Erick Zehr is tired of seeing leaders grandstand on social media instead of being responsive to their citizens during crises. He is tired of leaders ignoring issues and starting “silly political battles.” And he is tired of leaders representing party over people. Instead of letting these feelings fester, Zehr is taking action.
These pent-up frustrations are shared by his supporters and are no doubt fueling the 36-year-old Democratic candidate’s pursuits to run for the redistricted Iowa House District 38. But it is his desire to serve and truly represent the people of Jasper County — and all Iowans — that is truly motivating him and his campaign.
Zehr said he was asked to run for office, a request he never thought would come his way. He gave it careful consideration. Zehr has always been politically and civically minded, he said; but he has never taken the step forward by running for elected office. This is a whole new level.
From the outside looking in, Zehr surmises it might not look like the best time for him to run. It’s only been two years since he founded his new company. His wife, Tara, is transitioning from principal of WEST Academy to principal of Emerson Hough Elementary School. They also have three kids under the age of 8.
“It’s not an ideal time for us personally, but politically there was really no choice when I gave it some thought,” he said. “When I got into it, I saw what (current representative) Jon (Dunwell) was doing with the district. I saw what he was saying to people and then going and doing at the statehouse.”
Looking closer, Zehr said he saw the way Republicans were using their majority. Based on their actions, their proposals and their voting records, Zehr felt like Republicans were governing for a “strong political minority” of the Iowa population; legislators are supposed to help and protect people.
“A lot of the decisions being made at the statehouse were just getting more and more radical,” Zehr said. “Regardless if I win or not, somebody needs to stand up for those people. Somebody needs to stand up for working people that are just trying to get by…for our environment…I feel like there are issues being ignored.”
Unwilling to let Dunwell run unopposed, Zehr wants to be that person who will stand up for working people and make their voices heard.
Issues like school vouchers are still weighing heavy on Zehr’s mind, even after the Iowa House did not have the votes to pass it this year. However, the issue persists and is remaining a strong talking point going into an election year. Zehr opposes vouchers, or what Republicans call educational savings accounts.
“To have public money coming in and for the first time saying, ‘You know what? What we’re going to do is we’re going to chip away the fabric, the foundation of public education and send a select number of kids off and pay for them to go to private school’ — it is just unconscionable,” Zehr said.
Teachers are very much a part of his life, even beyond schooling. Zehr’s father taught science for 35 years. His sister is a teacher in Springville. His wife has taught for many years. Friends of his have master’s degrees in teaching or are professors. Even Zehr has a physics teaching degree.
“Teaching is something that is just so integral to the fabric of who we are,” Zehr said. “It’s foundational to what it means to be an American, to have this opportunity available to you, that you can go to public school and you can be guaranteed an education.”
For the past year, teachers and public schools have been the target of many controversial proposals. Though a number of them failed — like the ideas from Republican legislators to install surveillance cameras in all classrooms and jailing teachers over books — Zehr suggests they have lasting effects.
“It’s no wonder teachers are leaving the profession,” he said.
Zehr also criticized the handling of the state’s surplus and worries Republicans are passing it forward until there is enough of a majority “to do something they want to with it.” He argued there are things the state could do with that extra money to really help people.
Other past statehouse action like the banning of transgender girls from female sports does not sit well with Zehr, who also serves as a girls tennis coach in Newton. He felt there was a way to pass a bill like that and protect female sports while still making sure any transgender kids do not feel attacked or bullied.
“As a coach maybe I’m a little bit more sensitive to it. Sports are so integral to what people enjoy and bringing them enjoyment in their lives, and so that was just like going too far with something for political points at the expense of transgender kids,” he said. “That one kind of hurt.”
Zehr said the face of what democracy looks like is changing; politicians care more about where their money comes from or who gives them face time, and they care less and less what their people think. Zehr wants to strengthen how democracy functions and keep the power placed within the hands of the people.
Voting rights are also important to Zehr. To him, it is one of the last places people “have any sort of power” against the overwhelming powers of corporations, government, money and media. Admittedly, he is unsure if that is something he can change in the statehouse, but he’ll try. And it all starts with a campaign.
“I have to run a type of campaign that is done a different way and have people respond to it,” Zehr said. “If you run a campaign where people matter and people say, ‘Hey, that matters to us,’ that makes it so it does matter. Again, the goal of running a campaign that even if we lose can help democracy.”
Zehr said Iowa’s representatives are losing the thread on what political positions mean. He believes many politicians see them as opportunities for personal growth or personal gain, and that’s backwards, he said, and it’s a disservice to their people.
“It is their job to responsibly and faithfully represent us, and too often they represent their agenda or represent what their party tells them to,” Zehr said. “… The people of Jasper County don’t want a representative who represents the Republican Party or whatever Kim Reynolds tells them to. They want a representative who represents us. That’s what they’re owed.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext 6560 or at email@example.com