Retirement Party: State Sen. Mark “Chickenman” Chelgren, R-Ottumwa

Mark Chelgren is a man of many hats: wheelchair parts inventor, AR-15 manufacturer, state senator. In a past life, before he was at the Capitol comparing universal preschool to Nazi indoctrination and proposing the death penalty for undocumented immigrants caught sneaking back into the country after being deported for felonies, he wore a literal hat as RAGBRAI’s Chickenman. “He’s best known for wearing a chicken-like skullcap with a little beak at the forehead, bicycling naked at times, and, most of all, for providing back-of-the-pack riders with keg after keg of free beer at daily roadside stops,” the Des Moines Register reported in 2010, when Chelgren first ran for the state Senate.

Chelgren’s victory that year was something of a fluke. Riding the Tea Party wave, he knocked off incumbent Democrat Keith Kreiman by just 11 votes, thanks in part, perhaps, to a campaign rally featuring live music and 20 kegs of Keystone beer. Four years later, with the help of an unforced error by his Democratic challenger, Steve Siegel, who’d responded sarcastically to a questionnaire on abortion by writing, “Kill them all & let God sort it out,” Chelgren won re-election by a margin of under 400 votes.

In March, Chelgren announced that he would not seek re-election again in District 41, where active Democratic voters outnumber active Republicans by nearly 2,200. A Trump supporter whose second term has been marked by controversy, he would have faced his toughest challenge yet. He made national headlines in early 2017 after NBC News reported that a business degree he claimed to have was actually a certificate from a management course he took while working for a Sizzler steakhouse franchisee in Southern California. A week later, the Informer broke the news that Chelgren had founded his AR-15 business shortly after he was arrested for a violent assault on his 17-year-old stepson, which resulted in a disorderly conduct conviction that could have prevented the gun-rights advocate from selling firearms under federal law. (Chelgren responded to a request for comment then by accusing us of fake news, saying, “I have reviewed your claim to be a news site and believe it is false.”)

As a state senator, Chelgren was best known for the outrageous legislation he introduced. The NBC News report on his fake business degree was spurred by his bill to introduce a political litmus test for public university faculty hires. He also proposed “a novel (and cutthroat) way to hold professors accountable: putting their fates into students’ hands, Survivor-style,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education described it, by allowing students to fire them by a popular vote. After the Stanford marching band mocked the Hawkeyes during the 2016 Rose Bowl halftime show, Chelgren demanded that the California university apologize to all Iowans and proposed legislation stipulating that before that happened, all “collaboration or cooperation” between Stanford and Iowa’s regents universities — excluding sporting events, oddly — would be prohibited. None of the bills went anywhere.

Chelgren’s departure from the state Senate left four candidates — two Republicans and two Democrats, Ed Malloy and Mary Stewart — vying for his seat. Stewart emerged the winner in her primary and, on the GOP side, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an ophthalmologist and three-time congressional candidate from Ottumwa, defeated Daniel Cesar of Keosauqua.

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.