Political Profile: Peter Matthes, The Director of Federal Relations for the University of Iowa
“Grassroots,” is not just about a Seattle native running for City Council, but about the entire campaign process. The team that Grant Cogswell and Phil Campbell put together consisted of people who were attempting to make a difference for a community that they deeply cared for.
The last few blog entries have been about city council candidates coupled with a call for you to get involved and run for something within you community. In this blog, I will profile Peter Matthes who is not running for anything, but rather helping the University of Iowa become more connected with state legislators. This is a unique opportunity to show how someone can make an impact within their community besides running or working on a campaign.
Matthes’ organization is called “The Hawkeye Caucus,” and is part of the University of Iowa’s Government Relations Department. Its members consist of undergrads, alumni, and the community that represents Iowa City, Iowa, the hometown of the university. Hawkeye Caucus is about bringing together a community, with the objective of seeing their goals make it to the state capital and reviewed by legislators.
Growing up in the shadow of the University of Iowa, Peter spent the first two decades of his life in the eastern part of Iowa City. Peter speaks about knowing what is important in life as the result of his childhood in Iowa.
“This is how I approach life now. Growing up in Iowa allowed me to understand what is important and cost effective in everyday life. Iowans know to never ‘bite off more than they can chew,’ and this has helped me in every aspect of my life.”
An example of this situation is his choice of university. He attended high school in Iowa City and wanted to go to the University of Colorado (Boulder) for his Bachelors degree. However, his parents told Peter that if he were to go Boulder, they would only able to pay for the equivalent to what the in-state tuition would have been at an Iowa University. The choice was no longer difficult to make: Peter’s sense of pragmatism and responsibility compelled him to choose the university in his own back yard. As he puts it: “It was important to me that I walked out of college with as little debt as possible. The value of my education at the University far outweighed any coolness factor that would have been obtained at Boulder”.
Becoming an adult in the place he grew up, and seeing his childhood community through increasingly mature eyes, Peter began to feel a calling. He wanted to better his community. Thus began his life-long involvement in politics and civic responsibility.
The Hawkeye Caucus is a tool that enables the people of Iowa City and the University the ability to have direct connection with the legislators in Des Moines, Iowa (the state capital). The objective in doing this is to take the goals and desires of the University of Iowa and present them directly to government officials as a group (rather than the traditional route, where people individually send letters to the capital, in hopes of getting a response). The Hawkeye Caucus humanizes the process, empowers individuals, and allows a bridge between the government and its people.
One of the problems the Hawkeye Caucus hopes to address is the difficulty in the process of reaching out to their state legislator. Around 70,000 people live in Iowa City (with the University of Iowa counted). Although small by many cities’ standards, the number is enough to make it very difficult for individuals to have direct interaction with their legislators. Likewise, the volume of the people they represent makes it incredibly challenging to focus on specific issues, for the legislators. The Hawkeye Caucus rids the people of that challenge and provides an emotional connection with people located in Des Moines through curated interactions- a chance for legislators to connect directly, without the overwhelm factor.
Iowa City is a melting pot for different opinions- and it differs drastically from the rest of the state. One of the reasons Matthes loves the city so much is that he describes it as being very diverse- not ethnically (Iowa City is 90% Caucasian, the minority representation at the University of Iowa is 4%), but in the thought process that people conveys.
“Growing up in Iowa City allowed me the opportunity to hear what everyone had to say. I was able to hear all ends of the spectrum from socialist left to the radical right.”
After Peters’ time at the University of Iowa, he had felt prepared to move to the nation’s capital and take the next step in his life. In D.C., Matthes worked for the U.S. representative Jim Leach. The diversity of ideas that Matthes was exposed to in Iowa City allowed him to step right in and feel confident with – even welcome – a surplus of opinions.
“You should not demonize anyone for what their opinion is. You should first take the chance to understand why they have that opinion,” Peter states. Knowing this has made his path through politics far less grueling than normal. He knows not only what to expect, but how to deal with differences in opinion in a way that does not demoralize (or demonize) either side.
So: Is it time for him to take the next step?
When I first spoke with Mr. Matthes about running for City Council, he explained to me that he did not feel mentally prepared to do so. “I will be running. I know that. But not for much later in my life; I don’t feel mentally prepared for that position yet, because I feel as if there is much more for me to learn. I will want to learn as much as possible before I give it a go. However, I could wake up 5 years from now, maybe 30 years from now, and feel that I’m ready. I just know that, now, I do not feel that way.”
As far as advice he would give to emergent politicians, he suggests that everything in life is politics. He elaborates, “There is politics in every aspect of life, you may just not realize it. There are business politics, and politics in the family dynamic. Even in school there are politics. That’s life. You are always determining your next move with life. All of those moves are calculated, you just may not realize you are basically playing politics.”
Once you understand that, to Peter, it becomes easier for you to get involved. The only difference between personal, small-scale politics and the ones that involve the government is that the government politics are all organized. The politics you play in the government scenario is, as he puts it, “how do you get 50.01% of the population to support you, and who do you know.”
If the thought of organized politics frightens you, Peter suggest you simply volunteer. To him, this is just as important to the process. A simple phone call can be just as important, in the right scenarios. The worst thing? To do nothing.
By: Michael J. Nelson
‘Do or do not, there is no try.’