Our 2002 column on how Iowa’s Steve King, the controversial congressman, got his political start

U.S. Rep. Steve King, the 8th term Republican congressman from rural northwest and north central Iowa, is all over the news again, for more public remarks that many consider bigoted and racist. That has prompted requests for us to re-publish our column from 15 years ago, when King was just arriving on the national scene.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

STORM LAKE, Iowa, Oct. 30, 2002 — Sixteen Buena Vista University students, all active members of the College Republicans chapter on the campus, showed up for their annual Halloween week pumpkin carving party Monday evening. So did Steve King.

I swear, the guy is everywhere.

King, 53, a Republican who lives outside Kiron (pop. 273), is “the fiscal and social conservative” who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa’s newly-redrawn fifth district.

He reminded the BVU students “there are 59,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in this district,” which he said couldn’t have been drawn any more favorably for him if he’d done it himself.

King has become one of Iowa’s most widely-known political figures – a hero to the right, a demon to the left – in his stormy six years in the Iowa Senate, where he has represented a very rural and conservative little patch of west central Iowa.

Congressman Steve King CNN photo LARGER.jpg

King is shown in this current CNN photo.  In this spring of 2017, he is 67 years old and now serving in his eighth term in the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa’s 4th District, which includes west central, northwest and north central Iowa. Again, this column you’re reading was first published in 2002.

He fathered Iowa’s new “Official English” law. He also authored the unsuccessful “God and Country Bill,” which was a noisy hoorah about the American way, free-enterprise capitalism and biblical values, as well as an attempt to end the requirement that Iowa’s school children receive a multi-cultural, non-sexist and global education. He successfully sued Gov. Tom Vilsack to block the governor from prohibiting discrimination against gays, lesbians and the transgendered in the state’s executive branch.

He told the students he was “labeled by the Des Moines Register as Iowa’s most politically incorrect state legislator, and I’m very proud of that.”

King is running against Paul Shomshor, a 35-year-old conservative Democrat and accountant who has served on the Council Bluffs city council. Shomshor, who has run a low-profile campaign, to put it gently, has not conceded the race, but nearly everyone else has.

Meanwhile, King has been running like Shomshor should have.

King stunned his campaign staff in his victory speech at the fifth district special nominating convention in Denison in late June when he announced he would visit all 286 incorporated towns in the district before the Nov. 5 general election.

He completed that “No Town Left Behind Tour” last Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. Where did his marathon effort finish? In the town of Marathon (pop. 302), of course.

“The 286 towns doesn’t count the unincorporated places,” he told me. So, did he visit those little crossroad villages, too? “All that I could find,” he said. “I couldn’t pass them up. I’m probably the only person alive who’s visited all those places.”

He said the three weeks he spent visiting communities in the southern two tiers of counties – those nearest the Iowa-Missouri border – “really weighed me down. The reason is that when I was going to college at Northwest Missouri State, I’d drive back and forth through a lot of those towns. I had fraternity brothers and other friends from those places, and I’d go up there hunting. So I have a good memory of what kind of vitality those towns had back in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Now there are a lot of empty streets down there. In some of the places, they don’t care. They say they like the tranquility and they don’t want to do anything to change it. Those that feel that way will experience the ultimate tranquility, I’m afraid.”

Though I am now a Republican, and as much an advocate for western Iowa as King is, I’m certainly no King fan. He knows it.

If he hadn’t known it previously, he learned it in the column I wrote about that special nominating convention. I reported that while most in the crowded Denison High School auditorium cheered when King mentioned his “Official English” bill, I booed – loudly and alone.

We subsequently exchanged civil e-mails, and he told me that column “makes it clear that, even though we speak the same language, we don’t understand each other. My best hope as a potential subject of any future articles is that we do.”

He also wrote, “I have found that vigorous disagreement on issues is seldom a personality conflict. In my time in the Senate, I have enjoyed the sincere friendship of many who go to political battle on a daily basis with me.”

We agreed to a get-together out on the campaign trail so that I could ask all the questions I wanted, and we finally made it happen Monday evening.

While the BVU students carved their pumpkins, I got to do a little carving on Steve King.

I wanted to find out just how seedy and mushy it is inside that hard head of his.

After all, if you make a cursory study of him, he is a college dropout who married his high school sweetheart, became a bulldozer operator, a dirt-moving contractor and a political right winger.

And now we’re preparing to send him to Congress?

I’d never heard or read a word about whether King had ever traveled beyond Des Moines and once or twice to Washington, D.C. That worried me, but unnecessarily, it turns out. He has indeed traveled some – even once to Cuba!

