Leann Jacobsen: The Informer Interview

Leann Jacobsen is a coffee shop and wine bar owner and City Council member in Spencer, a town of about 11,000 in northwestern Iowa’s Clay County. She’s also one of three Democrats on the June 5 primary ballot vying for the chance to challenge 4th District Congressman Steve King, who is seeking his ninth term this November (and remains the heavy favorite in the conservative district despite his increasingly brazen rhetoric).

Jacobsen grew up in Minnesota and moved to Iowa in the ’90s to work as a Statehouse lobbyist for AT&T. She later went on launch an economic development firm called Capitol Gains as well as Iowa Women in Public Policy, an organization focused in part on encouraging more women to run for office; and head the Technology Association of Iowa.

The Informer recently sat down with Jacobsen at Cafe Diem in downtown Ames to discuss her vision for the 4th District, which centers on transcending partisan divisions and revitalizing local economies, and why she’s challenging King. An edited version of that interview follows below. (Still undecided? Also read our interviews with fellow Democratic challengers J.D. Scholten, a Sioux City paralegal, and John Paschen, an Ames pediatrician.)

What made you decide to enter the race last summer after J.D. already did with [former King challenger] Kim Weaver’s organizational backing behind him?

I had been thinking about running for a long time. As somebody who lives in a small town in rural Iowa, I see a lot of people who are struggling and communities that are struggling, and there’s a real leadership void. There’s no voice representing a lot of the people in our district. I have been a community leader, I have been a business leader, and the people in our district need a leader.

Do you have a specific example you’ve noticed of a leadership void?

I have friends, neighbors, who are working two or three jobs just to put food on the table and pay the rent. Our communities, we see main streets a little too quiet. Businesses are closing and young people are moving away for better opportunities in bigger communities. So when you look at that combination, there’s a real crisis in our small towns. When you think of where they’re going to be 10, 20, 30 years down the road if we don’t do anything, there is a need for somebody to come in and be a voice. They don’t need someone to do the work for them, but they do need a voice representing them. That’s where I saw a lack of who’s looking out for these people, who is trying to bring the revitalization to these communities that will help our young people want to come back. And nobody was doing that.

“Our current congressman has taken his eye off the district and has really lost touch with the people.”

That’s why I ran for the Spencer City Council, thinking that I do as much as I can as a private citizen and a business owner to revitalize and create the kind of community that people want to come back to. I thought perhaps as a public official I could do more.

I think there’s a stereotype of the 4th Congressional District because of Steve King that it’s all deep red, very conservative, rural northwest Iowa. Is that your primary focus in your campaign, serving underserved voices in the rural parts of the district? There’s also Sioux City and Ames….

I’m a business leader, I’m a small business owner, I’m a City Council member, i’m an Iowan through and through. But I was born in the Twin Cities, came to Des Moines 20 years ago, and then moved to Spencer. I love Spencer, I love northwest Iowa. But I believe I can [be a] bridge, because I’ve lived in large communities, I’ve lived in small communities. There are so many shared values and shared concerns, from education to healthcare to jobs, that transcend the kind of community. But I do believe that rural voters and voters in small towns have been overlooked, and their voices haven’t been heard.

You’ve mentioned City Council a couple times now. You are the only candidate in the Democratic primary who’s won an election for public office in the past. Do you see that giving you an advantage in the primary?

I do. I think what it shows is that my message appeals to a broad base of voters — recognizing that City Council is a much smaller universe than the district. The area that I won my City Council seat in voted for President Trump by 70 percent. And here I am, a woman and a Democrat, talking about revitalizing our communities and creating places our kids want to come back to. I’m speaking, and my message is resonating across the political spectrum. I have run, I do know the things that I’m concerned about and where I can help are important to Iowans. It’s already been sort of validated through the election process.

The City Council in Ames is pretty nonpartisan, or at least in a different way than state and national politics. How receptive have people been to your message as you’ve been out campaigning for Congress, now that you’re more explicitly partisan?

I think a lot of the things we’re talking about transcend political lines. We’re talking about shared values. If we want to talk about social politics, that is one way to divide all the people. But what we need to do is really unite, if we’re going to defeat Steve King. We need to unite people, and people are really ready for a change. Our current congressman has taken his eye off the district and has really lost touch with the people … who are working the two or three jobs, or without healthcare. When he votes for these tax cuts and for these healthcare proposals that would essentially put rural hospitals out of business, he’s lost touch on all those issues. And then you can talk about trade, and tariffs. All those issues transcend…. It doesn’t matter the political affiliation.

King, for the second time in a row, has a Republican primary opponent [Sioux City community college administrator Cyndi Hanson], although maybe not as strong of one as last time. That aside, it appears that might be a sign there’s some discontent within the Republican Party in the 4th District over King. What are you hearing from potential voters, particularly Republicans?

I think King embarrasses our district. He underrepresents and misrepresents us.

