Get to Know Progressive Leader Claire Celsi
Interview by Jason Frerichs
- Tell us a little about your background. Where are you from and how did you end up in Des Moines?
I was born and raised in Des Moines and attended Catholic schools for 12 years. I have two siblings – twins. My Mom and Dad worked extremely hard at middle-class jobs to provide for us. I married young and had two daughters, now 26 and 28. I am married to my husband Jim and he has two kids as well, ages 26 and 36. We’re a blended family and still have a lot of family in the area.
We both have aging parents that need our help and kids and a granddaughter who we love to help out whenever we can. I can definitely say that we’re feeling the pressure of the “sandwich generation.” We’re helping older parents navigate senior living decisions, medical care, financial decisions and end of life planning. At the same time, we’re helping our kids get married, spending time with our granddaughter and getting them all settled in their own homes and apartments.
It’s worth noting that we are very lucky. Jim has a good job that provides an excellent living and great insurance. These factors definitely allow me to take time off work to campaign full time.
I own a solo marketing and public relations consultancy and help small businesses, government entities, educational institutions, and non-profits publicize their good news and communicate with their constituents.
It’s this communications background that I believe sets me apart in the race for Senate District 21. I believe that good policy wells up to the government from real people and enlists politicians’ help to solve real problems. I know how to connect with people in the district, learn their views and am good at communicating those views to policymakers and then back to the people again.
- What was your first involvement with the Democratic Party?
My mother has been involved with Democratic political campaigns for as long as I can remember. She got me involved early, handing out homemade buttons for a Des Moines mayoral candidate. In my senior year of high school, our government teachers required us to work on a campaign or do another political project of some sort. Fortunately, Senator Tom Harkin was a Dowling alum and came to our school to speak the same week our assignment was given. He was running for the U.S. Senate and inspired me to volunteer for his first campaign. I signed on and made a lot of phone calls for him from large green and white printed phone lists.
My first vote in a presidential election was proudly cast for Walter Mondale, Geraldine Ferraro and most importantly, Tom Harkin. He won.
After that, I married and went about my life as a young wife and mother. But I never stopped campaigning, advocating and actively trying to shape public policy.
- Why are you running for HD 21?
I ran for House District 42 (half of SD 21) in 2016 and after my loss reflected deeply on the experience. Despite the rough and tumble of the campaign and the personal sacrifice it takes, I decided that it was now or never. There would never be a better time to run again. I had already worked half of the district in my previous campaign and worked harder than any other candidate. I knocked on thousands of doors, had campaign assets like volunteers and fundraising lists as well as the support and encouragement of many people.
In 2017, I worked very hard to help get Renee Hardman elected to the West Des Moines City Council. During that campaign, I knocked on a lot of doors and many people encouraged me to run again. I talked to a group of activist friends who live in the district and they also encouraged me to run again. I had initially intended to run again for HD 42, but after Senator Matt McCoy decided to run for a seat on the Polk County Supervisors, leaving an open seat, I decided to run for the open seat.
In the past 31 years, I have lived an equal amount of time in each of the two house districts that encompass Senate District 21. I moved into 4200 Grand in HD 41 in 1987, moved to Valley Junction in HD 42 in 1988 and stayed until 2001, moved to HD 41 and bought my first home. We lived there for ten years before moving to my current home in 2012, in HD 42.
This is important because the two districts have a different character and political makeup. HD 42 is far more Republican, whereas HD 41 is a little utopia of mostly Democratic voters. I think it’s important for the candidate in this district to understand the dynamics in both districts and know that they have a responsibility to reach out to and connect with both ultra-liberal voters who all agree on every issue – as well as more conservative Democrats and independents who may need to be educated a bit more on the issues.
Due to my previous experience of running in HD 42, as well as experiencing life in both sides of the district, I feel I am much more equipped to run in and represent the people of Senate District 21.
- What issues are you most passionate about?
In the summer of 2015, the Governor vetoed a special one-time $56 million dollar education appropriation that was agreed upon by both parties. He vetoed it in July after all the school budgets had already been submitted certified and implemented. I was furious. I contacted Peter Cownie, my state representative. There was a chance that the legislators could call a special session to overturn the Governor’s veto. Peter Cownie showed absolutely no interest in overturning the veto and it hit me…he did not care about that money not going to public schools. He truly didn’t. It was like a smack in the face. That was the moment I decided to run.
This time, public education is still one of the main motivations for my run for Senate District 21. Right after the 2016 election, I realized that my worst fears could come true. The Whitehouse was controlled by a reckless person. The ideologues were in charge of both houses of Congress. We had an increasingly idealogical Governor who was unencumbered by another election in the future. We had perhaps the most reckless group of State Representatives and State Senators in elected office that have ever sat in those seats. This could be a disaster for Iowans. My gut feeling was correct. Except, the damage was far worse than I imagined.
The 2017 Iowa Legislature wasted no time in slaying the policies that help workers the most. They started with getting rid of collective bargaining, which disproportionately affects teachers, underfunding our public schools and gutting Worker’s Comp. They also took away the right for local governments to set their own minimum wage laws – effectively giving hundreds of thousands of hard-working Iowans a pay cut.
I have prioritized some issues that I want to work on if I am elected, including (in alphabetical order):
Civil rights and justice
Sensible gun control
Jobs and workforce development
Renewable Energy (wind and solar)
- What do you hope to accomplish in the state legislature?
Here are my top legislative priorities, in four categories:
- Healthcare: Reverse Medicaid privatization, fully fund the new mental health bill, provide a public option to Iowans to buy healthcare plans.
- Environment: Immediately prioritize wind and solar energy over fossil fuels. Reopen the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU. Convene a climate summit to address the overwhelming truth of climate change. Pass a new law to help fund sustainable, measurable water quality initiatives.
- Public Education: Fully fund K-12 and Regents public education institutions, provide free tuition for community college for all Iowa high school graduates in good standing.
- Working Families: Reverse the disastrous gutting of Chapter 20. Raise the minimum wage. Restore Iowa’s fair Worker’s comp laws. Implement prevailing wage laws.
- Do you have any political heroes that you try to emulate?
My political hero is Iowa State Senator Rob Hogg. I’ve watched him closely in the past few years and he has made it his business to advance the progressive cause, help candidates and keep people up informed and involved in the political process. I think it’s extremely important for current elected officials to give their time to candidates so that we can get more people elected. If I am elected to this seat, I will give my time and extra financial resources to candidates.
- What makes you the best candidate in this race?
There are three reasons why I think I’m the best candidate.
- I’ve already run in half of the district and have been a tireless advocate for building the Democratic party in our part of the county. I’ve actively helped other progressive candidates run and win.
- I’ve been a strong advocate for public education and helped found and advance the organization Iowans for Public Education. In 2017, I planned the Teachers March, started several city-based chapters across the state and held our first school board forum in the Fall. This year, our group is leading the effort to defeat vouchers in the Legislature.
- I’ve been an active participant in the progressive movement and have attended countless events, meetings, marches and legislative hearing to resist the GOP agenda in our state.