He’s scrappy as hell, as we all have learned. He is also well-spoken and generally likable, and he has parlayed all that into a successful legislative career in which he has become a public assailant of a lot of causes I favor. On the other hand, he’s been an effective voice for rural economic development and a strong advocate for delivering high-speed Internet service to businesses and homes in small towns and the countryside.

So there we were, sharing a couch in a BVU hallway.

King more than held his own, which may just mean that his head is harder than mine.

Let’s go back to his own college years, I told him as we began our chat. What was he studying at Northwest Missouri State in Maryville, Mo.? When did he decide to quit, and why?

“Well, I was a math major, but I switched to biology and what I really wanted to become was a forest ranger,” said King, who had graduated from Denison High School in 1967. “In the second semester of my junior year, I sent out letters seeking employment that would give me some experience as a forest ranger.”

He learned most western states were hiring only their own college kids, so he took a construction job in his home area in that summer of 1970. He started making good money as he moved from common laborer to blow torch operator to truck driver to an operator of end-loaders. It was enough money that going back to college became less attractive for the young guy.

Then he learned about a construction opportunity on the Alaska pipeline. He was told he could do six-month tours working up there, with all expenses paid and a promise he could bank $50,000 per tour.

“I figured I could do two tours, have $100,000 in the bank and get a good start in whatever I wanted to do,” King said.

About that same time, he got engaged to the high school girlfriend that is now his wife of 30 years, Marilyn, a kindergarten teacher in the Odebolt-Arthur schools.

So for Steve King, back there in the summer of 1970, it was goodbye college, hello life.

But a court injunction stopped the Alaska pipeline project for a time. Finding himself “on hold for about two years,” King began working in road construction and pipeline construction in Iowa and Kansas, driving bulldozers and big earth scrapers.

In 1975, he started King Construction Company, building terraces and doing other land improvements, mostly for Iowa farmers. Over the next 15 years, he grew that company to a dozen employees using 18 pieces of heavy equipment.

The Kings’ oldest son, David, 26, is running the company now that Steve is full-time on the campaign. Middle son Michael, 24, is a student at Iowa State University. Youngest son Jeff, 23, has taken a leave from his studies at Iowa State and is on the campaign staff.

Steve King said he “always thought I’d go back to finish college. I really regret that I didn’t. You know, I can’t think of another thing in my life that I didn’t finish. I’d never advise college students to quit early like I did.”

It’s rare nowadays, but not unheard of, for a member of Congress not to have a college degree.

In the current Congress, 24 of the 435 members in the House do not have four-year degrees, and two of the 100 members of the Senate do not, according to records of the U.S. Legislative Resource Center. There are 35 members of Congress with master’s degrees and 20 with doctorates.

King said not having a degree has occasionally been a motivator for him.

“As I look back on my own life, the brighter side of this story is that if I’d had a college degree and when things got tough in my business, I’d have probably taken that degree and gone to work for somebody else,” he said. “Because I didn’t have that kind of fall-back position, I had to keep working, solve the problems and keep the company growing.”

There was another factor, a lucky draw in the military draft lottery that made it easier for King to quit college when he did.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Vietnam War was raging. The military build-up reached a point that if you were a healthy young man who was not in college, you likely were going to get “drafted” for service.

If you flunked out or dropped out of college, especially from 1967 until late 1969, you’d promptly receive a letter from the Selective Service System that would begin with the eerie, “Greetings.” In one week’s time, you could go from Big Man On Campus to military basic training, and six weeks later be in Saigon.

As the number of combat deaths grew, however, the draft became increasingly unpopular and ultimately was scrapped.

In December, 1969, the first “Draft Lottery” was held in which all physically able men between the ages of 18 and the mid 20s had their birthdates dropped in a barrel. Then Selective Service officials drew numbers, 1 to 365 for each day of the year. From that point on, when more men were needed, those with the lowest numbers were drafted first. Those with higher numbers were never called.

“I had made a commitment to myself that if I was called, I would serve,” said King. “But my lottery number turned out to be 308, and I never got called.”

Like everybody else in the Denison area, he mourned the deaths in Vietnam of three local soldiers who’d been in high school at the same time he was. He named them, without hesitation, as we talked.

“I’ve been to visit their names on ‘The Wall’ in Washington, D.C.,” he said, referring to the Vietnam War Memorial.

“I’ve also read everything I can get my hands on about Vietnam. I have really studied it. I view that as sort of my penance for not having served there.”

But what was he like in the late 1960s when he was at Northwest Missouri State, a time when protests of the war became almost the norm on many campuses?

