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U.S. Senate candidate Abby Finkenauer says Democrats have the right policies and it's about getting them in front of voters

Former U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer talked with IPR before speaking at a local Democratic party event at Wolfey's Wapsi Outback in Quasqueton, Iowa on April 29, 2022. Finkenauer, who also served in the Iowa House, lives in Cedar Rapids and is one of three Democrats running in hopes to face Republican. U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley in November.
Clay Masters
Former U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer talked with IPR before speaking at a local Democratic party event at Wolfey's Wapsi Outback in Quasqueton last week. Finkenauer, who also served in the Iowa House, lives in Cedar Rapids and is one of three Democrats running in hopes to face Republican. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley in November.

IPR Morning Edition host Clay Masters sits down with another one of the Democratic U.S. Senate candidates for a conversation about federal college loan forgiveness, climate change and connecting with rural voters.

Abby Finkenauer wants to face Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley in November. The former congresswoman almost did not make the primary ballot where she faces two other Democrats next month — a district court judge ruled against her bid to stay on the ballot. The Iowa Supreme Court ultimately overruled the decision that had invalidated three signatures on her nominating petitions. Finkenauer has faced some criticism, even from within her own party, about comments she made about that district court judge. IPR asked her on Friday if she regrets those remarks.

“We were accepted by the Republican secretary of state's office at first, then we had GOP operatives do an 84-page challenge to our petitions, which then passed a bipartisan commission. Then these GOP operatives decided to take it to the courts,” Finkenauer said.

“[The judge’s decision] was wrong, and clearly it was when the lower court got overturned by a 7-0 Supreme Court decision,” the former congresswoman, who lives in Cedar Rapids, said. “We followed the law, we are on the ballot, and I think that speaks for itself.”

IPR’s Clay Masters spoke with her before she spoke at a Buchanan County Democrats fundraiser in Quasqueton. Finkenauer lost her reelection bid to the U.S. House two years ago, and she says throughout the pandemic, people have spent a lot of time inside online and not talking to each other.

Clay Masters: I was talking with a longtime Democrat before you got here, and she says this county has changed with the rise of Donald Trump. How do you win that kind of voter back and those that believe the lie that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump?

Abby Finkenauer: In 2020, you know what happened? We stopped talking to each other. We didn't know what to do, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. We didn't know if we could go door to door... what was safe and what wasn't. In the meantime, folks spent a lot of time in places like Facebook. Folks spend a lot of time in places like Facebook, right, that's where they were getting their news; 74 percent of Iowa voters are on Facebook. And so the misinformation was really, really thick. And it is something that in this campaign, I am committed to everything I can do to combat that misinformation piece, but also connect to each other, peer-to-peer again, we have to do that work. Folks don't even know what to believe anymore. Whether it's a fancy TV ads... attacks from here, attacks from there. They don't even know what to believe. And so it's why we have to make sure that we have their friends and their neighbors reaching out. And that's the kind of campaign that we are building. And I truly think important, not just for Iowa, but for our entire country and for democracy to get this piece, right, because we have the right policies, it is about getting them in front of voters.

There was a recent Pew report that was talking about Democratic support for Congress to do something about climate change. Are carbon capture pipelines part of that solution? There's a huge debate taking place right now about the three proposed carbon capture pipelines that have been brought forward in this state. Is that part of the answer?

Well, I'm all for capturing carbon. I think that's important. What I think we need to be looking at when it comes to these projects, in particular, are not just the loudest voices and the biggest donors that you may have some other folks that are in office right now listening to. We've got to be listening to the people of Iowa. I mean, we're talking about eminent domain issues, all of that. And that's something I'm continuing to listen to folks on the ground, and not just the special interests that are involved in it.

What are some of the issues that you think are important as a U.S. senator to address when it comes to combating climate change?

I think it's bigger than just climate change. It's climate chaos. That's how I call it. I represent it, obviously, the city of Cedar Rapids when we got hit with the derecho, which was a Category 4 inland hurricane basically, right, left people without power. And then gosh, they couldn't find gas for generators, if they were lucky enough to have them, you name it, it was terrible. And it's real, right. And folks get that now. Part of it is actually tackling it in a way, even through infrastructure. This is something that I did while I was in the House.

Unfortunately, that infrastructure bill went to the Senate and sat there and it took having a Democratic president to actually get infrastructure done. Thank God they did. Even dealing with things whether you are the way or even building roads and smart systems for our cities, that type of stuff that can be done and should be done and should be incentivized to actually cut down on the amount of carbon out there in the first place. Beyond that, we have to keep investing in our renewable fuels, but also our renewable energy in Iowa. I mean, it is solar, it is wind, it's the stuff that shows up here. And that honestly, Iowa has led the way on for so many years. The other piece, heck even methane capture. That's something that back in 2014, one of the first bills that I talked on the Statehouse floor (Finkenauer represented Dubuque) about was about helping you create tax credits so that you could capture methane on your farm and be able to create energy, but also have a wind farm at the same time. I mean, these are the things that have been happening here, but we need to make sure we're incentivizing more of it.

Where do you stand on student loan forgiveness? Is it a good idea? Is that a slippery slope? How do you come down on the issue?

I'm somebody who's a first generation college grad. Like many of my peers, sitting there with thousands of dollars of student loan debt, whether they went to college here or out of state, they want to move back home and they're not finding the opportunities to do it. They’re sitting with the debt [and] they can't buy a house, they can't do the things that, honestly, you were taught if you do this, if you work hard, you're gonna be able to make it. All of a sudden, higher education has changed drastically. And you have a whole generation of folks sitting there going, ‘what do we do?’

One of the things, again, that I've worked on and intend to continue to do so in the Senate is actually targeted forgiveness. And so where you work, in these areas were in Iowa, in particular, we've had population loss where people want to come back home to where they grew up. Many of them now can, some can work remotely and they can maybe start a small business on Main Street. But we can also then help with the debt forgiveness, by having cities and counties even being a part of it as well, and having federal matching dollars, but bigger than that, we have a huge issue right now, just the way that higher education is structured in this country.

Senator Grassley has been in D.C. for 47 years, watching it all happen, and not doing a dang thing about it. And that's part of again, why I'm running here. You know, when, when he first got elected, I mean, college was not just affordable, it was something, you know, everybody could pay off. I mean, within a few years, that's just the way it was. It is not that way anymore.

It’s part of the problem where you've got these private loans that students have taken out… it's predatory. You can't even refinance your student loans like you can have mortgage. That's a joke that should not be happening in this country, again, something that I have fought for and something that I'll continue to do. It is a bigger problem than just folks who are sitting with debt. It is about what do we do in the future? How do we fix what was broken? Then how do we also make sure the folks who decided not to go to college are in the trades, and we need to make sure we are pushing more folks in that direction. There are good paying jobs where you don't have to have a four year degree where you can bust your tail and work hard to make it. It's what my dad did. And we need to be talking about that as well and incentivizing that work as well.

Masters spoke with Finkenauer last week before the Supreme Court's initial draft opinion regarding abortion leaked. In a statement, Finkenauer said like “millions of women across the country,” the news Roe is likely to be overturned “makes me scared and sick” and “ready to defend reproductive rights.” 

Mike Franken and Glenn Hurst are also running in the Iowa Democratic Party's U.S. Senate primary race. Sen. Chuck Grassley faces a Republican challenger in state Sen. Jim Carlin.

There are several ways to vote in this year's primary you can vote in person at your county auditor's office beginning May 18. You canrequest an absentee ballot anytime up through May 23. It will have to be received by your county auditor by 8 p.m. on primary day, or you can vote in person on June 7.

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.