On Tuesday, March 17, Blog for Iowa conducted a telephone interview with U.S. Senate candidate Kimberly Graham. We had intended to do an in-person interview but in consideration of the coronavirus pandemic we maintained social distancing. Graham was thoughtful in her answers to our questions. The following portions of the interview are transcribed from an audio recording. Any mistakes are the author’s.
Blog for Iowa: Why are you in this race?
Kimberly Graham: It’s kind of a perfect storm of three different things. The first, like a lot of women running for office now-a-days, the first thing that made me start thinking about running was the 2016 election. I never had any intention or desire to run for office. It was not something I thought I could even do as a person from a working class background. But the 2016 election was very upsetting to me like it was to a lot of people. And that’s what initially started making me look into running for office myself.
At the time of that election my son was 17 years old. He’s now 20. I couldn’t keep just only voting. I felt like I needed to do something more and that I could do a better job than a lot of our current leaders. And so, I thought that it would be important for my son, and for the kids I’ve represented for the last 20 years and all of their families, for me to step up and run for office so that we would have what I kind of shorthand “have a regular person” running for office.
I think we need “us” to be representing “us.” When I say “us” I mean regular people who are not wealthy, not well connected, who struggle financially, who know what it’s like to try to make it in the United States of America where if we ever did, we no longer have equality of opportunity on a lot of levels.
So I would say the 2016 election, my son, and all of the kids I’ve represented and families I’ve represented for the the last 20 years as an attorney for kids, for abused kids, and for parents in juvenile court. And watching how we’ve been investing in those kids and families less and less and less and less.
BFIA: How does being an attorney prepare you for being a U.S. Senator?
GRAHAM: Yeah, well I think it really uniquely prepares me because I’ve literally had the job of standing up and fighting for vulnerable people for 20 years now. That to me is really, in a nutshell, that should be the job of the U.S. Senator to listen, listen, and listen again. Find out what it is that either your clients or constituents need, whether you’re being a lawyer, whether your being a senator. What is it they need to live lives of health and dignity?
And then you go whether they are a farmer, whether they are a single mom living in Des Moines, whether they are a rural person living in Harlan, you know, whatever they are doing in this state, what do they need? What are their needs to live lives of health and dignity?
And then I see it as my job to go to Washington, D.C. and either draft legislation that doesn’t exist, or co-sponsor legislation, or advocate for those positions, whatever it takes to respond and to help the people that I am charged with representing. Just like I’ve been doing for the last 20 years as an attorney for mostly, not always, but mostly for people in poverty.
So I have a pretty good idea of how we are not doing a very good job taking care of people that either are in poverty or at the lower edge of the middle class in this country because I see it and I work with those people every day.
BFIA: Why does that experience best qualify you among the five Democrats running for the office?
GRAHAM: I’m best qualified because I still to this day, am still doing this work. In other words, I’m seeing in real time what is happening out there. Meaning what it is that people need to lead these lives of health and dignity.
I think also as someone who has owned a solo practice law firm for all of these years, I also understand how incredibly difficult it is to make it as a small business owner. We know that especially in our rural communities here in Iowa, but also in our cities, too, there are a lot of small businesses that are providing a living for people, but just barely.
If we had things that other developed nations have and have had for many years, like universal child care, like paid parental leave, like universal health care.Just those things alone would transform what it is like to own a small business in this country.
It would really promote and support entrepreneurship in this country to an incredibly high level because we would actually be able to own a small business without, you know, half of our income maybe in some cases, even more than half, going out the door for say our medical insurance right off the top which makes it very difficult to be profitable or to be profitable and not to make it.
I also believe that because I spent three years studying the United States Constitution and I know what it says, and I know how to read laws, and read bills, and read and write legislation that that’s really important because the thing, the devil is in the details, it is. It’s really important that somebody who is going to be our U.S. Senator have the ability to read a law, to read a proposed bill and really hold it up to the light and turn it around and look at it this way and that way and from every angle and have an ability to understand what certain things in that bill may mean when you put that bill into action, when the bill is actually implemented.
I should add, too, that I really, really believe that it’s incredibly beneficial for us to have, for everyone to have, like some kind of voice in our representation. For everyone to have some kind of a voice and what I believe has happened over the last forty years or so is that those who really have a substantial voice at this point are the very wealthy and well-connected and/or corporations. And I mean large, huge corporations.
