AOC and Abby Finkenauer, Congress’ youngest women, show Democrat split
WASHINGTON – Abby Finkenauer navigated unnoticed past the hoard of journalists eager to hear what fellow freshman lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had to say.
Within the ornate, deep and busy halls of the U.S. Capitol, she quietly squeezed through a doorway to the House floor to cast her votes as Ocasio-Cortez fielded questions about her uncertainty on sending billions to the southern border to help the migrant crisis.
That night in June, Finkenauer went to the annual congressional baseball game, where she ate cheese fries and posed for photos with interns and children at the annual D.C. charity event at Nationals Park. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez appeared on Stephen Colbert’s “The Late Show,” where the host introduced her as a “superstar.”
“AOC! AOC! AOC!” chanted the studio audience, using Ocasio-Cortez’s initials and newfound moniker.
Being outshined by Ocasio-Cortez has become routine for Finkenauer, a moderate Democrat from Iowa with far less fame than her caucus-mate from New York. The two made headlines together in 2018 when – both at age 29 – they were elected to the House, making Ocasio-Cortez the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and Finkenauer – who is 10 months older – the second youngest.
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The two were often mentioned together in the wake of the midterm elections. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who was previously the youngest woman elected to Congress, even publicly offered advice to both of them in an op-ed.
But the pair would not achieve status as a millennial lawmaking duo. Rather, their first eight months in office would be very different, a reflection of how the two lawmakers embody the split within the Democratic ranks as the party fights over its identity heading into the 2020 presidential election. Despite the support they’ve shown the other, Finkenauer demonstrates the more moderate sect that is often at odds with Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive wing.
That chasm isn’t exactly hidden.
Almost immediately, Ocasio-Cortez assumed the role as the boisterous and opinionated Bronx progressive, something that made her a boogeyman to conservatives and a target of the president. In a span of months, she didn’t just get D.C. famous, she pierced the zeitgeist with a Netflix documentary, two TIME magazine covers and 5 million Twitter followers.
Finkenauer’s tenure looks a lot like most freshmen lawmakers who helped Democrats take the House and flip districts from Republican grasp: few national media appearances, sparsely attended committee hearings and near anonymity (She has 22,000 Twitter followers). But she was the first freshman lawmaker to have a bill passed in the House — a piece of legislation she worked on with a Republican that she introduced just one day after being sworn in.
“My day is very different than what’s on CNN or FOX every night. It just is,” Finkenauer, 30, said in an interview with USA TODAY, adding sometimes “you feel like you’re in a different world.”
From Sherrill to Washington
Finkenauer smacked the wooden gavel on her desk.
The only freshman lawmaker to chair a subcommittee — the Small Business subcommittee on rural development, agriculture, trade, and entrepreneurship — she looked around the small room as she called the July hearing to order.
There were no reporters. No TV cameras. No protesters wearing shirts or holding signs like so many of the hearings featured in newspapers and on cable news.
Instead, there sat a panel of farmers ready to discuss the future of agriculture, the struggles for a new generation and the dangers farmers face throughout the Midwest.
Finkenauer’s life took place among these struggles. They are why she ran for Congress.
Finkenauer’s campaign:: This Iowan could become the youngest woman in Congress. But first, she has to beat incumbent Rod Blum.
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She grew up the youngest of four in Sherrill — a town of about 200 that hugs the Mississippi River on Iowa’s eastern border with Wisconsin. She spent her childhood 4-wheeling through the woods where she would pick buckets of mulberries with her brother and two sisters. Sleepovers at friends’ houses included waking up early and doing farm chores.
Her father cycled through different jobs, said Finkenauer, who remembers his T-shirts and sweatshirts dotted with holes from his welding torch. She often cites his work and her mother, a school district secretary, as motivators. That and the thousands she still owes in student debt.
“This is personal,” Finkenauer said after winning the Democratic primary in 2018, when she’d go on to defeat Republican incumbent Rod Blum. “We started this campaign to stand up for families just like mine, who work hard and play by the rules but have the odds stacked against them.”
In Congress, Finkenauer has toed the partisan line, stressing that compromise is the only way to actually get things done, a holdover of her time in the Iowa state House, where she served two terms.
She represents a politically mixed district and will have to fight for reelection in 2020. Iowa’s 1st District voted twice for former President Barack Obama then swung their support to Trump.
She doesn’t consider herself a liberal or moderate and she isn’t a member of any ideological caucus in Congress. She’s also not been afraid to buck the party line.
“I’m an Iowa Democrat before any of that,” she said, sipping from a purple coffee mug with “#PowerWoman” etched on the side. “It’s just not something where I feel like I fit into a mold.”
Finkenauer has introduced bills addressing rural broadband, health care and an extension of a bio-diesel tax credit, while advocating for programs in her district. She has voted against fellow Democrats and with the GOP on legislation, including a measure that would notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if an undocumented immigrant attempted to purchase a firearm. She also doesn’t support eliminating ICE, Medicare for All, impeaching Trump, although she supports ongoing investigations, and Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal climate change measure.
