Background: Attorney specializing in bankruptcy for farms and small businesses, former Iowa State senator, ran for U.S. Senate in 2010
The Race: U.S. Senate, Iowa
Running for the seat currently held by incumbent Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, Tom Fiegen, 57, has three Democratic opponents: Rob Hogg, Bob Krause and Patty Judge. Iowans will select Grassley's challenger on June 7. Fiegen, an advocate for trade policy and reform, is the only Democratic candidate in this race to endorse a presidential candidate—he is a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders.
Beyond revising tax and campaign finance rules, Fiegen's policy proposals often focus on food and farming. Motivated by environmental and health concerns, one of Fiegen's top priorities as a candidate is to encourage stricter regulation of chemicals used in agriculture. If elected, he would push for a federal farm bill that not only mandates that farmers use fewer chemicals, but also incentivizes consumers and distributors to seek out locally grown food.
Key Endorsements: Rev. Frantz Whitfield, Iowa civil rights leader and pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Waterloo; author Marianne Williamson
Latest Polling: None available Primary: June 7
Why are you running for one of Iowa’s U.S. Senate seats?
Tom Fiegen: On the state level, the first reason is water quality. We have water being used by the Des Moines Water Works that is two and three times the EPA safe limit for nitrate, a chemical version of nitrogen fertilizer. They are spending thousands of dollars a day to try and get it down to just the EPA limit of 10 parts per million, and it is increasing the cancer rates in Iowa. This is personal to me because my parents are retired farmers and my mom has had thyroid cancer.
Then there’s Roundup herbicide—we are just dumping it on the land. Three hundred million pounds of Roundup were applied in the United States last year. When the U.S. Geological Survey collects rainwater falling from the sky, 75 percent of the rainwater has Roundup in it. So the number one issue for me is the water issue in Iowa.
The second issue in Iowa is local food. Americans want to eat more fresh, healthy local food. There’s a direct correlation between our diets and the diseases that we’re dealing with, like obesity and diabetes. Iowa has been emptying out since the ’80s, and even before; one of the ways back economically for many rural parts of the country is to start growing our own food again. If elected, I’m going to make sure the next Farm Bill emphasizes more local fresh food production rather than the commodities of corn and soybeans.
I am a bankruptcy reorganization lawyer for farmers and small businesses. I see the impact of national and international economic decisions in my office every day. We have got to change the rigged rules of our economy, and that goes back to campaign finance reform—it’s bigger and broader than Citizens United. We’ve got to end the practice of people buying beneficial legislation.
Beyond that, we need to break up the big banks. We need to bring back Glass-Steagall. We’ve got to change our trade rules. In Iowa, we used to have very good jobs making washing machines, making vacuum cleaners, making tractors, making industrial equipment. All of those jobs have gone to Mexico or overseas. My own son, Paul, was laid off this last summer from Honeywell. My son found another job in 10 days, but for a lot of his coworkers it took longer. Many of his friends are working on a project-to-project basis where they don’t have any long-term employment. We’re seeing people in their 20s and 30s who are not getting married; they’re not partnering up; they’re not starting families; they’re not buying houses, because of the economic uncertainty created by our international trade deals like NAFTA, TAFTA and TPP.
If you had to pick three of the most important issues facing the country today to be addressed by the Democratic Party’s platform, what would they be and how should we address them?
Without a question, it’s campaign finance reform. I differ from other progressives: I think a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United is a long shot. Here’s what we can do realistically: right now it is legal for to form a PAC and say, “I will contribute X amount—a hundred thousand, a million dollars—to your campaign re-election if you write a tax rule that favors my company, my interests, my family; if you pass a particular trade rule; if you pass a particular workers’ safety rule.” We call it a “campaign contribution,” but in reality it’s a bribe.
Let’s ban contributions by people who have things pending in front of Congress. We may have to have a pre-period and post-period, and it may be as long as a couple years. It certainly has to be in such a way that people can’t evade the law by giving me money six months in advance or the year after the vote.
The end game should be public financing of elections. That may take a while to accomplish. In the interim, one of the most expensive things about campaigning is TV time, radio time. FCC licenses are up for renewal every five years. We could say when the licenses come up for renewal, one of the conditions of renewal is that every candidate that qualifies for the ballot is going to have X amount of time for free or for substantially reduced rates so that they can get their message out.
Second only to campaign finance reform would be to bring back Glass-Steagall. And I believe that GMO labeling is the food safety issue of our day. Consumers need to be able to make their own choices about the type of food they purchase, the type of food they feed their family. I think we need to step back from chemical agriculture. We need to re-evaluate all of the poisons that we’re allowing to be sprayed upon on us. I think we need to say to agriculture: We all have to breath the air; we all have to drink the water; we all have to eat the food; and we cannot allow you to continue to apply these chemicals by the tanker load.
On the campaign trail in Iowa, do you get pushback on these issues?
Believe it or not, I have not had pushback. I have been to all 99 counties—in 2015 I put 100,000 miles on my truck. On the campaign trail I had a conversation with a plant scientist who’s involved in genetic engineering. He did not have a problem with labeling. He viewed it as an information issue, and he views plant breeding through genetic modification as a tool.
I said to this plant scientist, “I’m not ruling out the benefits of genetic engineering and GMOs.” When it began, we were promised that we would have foods that would be more nutritious, but over 95 percent of the genetically engineered crops are Roundup ready—that’s the sole reason why the plant industry has been pushing GMOs, to sell more Roundup. I’m going to argue as a member of the Senate that we phase out Roundup—and not just replace it with something more toxic.
