REGIONAL—When Skyler Wheeler of Orange City captured the Republican primary with 44.5 percent of the vote in June, many assumed the race for the District 4 seat in the Iowa House of Representatives was over.
There were no Democrats on the ballot in the heavily Republican district, which encompasses most of Sioux County, and Wheeler had handily defeated Rock Valley mayor Kevin Van Otterloo, who received 29.8 percent of the vote, and Northwestern College science professor Jeff VanDerWerff of Orange City, who garnered 25.6 percent.
However, VanDerWerff announced in August that he would again challenge Wheeler as an independent candidate after garnering enough signatures to be placed on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
VanDerWerff made a splash in his re-entry to the race by having his candidacy endorsed by Van Otterloo, his former political rival. Days later, he held a press conference on the steps of the Sioux County Courthouse in Orange City flanked by a who’s who of prominent local current and former officials.
While Wheeler said he was not surprised VanDerWerff re-entered the race, he said he thought his opponent would do so as a Democrat.
Throughout the primary and general election campaigns, Wheeler has championed himself as the most conservative candidate and has vowed to bring those principles to Des Moines.
This race has made headlines and been subject of much social media chatter for how competitive it has been.
There have been assaults on VanDerWerff’s political views and character from the Sioux County Conservatives political action committee both digitally and in print, which prompted Sioux County GOP chair Mark Lundberg to publicly denounce the PAC and its actions on the organization’s Facebook page:
“Republicans I know typically believe in the open and fair exchange of ideas,” he wrote. “This group violates nearly every form of decency and open debate. The most discouraging thing is that they have twisted and taken out of context many comments. We should be able to have conversation and discussion without attacking or tearing down.”
VanDerWerff and Wheeler have both been incredibly active on their social media campaign pages and have engaged in discussions with potential constituents, each other’s camps and sometimes one another.
VanDerWerff thinks this race has been so heated because it is the first time since 1988 that the House District 4 seat has been wide open. Dwayne Alons served eight terms as the district representative and had been elected for a ninth before dying of cancer in November 2014. His replacement, John Kooiker of rural Boyden, decided not to seek re-election and endorsed Wheeler, as did Alons’ widow, Clarice.
Many thought VanDerWerff or Van Otterloo would have won the primary if the other had not also been on the ballot, and Van Otterloo has since voiced his support for VanDerWerff in the general election.
“Altogether, this contributes to a highly competitive and, unfortunately, contentious campaign,” VanDerWerff said.
On the other hand, Wheeler thinks House District 4 voters already made their choice loud and clear when he was overwhelmingly selected in the primary.
“I do not feel that the general election has been competitive,” he said. “It is unfortunate that my former two opponents of the primary didn’t want to respect the wishes of the majority of the Republican voters in House District 4 and thus have allowed for more division amongst the people of Sioux County. This race, to me, has always been about the issues and nothing else. I am excited to have the opportunity to represent the most Republican district in the state of Iowa.”
Each candidate noted the opportunity to represent House District 4 was one they would more than welcome.
Wheeler hopes to keep this area locked down as a traditional conservative stronghold and wants to bring those values with him to Des Moines. He also thinks his youth and energy would be a welcome addition to the Iowa House.
“We have a culture and a nation that is decreasing morally and is losing respect for the Constitution,” Wheeler said. “I, like many others, have been desperately looking for a strong conservative to take a stand on the issues.
“We had that in Dwayne Alons and Sioux County must continue to send a strong Christian conservative to Des Moines,” he said. “Dwayne Alons wanted a young Christian conservative to succeed him, and John Kooiker has honored that by not running and allowing me to run. My goal is to stand strong for biblical values and to uphold the Constitution.”
VanDerWerff said the support and encouragement he has received from various people in Sioux County, from farmers to elected officials, is why he threw his hat in the ring.
“In many respects, the answer is as simple as wanting to provide voters in November a clear choice: A principled, prepared and proven alternative,” he said. “I’m running because HD4 needs to send a state representative to Iowa General Assembly who knows Sioux County. The value of having been around for a while is not only that a place becomes more familiar and better understood, but in turn those who live there also get a chance to know the individual who is going to serve on their behalf.”
