Electing for Change: Why Vote?


By Aryn Henning Nichols

There are many boards, committees, and political offices that rely on local volunteers. And these positions do so much to guide how your community moves forward. Do you have opinions about things happening in your town? The answer is, very likely, yes. Why not get involved so you can make those opinions better known?

electing_votebuttonNot up for that? It’s cool! You know what’s super easy? Voting. Seriously – you can even get your ballot mailed to you (absentee ballots). And then – if you’re like me and aren’t sure about the lesser-publicized election contests – you can research each candidate and their platforms as you vote. Because it’s those contests down the ballot that often impact your lives and communities even more.

We are so lucky we live in a society where we get to vote – we Americans get a say in how our lives are run (even if it doesn’t always seem like it)! It’s pretty cool.

Looking for a quick and easy reference? Check out ballotpedia.org. Enter your address and it will show you a sample ballot for 2016. Then you can click on the people running and learn what they’re all about. Then click on through to candidates own websites to learn more.

It feels great to make educated decisions, and it feels great to know more about topics that are important to local and state-level constituents. You are one of those constituents! Let your voices be heard, friends. And not just every four years! Pay attention, share your ideas, and together we can all make this community, region, state, country…world…a better place!

XOXO – Aryn

Electing for Change: John Beard

electing_johnbeardJohn Beard

If anyone can attest to the power of a single vote, it’s Decorah-based welder John Beard.

Four years ago, Beard, who currently sits on the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors, lost a hotly contested race for the District 28 Seat in the Iowa State Senate by a razor-thin margin – just 17 votes out of more than 29,000 cast separated him from the eventual victor, Michael Breitbach of Strawberry Point.

“Every vote counts, absolutely,” he says, reflecting on that outcome. “We can never forget the importance of a single vote and the power of public opinion.”

Beard, a Decorah native who spent much of his childhood in New Jersey, grew up discussing politics over the family dinner table. But it wasn’t until 2002 – when Decorah was embroiled in a heated debate over whether to renovate or tear down its historic East Side School­ – that he mounted his first political campaign. While he lost his bid for a seat on the local school board that year, he emerged from the experience convinced that he had contributed positively to the public discourse.

“I really tried to help people think and act more respectfully, and I was given recognition for that from both sides,” says Beard. “That, coupled with a great experience serving as president of Winneshiek Pheasants Forever, made me believe that I could have a positive effect in public office if given a chance.”

electingforchange_logoArea voters gave him that chance in 2008, when they elected him to serve a two-year term in the Iowa House of Representatives. Beard worked hard to cultivate positive relationships with peers in both parties but nonetheless lost his bid for reelection two years later. “I was definitely hoping to build on those relationships to do more,” he says. “We have a great democratic process, but that process does require cooperation, compromise, and respect for one another in order to function at its best.”

In 2014, Beard threw his hat into the ring yet again, this time landing a four-year seat on the five-person Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors, the county’s policy-making body. “We have a function in all aspects of county government and entities that work with county government,” he says, likening the work to running a big business. “We oversee the budget for things like secondary roads and public health, respond to our constituents’ concerns, and plan proactively to ensure that our transportation and utilities are adequate, that our green areas are protected.”

It’s work he thoroughly enjoys.

“What I find so refreshing about working with this group is that there is not even a whiff of partisanship in the board room, “says Beard, the District One representative to the board, which meets Monday mornings year-round. “We have spirited disagreements about things, but they are not along political or ideological lines, and in the end we always get something done, and almost always with a unanimous vote.”

Ask Beard what he loves most about Winneshiek County, and he’s unable to cite just one thing. It’s spending time with his family, including his wife, RoJene; his son, Chance; and his siblings, Daniel and Barbara. It’s exploring the area’s bountiful natural beauty, including the Upper Iowa River and the surrounding bluffs. And it’s learning from the area’s residents ­– in other words, his constituents. “I have traveled throughout the United States, and I have found that some of the best read and most cosmopolitan people live here,” he says. “There’s an open-mindedness, a healthy intellectual curiosity, and I am very much drawn to that.”

Electing for Change: Chuck Gipp

electing_chuckgippChuck Gipp

It makes sense that current Iowa DNR director Chuck Gipp thought he “knew a lot of people” when, in 1990, he declared his candidacy for the District 16 seat in the Iowa House of Representatives.

He was, after all, a Decorah native, a Luther College graduate, an established Winneshiek County dairy farmer, and the chair of the county’s solid waste agency.

But, more than 25 years later, Gipp still vividly recalls the lesson he learned while sitting at his kitchen table, strategizing his inaugural campaign with a political mentor.

“He asked me to take out my local phone book and start reading the names,” he recalls. “Then he said that if I could identify every 10th name, I knew a lot of people…I didn’t get any further than the B’s before I realized I really didn’t know that many people at all.”

Today, Gipp knows considerably more people in Decorah and throughout Iowa. After winning that first campaign, he continued on to claim victory in his next eight. Gipp served a total of 18 years in the Iowa House – including four as majority leader – before deciding not to seek reelection in 2008.

Composed of 100 members, the Iowa House – the “lower house” of the Iowa General Assembly, which also includes the 50-member Iowa Senate – debates and votes on legislation introduced by its members or submitted by the governor, and builds the state’s budget. Members also serve on several standing committees. (Gipp’s top choice of committee assignment when he was first elected? Environmental protection.)

“You must stay connected to your constituents,” he says of his recipe for success. “And part of that is explaining your decision-making process to the people you represent – they still may not always agree with your decisions, but, in my experience, they almost always respect that you thought through the possible choices.”

electingforchange_logoIt was a KOEL radio report about potentially carcinogenic industrial waste being shipped to a Northeast Iowa landfill that set his political career in motion back in 1980.

“The landfill turned out to be the (then privately owned) Winneshiek County landfill, which was just a mile from our farm,” recalls Gipp, who, at that time, was a young farmer raising two small kids, Barrett and Alison, with his wife, Ranae. “Both Ranae and I became very concerned when we heard that news, and we realized that if we didn’t get involved, probably no one else would.”

While leading his neighbors in a successful fight to better monitor the landfill, Gipp assumed chairmanship of the county’s solid waste agency. Soon state lawmakers were urging him to run for office. “If you think you can do the job, and do it well, then you owe it to yourself and your community to step up,” he says of answering that call again and again over the next 18 years.

In 2008, Gipp answered the call (literally) once again when Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, phoned to see if he might be interested in directing the state’s Division of Soil Conservation. He held that position for three years before Governor Terry Branstad appointed him deputy director of the Iowa DNR (in 2011) and then director of the 1,100-employee agency the following year. The agency oversees the state’s treasured natural resources ­– including its eight fish hatcheries and 87 state parks – and is charged with the sometimes difficult work of enforcing environmental regulations created by lawmakers.

“If you inform people what the rules are ahead of time, you can often avoid environmental damage,” says Gipp. “We work hard to let people know what their responsibilities are and proactively work with them to meet them.”

With his 69th birthday on the horizon, this dedicated public servant has no plans to discontinue that work anytime soon.

“I truly enjoy the people I work with and the work I do,” says Gipp, who continues to live in Decorah and commute weekly between his hometown and Des Moines. “The DNR touches more people’s lives than almost any other state agency, and it’s rewarding to be a part of that.”