Labor Leader Runs for Iowa Governor on Progressive Populism


(Cathy Glasson for Governor/Youtube)

Cathy Glasson, president of SEIU Local 199 and Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa, at a Labor Day rally. 

Not too long ago, Iowa was a tenuously blue state. From 2007 to 2010, Democrats had unilateral control of the state government, and Iowans voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 by substantial margins. But the tide has quickly turned, thanks to the Tea Party wave and well-funded right-wing groups’ investment in Iowa politics.

The fruits of that political investment have been many. From an all-out attack on the state’s labor laws to steep spending cuts and the privatization of the state Medicaid program, Democrats are scrambling to win back the legislature, and a broad field of Democratic contenders have their eyes on the governorship. One of those contenders is Cathy Glasson, a state labor leader who believes Democrats can once again win in the state by embracing a bold progressive platform.  

It’ll be an uphill battle. In 2010, Republicans won control of the governorship and the state House of Representatives, and Trump won the state by 10 percentage points in 2016—roughly the same margin as Obama’s victory over John McCain in 2008—cementing his presidential victory and reaffirming the Republican Party’s newfound power in the upper Midwest. Republicans also wrested control of the state Senate, giving them full control of government.

Republicans have made quick work of advancing their conservative policy agenda. Last year, Governor Terry Branstad privatized the state’s Medicaid program. With the help of the state legislature, Branstad led a swift crackdown on worker rights in early 2017. Behind closed doors, and with an Americans for Prosperity lobbyist looking on, he signed into law Wisconsin-style legislation stripping public-sector union workers of their collective-bargaining rights. He then signed a law banning Iowa localities from setting their own minimum wages, forcing four of the state’s biggest counties to void their recent wage hikes. And finally, he approved industry-backed legislation dramatically cutting down workers’ compensation benefits. After that, Branstad promptly left his post to work for the Trump administration as U.S. ambassador to China, leaving Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to take his place.

The governor’s rapid-fire attack on the state’s labor laws was the last straw for Glasson, the longtime president of the Service Employees International Union Local 199, one of the largest nurses unions in the state. She’s now jumping into the Democratic field. “I’m not the type of person to sit back,” Glasson told the Prospect in an interview after officially launching her campaign last week. “I’m sick and tired of working people in our state getting beat up.”

On the heels of a statewide “listening tour,” Glasson launched her campaign on a platform of unabashed progressive populism, including a statewide $15-an-hour minimum wage, restoration and expansion of union rights, tuition-free community college, and the repeal of costly corporate tax breaks. “If we talk to Iowans about the bread-and-butter issues they care about, which is making a decent living, paying their bills, not going broke sending kids to college, and having health care that won’t bankrupt you, those will resonate with any Iowan who cares about families and the future of the state.”

Glasson’s campaign comes at a time when Iowa Democrats, along with Democrats across the country, are lost in the wilderness, having seen their state-level power diminished to near unprecedented levels. There’s a fervent debate among the party’s various factions about what lessons should be learned from the 2016 elections and about how the party should win its way back to power. Some say the party needs to make a few adjustments in its messaging and better cater to different parts of the electorate; others say it’s time for a comprehensive embrace of big, bold politics that throw the old Democratic playbook out the window.

Glasson helped lead SEIU’s robust political efforts supporting Hillary Clinton, whom the union endorsed early on, in the close Iowa Democratic primary against Bernie Sanders. Now, her campaign reflects the aspirational agenda that Sanders ran on in his presidential bid, which has since pulled the national party leftward.

“There's a debate in the Democratic Party about how to win in Trump era. The bottom line is we can’t move forward using half-measures and tinkering around the edges on issues,” she says. “We need a bold progressive movement. We’re gonna lose in 2018 if we don’t give people a reason to stand in line to vote again—that reason is single-payer, $15, and union rights.”

She rejects the notion that Democrats should walk on eggshells in red states like Iowa by avoiding ambitious progressive policies like a $15 minimum wage. “If you look at the statistics, one-third of our families struggle to pay the bills every month. That’s because two-thirds of the jobs in the state pay less than $20 [an hour],” Glasson says. “Iowans I’ve been listening to can’t pay bills on two or three jobs. Politicians in Des Moines don’t have guts to fix the system they broke. Iowans are fed up, but ready to vote for change.”

Glasson is also not shy about her support for Senator Bernie Sanders’s new Medicare for All bill, or for her push to make Iowa a leader on the issue while the bill’s near-term prospects are stalled at the federal level. “I came out bold on universal single-payer health care and I will stick to that,” she says. “Iowa should and can lead on universal single-payer. That’s what we’re talking to Iowans about, and it’s resonating.” She decries Branstad’s record on health care, including his defunding of Planned Parenthood, which forced the closure of four clinics, and his privatization of Iowa’s $5 billion Medicaid program, which she says has devastated the state’s health-care system by paying providers less, reimbursing hospitals late, and forcing taxpayers to bail out the private health-care companies.

From a small town in the northwest corner of the state, Glasson got her nursing degree from the University of Iowa in 1982 and has worked in health care ever since. In 1998, she helped lead a union organizing drive of about 4,000 employees across the University of Iowa hospital system and became president of the SEIU Local 199 soon after.

Though the gubernatorial primary is still a year out, Glasson joins an already-crowded field of at least eight contenders vying for the Democratic nomination, including businessman Fred Hubbell, former state party chair Andy Maguire, and State Senator Nate Boulton.

Boulton is a labor lawyer, the son of a longtime United Steelworkers union official, and was one of the most vocal lawmakers opposing Branstad’s labor-law rollbacks. He has carved an early position as organized labor’s candidate, winning early endorsements from about 20 unions, including AFSCME Council 61, perhaps the most powerful union in the state. Boulton’s more-tempered campaign attempts to balance his progressive pro-labor agenda with fiscal moderation. Meanwhile, it’s anticipated that the state SEIU will get behind Glasson. Last month, the national union announced a new $100 million political program for 2018 aimed at electing Democrats and advancing progressive politics in Midwestern and Rust Belt states.

Glasson is just the latest labor activist to run for office. Randy Bryce, a Wisconsin union ironworker, went viral over the summer when he launched his campaign to run against House Speaker Paul Ryan, pledging to bring a voice for working people to Congress. Perhaps this is a sign that labor unions will recruit more of their activist members and leaders to run. “If progressive labor shows the flag, someone may actually salute,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “In Iowa and elsewhere, the failure of the labor left to put forward a bold alternative has been a defeat in and of itself. Win or lose, progressives must speak for themselves and thereby crystallize a real opposition.”

Glasson’s campaign will be a clear test of the political potency of bold economic progressivism, which many on the left argue Democrats must whole-heartedly embrace if they’re to win back power not just in Midwestern states, but beyond.

“We can't stand in the center,” Glasson says. “That’s a losing strategy.”

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