Theresa Greenfield awoke to bright, sunny skies on June 3, 1988, roused her lineman husband, packed his lunch and saw him off to work.
It was a typical weekday for the young couple. They had a 13-month-old son and another on the way. They were planning to buy a house and already saving for retirement, thanks to Rod’s IBEW-wage job and benefits at a utility company.
She heard a knock at the door that afternoon, not long before she expected Rod home. Through a window, she saw her priest. A group of her husband’s IBEW brothers stood somberly a respectful distance behind.
“I’m so sorry,” the clergyman said, gently taking her hand. “There’s been an accident at work. Rod was electrocuted.”
She couldn’t make sense of his words. “How is he?” she asked. “Where can I go see him?”
“No, honey,” he said. “He’s died.”
ON JUNE 2, 2020, Greenfield won a four-way primary to became Iowa’s Democratic challenger to U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst.
Theresa Greenfield stops by the Local 347 booth at the 2019 Polk County Steak Fry. From left Stephen Coxe, JATC instructor and RENEW chairman; Randy Tucker, membership development coordinator; Greenfield; Business Manager Patrick Wells; and Matt Marchese, political registrar.
It was a day shy of 32 years since her world collapsed, since the moment she went from being a stay-at-home mom with financial security to a single parent who’d soon have two babies to raise by herself.
But she wasn’t alone. Her IBEW family and other union members embraced her so tightly that she can still feel it today.
“They provided comfort and strength and courage,” Greenfield said in a June 25 interview with The Electrical Worker. “They stopped by with meals, they watched my kids while I got groceries. They shoveled snow.”
She remembers her anxiety that first blizzard without Rod. “I thought, ‘I’ve got two babies. How am I going to deal with snow?’ I woke to a clatter and union members were shoveling my driveway and my walk. I didn’t have to shovel all winter. It brings me to tears.”
Critical to her peace of mind, Burnsville, Minn, Local 949 leaders assured her she’d receive Rod’s union benefits, along with Social Security survivor benefits.
Step by step she rebuilt her life — she returned to school, got a job, happily remarried, raised four children, and became president of a small family-owned real estate business.
It pains her to see families today bankrupted by medical bills, desperate workers a paycheck away from homelessness, farmers in her state buried beneath the weight of record debt, and so many other Americans in crisis.
She is running for office to fight for them, for the kind of opportunities and support system that saved her.
“I wouldn’t be standing here today, fighting for this seat, fighting for you, if it were not for Social Security and hard-earned union benefits,” she said on the stump during the primary campaign.
“I was able to go back to college. I got my very first job as a single mom, for $8 an hour, and I couldn’t have been prouder. I got my dignity back. Absolutely everybody in America wants the dignity of providing for their families.”
HER MESSAGE is resonating with Iowans. She made national news in mid-June when a Des Moines Register poll put her three points ahead of Ernst, a first-term Republican.
Greenfield was thrilled, but not entirely surprised. “I grew up rural, and I know that people feel she’s not representing them,” she said. “They’re feeling left behind.”
Patrick Wells, business manager of Des Moines Local 347, said Greenfield is making a sincere connection with voters.
“She holds true Iowa values,” he said. “No hidden agendas, no corporate PACs controlling her. She is in it for the hard-working people in this state”
Ernst, campaigning in 2014 for the vacant seat Democrat Tom Harkin held for 30 years, gained notoriety with an ad tying her skill castrating hogs to a pledge to cut pork in Washington.
In practice, she’s spent five and half years slashing taxes for billionaires while undermining essential programs and services for everyone else
“She’s voted to repeal Obamacare, she’s voted for budget bills that hurt Iowans, she’s voted to put anti-worker, anti-union nominees in jobs that are supposed to protect workers,” Wells said. “Joni Ernst does not support our issues.”
Greenfield has been endorsed by labor unions representing some 120,000 workers across Iowa, including the IBEW State Conference.
“She’s strong on protecting healthcare, Social Security and Medicare, and she’s with us on multi-employer defined-benefit pension plans. That is critical for us,” Wells said. “We want to make sure that any kind of reform protects our members, and she’s on board with helping us do that.”
June’s poll numbers confirmed what his gut was telling him, “We’ve felt all along that she could beat Ernst,” he said.
No one, of course, is taking that for granted. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to get to November,” Greenfield said.
ON A SMALL Minnesota farm just across the border from Iowa, Greenfield grew up helping her family raise hogs and crops, while her father also ran a crop-dusting business.
Her parents, members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, instilled the same values in their five children that she champions now. “We did door-knocking, we marched in parades, we went to county meetings,” she said. “It’s always been in my blood to be active.”
The farm crisis of the early 1980s hit her family hard just as she was graduating from her 24-student high school. She enrolled in community college and got a job at Pizza Hut that covered her rent, tuition and books. She ended the year debt-free, a feat she knows is impossible today without student loan reform and greater investment in education and training.
She moved on to Iowa State University in Ames, where she met a big-hearted IBEW apprentice, Rod Wirtjes. “I was head over heels,” she said. “We were so much in love that we actually eloped.”
Greenfield laughs about the good fortune of having a cousin who was also an IBEW lineman.
“When we met, I think one of the reasons Rod liked me is because I actually knew what he did for a living. He said, ‘You know what a lineman is?’ I said, ‘You go up poles and you do this and you do that.’ He said, ‘Yes!’”
She felt the kinship of his union family the first time he took her to a Saturday picnic. She marveled at how eager everyone was to lend a hand, whatever a brother or sister needed.
She thinks of them on the campaign trail, talking about the value of unions and the vital jobs their members do. And the risks that many of them take to serve others.
“I was really proud of the work that Rod and all of his coworkers did,” she said. “I will never forget why the lights come on.”