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Courtesy of the Scholten campaign/Illustration by Tyson Whiting

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The Pitcher vs. The King

J.D. Scholten is a former professional pitcher making a run in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. Can he make history with a defeat against Steve King?

“Congress?! You? Reaaaally?” a bartender howls toward J.D. Scholten on a March night in Manhattan. The neon flicker from nearby pilsner signs barely capture the detail of his slender face. Scholten places a card on the mantle, sticky from spilled swallows of Fireball, for the woman to grab. He’s trying to escape into the night. The bartender pays him audible respect upon his exit, enthused such an unassuming man is challenging Washington’s might.

“Ioowaaaaa. Ioooooowaaaaaa,” she cheers as the door opens and moonlight captures Scholten’s gap-toothed smile.

Scholten races through Hell’s Kitchen, wearing the same old, gray New Balance 574’s of his adolescence. It’s difficult outfitting a 6-foot-6 former minor league gunslinger. As he steps into Upright Citizens Brigade — an improv comedy theater for New York’s funniest — it seems like an unconventional campaign stop. Dive bars and comedy appearances aren’t usually the places candidates show their faces.

“You look at the average person in Congress,” he says. “They’re 57 years old and worth a lot of money. If you don’t have money you gotta have something. What I have is connections. What I have is baseball. And I want to use that commonality to connect to different areas and help Iowa.”

Scholten is a former professional pitcher making a run in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. He has a chance to make history by becoming the first Democrat in eight terms to defeat Iowa’s infamous Representative Steve King; a politician whose entire political career is deeply-rooted in white supremacy. But first, of course, he must make it through the district’s primary election in early June.

Scholten walks the carpeted stairs of the club, past Nimesh Patel of “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update, left of steaming pepperoni pizzas, through the horde of comics with the job of making an awkward, clumsy, 38-year-old former jock appear friendly and funny to a crowd of critics.

“We have a special guest tonight, a politician if you will,” a pair of comics say minutes later to a packed theatre. “This gentleman is running for Congress in Iowa against a monster named Steve King. He stands tall for all, welcome J.D. Scholten.”

The drill sergeant whistles of T.I.’s “Bring Em Out” blare through the building from mounted speakers. The crowd of young, white hipsters nod with the percussion. Scholten cuts through the noise.

“Is anyone here from the district?” he says.

“Yeah! But, I’m from the good side of Iowa,” a man replies.

“We can be good, too,” Scholten reassures.

The night consists of Scholten’s stories from the farms, his boyish sense of humor revealed in tales about sex, weed and death. It is a non-traditional route for a politician. But by all measures, Scholten’s campaign must make use of the eccentric. It is how he’s come this far in such a short time, raising nearly half a million dollars before the primary, bringing a different type of attention to Iowa’s political machine.

The aftermath of political moments such as Donald Trump’s election and the Women’s March created large rifts in the country’s space, making room for unconventional candidates such as Scholten. That isn’t enough to think of him as a viable contender. But for an Iowa minor-league hero from one of the state’s biggest baseball lineages to leverage every sports network of his life and relinquish his war chest of professional monies for a cause, it may show that the Democratic blue wave could finally disrupt a conservative Republican stronghold in Iowa. That, or Iowans are looking for any reason to fire Steve King.

“I lived on the Iowa-Minnesota border my whole life. In my mind he represents a lot of the midwestern values that are good versus what’s portrayed,” says Jason DeWall, Scholten’s friend that organized this appearance.

“A baseball player? An upstart like that? He’s more Iowan than Steve King.”

Courtesy of the Scholten campaign/Illustration by Tyson Whiting

A month after Scholten wooed a crowd in New York, he’s on a street corner in Washington, standing outside of the Longworth building adjacent to Congress on Independence Avenue. He’s slated to meet Dave Loebsack, another Iowa Democrat, for a tour of the Capitol. They went to the same high school, Sioux City East, where Scholten evolved into a star — a man several Iowans have said was one of the best baseball players they’ve ever seen at that level.

When Scholten arrives, Loebsack is on the House Energy & Commerce panel, grilling Facebook’s baleful CEO Mark Zuckerberg on why he was “collecting and selling data.” It’s also the same day Paul Ryan resigned from Congress. Of course, Scholten notices his serendipitous fortune.

“I’ve been in D.C. one day and Paul Ryan resigned,” Scholten says. “I think I’ve got a good track record. I’m destined to be here.”

Scholten is dressed in very Scholten attire: an oddly-patterned shirt, those same New Balances his friends deride him for, and a small backpack. It’s as if a high schooler grew up and finally came to see Washington.

