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Political Mercury

Ernst and Braley: bread bags and badly injured dad


A 16-year-old Buena Vista County farm kid died last week in a farming accident. The story led the Sept. 24 issue of The Storm Lake Times. The young man perished near Truesdale when he lost his footing trying to clear a piece of machinery that had been plugged while harvesting corn, the newspaper reported.

At our community newspapers we regularly report deaths and injuries from farm accidents. They are a reminder of the ever-present dangers in rural Iowa’s most important industry.

The risk is reality in rural Iowa. There’s heavy machinery, rough terrain, unpredictable weather, and the sheer weight of commodities and livestock. A seemingly simple error like dipping a tractor wheel too close to the ditch can cause a fatal accident like one we covered recently near Lanesboro.

The men and women in Iowa agriculture are putting their lives and limbs at risk for our way of life.

One man to do just that was Bruce Braley’s dad, Byard, who was severely injured in a fall at the grain elevator where he worked when Bruce was a child growing up in Brooklyn, Iowa. Bruce Braley’s mom worked harder for the family after the tragedy, and so did he.

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Bruce Braley worked construction at the Poweshiek County Roads Department.

Braley waited tables.

And, yes, like his injured dad, he worked at a grain elevator.

But now, abracadabra, and millions of dollars in Koch Brothers money later, Congressman Bruce Braley is somehow too “city” for us? Why? Because he moved to Waterloo, a city whose largest employer is none other than John Deere?

Joni Ernst gets to decide who is a rural Iowan, and who isn’t?

“The way you represent somebody, first of all, is to say, ‘I can represent you because I’m one of you,’ ” said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford. “If you can’t do that, the second level is to say, ‘I’m not one of you, but I understand you.’ And hers is, ‘I’m one of you.’ I said early on, after the primary, I could tell from her first ads, she’s framing this as the wholesome, good, traditional, Iowa country girl against the big city slicker trial lawyer, so I wasn’t surprised to see his problems in rural areas at all.”

Bottom line: if your dad is seriously injured in a production-agriculture accident when you are a kid, you are a rural guy — for life. No one can take that from you. No matter what you say about farmers and Sen. Charles Grassley. No matter where you move. No matter what you do for a living.

Since when did we as rural Iowans outsource our own sense of self? When did we let the Big Lie Machines tell us who we are, who holds our values, shared experiences? Who belongs in town and who doesn’t?

Why is Joni Ernst of Red Oak rural and Bruce Braley of Brooklyn something else?

Advertising. Not a thing more.

“You look at it, they both have similar backgrounds,” U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin told me in an interview after the Senate debate in Indianola. “They both come from small towns. They both worked on farms when they were young. They both went to Iowa State. I mean, the backgrounds are so similar. So the real thing is what do they want to do in the future? Where do they want to take the country?”

That, Harkin said, is where the divergence takes place.

On the issues, and chiefly the ones affecting working-class Iowans and key programs for Iowa farms, like the Renewable Fuel Standard, Ernst and Braley are different. Very different.

She’s a bare-knuckled believer in winner-take-all capitalism (with a little oil-rigging, of course). Braley thinks there’s a role for the federal government in rural Iowa, whether it’s a safety net for the elderly and the farmer, or incentives for commodity-lifting biofuels.

Of course, Ernst did castrate hogs.

“Now, I will hand it to Joni Ernst and her media,” Harkin said. “They have done a good job. Her media has been very, very good. And they have kind of succeeded to some extent in painting her as this wholesome country girl and Bruce Braley as some big-city guy, which is kind of odd.”

Harkin raised the farm accident in Braley’s background.

“If you look at the family history, Bruce had a much tougher time growing up than she ever did,” Harkin said.

Yet, he’s big-city? Privileged?

“He’s about as rural Iowa as you can get, and he has to get that message out there,” said Harkin, who grew up in Cumming.

Ernst, it should be noted, has the additional advantage of being from a county seat town, although she did wear bread bags around her shoes, a frugal strategy to protect footwear against the elements — and something I remember doing as a kid in Iowa in the 1970s, too.

Joni Ernst is a rural Iowan. Period.

But so is Bruce Braley. And his family paid a high price for it at a grain elevator. And yet many of you think you have the right to take his identity from him? Who the hell are you?

You don’t like Braley’s positions on health care and the Renewable Fuel Standard or abortion and the minimum wage or something else? Fair enough. Vote for Ernst.

But don’t make the decision because you think she’s more like us, more rural. That’s just not true.

Can Braley, amid a torrent of advertising rewriting his biography to make him seem like someone who can’t tell corn from beans, cut through the noise and set the record straight with rural Iowans in the next month? Can he be one of us?

“Well, he’s going to have to,” Harkin said.

Can it be done at this point in the race?

burns doug 12-10-25“I don’t think the die’s been cast,” Harkin said. “I’ve looked at polls. I’ve looked at some of the stuff in the polls. And there’s just a lot of undecideds out there. There’s five weeks to go in this campaign, and I’ll tell you, a lot can happen in five weeks.” CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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