A hopeful Democrat runs on Republican turf in rural Iowa

After many years away, Jessica Wiskus returned home to Lisbon. Her family bought a farmhouse with a big front porch just a couple of miles from her dad’s farm, planted a big garden and an orchard. She and her husband arrived from Pennsylvania just in time to enroll their daughter in the local school for first grade.

“I mean, I just always wanted to come back and was trying to figure out ways to do it. Because I missed the community that I just, you know, missed the way of life that we have out here,” Wiskus told me this past week.

“It was one thing I couldn’t find anywhere else. I could do a lot of other things. I could achieve a lot of things. I could put a lot of lines on my resume, and do all of that stuff. But I couldn’t find that community that really was so important to me,” she said.

“I know all the neighbors, they all know me. It’s, you know, it’s coming home,” Wiskus said.

But then plans for pipelines that would transport carbon from ethanol plants to underground storage came to her home. Initially, plans for the Navigator pipeline would take it through her farmstead. But that plan changed. Now, it’s the Wolf Carbon Solutions/ADM pipeline, carrying carbon from ADM ethanol plants in Cedar Rapids and Clinton, which has the potential to impact her corner of the countryside.

In the face of the pipeline projects, Wiskus got active. She joined regular online meetings with experts on carbon pipelines. She wrote guest columns and organized informational meetings on the projects. She worked to build opposition to multibillion private pipelines sold with dubious claims of environmental benefits, posing potential danger from ruptures and raising the specter of land being taken through eminent domain.

And now she’s running for the Iowa Senate in District 42, which encompasses much of rural Linn County and nearly all of Benton County. She’s the lone Democrat in the race, so she is unopposed in Tuesday’s primary.

“So the idea was just to live peacefully here. Not get involved in pipelines, politics,” Wiskus said, laughing.

The district is hardly good ground for a Democratic legislative candidate in a state where rural Democratic lawmakers have gone extinct. But the pipeline issue has given her an opening. After the GOP-controlled Legislature refused to bar the use of eminent domain for private projects, and with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ close ties to pipeline promoters, the GOP brand has sustained some dents. Some lifelong Republicans are supporting her campaign, she said.

“It’s astonishing to me how much this particular issue reaches across all partisan divides. I mean, it’s a unifying issue, once you talk to people about it, if they’re familiar with it, you know, because it comes down to the issue of eminent domain for private corporations,” Wiskus said.

“And what’s surprising to me is that, you know, quite a few people are, well, they’re quite upset with Gov. Reynolds, and they’re quite upset with the state Legislature, and they see exactly what’s going on here in terms of the money, in terms of corruption, and they’re just, they’re just tired of it,” Wiskus said.

“It is the number one issue in the campaign. There’s no question about it,” she said.

Wiskus earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa before earning two masters degrees and a doctorate in music at Yale. She taught music history at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for 19 years. She has edited and written books, including “The Rhythm of Thought.”

“This is not a book primarily for musicologists, however. It is importantly a book for philosophers with more than a casual acquaintance with the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty,” wrote John Carvalho of Villanova University in his review.

So, yeah, Wiskus is not your typical rural legislative candidate.

How is politics anything like the study of music?

“It’s all of these different pieces that come together and create a theme that is meaningful, or a melody that moves you. And that matters. And if we can think of politics as being similar, as being a way of listening to all those different parts and understanding how they come together, literally in harmony, then maybe there’s something to this, you know, the ability to listen. And that’s something that we need,” Wiskus said.

On the Republican side of the District 42 fence, there is little harmony. Rep. Charlie McClintock, R-Alburnett, is being challenged by Cedar Rapids business owner Justin Wasson and Colman Silbernagel of Vinton, an Afghanistan veteran and data analyst.

For example, even though the vast majority of families in the Linn-Mar school district don’t live in District 42, all three candidates attended a closed-door meeting with Reynolds in Marion that drew parents who oppose Linn-Mar’s transgender support policies.

Wasson has been the most vocal, earning the endorsement of parents who have organized opposition to the district’s policies. His campaign Facebook page includes posts arguing “Parents’ rights trump woke school boards,” and “When it’s easier to organize a drag show than a Bible study in our public schools, we have a problem.”

McClintock, who did not support Reynolds’ plan for publicly funded private school vouchers, said on Facebook that the first bill he may file next year would allow recall and impeachment of school board members.

So just your average GOP primary in Iowa in 2022.

Wiskus says she’s not worried about becoming a target of shrill GOP attacks.

“That’s the very reason that I’m running, because I don’t think you can have one side choosing to bully on the other side. That’s not how government should work. And that’s not how governing works. That’s, that’s bullying, you know, where one side just tries to seize the power for itself,” Wiskus said.

Wiskus also isn’t worried about how Iowa politics veered sharply to the right during her absence. She argues the things that drew her back to Iowa remain intact.

“I was never a political person. It was never my ambition to do this, but I just see so much good and I see so much hope and I see so much dignity and respect that people still have for one another. And I feel that has got to be the spirit that drives our politics,” Wiskus said. “And right now we see it on a national level and even at the state level, that it’s driven by divisiveness, and it’s driven by agendas that are just bound to tear us apart. But I think we’re better than that. And I’ve seen it.”

Let’s hope we see more of it in November.

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