Both candidates were provided a set of questions, which deal with local and state issues and asked to explain what their biggest priorities would be in office.
Answers were slightly edited for clarity and length:
What can be done to improve water quality in Iowa?
VanDerWerff: This is a concern that I must confess was not on my radar to the extent it should have been. I’d read and followed the Des Moines Water Works suit, but it’s been through knocking on nearly 1,500 doors around the district and talking to countless groups — Sioux County Conservation Board — and individuals who either farm and/or hunt that I’ve learned how many are worried about water pollution.
It’s not just the specific threat an unfunded federal mandate poses to agriculture, but the broader impact on wildlife habitat and overall public health and the cost associated with cleaning up the drinking water. Iowans created a fund to address this issue back in 2010, but legislators have not found the will or a way to fund it from the existing operating budget and have not wanted to raise sales tax by three-eighths of a cent — which is/was the trigger or mechanism in the constitutional amendment to provide a revenue stream for this water and land legacy fund.
Both the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Soybean Growers Association as well as the Republican Party of Iowa have shown a new openness this fall to considering this increase.
Wheeler: Des Moines and D.C. like throwing money at problems in hopes that they’ll go away. That will not work here. There are solutions in the works for water quality in Iowa.
One of the ideas I’ve heard is creating an incentive program for farmers to learn the basics of water quality and how they can protect against allowing agricultural pollutants into our waters. There is a proposal put forward that is called “conservation infrastructure” that would cut nitrogen and phosphorous losses, primarily on farms that drain through underground tiling proposed by The Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance.
Iowa Rep. Pat Grassley also has gave a few options for some more funding, including using some money from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund. There is also a solution out there where we’d phase out the sales tax on water that is purchased from a city or a rural water system and replace it with an excise tax that would be specifically targeted to water quality improvement. This is in continual works, and I’m all ears as far as the solutions go at this point.
What are your thoughts on education funding in Iowa?
VanDerWerff: A second issue that clearly needs attention is education funding, particularly when it comes to state supplemental aid — what used to be called “allowable” growth. The Legislature must adhere more closely to the guidelines laid out in the Iowa Code for informing school districts about what they should expect annually in aid so that local board members and superintendents can set their budgets accordingly and make the necessary fiscal decisions.
It also seems, that while educational savings grants — school vouchers — remain less politically palatable as an issue in the Iowa General Assembly, the fact is that bipartisan support has already been won regarding state tax organizations. The issue now is one of far greater demand on this tax credit program for families that wish to send their children to a private or parochial school than there are monies to underwrite it. Timeliness and sufficiency of funding deserve attention and consideration. The former seems something that is entirely up to the Legislature, the latter is also dependent upon the public’s willingness to pay for it.
Wheeler: Education funding in Iowa is by far the largest part of the budget. I believe we need to invest more into our community colleges. As for K-12 education funding, if we continue to increase that every year we are going to get ourselves into some serious financial trouble.
If we are dead-set on doing that, then we must abolish the state income tax and cut taxes on businesses to allow for economic growth in Iowa to keep up with the rising amount of dollars the state continues to spend.
Do you support Iowa’s transition to producing most of its electricity through renewable means?
VanDerWerff: While fossil fuels will remain a key source of energy for the foreseeable future, there is no question that the development of renewable fuels is critically important. Issues related to energy, the economy, and the environment are all related. Entrepreneurial efforts are at the heart of economic growth and can’t happen without a steady and affordable supply of energy.
At the same time, the environment — and clean water is but one example — also matters; the extent to which we can create or establish a healthy variety of energy sources, the better off everyone will be. Iowa’s production of wind power is impressive, especially in terms of the fact that it is one of, if not the top state, in this form of electricity generated — almost one-third of Iowa’s electricity generation comes from wind.
Here in Sioux County, I can’t help but be impressed by the efforts of those northwest Iowa farmers who are part of the Siouxland Energy Cooperative (SEC). They employ nearly 40 individuals and are contributing to an emerging energy market. Republican and/or conservative orthodoxy would suggest you simply let the free market work its will unfettered. On balance, I agree. But does that mean you never craft legislation to address exceptions to the rule?
