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An Iowan for Iowans

Nielsen to stress Midwest belief system, public education if elected
MORE PHOTOS Amy Nielsen

NORTH LIBERTY– Amy Nielsen thinks North Liberty is the best place to live in Iowa, but she’s willing to make Des Moines “home” part of the year if voters choose her to represent Iowa House District 77 at the polls on Nov. 8.
“We have just about anything you could want or need right here,” said Nielsen. “I’m sure there are other places where people are proud of their community, but I just feel it so strongly here in North Liberty.”
District 77 encompasses all or parts of Oxford, Tiffin, Swisher, Shueyville, Lone Tree, Iowa City and North Liberty, as well as several surrounding townships. Nielsen is running against Republican Royce Phillips to replace current state legislator Sally Stutsman (D).
In the June 7 primary election, Nielsen defeated opponent Abbie Weipert by 284 votes, receiving 667 votes (63 percent), while Weipert received 383 (36 percent).
Philips clinched the Republican nomination by overcoming Paula Dreeszen, with 198 (72 percent) of the total 275 votes.
Nielsen, who became North Liberty’s first female mayor in 2014, said her experiences in city government would help her succeed at the state level.
“I think that I’ve proven in the almost two years that I’ve been mayor that I can get the job done,” she said. “I’ve accomplished the goals that I promised to accomplish when I ran for mayor. I just don’t take no for an answer.”
Her most noteworthy triumphs as mayor, she said, were championing the city’s public transit system, which launched in October, making sure North Liberty stuck to the Johnson County minimum wage increases, and supporting a future dog park.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is I seem to have been able to make people believe that their local government should be accessible to them and that their thoughts are important and needed,” she added.
A native of Keokuk, Nielsen graduated from Iowa City West High but moved out of state before returning to Johnson County in 2007 to raise her kids in Iowa. She said she hopes to represent the Iowa belief system, if elected.
“I guess if you’re born here and you grow up here, there’s just something about living in Iowa and I don’t know if I can quantify it. But you feel it. I’ve always felt extremely proud to be from Iowa,” she said.
Winning higher office would require Nielsen to turn in her keys to the city– which will call for either an appointment or special election to fill her term– and, of course, see her husband and three children less.
“We sat down as a family and talked about it and explained to them what it would mean, that mom would be gone three days a week for four to five months and they would have to pick up a lot more things that I take care of, and they all said that it was important and it was worth it and they would happily chip in,” said Nielsen. “I think my kids have a very healthy understanding of what it means to work in the community and work to help other people.”
That’s what it’s all about, said Nielsen– community. And, she wants to help North Liberty and Iowa better serve its residents if elected.
“I decided to run just because of all the things that I see that I think should be fixed or made better,” she said. “That’s just kind of who I am inherently. When I see a problem, I figure out a way to fix it.”
The key issues facing District 77 and Iowa, she said, are public education, infrastructure and access to mental health care.
“What the governor has done over the last year I think is just shameful,” she said.
In 2015, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was instrumental in the closure of two state mental health institutes and, earlier this year, supported a recommendation by the Iowa Department of Human Services to close a mental health unit in Independence.
A 2016 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center found Iowa has just 64 beds, compared to 149 in 2010, for the roughly 80,000 adults with severe mental illness living across the state. That equates to about two beds for every 100,000 people, when a minimum of 50 beds is considered necessary, according to the report.
Iowa receives about $3.3 million in federal block grant mental health funding each year.
Nielsen said an increase to education funding is another thing she’d fight for as a state legislator.
“I’m very concerned about the direction our public education is going,” she added. “If you have a declining enrollment, then your funding is also declining but your costs aren’t declining. Even the growing districts like Iowa City and Clear Creek, even though they’re growing and their tax base is increasing, they’re still feeling the sting of the underfunding even though their populations are rising. It’s an issue all across the board. It’s not a matter of growth versus non-growth. It’s a matter of we’re not funding our public schools, period.”
She clarified she’s against taking money from education to fund state water quality initiatives, a proposal by Governor Branstad that failed to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate during the 2016 legislative session.
“Yes, water quality is a huge issue that we need to address, but we can’t take from one to give to the other,” she said. “Education is equally as important, and they’ve been underfunded for the last several years and to take even more from them would just be catastrophic.”
Iowa lawmakers, last meeting early this year, approved a 2.25 percent increase in state aid for school districts which was a compromise between the 4 percent Senate Democrats wanted and the 2 percent House Republicans offered.
As for water quality, Nielsen said a mix of user fees, voluntary measures by farmers and actions by municipalities should be used to help curb nitrates in the water system.
“It’s not a new problem, but it’s a problem that we’re newly trying to address. So it needs a new revenue,” she said. “It’s a big problem that’s going to need to have multiple solutions.”
Although an increase of three-eights of 1 cent to the state sales tax was proposed by some in the Iowa Senate last legislative session, it failed.
Nielsen said she is willing to work across the aisle if elected.
“It’s the only way you get things done, is to work with the people that are there and elected to represent their communities, and every community places a value or prioritizes a value differently than another,” she said. “It’s important that we’re able to talk to each other and work things out.
“There are times to compromise and there are times to stand your ground,” she added. “I think that knowing when those times are and being flexible and at the same time when it’s important to stand up to people, that’s the way you have to do it.”
As of Oct. 21, about 20,500 voters were registered across District 77, with 7,783 (38 percent) identifying as Democrats. Republicans accounted for 5,355 voters (26 percent) and 7,268 (35 percent) identified as no party.
Nielsen said she’s worried about a drop-off in voter turnout due to dissatisfaction among voters concerning the presidential election.
“The mess at the top of the ticket sure has had an impact all the way down the ballot to the state house,” she surmised. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who are fed up and they didn’t want to vote at all.”
According to turnout reports by the Johnson County Auditor, 3,721 District 77 ballots were returned in early voting, as of Oct. 27. The majority 1,969 were from registered Democrats, 853 from Republicans, 877 no party, and 22 from either the Green or Libertarian parties.
In Johnson County, 21,423 ballots– roughly 24 percent of the total 90,000 registered voters– had been returned. (About 29,000 had been requested.) In the 2012 presidential election, nearly 58 percent of votes in Johnson County were cast early and the county saw a total 83 percent turnout.
“I think that the number of people who are fired up and motivated to get out and vote outnumber the people who are fed up with the race,” Nielsen added.