Doer. Fixer. Innovator. Problem-solver.
All words Monica Vernon uses to describe herself and her motivation for running for Congress.
“It’s certainly not the bucket list,” Vernon says about her campaign to represent Iowa’s 1st District in the U.S. House.
For Vernon, who founded and owned Vernon Research for 28 years and served eight years on the Cedar Rapids City Council, it’s more like a “to-do” list of things she believes need to be addressed.
In no particular order, there’s Social Security (protecting benefits and extending the life of the retirement program); investing in infrastructure (not just roads and bridges, but flood protection for northeast Iowa communities); reforming the tax system (to eliminate tax breaks for corporations that offshore jobs and offering incentives for businesses to create jobs here); raising the minimum wage and overturning the Citizens United court ruling that has opened the floodgate of special interest money (that Vernon says has contributed to gridlock in Washington).
She said she’s undaunted by the list.
“I’m convinced that’s a perfect match for me because I like to make friends with people and I can find common ground easily,” she said. “I can see myself working across the aisle, working with different factions. I’ve done it on a local basis. I’ve done that across the state.”
Vernon has been running for Congress or lieutenant governor for nearly four years. She makes no apology for that. Instead, she believes it gives her more insight into the issues on voters’ minds.
“Getting in early afforded me the time to meet people, to spend time with them” and learn from them, Vernon said.
She sees parallels to her former jobs as a news reporter and market researcher.
“There are a lot of individual stories, but if you pull them all together, you see the statistics that show the nation has recovered are averages, and there are a whole lot of people in northeast Iowa who are good people who are not quite back to where they want to be from the recession,” Vernon said. “They’re struggling with a job situation or they’re not economically where they need to be. I hear that a lot … families one paycheck away from disaster, really teetering on the edge.
“We don’t know that because Iowans are so resourceful and so proud and so hardworking and sometimes they think it’s just them,” Vernon said. “I think a lot of this is making sure we build back this economy.”
Vernon has a lengthy resume of community service: helping to build a women and children’s shelter in Cedar Rapids; involvement in the Chamber of Commerce and economic development before and during her tenure on the City Council, and advocating for civil and human rights, affordable housing, education and other quality-of-life issues.
However, it was the 2008 flood that caused her to set her sights on higher office. She made an unsuccessful run for the 1st District nomination in 2014. Days after her second-place finish in the Democratic primary, she became the party’s lieutenant governor candidate.
The 2008 flood “was one of the most shocking things in my life,” she said about the physical, financial and personal toll on the community’s residents and businesses.
“When you have thousands and thousands of people who are ruined … and you are trying to make a difference, it’s incredible to go through that,” Vernon said.
She also believes it showed what she can do and what she can get done. Along with other council members, Vernon spent months meeting with residents and business owners and lobbying for help from Congress, the Legislature, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the whole alphabet soup of federal and state agencies.
It’s that doggedness that led John Crews, mayor of Cedar Fall for 30 years, to endorse her.
“Working in local government as long as I have, you recognize who will actually roll up their sleeves and get things done,” said Crews, who has known Vernon for years through local government and business relationships. “That’s exactly what I know Monica will do in Congress.”
Gary Dunham, a Cedar Rapids labor leader echoed that sentiment. Vernon was a “driving force” in leading recovery efforts after the 2008 flood, he said.
It might seem odd that the president of Teamsters Local 238 would endorse Vernon — a former Republican — but Dunham said she has “stood strong” with organized labor on a number of issues including her support for collective bargaining, project labor agreements and in opposing Congress giving the president fast-track trade promotion authority.
Despite the challenges facing the 20-county northeast Iowa district and all of the nation, Vernon is convinced people have not given up on America and the American dream.
“It probably hasn’t changed all that much,” Vernon said. “I think people want a place to call their own whether that’s living on the fifth floor of some place close to a coffee shop downtown or that’s having a yard with a stand-alone home. … to earn enough money to be able to take a vacation every year, to have a decent retirement … to maybe do a little better than your parents did. If they have children, they want them to be able to be successful, to have opportunities.”
On a larger scale, Vernon said, “Americans want to be safe, free from constant fear.”
“People are not letting go of where they’d like to be. For some people, it is becoming harder and harder. I don’t see people giving up,” she said.
She won’t either, Vernon said.
“I want to make a difference,” she said. “I squawk and I work and poke people. I try to do it as nicely, as sweetly, as politely persistently as possible. But I don’t give up.”