCI’s Action Fund and has the support of many of the same progressive activists who backed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016 — although Glasson herself caucused for Clinton — has momentum behind her.

Outside Iowa, too, lefty media outlets have taken notice of Glasson’s grassroots campaign, seeing it as a possible contender in light of the state’s hard right turn under Gov. Terry Branstad and the GOP-controlled Legislature, as well as the groundswell of progressive activism thanks largely to the election of President Trump. Glasson “launched her campaign on a platform of unabashed progressive populism,” the American Prospect wrote last September. In a December article titled “Socialism Comes to Iowa,” The Nation called Glasson “the farthest left candidate in recent memory to mount a serious campaign for the state’s highest office.” And, earlier this month, Glasson — the “crowded Iowa governor’s race’s progressive standout” — appeared on the online news show The Young Turks, whose founder has encouraged primary challenges from the left against incumbent Democrats.

In mid-December, the Informer stopped by a local house party for Glasson hosted by Ames activist Ria Keinert. Speaking to a group of about 20 people gathered in the living room, Glasson discussed issues including her support for universal healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, and criminal justice reforms including banning the box — the movement to get employers to remove questions about whether potential hires have a criminal record from job applications, so that they consider the applicants’ qualifications first without the stigma often associated with a criminal conviction.

Citing a recent Des Moines Register report on lawsuits filed against a wind turbine blade manufacturer by six former employees who alleged they were fired after they were injured by hazardous chemicals, Glasson also called for the restoration of their union bargaining rights and strengthened protections for Iowa workers. “Not just through their union, but the state should be making sure that those workers are protected,” she said. “The stories go on and on and on. and I can tell you, in this environment, employers feel really emboldened — anybody feeling this? — like they can treat you like crap.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” a local activist in the crowd responded.

“And they’re getting away with it, until guess what?”

“Until you’re governor,” someone said, eliciting laughter.

After she finished speaking, Glasson met with the Informer on the front porch as the event’s attendees — who included John Paschen, an Ames pediatrician and one of four Democrats challenging Steve King for Congress this year, who hadn’t yet endorsed a gubernatorial candidate; and Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at Iowa State University’s embattled Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, who is backing Glasson — slowly trickled out the door.

“It’s the only way that things ever change in our state and in our nation, through people-powered movements.”

Saying that Iowa was ready for progressive leadership, Glasson slammed the current governor as an ineffectual leader. “I wish Gov. Reynolds would be more honest about what’s really going on,” she said. “She tends to minimize issues that are really huge in the minds of most Iowans. If you look at the [sexual harassment] scandal, for example, in the state Senate, she’s the leader of the state, and she minimized it by putting the responsibility back on Senate leaders. I’m sorry, but this is a much bigger issue that she should have led on.” (Since our interview, Reynolds, during her Condition of the State speech last week, addressed the scandal, saying: “Throughout history, sexual harassment has been a stain on our culture, a destructive force — in politics, media and entertainment, in workplaces large and small — in all facets of life. And it must stop. I commend the number of women who have found the courage to speak out.”)

Supporters of rival primary campaigns have sometimes argued that Glasson’s appeal is a matter of style over substance. For instance, Nate Boulton, among others, also supports (eventually) raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour; and even Republican candidate Ron Corbett has attacked Branstad’s privatization of Medicaid, which Glasson and her fellow Democratic candidates have said should be returned to a government-run system. (However, Glasson was the only candidate last September to endorse Bernie Sanders’ federal push for a “Medicare for All” bill.)

Regardless, Glasson said she sees herself as a movement candidate, someone who can motivate the grassroots and help wrest the state back from total Republican control — and, unlike Hubbell and Boulton, whose campaigns have walked the line between progressive values and centrist rhetoric, do so with an unabashedly progressive message. “It’s the only way that things ever change in our state and in our nation, through people-powered movements, and that’s what we want to build here,” she said. “And we want to build a sustaining movement that’s here for years to come so that we continue to build on a progressive base into the future.”

Earlier at the house party, Glasson made similar comments, casting her campaign as being more about growing the progressive movement than about herself. “This campaign is not about electing me governor in 2018 — that’s the start,” “If a non-traditional candidate gets elected in 2018, guess who’s knocking on our door? Presidential candidates, [asking], ‘How the heck did you do that?’ So we can influence the presidential cycle in 2020, absolutely.”

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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.