In Iowa, we’ve got people who are seeing the cancer in their families; the farm wives get it. One example of many: I’m in a little town south of Des Moines. I gave my stump speech and this woman came up to me. She had the same scar on her neck that my mom has, so I knew this woman had thyroid cancer. She said, “I feel like I’ve just been struck by a bolt of lightening. Every time my husband sprayed Roundup or these other herbicides he would have flu-like symptoms, and when I washed his clothes I could smell the chemicals on his work jeans and on his work shirts. My husband died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I’ve had thyroid cancers and tumors all over my body. I always had an uneasy feeling—now I know; now I know we were poisoning ourselves.”
The people that are working with the chemicals—losing loved ones to cancer—they get it.
Democrats have lost their majorities in the House and Senate. What does the party need to do to gain them back?
The Democratic Party has too many corporate Democrats that are beholden to the billionaires. If we’ve going to revitalize the party and gain back majorities, we’ve got to demonstrate unconditional loyalty to working people.
On the campaign trail, I went on a farm tour. I got out to one of these farms and got out of my truck. And the farmer comes out of his shed and f-bombs me. “You Democrats, you tell us small farmers you’re with us until Monsanto wants something, until Cargill wants something. I get it, the Republicans are for the rich people. But I am tired of being betrayed and having my heart broken by the Democrats. You’re going to have to do a lot more to prove to me that you’re really on my side.”
I’ve heard that over and over from union people, from factory workers. One reason Democrats lost the elections in 2010 and 2014 is that people said, “I don’t believe you anymore. I don’t trust you. You’ve double-crossed me so much that I am not going to get off the couch and vote for you.” The Democratic Party has to get back on the side of working people—become the party of FDR and demonstrate that unconditional loyalty. You can’t serve the big-money donors and working people.
Are campaign contributions standing in the way of Sanders and Clinton supporters working together, or are there other obstacles?
One big difference between Hillary and Bernie is definitely the money. Bernie does not have a super PAC; Bernie is not going to Wall Street. Bernie Sanders is much more peaceful on international issues; I view Hillary as a war candidate and I think America is tired of war. On healthcare, I am very much in favor of single-payer—that is another major distinction. And one of the things that I would say that I see in Iowa, and I believe this is replicated across the country, is that Bernie’s approach is “together we can”—it’s a “we” thing. With Hillary, it’s “Trust me, I know what I’m doing. Give me the keys and let me run.”
What sets you apart from the three other Democrats in this primary?
I’m the environmentalist. Rob Hogg has a reputation that he is trying to cultivate as a climate change advocate. Rob is also taking corporate money and not proposing any answers. Patty Judge and Bob Krause, they’re chemical agriculture. I am the true environmentalist among the four. I’ve endorsed Bernie Sanders. I agree with all of his economic reforms.
On the economy, Bob Krause says we need to raise the minimum wage and we need to look at the trade deals. Rob is silent on it; Patty is silent on it. When you look at the food issue, none of them are talking about food. When we talk about climate change, I would phase out the use of coal. There is no other energy source that’s as dirty as coal. I look at the campaign finance reports of Rob and Patty—they are beholden to corporate money and so they’re not offering answers. I’m offering answers.
What does the legacy of the New Deal mean for Democrats in 2016? And how can the party best defend the values of the New Deal to expand the promise of social and economic democracy?
At a Bernie rally this winter, there was a wise old man named Bill Leady. Bill walks up to me and says, “You know, Bernie’s not saying anything new. I’m old enough; I can remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That was a party of working people. What I hear from Bernie is a return to FDR.”
Returning the country to the New Deal, to FDR, is an economy that works for everybody. It means jobs where the workers have a say. Circling back to campaign finance: If the billionaires aren’t buying the votes of senators, then the senators can vote for fair trade agreements where U.S. workers are on equal footing with the international workers.
The other part of the New Deal that I think we need to incorporate is to bring back the WPA. We’ve got tons of teenagers who can’t find work, and we have highly skilled craftspeople who are retiring. As part of making America competitive in the international economy, we’ve got to come up with a new WPA that trains teenagers to replace people we’re losing. And we need to pay attention to the national infrastructure. We’re being left behind because we’ve focused on corporate profits; we’ve focused on the narrow next quarter, and part of the New Deal is to look long term and say, “What do we want this country to look like in 20 years?”
Bernie has struggled with winning over people of color and women who find inspiration in Hillary’s struggles and accomplishments. Clinton, on the other hand, has struggled with youth voters and more progressive Democrats. What sort of bold, progressive platform can unite these two constituencies in November and the years that follow?
The first thing is for everybody to have a good-paying job, so they can provide for their family and themselves. We can say to everyone, without regard to their race, creed or color, let’s be committed to all of us being able to make a living. If we can have a kind of economic equality, then I think we can work through the other problems.
We’ve got to take care of each other, and part of that is the New Deal—recognizing that we’re all part of the community. We have to come together and say “no” to the big money.
I think it’s going to be very hard to bring the Hillary forces and the Bernie forces together. The Hillary people have to show some respect to the Bernie people. We want a better world. We think we can achieve it. The Hillary people are more jaded, they’re generally older, and they want to preserve the status quo. If we’re going to grow the party, and we’re going to be the big tent, I think it has to start with the Hillary people giving the Bernie people respect. This is about the new generation of leadership among progressives in the Democratic Party.
My message to the Hillary people is: Move over, make room—these kids are way smarter than we are. My message to the Millennials is: Stay involved. We need you. We need your intelligence; we need your idealism; we need your energy.
Find out what's next for the political revolution. Subscribe to the free In These Times weekly email newsletter: