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Iowa bids farewell to pioneering female legislator
Republican state Sen. Mary Lundby, 60, lost her long-fought battle with cancer today. Iowans mourn a state legislator who served for more than two decades, a female pioneer who paved a way for the next generation.
She was first elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1987 and served there for eight years. In 1994, Paul Pate was elected secretary of state, and Lundby won his vacated Iowa Senate seat in a special election. She served there until announcing her retirement in July 2007 to seek a spot on the newly expanded Linn County Board of Supervisors.
Lundby was the first woman to be a speaker pro tem, a majority leader, and a minority leader. When she ran for speaker of the Iowa House in the early 1990s, she lost by only one vote. But when asked about her accomplishments, Lundby would only smile and say she “got lucky.”
She related well with people, using skills she developed by working as a waitress, bartender and insurance saleswoman to eventually serve as co-chairwoman of the Linn County Republican Party, a member of the Linn County Republican Central Committee, and a staff assistant to then-U.S. Sen. Roger Jepsen.
“Mary understood that people always come before ideology,” said Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson, who first met Lundby in 1988 when he was a high school page at the statehouse.
“I remember coming onto the House floor and Mary was speaking and waving pieces of paper. She was simply giving both sides of the political aisle hell, saying that she wasn’t under the thumb of leadership. She looked at the paper and said, ‘Oh, this piece of paper says that I’m accountable to the voters in Iowa.’ That did it for me.”
During those early days in the Iowa House, Lundby unofficially formed a group of younger Republican legislators that met in the basement and began developing strategy for taking six additional House seats in 1990 and six more in 1992. The group, dubbed the “Burning Desire Club,” was met with skepticism by some of the older members.
“There was this one older Republican from western Iowa who thought — I suppose because of the name — that the Burning Desire Club was some sort of sex club,” Oleson remembered with a laugh.
Even after meeting the group’s goals and taking a majority in 1992 for the first time in more than a decade, however, Lundby was denied her bid for speaker of the House. She told Iowa Politics in 2007 that it was the moment in her political career that she’d rather forget.
“Some members told me I couldn’t be speaker because Iowa’s not ready for a woman speaker … in 1992,” she said.
Oleson, however, said she never did forget the events involving her failed ’92 speaker bid.
“She had a list of the 16 people who had turned against her,” he said. “She kept that list and checked off the names one at a time. Only one escaped her wrath. He died, so Mary said he was off the hook.”
During a subsequent speaker of the House election, she flew from a convention back to Iowa for the sole purpose of casting the deciding vote against one of those who had turned against her.
“She knew he was going to run for speaker,” Oleson said. “She knew. That’s why she waited so long to announce that she was going to leave the House. She wanted to cast that vote against him before she left.”
Lundby changed little when she moved from the House to the Senate. Even as a freshman in that chamber, she continued to do the things she knew to be right and not necessarily what was expected of her.
“I’m not sure they knew what to make of me at first,” she said during an interview with Iowa Independent at the time of her retirement. “More importantly, the feeling was mutual. My style was so much different. I didn’t want to be in leadership so that I could dictate what those below me were doing or weren’t to do. I had a different vision of how things should work.”
Eventually, Lundby’s vision of inclusion and mass caucus participation won out, but her days in leadership were not always comfortable.
“They still don’t get me,” she said. “I’m sure there are some who are more than pleased to see me retiring. I wanted to keep discussions, even the most heated and cumbersome, civil. I don’t think it is good that everything has turned so partisan and crass. It’s not good for building partnerships — not with each other and not with the private sector.”
Sen. Jeff Angelo, R-Creston, said Lundby’s drive for civil behavior in the Legislature is one of the things he will remember most.
“I hate it when people make ideological differences a personal difference,” he said. “Mary was widely known as a moderate, but it’s a real shame that she took so much heat for her viewpoints. There is not a finer person who has ever held a seat in the Iowa Legislature.”
Sen. Staci Appel, D-Ackworth, said Lundby taught her “the right way to be a senator.”
“This is such a big loss for me,” Appel said. “I’m losing a mentor. Mary was always willing to answer questions, despite the fact that I was on the opposite side of the aisle. When I had an opportunity to apply to a leadership program, Mary was one of the people who wrote a letter of recommendation for me.”
When Lundby was first diagnosed with cancer in 2005, she was only given a 15 percent chance to beat the disease. She underwent medical treatment, and she chugged a beer when she went into remission. She was minority leader in the Senate at that time, and Angelo was leading the effort for the Republican Senate campaigns. The two traveled the state together by car, an experience Angelo said forever changed him.
“God brings very few people into your life that really change you for the better,” he said. “Mary was one of those people. … Our trips together were one of the most amazing times of my life. She taught me the difference between the ‘big stuff’ and the ‘little stuff’ in life.”
Angelo said that people misunderstood Lundby when they described her as being only hard-nosed, gruff or politically unrelenting.
“She pursued everything in her life with passion,” he said and laughed, adding that she “simply had no patience for neutrality.
“When we were driving, she would demand that we stop at every state park, lake or wind turbine farm across the state. She would get out of the car and just stand and smile. She loved nature and Iowa itself. She was so optimistic about the future and environment.”
Angelo, who announced his retirement from the Iowa Senate last year, said he can only hope that the men and women he served with will say that they might have disagreed with him but that he is a “good guy.
“That’s what Mary was,” he added. “Not everyone agreed with her all the time. There were differences, as there will always be. But she was one of the good guys.”
Sen. Nancy Boettger, R-Harlan, said that Lundby was an inspiration to women, having “paved the way” for others to follow in her footsteps, but also that she was simply an inspiration.
“Mary was one of the most politically brilliant people I’ve ever met,” she said. “Everyone always appreciated her viewpoint. She was also one of the most articulate speakers in the Legislature. Everyone would stop what they were doing to listen when she spoke. She was simply a forceful woman, a fighter, and I was rooting that she’d beat this.”
Because of Lundby’s influence and mentoring, Appel said she was open to working with Boettger on legislation.
“She taught me that everybody has great ideas,” Appel said. “I learned to be open to listening and speaking with others. When I had the preschool bill, Sen. Boettger brought ideas that made the bill even better.”
Sen. Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City, described Lundby as a “character in all the good ways.
“Mary opened a door for women,” she said. “What Mary was able to accomplish because of her hard work and her tenacity gives everyone a new perspective on the opportunity for leadership in the Legislature. To accomplish those feats, you have to be strong. Mary was strong. You also don’t get to accomplish the things that Mary did without having people — family and friends — who are supportive of you and what you’re working toward.”
Ragan said speaking from the heart about Mary came easy, because Mary “was just who she was.
“She was a champion of whatever cause she believed in,” she said. “The environment comes most quickly to mind. She approached issues on the environment in a very thoughtful and progressive way. She was bright and clever and had a terrific political sense about her. This is a loss for a lot of people who came to know her.”
Oleson has been friends with Lundby for his entire adult life. Her endorsement was instrumental when he tossed his hat in the ring as a potential Linn County Supervisor, a seat that she had been seeking when her disease returned.
“She taught me loyalty,” he said. “You help your friends even when you know they can’t help you in return.
“Mary taught me that I have to know myself. She knew what she was saying and doing and she did the right thing — even when she knew it might cost her politically. The right thing isn’t always in the party platform.”