Before the oath
SPIRIT LAKE — On Monday, Spirit Lake native Zach Whiting will be sworn in as state senator for Iowa’s District 1, which encompasses a wide stretch of communities including Emmetsburg, Spencer, Spirit Lake, Sibley and Rock Rapids. The 31-year-old Republican said his interest in government began during his childhood and continued through college at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.
“My family goes back at least five generations in northwest Iowa,” Whiting said. “We have deep roots in agriculture, education, community and public service. My grandpa was a history teacher for maybe 33 or 35 years between Lake Park, Ruthven and up at Okoboji. I always had a great interest in history, government and all of those areas, and so as I got a little bit older, one of the things I wanted to try to do is (asking) ‘What are my God given skills, talents and abilities? How can I find a way to match those up in service to other people?’ I felt that in college, I studied political science and did some internships on Capitol Hill and with some public interest groups and think tanks. In my senior year of college I thought I found a way to match things up by running for office.”
Whiting’s first run for office occurred in 2010 when he announced his intent to enter the race for Iowa’s District 6 seat (now the District 1) in the Iowa House of Representatives as a Republican. Whiting — then 22 — narrowly lost the 2010 GOP primary race to Jeff Smith. The loss greatly impacted Whiting as he was determining his future.
“I lost by 55 votes and thought ‘maybe elected public office isn’t my calling’ and I was okay with that,” Whiting said. “After I ran for the House and lost, I went back to work at Hy-Vee for a while and I took a couple weeks off and went down in the winter in Arizona with my grandma. I went down there and just got some time away to think. I actually really wanted to go to seminary. I thought about it, prayed about it, but didn’t feel the calling to preach.
He continued, “(Later) I went off to law school, got married, got a job out on Capitol Hill. I was very happy with everything going on in my life. I didn’t have an interest in elected office again.”
Six years later, he and his wife returned to northwest Iowa to raise their family and the opportunity to serve in public office presented itself a second time. During the 2017 general election for the Iowa Senate District 1 seat occupied by Republican turned Independent David Johnson, the party seat opened up. Whiting credited his wife for her support and encouragement in making the work required to campaign easy.
“I just felt I’m in a good place in my life with my family to do it, we wanted an opportunity to live, work and raise our family where I’m from,” Whiting said. “Rent was very expensive in D.C. We didn’t know if my wife would be able to go back to work, (we thought) ‘Man, we’ve got to find a place a little cheaper and family friendly.'
He continued, “Then all the stuff with David Johnson happened, I threw my hat in the ring in August of 2016. We worked really hard over the course of two years and connected with the voters. Ultimately, I think that connection played out well, we had good results in winning the primary and was unopposed in the general election.”
Whiting said his philosophy with regard to his role as state senator is that of a steward.
“One of the things that I’ve regularly preached out on the campaign trail is that holding a position of public office is a position of public trust,” Whiting said. “I view myself as the caretaker of this seat for a period of time. Right now that’s a four-year period of time, because that's how long I’m elected. One of the things I was knocked on was (the idea that) ‘I’m just a young buck warrior who wants to run for congress someday.’ Part of me wants to be frustrated, but you have to have thick skin and not be bothered. ... What I tell them is I have no interest in running for congress, being a career politician. It really goes back to that key principal; I’m a steward of this office to serve the people, not my own interest. Too often I think one of the frustrations people have with politicians and they view them as being too self interested. I always want to keep that perspective in mind.”
Whiting said he’s learned some lessons post-election as he continues to balance his responsibilities as a father, husband and state senator. He offered a recent memory where he was both carrying his child and three 12-packs of soda in a grocery store trying to make his way back to his wife who was waiting in line. At the same time he was conversing with a constituent which reminded him of the roles and responsibilities he currently has.
“My primary role is to be a good husband and a good father, my next primary role right now in this period of time is to be a faithful and effective representative of my constituents in the Iowa senate,” Whiting said. “When I get to my car and leave the Capitol, I’m not Senator Whiting at home. I’m not debating how we run this or that, I’m going home to be a dad or husband.”
With Iowa’s newest legislature soon to be sworn in, Whiting said he has been working hard preparing for the job. Whiting said his experience gained working as a policy advisor for U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, has given him specific experience as well as the perspective of staffers like those who will work with him in the future. The future policymaker said he expected to continue his work as a policy advisor for the congressman, but only when out of session.
“The work I’ve done in congress or the political realm, certainly it’s given me a great deal of policy experience,” Whiting said. “One of the other points I was kind of dinged on was — at the time I was 29 — (people saying) ‘He’s just a kid, you don’t have any life experience.’ That’s also one of the frustrating things. One thing I’ve said is certainly I have some degree of life experience — I’ve lived on my own since I was 18 years old, had to work my way from school, I could barely afford to eat when I was working for the public defender’s office in the day, chopping fruits and vegetables at Hy-Vee at night just to pay my rent. Certainly in the first years of our marriage, my wife had some health concerns and things like that. I’ve lived a lot of life in those years.
He continued, “The way I’ve answered that critique was ‘experience matters but relevant experience matters more. I have years of experience in the policy realm, ultimately the job of a senator is to make laws — and hopefully good laws — on behalf of all Iowans and that is a tall task. No one knows everything going into their first day on the job and frankly someone that’s been there 20 years doesn’t know everything. One thing I take into this role is passion, dedication, hard work and insatiable curiosity to learn and to be the best and most effective representative for my constituents. ... I have a duty to my constituents to best prepare myself to hit the ground running on day one. We have a lot of good people coming into the Legislature from both parties and both chambers.”