Charles Grassley reflects on his rural roots
Mention the name Charles Grassley, and many Iowans think of politics. It’s understandable, since this longtime U.S. senator was first elected at age 25 to the Iowa State Legislature in 1958, becoming the youngest member of the Iowa House of Representatives.
What Iowans may not realize, however, is how Grassley’s farm background has influenced his viewpoints and his contributions.
“As a lifelong family farmer with a dozen years of factory work under my belt, I’m no stranger to back-breaking labor and appreciation for sweat equity,” said Grassley, 86. “Growing up in America’s heartland has shaped my outlook on life in every way imaginable. Working in Washington, D.C. for more than four decades has reinforced my appreciation for my home state and the people who live here.”
Grassley grew up on a farm near New Hartford in northeast Iowa. After graduating at the top of his class from New Hartford High School in 1951, he enrolled in classes at the University of Northern Iowa, where he earned his bachelor’s degree (1955) and master’s degree (1956) in political science.
He never forgot his rural roots when he was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives and later the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.
“I made a decision when Iowans first elected me to represent them in the U.S. Senate that I wouldn’t wait to come around once every six years for the next election,” Grassley said. “I made a commitment to visit every county, every year, to hear directly from my constituents.”
Grassley values the insights he gains during his annual 99-county tour and takes these perspectives to Washington, D.C.
“By holding a meeting in every county, every year, I let Iowans set the agenda. I’m not in their county asking for their vote. I’m there to learn what’s on their minds and have dialogue. It’s the essence of representative government and holds me accountable to Iowans,” he said.
How long has your family farmed in Iowa?
My father, Louis Grassley, rented farmland after returning from the service in World War 1. He purchased his first parcel of land in 1927 near New Hartford, Iowa. Since then, four generations of my family have farmed in Butler County continuously these past 93 years. My son, Robin, and I farm 750 acres together. He rents and owns other farmland with my grandson, Pat Grassley. My great-grandson, Chance, wants to be a fifth-generation farmer when he grows up.
What did you enjoy about growing up on a farm?
Although it often seemed like the chore list was never finished, we enjoyed the outdoors and natural resources that make Iowa the most beautiful place on Earth. Looking back, nostalgia for simpler times comes full circle when I see my great-grandkids enjoy the same creek and ponds their parents spent their childhoods exploring. Farm families understand that conscientious stewardship and conservation practices today will ensure our children and grandchildren can make their livelihoods on the land and enjoy our way of life for generations to come.
What are some invaluable life lessons you learned growing up on the farm?
After World War II, my parents did double duty to make ends meet. My mother took on upholstery work. Without realizing it at the time, their tireless work ethic made its way into my bones. This trait has have served me well in farming and in public service.
Other invaluable lessons: Don’t procrastinate. Don’t complain. Don’t cry over spilled milk. Don’t stew over a decision. Don’t covet your neighbor’s good fortune. Always tell the truth and keep your word. At the end of the day, you can go to sleep at night knowing your integrity and good name are intact.
How did you make your first dollar?
I baled hay for my neighbors.
How did other jobs shape your outlook on life?
While I was a full-time college student, I punched a timeclock at Rath Packing Co., working the second shift, from 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., five nights a week to pay for my tuition. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay delivers a priceless return. Work brings dignity, pride and purpose.
What motivated you to get into politics?
When I was growing up, my family would discuss politics around the dinner table. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an insatiable interest in government and wanted to pursue public service. Since fifth grade, I remember studying politics and paying attention to foreign affairs, public policy and government. In high school, I set my sights on running for the state legislature.
I realized the two representatives for my legislative district had come from my hometown of New Hartford. If they were able to win election, I thought I might as well try. At age 22, I ran against the incumbent in a Republican primary and lost by 81 votes. I learned a lesson that I’ve never forgotten. Never take a vote for granted. I haven’t lost an election since.
How has politics changed since you started in the 1970s?
Many Iowans believe our culture and politics are more polarized today than ever before. I agree there’s been a shift in political discourse. It’s become less civil and more partisan. The shift can be attributed to media bias and more people choosing to get their information from sources with whom they agree. Although social media connects people, it has also desensitized people to post nasty comments rather than engage in a respectful exchange of ideas. My approach to representative government hasn’t changed. I work to solve problems, not stir the partisan pot.
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
Keep your ears open and listen. A leader who doesn’t listen won’t have any followers to lead.
What is the one behavior or trait that you have seen derail more leaders’ careers?
When politicians forget their roots. Particularly in Iowa, Iowans want to know you haven’t forgotten about them.
What’s some of the best business or life advice you’ve ever received?
It’s never wrong to do the right thing. Whether Iowans agree or disagree with my position, they know I don’t melt under pressure. Between my wife, Barbara’s, steadfast support and my faith in the Lord, I’m never afraid to do the right thing.
Who are some of your mentors?
State Sen. Buster Lynes, of Plainfield,, a lifelong cattleman who served two decades in the Iowa Senate, was my first political mentor. From him, I learned that honesty and integrity are critical traits to be an effective leader.
When I took the oath of office in the U.S. Senate in 1981, I began a decades-long friendship with Bob Dole from Kansas. We teamed up early and often to advance conservative principles and champion rural America every chance we got, from growing the ethanol market to saving tax dollars, cutting federal spending, writing farm bills, expanding markets for farmers and ranchers, saving rural hospitals and revitalizing economies on Main Street. To this day, I miss having my best friend and mentor in the U.S. Senate by my side. ]
What are the most important decisions you’ve made as a leader?
From my leadership positions on the Senate Finance, Judiciary and Agriculture Committees, I have a front-row seat at the policy tables writing tax, trade and anti-trust laws, as well as the Farm Bill. As a member and current chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, I’ve secured tax policies to grow Iowa’s renewable energy industry. I never would have imagined Iowa would produce more than 40 percent of its electricity from wind when I won passage of the wind energy tax credit.
Most recently, I steered passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that delivered historic savings to taxpayers and doubled the estate tax exemption. Estate tax relief gives peace of mind to Iowa families who pass their farms and small businesses from one generation to the next.
I’m one of a handful of farmers serving in the U.S. Senate. I represent the 2 percent of the population that feeds the other 98 percent. It’s my responsibility, along with my fellow farmers, to educate people about where their food comes from. Until my last breath on God’s green earth, I’ll fight for farmers.
How do you continue to grow as a leader?
I can’t overstate the importance of listening and building coalitions to become an even more effective leader. Worry less about who gets credit and more about getting the job done.
Where do you get all your energy?
I’ve learned that staying busy and working hard are rejuvenating. At age 86, many people ask how I keep up the demanding pace of a U.S. senator. I chalk it up to clean living. I live my Baptist faith. I don’t drink, smoke or gamble. At age 65, I took up running to stay in shape. Two decades later, I lace up four times a week for an early morning jog. It clears my mind, maintains my cardiovascular health and gives me extra time for prayer and reflection.