I’m not talking about a little incorporated business in some small town. I’m talking about these mega multinational corporations and there are I believe more lobbyists by far than there are representatives in congress at this point.
So my argument is, my assertion is, that business is more than represented, in fact, I would say they are over-represented. What we do not have, in enough of a critical mass, what we don’t have a large enough number of, are people in congress who come from a public service background like I do. People that have a demonstrated history of trying to help people, as clichéd and eye-rolling as that may sound to some people. I’m doing the kind of law I do for the most part the kind of law that I’ve done in my career because I want to help people to have better lives.
I want to really be clear. It is not that businesses and corporations are the enemy. We need corporations. We need jobs. We need big business. We need small business. We need medium business. We need social workers. We need teachers. We need nurses. We need all of us. I believe the problem has become that only those multinational corporations for the most part are really being represented in congress. That’s not okay.
Senator Tom Harkin started his career at Iowa legal aid, and so did I. I really believe that most people had quite a lot of respect for Tom Harkin. Tom Harkin, it appears clear to me anyway, became a congressman and then a United States Senator because he wanted to help people. He stood up for unions. He stood up for human rights the world over. He stood up for children. He stood up for people with disabilities. That’s important. That is the kind of U.S. Senator that I intend to be.
BFIA: Let’s talk about Joni Ernst. Why is this senate seat flippable this cycle?
GRAHAM: To me there are several indications that it is flippable. The first one and probably the most obvious is that her polling numbers continue to drop like a stone. I mean, they just continue to drop, drop, drop, pretty much every time there is a new poll she is less popular.
Number two is if we look at the presidential election, the caucuses here in Iowa, what we see, at least among the Democrats is that the ideas of Senator Warren and Senator Sanders, if you add their polling numbers together for the last year and a half in Iowa, that is the majority, at least of Democrats. I can’t speak to the majority of all Iowans; although it is now, I believe the most recent polling indicates the majority of all Iowans believe we should have some kind of universal health care and that pharmaceuticals like insulin, people shouldn’t be allowed to charge what they are charging for insulin and those kinds of ideas. To me, there seems to be a clear shift that people are very tired of politics as usual and I believe that that’s part of how Senator Ernst got elected. Because people were getting tired of politics as usual and what was her campaign slogan?
BFIA: She was going to make ‘em squeal.
GRAHAM: Correct. To me that slogan says, “I’m going to go root out that corruption. It is not going to be politics as usual. I’m going to get in there, and I’m going to be different, and I’m not going to kowtow to powerful special interests.” That’s what that said. I believe that’s why she won by a pretty hefty margin. There’s other reasons I think she won but that’s the main one.
I also believe that’s the main reason President Trump won Iowa is because people are sick and tired, regular working people who are working all these jobs, don’t have health insurance, are barely getting by and hanging on by their fingernails if they happen to be at least nominally middle class, they are still hanging on by their fingernails in a lot of cases because of the high cost of medical stuff, and college, and day care, and all the other stuff. They are tired of it. We’re tired of it. We’re tired of working so, so hard.
We are some of the hardest working people on the planet. Americans are very productive. We work hard but we are not seeing the rewards of that. We are falling further and further behind financially. More of us are hurting financially. We may have jobs, but yeah, we have two jobs because we can’t make it on one. There’s all the gig economy. We have fewer and fewer unions, fewer and fewer union jobs that come with benefits and come with a pension and all of that.
Over these past forty years we’ve just seen this erosion of opportunity and people are sick of it. I think that that is what left us unfortunately vulnerable to a really, really skilled and good con man.
I don’t really blame the person who got conned if they got conned by a skilled con man. I blame the con man. What did he say? He went all around Iowa, including the Keokuk area. He stood on the floor of the, I think it was, the Siemens factory and said “This factory is not leaving here. These jobs are not leaving here. I will keep these jobs in America.” Those jobs are gone, they are gone now. He went around and promised people and sold people a bill of goods. People wanted to hear that because they don’t want their jobs leaving already economically depressed areas. Here’s this guy that they see as a successful businessman. You know, oh, Trump he’s a multi-millionaire… He has this persona that he’s such a great businessman and I think a lot of people mistakenly thought and believes he was going to come in here and was also going to make ‘em squeal.
(Editor’s note: The interview covered additional topics, including Graham’s approach to the climate crisis. For more information about her views on issues, click here).