5th-generation Iowan Cindy Axne Hopes to Swing Her Congressional District

Axne plans to fight for what both rural and urban residents in Iowa's 3rd district want: affordable healthcare, jobs, and infrastructure.
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Cindy Axne is a fifth-generation Iowan running as a Democrat for Congress in Iowa’s 3rd District, hoping to beat incumbent Republican representative David Young. Young was elected in 2014 after the district flipped from Democratic to Republican in the 2012 congressional election.

Axne spent nearly a decade working for the State of Iowa, across a variety of departments including Management and Natural Resources, developing budgets, coordinating and leading complicated interagency projects, and liaising with the public about how her departmental work impacted their communities. She currently runs a digital design and consulting business with her husband, John.

Axne recently spoke with DAME about the challenges of fund-raising and the diversity (and similarities) across her district.

What inspired you to run now? How long have you been considering a congressional campaign?

So many people like me woke up on November 9, 2016, and wondered, What can I do differently? What have I not done that we’re here, now? Certainly, there are people suffering across the nation, and there’s a heck of a lot of work to be done.

The Women’s March here solidified for me that there are so many people looking for change. Women are stepping up here in Iowa; we have lots of women now running for local office, for school board, for city council, and lots of women running for state senate seats.

I had not considered running for Congress in the past, but in my career and personal time, I worked on improving life for Iowans. I’ve been a public servant, volunteered for Democratic candidates, and I had the opportunity to work for a friend who was running for governor. That gave me a good, early understanding of what it takes to run a race like this and think about what this would look like. Certainty, I think as a result of the last election, I was inspired to take it up another notch.

What has surprised you about campaigning so far?

I think one of the things that has surprised me so much—and is quite frankly disappointing—is the amount of time it takes to raise money to have winning campaign. You have to spend a minimum of 40 hours a week on raising money. The unfortunate thing about that is that you don’t spend that time speaking with constituents and understanding their issues.

Granted, I’m out every night of the week at meet-and-greets or other events. I do hear from three to four counties in a day’s trip. But too much of my time is spent raising money. That’s why we need campaign finance reform. Dark money and special interests are buying our democracy.

Iowa’s 3rd District spans a large area from Des Moines to the Nebraska border. That must be challenging in the diversity of people and issues you want to help address.

I really plan things and try to be strategic to hear from different groups out there, from farmers to union workers to entrepreneurs trying to start up small businesses in rural economies. I want to talk to all of those people.

The issues that people talk about, both in rural areas and cities? We’re not that far apart. We’re all talking about the same things, like affordable effective health care and good infrastructure. In cities, I’ll hear that a big corporation is building an office in the suburbs with no bus or transit out there. In rural areas, an infrastructure problem might be that there is no broadband Internet—and also no transit there, by the way.

One thing to note is this is a really evenly split district. It’s basically a third, a third, and a third in terms of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. I’m out there listening to all of them—and I’m calling everybody as well. I’m not afraid to hold town halls. I have town halls to hear people’s concerns. My goal is to hear them and then to literally be a voice for them. And across this large area, I often hear the same things. For example, I was recently in Ringgold County, the second least populated county in the state. I have a cousin there, and while I was there, again, I heard the same exact things: that people want to invest in good education, and they don’t want their kids leaving school with a lot of debt. They want to bring back jobs to support families. They want better infrastructure and access to affordable health care.

Would you tell me about the time you had to sell off personal belongings to cover your postpartum medical costs? On one hand that seems like a very singular situation and on the other hand, it sounds like a universal experience many people can understand.

When my husband and I started our small business, you couldn’t get maternity coverage as part of an individual health insurance plan. It just wasn’t available unless you took out an expensive rider for $1,000 a month and held it for a year before becoming pregnant. It was completely unaffordable; we couldn’t afford it, so I didn’t have maternity coverage.

I thought I’d be able to negotiate. I have a strong business background and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Well, the bills came in, and no one would negotiate with me. We had to pay full price. To afford our medical bills, we sold personal items on eBay because we didn’t want to go into debt or go bankrupt just because we had our son.

That’s where Republicans want to take us back to, to a time when preexisting conditions weren’t covered. Pregnancy is considered a preexisting condition, and there are many conditions where this also impacts seniors. I get what issues those struggles create for families. I’ve been talking about this since my son was born. When my kids were young, they’d get sick quite a bit. I’d stretch taking them to the doctor to see if they’d come out of whatever they had because I knew it wasn’t going to be covered. There are families like that across the nation that face that daily and risk the health of their family because there is not enough money to cover those bills. Do I take my children to the doctor because they’re not feeling well, or do I not feed us for the week? There’s not enough coverage for individual plans, and premiums are too costly across the board. We can’t go back.

What do you think non-Iowans misunderstand about your state?

Most people consider Iowa to be a strictly agricultural state. We are the breadbasket of the nation here in the Midwest, but we also have a lot more to offer than agriculture. We’re a leader in natural energy. Almost 40% of our energy comes from wind. I was involved in bringing natural energy to Iowa when I was in government. People overlook that we're on the forefront of renewable energy. There are also a lot of tech startups here, and lots of tech giants coming here—and one reason is cheap energy.

One of the things people don’t always know is that Iowa continues to get great ratings from magazines that rank the best places to live for young professionals, for young families, for people seeking good-paying jobs, which we have in a lot of sectors. We have safe communities and good education, though that’s under attack right now in our K-12 schools.

The last thing to mention: There’s a lot to do in our outdoors. People think Iowa is flat, but there’s a lot of water and plenty of beautiful places to climb and hike. I’m an outdoor person, and I don’t think Iowa gets enough credit for that.

How do you see the challenges and opportunities in your state reflected nationally? 

This comes back to health care again. I’ll tell you what—Representative David Young is not looking out for Iowans and their health care. Health care giant Aetna sent a letter to Iowans pulling out of Affordable Care Act (ACA) coverage, and guess what? Young took a contribution from them. He’s in the pocket of corporations and special interests like so many in Washington. We need people who care about constituents in this state and country, not people who are lining their pockets to get reelected.

We're trying to clean up our water here in Iowa. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico? People have heard about that. We’re a contributor to that, and we need to address our environmental issues. Climate change problems are something we’re all facing.

Iowa has always been a leader in public education and, unfortunately, under the current Republican administration, education is under attack. That’s true for our unions, and also in Iowa, teachers are being poached by other states with better opportunities. This past year, there was a vote that took away the bargaining rights of public employees. Situations like that impact our children’s future. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos isn’t looking out for our public education system at all.

Any other parting thoughts about campaigning before I need to let you get back out there?

We talked a little bit about the surprise of how much money it takes to run a race. But there are so many positive aspects of being out in the community and talking to people who haven’t had a voice. I’m impressed by so many people who are raising up their communities. I was just in one community where the townspeople pooled their money to buy new lights for the town square. I’m so inspired by these people, and I want to be a voice for those who have tried to keep their communities strong. 


This profile is part of She Is Running--our ongoing series profiling some of the many women who have decided to run for office in the wake of the 2016 election. Read the intro to the series here, and stay tuned for more. In the months ahead, we’ll meet women running for office across the nation. We’ll focus on the stories of compelling candidates running for state representative, governor, and U.S. Congress—and of course, we’re open to suggestions. If you want to refer a candidate or make the case for interviewing a prominent mayoral candidate, get in touch at [email protected].

Brittany Shoot is a freelance writer and photographer based in San Francisco. She's a contributing writer for Smithsonian and Sojourners, and her writing has also appeared in Time, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian and The Economist. Follow her: @brittanyshoot
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