Mark Chelgren’s Greatest Hits

Before Sizzler U, there were the Chickenman, keggers, a wheelchair invention, and a proposal to execute undocumented immigrants

Mark Chelgren For Iowa/Facebook

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include information about Chelgren’s firearms manufacturing business and his proposal to allow students to fire professors they didn’t like. It has also been corrected to clarify that the attorney who filed incorporation paperwork for Fizzix LLC is no longer president of the lapsed law firm and supported Chelgren’s opponent in their 2010 state Senate race.

Long before state Sen. Mark Chelgren caught the eye of an NBC News reporter for falsely claiming to have earned a business degree from a Sizzler steakhouse franchisee while pushing a bill to apply political litmus tests to university hires, his political aspirations were largely dismissed. Observers viewed the eccentricities of the man known then for his beer-guzzling, naked-bike-riding antics as a serious liability.

But in 2010, an election year driven by anti-establishment Tea Party sentiment, Chelgren unseated state Sen. Keith Kreiman, a Bloomfield Democrat, by just 11 votes. He was re-elected in 2014 by fewer than 400. With controversy once again surrounding him, his prospects for 2018 may be even more endangered.

On Saturday, the editorial board of the Ottumwa Courier, Chelgren’s hometown paper, called on the 49-year-old Republican lawmaker to resign over the Sizzler U fabrication. “He has gotten into shouting matches on the Senate floor. He sulks like a spoiled child when reminded that he represents this area and that it deserves better. Those incidents already undermined his reputation at the state level,” the paper wrote. “Now, he has made Ottumwa a national punch line.”

It wasn’t the first time. Here’s a look at some of the more notable events in Chelgren’s life and career that have led up to this moment.

RAGBRAI’s Chickenman

Before he was a state lawmaker, Chelgren was best known as Chickenman, a fixture in the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. He was once part of the five-member Quadrabong team, named after “a four-tubed, giant beer funnel that could hold and deliver a six pack of suds to one to four players in an amazingly short amount of time,” as Janna Trevisanut, a support driver whose brother was also on the team, described it in 2002. “It was an extremely collegiate approach,” she explained. “We were small but extremely popular, as any time we would load that monstrous contraption up, people would encircle us, cheer us on, and sometimes partake, even the locals.” Eventually, the Quadrabong team split up, but Chelgren — who, Trevisanut wrote, had “gone batty with his alter ego, and drives a beer truck around the route dressed in a loincloth” (with fuzzy pink balls concealed underneath) — rode on.

“That beer would go not to teams that had signed on with him but to random riders who were friendly (or cute) enough.”

His RAGBRAI celebrity received wider notice when he announced his campaign to unseat Kreiman in 2010. “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,” reported the Des Moines Register, the newspaper after which the annual bike ride is named. “If someone ripped off my little loin cloth, being drunk, I’d run around and talk to people,” Chelgren told the paper, revealing a libertarian streak. “On RAGBRAI, I do believe that adults do have a right to make adult decisions. Whether those decisions are deemed to be appropriate or inappropriate is up to the person — as long as it doesn’t affect children.”

The beer was dispensed from the refrigerated truck he took on the route, which was modified with taps on its side and decorated with stickers bearing slogans including “I Bit the Bone with Team Dawg,” “Team BARFLY,” “BAD GIRLS WERE HERE,” “BIG EARL’S GIRLS: DES MOINES,” and “TEAM STIFF.” The kegs for the taps were provided by other RAGBRAI teams, but they weren’t always the ones who ended up drinking the beer. “Part of the deal was that Chickenman would take one of your kegs and hook it up to his own special Chickenman tap,” a Cityview reader told the alt-weekly. “That beer would go not to teams that had signed on with him but to random riders who were friendly (or cute) enough.” Chelgren’s fun was cut short, the reader added, when the Iowa State Patrol cracked down on the festivities in the mid-aughts.