But is that what you’re hearing, also?

Yes. People are embarrassed by the way he talks. He is impeding economic growth and success here with the things he says and does. He’s putting up a wall around our district and a wall around Iowa, because when you say, “Oh hey, I’m from Iowa,” they say, “Isn’t that where there’s a lot of racism?” and things like that.

David Duke even encouraged people to move to the 4th District after King’s tweet [about “somebody else’s babies”].

Yeah. What I am finding is that we are getting public support, a lot of support, from independents and Republicans. Democrats are very energized and motivated and excited when we talk about our message — bringing sanity back to the healthcare discussion, protecting public education, and putting the focus back on creating jobs.

“Certainly, we can talk about all sorts of things that divide us. But there is so much more that we can work with everybody on.”

Our district, when you look at the natural resources and some of the best soil anywhere, and you’ve got Iowa State, a top research university, when you combine the two, we should be the place with some of the best business innovation in the country right here. And when you think about feeding and fueling the world with food and renewable fuels and biofuels. We should be leading in that area. That’s a vision that brings people together.

You’re talking a lot about revitalizing rural communities and economic development. How does your business background help you on these issues?

For the past 30 years, I have a strong track record of success. I’ve had my own public policy firm and passed legislation on bringing people together with bipartisan support. I also ran the Technology Association of Iowa for 10 years, and through that work diversified and grew the industry to be one of national prominence. That was taking an industry and helping them build a statewide community. I worked with small companies and large companies that used tech, we worked with educators and researchers, and really all the various stakeholders and brought them all together under one umbrella…. Really started Iowa’s startup community over that time period.

You’ve also worked with former lieutenant governors Sally Pederson [a Democrat] and Joy Corning [a Republican].

I came to Iowa in 1998 as vice president of AT&T’s state government affairs, [which] means legislative and regulatory issues. I went up to the state Capitol and noticed that everybody looked a lot alike. There were a lot of older white men, and I wondered where the women were, and had a lot of conversations in the weeks and months that followed. We didn’t have women in office, and women weren’t running. When women run, they win at the same rate as men, but they just don’t run. So I started an organization called Iowa Women in Public Policy. Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson and Lt. Gov. Joy Corning were co-chairs. This was a bipartisan effort to get more women running for public office and engaged in public service at all levels, from school boards to city councils to the Legislature to Congress. We held meet-and-greets and invited women to run and held training seminars and, again, worked to bring people together. And that’s what I would do in our 4th District.

Certainly, we can talk about all sorts of things that divide us. And where it’s important, and when it comes to Democratic values, I will absolutely stand up and fight for healthcare and immigration and equal pay for equal work, and all of those really important issues. But there is so much more that we can work with everybody on, and I think that’s what I’ve done my whole life. That’s why I’m running, and that’s why I think I can win.

Sally Pederson is one of your supporters, and also [former Democratic state senator and gubernatorial candidate] Jack Hatch. What do those endorsements mean for your campaign?

I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to work with some of Iowa’s very talented leaders in business and in politics and in education. When it comes to Lt. Gov. Pederson, she has seen the work that I have done to bring people together, and those testimonials mean a lot.

I read that Ben Affleck is one of your supporters [donating $1,000 to the campaign]. Do you think these Hollywood endorsements play any role? Mark Hamill and Rosie O’Donnell have voiced support for J.D. Scholten.

Related article: J.D. Scholten: The Informer Interview
Related article: J.D. Scholten: The Informer Interview

[Laughs.] You know, I honestly don’t think those endorsements mean much at all. I think what means everything is a roomful of people who get really excited about the vision and opportunity we’ve got. I think what really matters to voters is to be able to look you in the eye and trust the person they’re talking to.

Have you ever met Ben Affleck?

I have not. I reached out to him as I was calling people for support, was very excited when it came in, just from an, oh my goodness, it’s Ben Affleck…. But it’s not an endorsement, it’s just some help, because he believes in what we’re doing.

You moved to Spencer in 2011. Is that the first you’ve lived in the 4th District?

Related article: John Paschen: The Informer Interview
Related article: John Paschen: The Informer Interview

Yeah. I met my husband in 2007. We got married in 2011, and that is where that date comes from. But I’d been living up there and commuting probably since 2009.

I ask that because Steve King’s strongest challenger to date has been Christie Vilsack [in 2012]. One of the things that was detrimental to her campaign, some people believed, was that she moved to the 4th District to run and was seen as kind of an outsider. Could that influence this election?

I’ve lived in Spencer for almost ten years. I choose to live in Spencer. I have small businesses, I have a small business accelerator, coffee shop and wine bar, a farmers’ market. I roll up my sleeves and work with my neighbors to build a community. I’ve lived a lot of places. I love Spencer best.

I love rural Iowa; it’s beautiful and amazing, and I think there is so much opportunity there, but no one has been paying attention. No one has been leading for 15 years.

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.