Wilson School MPA candidate, LGBTQ activist Zach Wahls on running for Iowa State Senate| Mar 27, 2018
A second-year MPA student at the Wilson School, Zach Wahls has been going to bed at 9:30 p.m. every night and waking up at roughly 5 a.m. every morning. He goes to a lot of meetings, has a lot of coffee. He is also finishing up the coursework required to complete his degree.
But lately, he has been spending most of his time knocking on doors — about three to five hours of door-knocking a day. For him, it’s what has to be done to be elected to the Iowa State Senate for district 37.
Even though he’s only 26 years old, Wahls isn’t a stranger to media attention or advocacy.
In 2011, Wahls delivered an impassioned speech in front of the Iowa state legislature about growing up with two lesbian mothers. A video of that speech went viral and, soon enough, changed the trajectory of Wahls’s life from engineering to advocacy. At the time, Wahls was a student in the civil and environmental engineering program at the University of Iowa.
After the video drew widespread attention — earning Wahls millions of viewers and an appearance on "The Ellen Show" — he dropped out of the engineering program to become a full-time advocate in the LGBTQ rights movement. Only then did he really begin considering a career in politics and public policy.
“I got to see personally the difference you can make when you are willing to share your story and reach out to and connect with other people,” Wahls said.
So when he returned to the University of Iowa to finish his degree, he finished in interdepartmental studies with a focus on environmental science and economics. These two focuses lend themselves well to his studies at the Woodrow Wilson School, where he is concentrating on domestic policy.
In addition to his advocacy work, Wahls has also written the bestselling book "My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family" and created The Women Cards — a deck of cards featuring original portraits of 15 American women who contributed to change — with his sister.
The decision to run for elected office came after the results of the 2016 election. He noticed that Iowa, which Obama had won by six points in 2012, was won by Trump four years later.
“It was clear to me that I had to get back to Iowa as fast as possible,” Wahls said.
But he didn’t think the opportunity to run for office would come so soon. Less than a year after the 2016 election, Wahls’s state senator, Bob Dvorsky, announced his plans for retirement. Several people urged Wahls to consider running. And in December 2017, Wahls officially announced his candidacy.
These past three months, Wahls worked hard setting the priorities on his agenda, listening to the concerns of his fellow citizens, and getting to know voters.
“The most important thing [about campaigning] is simply to have an open mind, to listen and to try to understand people, and to first seek to understand others before being understood yourself,” Wahls said.
The emphasis on listening seen on the campaign trail is entirely different from studying in the Wilson School, said Wahls. Most of the learning that goes on in Robertson Hall comes from discussing and debating the nitty-gritty aspects of policy.
“My natural tendency is very much to get into the weeds and be as granular as possible, but what most people are looking for out on the campaign trail is not a detailed policy brief,” Wahls explained.
He credited the Wilson School and its professors with helping him see the “forest among the trees.” He specifically spoke about a class he took with Anne Case, professor emerita of economics and public affairs. Learning about her research with “deaths of despair,” or deaths by drugs, alcohol, and suicide, greatly helped shape his views.
Wahls explained that he sees the problems of deaths of despair in Iowa, where suicide rates in rural communities have gone up, especially among those without a bachelor’s degree.
“I think you forget when you’re on campus, but most Americans don’t have a college degree,” Wahls said.
His return to Iowa was never in question. After all, it’s his home, where he grew up and where his family still resides. But he also feels like it’s his civic duty to return to Iowa.
“A lot of people, after Princeton, they’re going to be going to New York, to Washington, to San Francisco, and that’s easy,” Wahls said, explaining that he understands the plethora of opportunities that can be found in those big cities.
Wahls is motivated by his desire to rebuild Iowa and advocate for his fellow Iowans, citing healthcare, workers’ rights, and education as his top priorities if elected.
“What I see very clearly is if we don’t get new leadership, if we don’t rebuild that foundation … the [citizens’] lot will just get get worse and worse.”
Jordan Stockdale, a fellow MPA at the University, said Wahls “is a person who has real progressive credentials, who’s been an activist, and who genuinely wants to help people.”
Both Stockdale and Wahls were Eagle Scouts, and Wahls had sent his badge back when he heard that the Boy Scouts of America would not accept gay scouts.
“He’s gonna fight for their [Iowans’] rights,” Stockdale added.
And, for Wahls, that begins one door at a time.