Invention of Frog Legs, shock absorbers for wheelchairs

Chelgren’s most respectable claim to fame, perhaps, is Frog Legs Inc., the wheelchair parts manufacturing company he co-founded with fellow RAGBRAI enthusiast Dave Carr in the mid-’90s. The company’s name is a reference to its flagship product, shock-absorbing caster forks resembling the shape of a frog’s leg that can be installed on wheelchairs to reduce muscle spasms and lower back pain caused by vibrations. The idea was inspired by members of a quadriplegic rugby team the two men met during a trip to Colorado.

An Iowa State University newsletter from 1999 describing the university's role in Chelgren's Frog Legs invention.
An Iowa State University newsletter from 1999 describing the university’s role in Chelgren’s Frog Legs invention.

The Frog Legs invention, which was created with assistance from Iowa State University’s College of Engineering (PDF), earned Chelgren and Carr a shout-out from Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack in his 2000 Condition of the State address (PDF). “Will investing in our natural resources by being a national leader in private land conservation, our parks, our roadsides, and our trails lead to more Iowans, younger Iowans, and better-paid Iowans?” Vilsack asked, before describing the co-founders’ history with RAGBRAI and their trip to Colorado where they got the idea to create wheelchairs with the “high-performance features” of mountain bikes. “Quality air, water, and open spaces were Iowa’s promise to Dave, Mark, and Dave,” Vilsack concluded, also recognizing the company’s marketing director. “Welcome home to Iowa.”

Gun manufacturing company

Chelgren is also the owner of Fizzix LLC, a manufacturing company that operates in part under the name Epic Defense, an Ottumwa business that advertises custom-built AR-15s. Fizzix was registered for Chelgren in 2007 by Kenneth Duker, an assistant public defender for the state of Iowa who until 2010 was president of the lapsed Ottumwa law firm Breckenridge & Duker PC and ended up supporting Kreiman over Chelgren in their race that year.* Since arriving in the Legislature, Chelgren has introduced and co-sponsored numerous pro-gun bills, including several stand your ground bills and a proposal to allow school employees to carry “a firearm of any kind, whether concealed or not, in or on the grounds of a school where employed, if the employee has a valid permit to carry weapons.” (Read our follow-up report on Epic Defense, and Chelgren’s domestic violence arrest shortly before founding the business, here.)

Campaign kegger

After Chelgren defeated Kreiman in November 2010 and was on his way to the Statehouse, the pseudonymous blogger Krusty Konservative boasted that he was probably the only one who thought Chelgren had a chance of winning. “He first got my attention,” Krusty wrote, “when he held a campaign event where he provided live music and 20 kegs of Keystone, 5 kegs of Blue Moon, and 5 kegs of Sam Adams. At first I criticized him for purchasing the Keystone, but it was an absolutely brilliant political move.”

“If someone sticks it out to drink all of that Keystone, you know they are going to the polls for you.”

Why? Because “if someone sticks it out to drink all of that Keystone, you know they are going to the polls for you.” Rumor had it, Krusty joked, that each of the votes responsible for Chelgren’s razor-thin margin of victory were cast by people willing to stick around and kill the kegs full of the watery staple of college freshman — a feat made all the more impressive by stormy weather that diminished the turnout at the Ottumwa rally. Whatever Chelgren’s true strategy, he was drawing on past experience: As Chickenman, according to legend, he once tapped 70 kegs at a single RAGBRAI party.

Drug testing for state assistance

Chelgren may be a longtime beer-bong aficionado, but he views bong-ripping welfare recipients with less favor (despite the “420” sticker that also appeared on his beer truck and his support for rescheduling pot). Shortly after taking office, he co-sponsored a bill with 17 other Republicans, including Joni Ernst, to require anyone receiving financial aid from the state to participate in random drug testing. If they failed a test, they would become ineligible for aid until they could piss clean. The bill died in the Senate’s State Government Committee.

The following year, lawmakers laughed out loud at Chelgren as he proposed an amendment to a budget bill that would have required that divorced parents receiving child support submit to drug testing as often as once every six months if their exes requested it. The amendment, which Chelgren said was inspired by a constituent who believed his ex was blowing child support money on drugs, was quickly withdrawn.