“Well, I was not a peacenik, or anything like that,” he said. “We didn’t have much protesting going on at Maryville, but I saw it going on other places. I paid a lot of attention to the war – with all the lives being lost you had to – and I’ve always felt bad about it. I do not believe we lost that war militarily. We lost the will to fight it, that’s all. Had Watergate not happened in the early 1970s, I believe the outcome of the Vietnam War would have been different.”

He was a member of Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity.

“I never really kept in touch with many fraternity brothers or other college friends,” he said, “but it’s funny how many of them I’ve run across during the campaign. In fact, several of them have wound up helping me in their communities.”

Did King get into the long hair and wild fashions of the ’70s like so many others in our generation did?

“Oh no,” he said with a grin. “I always shaved and cut my hair. I did let my sideburns grow a little longer, and I was wearing a mustache when we got married, but that’s about as wild as it got for me.”

How would he have been labeled politically back then?

“I suppose some of them probably would’ve called me a ‘redneck’,” he said.

He never was a liberal, to be sure. It was beyond his genetic make-up, apparently.

King’s ancestors were Irish and German on his father Emmett King’s side of the family. They were Welsh on his mother Mildred Culler King’s side, and her family has been in the U.S. from the colonial era.

King says his mother’s family “had a blood relationship to some of the founders of the Republican Party. I’ve always been proud of the fact that John Whiting, my grandfather to like the fifth power, or something like that, was instrumental in the nomination of Abraham Lincoln. My mother’s family, going way back, were very conservative and they were strict abolitionists on the slavery issue.”

Steve, born in Storm Lake, has two brothers and two sisters. Their father Emmett died several years ago, and their mother Mildred King recently has moved into a retirement home in Storm Lake.

Emmett was an employee and later a manager in Iowa’s state police radio system, and his job had the family moving to new state assignments at radio bases in Storm Lake, then Belmond, then Denison and eventually back to Lakeside, on the east end of Storm Lake. Emmett served a time as mayor of Lakeside.

The Kings were Methodists, and Steve remained one the first 17 years after he married Marilyn, a Catholic. But he attended the Catholic Church through those years.

“I finally became a Catholic 13 or 14 years ago,” he said. “I took me that long to be ready. A change like that is not something I took lightly. I had to feel it and believe it before I could do it.”

He’s never known much racial or ethnic diversity, or lived close to it.

He recalled Denison High School having only two African Americans, the Johnson brothers, as students when he was there in the mid-1960s.

Incidentally, their father Ike Johnson vouched for King in September, when an African American man in Council Bluffs, a Democratic Party activist, said King had made a racially insensitive remark when they met during a campaign event. King denied the allegation, and the Democrats then seemed to back away from their charge.

The large number of Southeast Asian and Latino people who came to Denison and Storm Lake, first as refugees and then later to work in meat packing plants, came after King was out of school, in business and living on a farm between Kiron and Odebolt.

Is he aware that he is often labeled as being “anti-immigrant” now?

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I know that.”

But he said that’s inaccurate and unfair.

I reminded him of his “Official English” bill, the “God and Country Bill” and his harsh comment in a letter to western Iowa editors after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: “Preferential treatment and the obsession with the elevation of every third world culture to the status of our American Civilization are silenced for now and hopefully forever.”

So, how does he feel about immigrants?

“Anybody who comes to this country legally, I’m all for,” he said, “and I think we should all support legal immigration. But I do think we need to secure our borders. I think we need to take a serious look at our immigration policy.”

How does he view those from other cultures and countries, if they are here legally?

“I have a very strong, profound belief that we are all God’s children,” King said. “And I believe that God doesn’t draw distinctions between us to favor one race over another, or to favor men or favor women. We are all equal in God’s eyes.

“That has led me to advocate equal rights for everybody, and by virtue of that, no special rights for anybody.”

He said he enjoys “all the different cultures we have here now. Just look at it in terms of food alone, if you want to. I was raised pretty much on plain meat and potatoes. The variety of all the different kinds of food that other cultures have brought here is great.

“The cultural differences we have add to the richness of our life, and we should study them and celebrate them. But I come into this thing from the viewpoint that there are a lot of things that divide us as Americans, and a lot of multi-cultural efforts seem to divide us rather than unite us.

“When we first started to see multi-culturalism, I was in favor of it. But I now see it often being used as a political tool to divide us, and that concerns me. I like diversity of cultures and peoples, but we also need to recognize there is a greater American culture that unites us. It’s fine to celebrate the individual cultures we come from, but it can’t hinder the greater American culture.”

King said much of his understanding of immigration today, and the way Americans are reacting to it, has come from the writings of Thomas Sowell.

