Iowa Starting Line: Humble Roots, Mother’s Teachings Guide Rita Hart’s Campaign For Congress
By: Elizabeth Meyer
The lessons of Rita Hart’s childhood, lessons that have helped inform her public life, are neatly summed up in the words of Mother Teresa: “Live simply so that others can simply live.”
The quote, inscribed on her parents’ tombstone, is indicative of how Hart has tried to live her life and the values she says she would bring to Washington, D.C., if elected to represent Iowa’s 2nd District.
“That’s what they were all about,” Hart said on a Friday afternoon before August’s derecho storm, seated on the porch of her farmhouse near Wheatland, in Eastern Iowa. “I think they gave us a great start on life by helping us to see that it’s all about your attitude, it’s about other people and how hard you work and what you do to make other’s lives better in the process.”
Hart, a 20-year teacher, former state senator and farmer, has emphasized the importance of family since launching her campaign in May 2019.
In her stump speech, she talks about her mother and how a debilitating heart condition made it difficult for her to speak above a whisper. In order to hear her mother, Hart says, she and her eight siblings had to “lean in” and listen closely.
“Sometimes, the small voices that you have to lean in and take trouble to hear are the ones that you should be listening to the most,” Hart said last summer at a Lee County Democrats’ event. “And that’s not happening in Washington, D.C., right now. The loud voices, the ones with all the money, those are the ones that are getting all of the attention. Those are the ones people are hearing.”
Fast-forward a year later and the world Hart expected to campaign in has been turned on its head.
Instead of door-knocking, a part of campaigning she “really always enjoyed,” Hart has spent most of her time connecting with Iowans over the phone.
Rather than focus on the differences between herself and the Republican candidate, state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa, Hart tells her story and asks voters about their concerns.
“I talk about how I came from a household where I have a Democratic dad and a Republican mother, and because of that, I value both parties,” Hart said. “I recognize that people are tired of the division and if we’re going to truly get through some of these incredible challenges that we have right now, the only way we’re going to do that is if we pull people together.”
Amid the noise of cars whizzing by and the family dog, Buck, looking for attention, Hart wondered how her mother would feel about politics and the Republican Party today.
“She was very big in believing to be independent, to value the person rather than to look for the government’s help, that kind of thing. But she also, I think, was very quick to recognize when people needed assistance and that you have to have a system as a means to an end,” Hart said.
“Those are the things about the Democratic Party that appeal to me and always have. I look at what FDR was able to do in the middle of a war and what Eleanor Roosevelt talked about and did for the working people of this country,” she said. “And that is, to me, the basis of the Democratic Party, is sticking up for the working man and woman and doing the things that help a society to move forward.”
Clinton County, where Hart has lived most of her adult life, made headlines in 2016 as one of the 31 counties in Iowa that voted twice for Barack Obama and then switched to Donald Trump. In the Iowa Legislature, her Senate district spans Clinton County and part of rural Scott County, a seat with a mix of rural and blue-collar communities. In 2014, Hart said, “that was when things were turning. It was a tough election for Democrats.”
Despite the shift, Hart said she had “great faith in the people of this district to really vote in their best interest, to take a look at what’s going on in their lives and vote accordingly” in 2020.
“I have great hope that we’re going to see change here,” Hart said. “I don’t worry too much about anything beyond my own race. That’s what I concentrate on and that’s the kind of work that I’ve always done, is to stay local and really do a good job of listening to folks and working as hard as I can — listening to what they have to say and caring enough to do something about it. That’s where I put my focus.”
Rather than criticize Miller-Meeks in her first TV ad, Hart again focused on family.
The ad was filmed on the farm and featured a family dinner with her children and grandchildren.
“This farm is crucial to who I am, so I wanted people to get a sense of that,” she said. “And the other thing I think is that, I think it’s so important right now, as people are really struggling through this COVID crisis, that people are kind of hungry for positive feelings. I’m hungry for it. I want to rejoice and see some wholesomeness, some positive notion that the sun is still coming up in the morning and that we still value the basic things of what we really care about in this world.”
Talking to Hart, it is apparent how her mother’s near-death experiences and the struggles of starting out on a farm during the 1980s economic crisis shaped not only her personal character, but her politics. Like her mother, Hart believes in giving people “a hand up, not a hand out.” She wants to work across the aisle so the federal government can put systems in place to help people build a better life for themselves and their family.
“I think that’s why she was such a great person, is that she never burned any bridges because she didn’t know if she was going to be there tomorrow,” Hart said. “Those were great lessons for us growing up. That’s why I believe in doing good for other people, because otherwise, why are we here?”