Preschool and Nazi indoctrination

Going on the offensive in 2011 against the state’s free preschool program for 4-year-olds, Chelgren warned that authoritarian regimes have also provided education to young children when they are “malleable” and easier to manipulate. “What question I have for this body and the question I have in general, if it is all about indoctrinating a child, I would use the exact same arguments that the Nazis used, that we should take children immediately, as soon as we recognize they have potential,” he said. Instead, he argued, more responsibility should be placed on parents so that their “maternal and paternal bond” is not replaced by an “indoctrination process by teachers.”

Firing professors, reality TV-style

Before introducing his bill to require political litmus tests for faculty hires at Iowa’s state universities, which would have prohibited new hires if they “would cause the percentage of the faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by 10 percent” over the other, Chelgren introduced legislation to establish a system to fire unpopular instructors through student voting. “A bill circulating in the Iowa State Senate offers a novel (and cutthroat) way to hold professors accountable: putting their fates into students’ hands, Survivor-style,” the Chronicle of Higher Education described Chelgren’s proposal in April 2015. Under the proposal, professors whose evaluations scored below a minimum threshold would automatically get the axe. Then, the names of the five professors with the lowest scores above that threshold would be published in an online ballot for students. The prof receiving the most votes would get the boot, too. The bill died in committee.

Death penalty for undocumented immigrants

Seeking to spread his chicken wings and fly higher after his re-election to the Statehouse the previous year, Chelgren launched an ill-fated bid for Congress in 2015 against Dave Loebsack, the sole surviving Democrat among Iowa’s congressional delegation. In one of the most egregious instances of burying the lede in Iowa newspaper history, Knoxville Journal-Express editor Steve Woodhouse waited until the final paragraph of a campaign profile with the yawn-inducing headline “Chelgren is running for Congress” to casually mention one of the lawmaker’s most extreme proposals to date: executing undocumented immigrants deported after committing felonies who were caught entering the country again. “There is no reason to have felons here who threaten our way of life,” Chelgren said.

Woodhouse paraphrased the rest of Chelgren’s position on the issue, leaving him an opening to claim his words had been misconstrued. But after the Register reached out, he offered only a slight clarification, saying he intended for the proposal to be narrowly applied to undocumented immigrants who came back with the intent to commit an act of terror or another felony crime. He accused the Democratic Party of engaging in “race-baiting” for condemning his remarks, despite that the state GOP did the same. His proposal quickly caught the attention of the national media, drawing comparisons to Donald Trump’s harsh anti-immigration rhetoric. (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment from the Daily Beast inquiring whether it would consider Chelgren as Trump’s running mate.)

Retribution for Iowa-bashing Rose Bowl halftime show

In a pander to voters (which also drew nationwide attention) before dropping his congressional bid, Chelgren introduced legislation demanding an apology from Stanford University for its poorly received 2016 Rose Bowl halftime show that mocked the University of Iowa with hick stereotypes and a jingle. He argued that because of sanctions the marching band was under, the university erred in allowing it to perform at the Rose Bowl in the first place. The bill stipulated that until Stanford apologized to both the University of Iowa and all Iowa citizens, future “collaboration or cooperation” between Stanford and Iowa’s three regents universities — excluding sporting events — would be prohibited. Like many of Chelgren’s other proposals, the bill was widely mocked and went nowhere.

Correction: This article initially stated that Kenneth Duker, the attorney who filed Chelgren’s incorporation paperwork for Fizzix LLC, is president of the law firm Breckenridge & Duker PC. In fact, the firm is no longer active and Duker stepped down as president in December 2010. “While I am a long-time Republican, I supported Keith Kreiman in 2010 in his race against Mr. Chelgren,” Duker added in an email to the Informer. “Needless to say, I am not a Mark Chelgren fan and believe that he is not the right person to represent southeast Iowa in the state Senate.”

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.