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Roxanne Conlin Guns for Sen. Charles Grassley's Seat in Macho Iowa

5 years ago
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In Iowa, the political glass ceiling is a tough one to crack.

Only one woman, actress Jean Arthur, has served the state in Congress -- and that was in Billy Wilder's 1948 classic, "A Foreign Affair."

Just ask Roxanne Conlin about that glass ceiling. After serving as one of the first two women U.S. attorneys, she ran for governor of Iowa in 1982. She lost to Republican Terry Branstad, who won 53 percent of the vote. Since then, she's been in private practice and is is one of the attorneys who won a class-action anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft.

Now she's running against GOP Sen. Charles Grassley, who's held his seat for 30 years. She faces a June 8 primary against two other Democrats, but is a favorite to win the nomination. Politics Daily spoke with Conlin at a Des Moines coffee shop May 14 about her latest political attempt.

Politics Daily: Iowa is one of four states that have never elected a woman to Congress (Mississippi, Delaware and Vermont are the others) and one of only two (along with Mississippi) that have never elected a congresswoman or woman governor. Why is that?

Conlin: "I don't know the answer to that. Certainly I have asked about it for decades and worried about it . . . We've had great candidates for Congress . . . We've had great candidates for governor. It just doesn't happen.

"Iowa adheres to very traditional values. We are, historically have been, extremely progressive. It's a conundrum. You have to look at each individual race and look at what went wrong.

"When I ran for governor, about a third of all Iowans admitted to a pollster they would not vote for a woman. That's quite a high hill to climb.

"I never thought that I would be making another run at that last glass ceiling in Iowa.

"I can remember giving speeches in the '60s and '70s on equal pay for women when the differential was 64 cents (for every $1 a man earned), and now it's 78 cents . . . There will be people who will not vote for me because I'm a woman, but they might not know it, they'll have another rationale. The number who will not vote for me because I am female, that's gone down. Did you see that poll where I'm ahead among all women voters by four points?"

Politics Daily: You hope to challenge a relatively popular, long-serving incumbent in Charles Grassley. Why run against him?

Conlin: "It's going to be a high hill. I have climbed a lot of high hills in my lifetime. The times have changed. People are very concerned about what's going on in Washington. They think Washington is broken. I think Washington is broken.

"We want government to work, and Grassley's there and has enormous power and has not used that to make government work or to make government work for Iowans."

Politics Daily: But Grassley is known for taking on some special interests and even voted with Democrats on a financial reform bill in committee.

Conlin: "Here is the problem with the whole watchdog reputation. The watchdog for the drug companies. He writes them insulting letters. But he gave them $400 billion in Medicare Part D . . . I feel certain that they don't mind getting a couple of nasty letters from him. He absolutely supported every attempt to deregulate oil, to deregulate Wall Street.

"You can't be a watchdog of the Treasury if you're head of the Finance Committee when it votes out a totally unbalanced budget, when it spends a surplus into a deficit mostly by giving tax breaks to the wealthy, when it supports two wars, one unnecessary.

"Because he's never had an opponent, Iowans don't know his record. But we're going to help him learn."

Politics Daily: You were one of the attorneys who sued Microsoft. You've got personal wealth -- are you planning to spend your own money?

Conlin: "I've already put a bunch of money in (more than $286,000, according to the Federal Elections Commission). One of the things that moves me and encourages me, and this happens almost every day, is we get an envelope with $3 in it or $5 in it from somebody on a fixed income . . . along usually with an extremely encouraging note. I think I have a duty to put in some of my own money."

Politics Daily: Do you follow Charles Grassley on Twitter?

Conlin: "No. I can't really get critical. I just started on Twitter . . . by accident, I sent out a random photo of one of my cats."

Politics Daily: You won't be using any of Grassley's Twitter feeds in campaign commercials?

Conlin: "We may. Certainly we're going to use his public statements. The 'pull-the-plug-on-Grandma' remark, which he knew was false when he made it. It made a lot of people mad. And it made me mad enough to run against him."

Politics Daily: Is that comment on health care reform really what motivated you to run?

Conlin: "It really was. I really was not planning on ever running for public office again. I really like my life. I was so stunned by that performance. It made me look at whether or not this was doable. I don't want to do futile acts and I don't want to drag all my family with me if there's no hope. And we could tell at that point that there were vulnerabilities. And now, we are being proven right, in the sense that the polls are beginning to reflect what we have known and what we believe will carry us to victory."

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