When Democrat Abby Finkenauer decided to challenge two-term Republican Rep. Rod Blum in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, she didn’t do it on a whim. Unlike her fellow freshman millennial congresswomen, Finkenauer had been laying the groundwork for her House run — perhaps consciously, perhaps not — since she was in middle school. At 16, she worked in Washington as a congressional page. At 24, she was elected to the Iowa state House. And at 29, she was elected to the U.S. House, becoming the second-youngest female member in history. Her district covers much of northeastern Iowa, including Cedar Rapids and Dubuque.
I spoke with Finkenauer about running for elective office with student loan debt and being mistaken for a Girl Scout. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: When you were a kid, did you know you wanted to go into politics?
Abby Finkenauer: I wouldn’t say it was ever, “I want to do politics.” But I knew at a very young age that the world was big and there was a lot going on. I knew it was important to be paying attention. My favorite thing in elementary school was getting the Weekly Reader — and then, at age 10, I asked my parents for a subscription to Newsweek, which I considered the “adult” version.
In sixth grade, as the presidential election was going on, we held a mock debate and mock elections.
CK: Where did your political career go from there?
AF: I picked up a piece of paper on a field trip one time that said, “Come live and work and be a congressional page in Washington, D.C.” I didn’t know what a page was, but I applied anyway for the summer of 2006 and got picked. I had never been on a plane before, but off I went by myself to D.C.
I graduated from high school early and immediately was speaker’s page in the Iowa House. That experience was really powerful because, back then, Democrats had complete control of the state — the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion — and we were able to pass some really groundbreaking legislation that year. We added sexual orientation to the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
CK: What made you decide to run for the state House at 24?
AF: I had watched a lot of my high school friends leave Dubuque, or leave Iowa, and not be able to come back home because there were no opportunities. But around [the time I decided to run], there was more and more investment being made in the downtown area ... converting old warehouse buildings into apartments and shops. My community was changing; it was exciting. And then the guy who held my state House seat left to go to Congress. He’d held that seat for 25 years.
I wanted to make sure we continued to do everything we could to make Iowa a place that people didn’t have to leave and a place people could come home to.
CK: As young as you were, was it ever hard to get people to take you seriously?
AF: When I’d go out knocking on doors, I think some people thought I was selling Girl Scout cookies. So sometimes [my age] helped because they would actually open the door.
And sometimes the bar was low. I didn’t hide the fact that I had a bunch of student loan debt and was renting a house and had no money of my own to put into the campaign. ... I didn’t have the picket fence, I wasn’t married ... all of the things. They’d see me and think, “Well, what could she know?” Then I could talk to them about education policy and the importance of investing in trade schools and apprenticeships. Because this was all stuff I’d worked on and I knew.
CK: Did your parents help out with your campaign?
AF: My dad retired right when I started running for state House. So he would drive me around. Knocking on doors, I would be jumping in and out of his Silverado. We got so much time together during that, which was really special. My mom became known for making cupcakes at the meet-and-greets and fundraisers. You kind of just make it a family thing.
CK: Looking back on your four years in the state House, what are you proudest of?
AF: I was in the minority for four years. And oftentimes when you’re in the minority, your vote doesn’t move things as much as your voice does. So I sure as heck made sure that folks in my district knew they were being heard. When [Republicans] came after teachers, correction officers, bus drivers, their pay and health care, all those people knew that I had their backs.
CK: You turned 30 right about a week before you were sworn into Congress. Did that birthday loom large for you?
AF: I wish I could say it did. Maybe I’ll feel differently about 50. But 30 just is … 30.
What I’ve done has never been based on my age. Even now, it’s: “You’re the second-youngest woman ever elected to Congress.” But the age thing has never really mattered all that much. I’m just out there fighting for working families. That’s always been my focus.
CK: What’s it like to be a moderate Democrat right now?
AF: This is so funny — I’m sure you hear that from a lot of people — but I don’t like the labels. I’m not in any of the caucuses: progressive, new Dems, blue dogs.
CK: Are the labels problematic?
AF: I don’t know. Whatever works for other people. But I know what works for me and what works for my district. I don’t fit into a certain mold on particular policy positions.
CK: The whole country will be focusing on Iowa for the better part of the next year. What has it been like to have that focus on your state and your district?
AF: Folks running for president will call; they’ll let me know they’re coming to visit. And I just tell them, truly, I hope you are appreciating the honor that it is to get to come and talk to my friends and family and my neighbors. Iowans are good, good people who care about each other -- folks who work their tails off, who at the end of the day aren’t asking for a whole hell of a lot, just dignity and respect. I think it’s important that anyone coming into my state understands that. They shouldn’t just come and do a rally. They need to come here and have real conversations.