Running rural in the new Iowa House District 76

Rep. Dave Williams, an introduction

State Rep. Dave Williams (D-Cedar Falls)

One local Iowa House district is set to be essentially turned inside out in 2023 as a result of redistricting that affects both Traer and Dysart residents – thereby putting a new face on the horizon for rural voters, state Rep. Dave Williams, a Democrat from Cedar Falls.

Williams currently represents Iowa House District 60 – a mostly urban-suburban seat centered in Cedar Falls that is set to become the new Iowa House District 76 following the general election on Nov. 8, 2022.

The new District 76 will encompass some of the former urban parts of Williams’ current district along with the additions of Clark, Perry, Geneseo, and Buckingham townships in Tama County including the towns of Traer and Dysart (currently represented by Rep. Dean Fisher, R-Montour) and three rural townships in northwest Benton County including the town of Mount Auburn (currently represented by Rep. Thomas Gerhold, R-Atkins).

Williams is the only incumbent residing in the new House District 76 and he has chosen to run for reelection later this year for the remade statehouse seat.

While the landscape he will be running amidst is mostly rural as opposed to the urban-suburban seat he was elected to in both 2018 and 2020, that’s not something Williams is necessarily fretting over – quite the contrary, via public statements and in a recent interview with the Telegraph he said he welcomes the change.

Rep. Williams' current district, Iowa House District 60.

“The district in which I reside will be changed drastically for the 2022 election,” Williams wrote in his most recent legislative newsletter. “My current address places me in House District 76 and I’m not planning to move. While such a major change means I’ll be getting to know and represent a different set of constituents leading up to the 2022 election, my background, perspectives, and committee assignments will still be a good fit.”

A self-described lifelong learner who put himself through engineering school at Iowa State University by working for John Deere via a cooperative education program, Rep. Williams hails from rural and small town Iowa.

“My story is not that different from the stories of [Telegraph readers]. I was born in Fort Dodge, while my family lived in Dakota City – the smallest county seat in the state. All my dad ever wanted to be was a pig farmer. He left the farm – he and my mom – when I was an infant, to take a job in town.”

Williams’ father was the Dakota City town policeman for a spell, he said, before moving on to “run the street maintenance equipment” and then taking a job with the local rural electric cooperative, Corn Belt Power Coop.

“Those organizations [RECs] are near and dear to my heart,” Williams said. “Corn Belt built another power plant and then [my dad] accepted a transfer up to north Iowa.”

The new Iowa House District 76.

The Williams family subsequently moved twice more through the years – both times to assume ownership of a small town grocery store.

“We lived in three different places around Iowa before I left for college. … I went to two different high schools. You think back to forks in the road, I was very fortunate. … I was pretty good in school.”

Following his college graduation, Williams immediately left Ames for Moline to work full time for Deere as a mechanical engineer – but he didn’t stay an engineer for long.

“Five or six years in, I moved into leadership [at Deere]. I didn’t retire as an engineer, but I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’m the only professional engineer in the [Iowa] House. … I had the opportunity to work in a lot of different areas at Deere. I had good relationships with both the people on the floor as well as senior management.”

Williams said those relationship and problem solving skills quickly became his trademark at Deere.

“I enjoyed working with everybody.”

Williams eventually transferred from Moline to Waterloo in 1979 during the tractor assembly factory construction and he’s been in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area ever since, retiring from Deere in 2008.

Since first being elected to the Iowa statehouse in 2018 – by unseating Republican incumbent Walt Rogers by a razor thin margin of 234 votes – Williams has championed several pieces of bipartisan legislation he’s particularly proud of including the recent Broadband Bill – Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant Program – under which Farmers Cooperative Telephone Co. in Dysart was a grant recipient.

“Being involved in the rural broadband initiative would be the thing I’m most pleased with,” Williams said. “The ag committee – we didn’t get a lot of bills through committee [last session], but I’m proud of the fact that I could be involved with subcommittees where I could bring my [Democratic] caucus along. I’m a middle of the road person.”

Williams said “the very staunch environmental activists” are sometimes not too happy with his viewpoints.

“We have to understand where we are. This is an ag state – you’re not going to flip a switch and solve all the problems, by making huge step changes.”

Williams said he prefers to address ag issues with “incentives rather than with a stick” and cited his work on a bill addressing anaerobic digesters as another piece of legislation he’s proud of.

“Environmentalists didn’t like [the anaerobic digester bill] because it allows confined operators to stay in business. That would be an example where I’m an issues person – the other Democrats weren’t too happy with me, but I think it was the right thing.”

Williams’ past work as both board member and president of Cedar Falls Utilities – as well as his dad’s work for Corn Belt Power while he was growing up – has made him a strong advocate for utility issues including solar tax credits and keeping utility rates moderate, he said.

During the course of his conversation with the Telegraph, Williams mentioned Traer Municipal Utilities as an entity he has kept track of over the years via his advocacy work.

But at the end of the day, Williams will be running in a completely remade landscape this next election. After winning by such a slim margin in 2018, his subsequent 2020 win over Republican Ryan Howard was also a nail-biter – he won by just 476 votes.

The most rural precinct in Williams’ current district – which includes Lincoln Township in Black Hawk County as well as the town of Hudson – might possibly be indicative of the race ahead in the remade district.

Williams lost the Black Hawk/Hudson/Lincoln precinct both times to the Republican candidate by a roughly 20 point margin, but he said he is still planning to campaign as he’s done in the past for the new mostly rural seat.

He still plans to knock doors – whether those doors be rural, small town, or urban – and his reasons for running for office in the first place still resonate, he believes, no matter what the makeup of the district.

“Going door to door I think is critical. Really vital. You need to meet people where they are. Show people you’re interested. Engage.”

Williams said he doesn’t necessarily buy into the so-called “urban-rural divide.”

“The issues might be slightly different [between urban and rural], but they’re mostly the same. Mental health, healthcare – those issues are mostly the same no matter where we live. I don’t see a change there. … I serve on the ag committee, so I’m interested in soil health and water quality and spent quite a bit of time with the majority party trying to figure out what to do.”

He also sees his primary reason for running in 2018 – supporting public education – as key to winning in a rural district.

“I’m a big proponent of education – of lifelong learning – so I was watching the continual decline of support for public education at the state level and that’s what got me interested [in running for office]. Private education is fine, but free public education is a real key to our democracy. … The state continues to not fund rural districts properly.”

As of publication, no Republican candidate for the new Iowa House District 76 has declared or publicly made known their intention to run for the remade seat, according to a representative from the Tama County Republican Central Committee. The Telegraph has yet to receive a response from the Black Hawk County Republican Central Committee.