AFTON — Sen. Joni Ernst told an East Union Community School audience Thursday morning she might be standing in the company of future political leaders.
They just didn’t realize it yet.
Part of her appearance with East Union faculty and students in sixth-12th grades was devoted to appreciation for American liberties and stirring interest in public policy work.
“How many of you want to run for public office someday?” Ernst asked.
Only three or four students raised their hand.
“Everybody who didn’t raise your hand, I was just like you,” said the 46-year-old Republican from Red Oak. “I never thought I would run for public office. If you had asked me five or six years ago that I would be serving in the United States Senate, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Ernst told the students she grew up on a farm near Stanton, the daughter of parents who did not go to college and were not politically engaged.
“There is opportunity out there no matter where you come from, even if it is a small, rural community,” she said.
She explained her drive to serve began as an Iowa State University student, involved in an agricultural exchange trip to Ukraine, which then in 1989 was part of the Soviet Union. She described the primitive living conditions of a family she stayed with on a collective farm.
“They wanted to know what it was like to be able to travel anywhere you wanted to travel without asking somebody else’s permission,” Ernst said. “The family I stayed with on that collective farm had never traveled off that collective farm. They wanted to know what it was like to choose whatever school you wanted to go to. They didn’t have that ability. What they were asking us was, what is it like to be an American?”
Rather than take those freedoms and liberties for granted, she chose to contribute to her country by joining the military. She joined Army ROTC at Iowa State and served 23 years in the Army Reserves and Army National Guard, including a deployment to Iraq in 2003 as a transportation company commander. Her husband Gail served 28 years in the Army Rangers.
“After our trip to Ukraine, I always wanted to be a contributing member advancing our liberties and ideals in the United States,” Ernst said. “Later on, I decided to run for (Montgomery County) public office.”
Ernst served in the Iowa Legislature before her successful run to succeed retiring U.S. Senator Tom Harkin in 2014.
As Ernst encouraged students to think about public service someday, she said having voice for rural America in the federal legislative branch of government is important.
“I will tell you that serving in the United States Senate, there are not many folks who are raised like we’ve been raised on farms and in small communities,” Ernst said. “It’s important that we share our thoughts and ideas with the rest of those in Congress from places like Los Angeles and New York City, because their issues are much different than the issues that we face in rural Iowa.”
While she agrees with some positions of President Donald Trump, such as increases in military spending and border security to complement a sound immigration policy, Ernst said she also differs on some proposed policies because of those rural-urban differences.
Funding for Trump’s increased infrastructure initiative is one example that will be taken up as she serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
“It will be interesting, because his proposal depends a lot on private-public partnerships, which won’t work in the rural areas,” Ernst said. “So, we’re pushing back on that. If you are a private business owner investing in infrastructure because it will help your business, you want to see a return on your investment. Private businesses will not be investing in an Iowa bridge in Union or Ringgold County. They just won’t do that because there is not a return on their investment, like they may have on a toll road in an urban area. So, we’re going to have to find other ways of funding our roads and bridges.”
Ernst said she enjoyed the exchange with East Union students who asked 13 questions on a variety of topics in a 20-minute period after her opening address. She went on to stops Thursday in Mount Ayr, Lamoni, Osceola and Albia. Today she is scheduled for town hall meetings in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.
“The students here in Afton were great,” she said. “It is so good to see the kids thinking about really solid questions. They’re smart. Being in Iowa, you see a lot of politics and you can experience it up close and personal. They were really engaged.”
Maybe to the point of serving someday in office, like the former Stanton High School graduate who never planned on it at their age.