Granted, people will disagree over when and where to do so, but I’m thinking specifically about the tax credits and subsidies provided the Iowa renewable fuels industry. The SEC and its members have poured at least 15 years of blood, sweat and tears into their efforts and, in my opinion, they deserve to be assisted in a market dominated by fossil fuel producers. Not everyone agrees, but given SEC would be among my constituents and they are contributing to the added value of our ag sector with their ethanol, biodiesel, and other agricultural co-products, I believe they should be supported.
Wheeler: I support the use of all American energy, including fossil fuels. I do not support government mandating the move to renewable energy, much of which continues to require heavy subsidies from government. I support private sector solutions, not government mandates. The market will take care of it as it becomes economically logical to do so.
If elected, what would be your biggest legislative priorities in Des Moines?
VanDerWerff: My first concern will be to do right by Sioux County citizens and their concerns. That really is my role and as such a legislative agenda must be shaped by what I learn by listening to those on whose behalf I’d be serving. As such, priorities will be driven by issues like agriculture and education — as well as business concerns — given the centrality of all three of these issues to the quality of life here in northwest Iowa. In addition to the questions I’ve addressed above, economic development must be a priority.
Entrepreneurial efforts are the engine that drives the local Sioux County economy. Job opportunities, among other things, are drawing lots of people to our communities and, in turn, creating profits. A growing population and a thriving economy makes it far easier to create a more equitable tax code, which produces the revenue to provide the services citizens demand, whether it’s clean water or quality education. I’m happy to have the endorsement of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry; they see me as a “Friend of Iowa Business.”
Wheeler: Fighting against abortion in any way possible, protecting our religious freedoms, standing against the transgender bathroom agenda, protecting our Second Amendment rights and pushing the state to get rid of Common Core.
AT A GLANCE:
Name: Jeff VanDerWerff
Occupation: Professor of American government and public policy at Northwestern College in Orange City since 1999.
Residence: Orange City
Education: Bachelor’s of economics and political science from Northwestern College in Orange City in 1983; master’s in political science from University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1995; doctorate in American government and policy from University of Kansas in Lawrence in 2002.
Political background: Lifelong Republican active in Sioux County GOP since 1999. Finished second to John Kooiker in December 2014 special nominating convention held following death of former House District 4 Rep. Dwayne Alons.
Key endorsements: Rock Valley mayor/former primary challenger Kevin Van Otterloo, Sioux County supervisors Al Bloemendaal, John Degen, Mark Sybesma and Dennis Wright and Iowa Association of Business and Industry.
Family: Wife, Kara; son, Jake, 15; daughter, Kate, 12; and twins, Ian and Elin, 10.
Name: Skyler Wheeler
Residence: Orange City
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Northwestern College in Orange City in 2015.
Political background: Former Sioux County co-chair for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s Presidential Campaign; won 2016 Republican Primary for Iowa House District 4.
Key endorsements: The National Rifle Association; Iowa Gun Owners; Iowa Right to Life; Iowa Pro-Life Action; The Family Leader; Clarice Alons, widow of former Rep. Dwayne Alons; and Rep. John Kooiker.
Family: Wife, Jess.
Questions arose during the campaign about Skyler Wheeler’s employment situation after rumors surfaced he was unemployed.
Earlier in the year, Wheeler was an account representative for Staples Promotional Products in Orange City; however, that is no longer the case.
An Oct. 20 e-mail sent to all users from Staples manager Brenda Zenor announced Wheeler’s departure from the company and told employees to contact her if they had questions.
When reached by phone, Zenor declined to comment further on the situation.
In a text message, Wheeler confirmed he is no longer employed by the company, but did not comment on how the two separated.
Wheeler said it is hard to find a job that works with him when he will be in Des Moines for five months of the year; however, he said he is getting by until election day.
The 23-year-old previously said he was worked consistently since he was 15.
Prior to Staples, Wheeler worked as an advertising sales representative for Iowa Information Publishers and Printers, which publishes The N’West Iowa REVIEW, June-December 2015.