Sowell is a senior fellow at The Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. He is African American, was born in the South and grew up in Harlem. He is a graduate in economics from Harvard, earned his master’s in that field at Columbia University and his doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago.

He is a widely known and quoted conservative whose books include a 1996 work, “Migration and Cultures: A World View.”

King said he has “been through Sowell’s book on immigration forward and backward at least three times. It’s got the basic fundamentals that the public needs to have to be able to understand new immigrants and all they go through. It takes you from the first arrivals from other cultures, generally the young men, then on to when they bring their families and finally to when they really begin to assimilate into the American culture.”

King said that, if he is elected, he will work to help new immigrants who are here legally.

“I stress personal relationships with people in politics, and I hope to stop in those communities that have a lot of new immigrants,” he said. “I want to let the people know I’m accessible to them, and that I want to help them realize the American dream.”

Part of that is his insistence on having English be “our common language.

“My feelings on that really go back to when I was in eighth grade and we studied Noah Webster,” he said.

“Webster looked at all the enclaves in the colonies of people who had come from different cultures. There wasn’t as much travel then, and he saw differences developing in language and spelling from one community to another. He wrote the American English dictionary with the sole purpose of bringing the American people together. He saw a common language as the most powerful unifying force known to man, and that’s been my belief today.”

He said some have turned his stand on having an “official” language “into a race thing, unfortunately, and it’s not a race thing for me, not at all.”

He also said he tells students that “it’s a real asset to know another language, and I wish I could command several of them myself.”

I was relieved to learn that King has indeed traveled some, and in recent years. I don’t know how you could serve effectively in Congress without at least some perspective that comes only from experiencing other nations and cultures.

King noted he was on an Iowa trade mission to Hong Kong and Singapore three years ago. He traveled to Cuba in May of 2001 on a “People to People” trip. He has “been to Mexico but only just across the border,” and he has “been all over Canada for scenery and on vacations.” He also has driven most of the U.S.

He called his international experiences “real eye openers” and said he intends to travel more.

“I don’t claim to be a foreign policy expert or a defense policy expert,” he said, “but I’ve started up that learning curve now. I’ve always been a big reader, and I’m now reading everything I can get my hands on about international relations. I’m learning it, and I’m realizing how much more I have to learn.

“I already know the first trip I’m going to take, if I’m elected. That will be to Israel, and I hope to go as soon as next spring. As much as I’ve studied that conflict, I feel like I can’t understand it fully until I get there and actually see the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the other areas.”

He said his reading has always been heavy on history, sociology and economics.

“I’m always trying to understand the formulas people use to make the decisions they do,” he said. “That’s fascinating to me.”

The formula that helped King decide to get into politics in the middle 1990s was related to his business.

He had dealt with plenty of government regulation in his soil conservation work, and he became active in the Iowa Land Improvement Contractors organization. He went to Des Moines to testify for that organization in a hearing held by the Iowa Senate’s Natural Resources Committee.

He said he prepared for two days for his presentation, and he was allotted 10 minutes for it by the committee chairman.

“I was three or four minutes into it, and then Senator Al Sturgeon, a Democrat from Sioux City, interrupted me with a six-minute question,” King said. “Right when he got done, the chairman said my time was gone.

“After two days of preparation, and all I put into it, they didn’t show me any more respect than that. When I walked out of there, I promised myself, ‘I’ll be back!’ ”

Sturgeon, now in private law practice in Sioux City, remembers it a little differently.

“Steve came in to that committee hearing wanting to dam up everything, and I asked him some tough questions,” he said. “I did not ask him a six-minute question, but it might have been a six-minute exchange. When you go into a committee hearing like that, you’re a witness and you’re testifying. You’re fair game, and they were fair questions I asked.”

Sturgeon sighed, and then continued.

“I do feel guilty as heck if I had a role in spawning Steve King’s political career, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “But I kind of think Steve would have gone ahead and jumped into politics anyway, don’t you?”

King came back to the State Capitol, just as he had promised himself he would, after he handily beat a 24-year incumbent for his state senate seat in 1996. He won re-election in 2000.

And now he’s most likely on his way to Congress.

Why did he run so hard during this campaign – visiting all 286 towns, accepting every interview, sending dozens of mailings, advertising widely, all as if he were in a neck-and-neck race?

And just look at the next couple of days on his schedule: He has Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, of Illinois, appearing for him today, Oct. 30, in Council Bluffs. And on Thursday, Oct. 31, Vice-President Dick Cheney is scheduled to campaign in Sioux City for King and others on the Republican ticket.

Why?

I don’t think would-be Congressman King is just running in this general election of 2002.

He’s running for years to come.

And I’m trying to deal with that.

You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.

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