“It’s a resolution. It’s not policy,” she said of the measure. “I’m focused on working on policies.”
Attention to the ‘Squad’ can be ‘aggravating’
Finkenauer walked out of another committee hearing in April after listening to farmers for hours talk about how the Midwest is changing and what that could mean for the future of agriculture.
Afterward, she walked through the halls of the Capitol thinking “all of Washington must be talking about this.”
“We’re talking about the future of Iowa — the future of the entire Midwest,” she thought. Then Finkenauer spotted a TV with the news on. She sighed.
“All I see is Jared Kushner and security clearances,” Finkenauer recalled to USA TODAY, referring to the president’s son-in-law.
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She says it doesn’t usually bother her that she isn’t drawing headlines each day and doesn’t boast the same national following as Ocasio-Cortez. But that day marked one of the moments when she says she wished people were paying attention to Iowa, her work and the Midwest.
“There’s a lot of stuff to focus on in D.C. that is more exciting,” she said. “I get it, but it doesn’t deter me from speaking up and fighting for what’s important to those back home.”
When asked about Ocasio-Cortez, Finkenauer said she wasn’t bothered by the headline disparity in the freshman class, explaining, “I was OK with the fact that I was not getting a lot of national spotlight because I’ve been focused on the district.”
Ocasio-Cortez said she and Finkenauer have talked about the transition to Congress as new lawmakers and younger women, explaining that the rise in younger members has an “enormous amount of value.”
“There is value to questioning the status quo and questioning how Washington is working because we don’t know any other way,” she said, adding that Finkenauer has been “doing a fabulous job.”
Finkenauer called Trump’s attacks on Ocasio-Cortez and members of the “Squad” disheartening and alarming and said his attempt to paint all Democrats as socialists and “with the same brush” was “not accurate.”
“It’s actually a disservice to the American people to do that,” she said. “To say that just one or two people are reflective of the party is disingenuous and not true.”
Ocasio-Cortez has noted the differences between her and other Democrats, including Finkenauer, but said there are many ideas that bring them together.
“We’re here to represent our own district,” Ocasio-Cortez told USA TODAY, explaining we “represent two very different places in the country.”
“But I think we both tried to legislate with the future in mind,” she added.
For others, though, including fellow freshman and Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne, it’s been tough to deal with the level of attention given to the group of Democratic lawmakers known as the “Squad” – Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ocasio-Cortez.
“When all the attention is being paid to four members and whatever they say…then we don’t get to talk about the issues that really most of the people care about,” Axne told USA TODAY. “That’s what’s aggravating about it.”
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Axne points to people like herself and Finkenauer, Democrats who beat incumbent Republicans in purple districts, as the real face of the new House Democrats. Ocasio-Cortez won a comfortably Democratic seat in the Bronx, one that was held for 20 years by former Rep. Joe Crowley before she defeated him.
“We wouldn’t have the majority if it wasn’t for us. We are truly the voice of the Democratic party,” Axne said of herself, Finkenauer and those from other purple districts throughout the country. “We won these seats because we were able to flip in really tough districts and the message of really being solutions-orientated, pragmatic people who are authentic to our districts resonated with those folks.”
An appeal for bipartisanship efforts
For the Republicans Finkenauer has worked with since being sworn into Congress, the lack of headlines surrounding her every movement is appealing.
“She came here to get things done. It’s far more important to her to get things done then to get on the national news,” said Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who worked with Finkenauer on her first bill. “That obviously makes it much easier for somebody like myself to work with her on a bill like this because I don’t have to deal with all that other stuff.”
Curtis said he met Finkenauer to talk about the bill, which helps small businesses compete for government contracts, just days after she moved into her office — which sits just across the hall. The bill passed the House in January and now sits in the Senate.
She was still in the process of hiring staff, there were no decorations on the wall or much furniture, but already she was promoting legislation and sat down to tape a video with Curtis about their bill.
“The American people get this image of us not getting along,” Curtis said. “But many of us enjoy strong relationships across the aisle.”
Finkenauer has settled into the Capitol since she first introduced her bill with Curtis. Work never seems to stop, between back-and-forth trips to Iowa, events and meeting with constituents nearly every day in D.C. and back home. Her office is now adorned with pictures of her family, a miniature John Deere tractor and her father’s old sweatshirt that’s full of holes.
She brags about the few free moments she has had with her family to meet her newborn nephew and that one Sunday afternoon where she went window shopping at a furniture store. It’s all about one thing, Finkenauer says, “I want to be the person that folks in my district know has their back here.”
“There can be a lot of big ideas out there but I always want to know, how are those actually going to impact my constituents and what can I be doing to actually move forward on things, versus just talking about them,” Finkenauer said.
She admits her method might not lead to becoming a star in Congress or on cable news. Her priorities, she explains, “are things that are, you know, not necessarily the most headline-grabbing.”
“But they’re things that desperately need to get done.”
Contributing: Kathy A. Bolten and William Petroski, Des Moines Register.