There is no private tour. Scholten enjoys billing himself as a man of the people. Thus, he’s whisked off by a young staffer and a group of Iowans to see the federal government’s playhouse, walking through Longworth to find Loebsack in a hallway.

“Long time no see!” Scholten says to Loebsack. The two speak of hoping to meet again while Scholten is in town, a common retort for busy men in Washington. Scholten squeezes his way through a corner in the Cannon Office Building and smiles at swaths of Americans absorbing the Capitol. “Woooooo, the hustle and bustle.”

A woman in the group, Maggie, turns and recognizes Scholten, which elicits the common, shocked response he’s become accustomed to getting since starting his campaign last July: “You’re the guy taking on Steve King?!”

“If there was ever a year to get him out it’s now,” Scholten says, calmly.

“Yes,” she says. “It’s about time.”

The group enters the old Senate Chambers and Scholten stands in awe of the architecture in the room, something many do seeing the dimly lit beauty that is this antebellum relic.

“As a history major it’s a very special thing. As a Midwesterner it’s overwhelming. Things are few and far between when it comes to history where I’m from. Not that many kids come out here,” Scholten says. “Driving around today, going from meeting to meeting, it’s gotten my mindset on what it could be like to live here, potentially. Seeing the activity and the buzz around here, I couldn’t even sleep last night.”

Maggie waves goodbye to Scholten as the tour ends and leaves him with a few words.

“Remember, you’re doing it for all your district. And all of this country,” Maggie says, then watches Scholten walk to take pictures of the dome of the Capitol. She grows solemn.

“He could lead this old woman to prayer.”

The old bricks held in the screams that day in 1980. Jim and Deb Scholten bore a 10-ounce crier in one of Mary Greeley Hospital’s many wings in Ames, Iowa. It was a sturdy family. Deb worked for women’s rights through public health, advocating for mothers and their families. Jim was a grizzled baseball manager, one of the best the state had produced. He won over 600 games of hardball at Morningside College in Sioux City. The desires Scholten would grow up with made sense, then.

It was, as Deb says, literally in Scholten’s blood: “J.D. was born and I think his white blood cells were shaped like baseballs.”

Deb and Jim fell in love in Mason City, Iowa, gave birth to a daughter, Jessica, and eventually moved to Ames, where Scholten waddled through his first steps. When Scholten was four, the family moved to Sioux City so Jim could coach at Morningside.

Iowa’s fourth-biggest metropolis nurtured the giggly first-time politician and slider-sinker expert. Sioux City East produced his best athletic years, yielding six varsity letters, honor roll, and time for a dual-sport athletic career in basketball and baseball, the hardcourt providing a few clashes with Kirk Hinrich from Sioux City West. But, Scholten’s time in Sioux City never developed him as an adept orator. Not even the extra theater classes he loved so dearly.

Jim says Scholten dropped the news of running for Congress during a birthday dinner in Seattle. “We had no idea where he was going with this.”

One of his old teammates, Jonathan Blum, says he found out through Facebook Messenger. Adam Stevens, who played infield with Scholten in a state championship game, actually got to hear the news in Sioux City, even though it was once Scholten had already moved back.

“I frankly told him, ‘Are you crazy? Do not do that!’” Deb says, laughing. “He didn’t listen to me, and I’m glad he didn’t. It was the right decision.”

But what could be right about a man with no political bona-fides — a former athlete — diving into a hornet’s nest where constituents kept an elected racist in power for over a decade?

Deb tries to answer honestly. It’s a question that looks different in Iowa than it does in Washington.

“His purpose in running is that he’s tired of people thinking that Iowa is all like the current congressman who represents that district and has for several terms now. The current congressman has a very negative, racist point of view. It’s just, ugh. We just don’t believe that politics should be as nasty as it is right now.”

It’s apparent that she’s not alone. There’s a burgeoning passion developing in this part of the state that is attempting to recall the values they believe were different before King rose to power, more apparent now that Trumpism has engulfed America and white redemption has a perch in the White House. The assumption is that Scholten is the solution to a troubling quandary. Someone who cares deeply about where he’s from and how his home is seen and represented.

However, Scholten still misses a piece of the political touch. Jim recalls the first time he heard his son speak to a group of voters. It was a night in Dickinson county, and Scholten’s hands slightly shook. He kept peering at his note cards. A man in the crowd stopped him afterward, looking at a slightly defeated candidate.

“That’s not going to work against Steve King,” he told Scholten.

“It takes a little courage to throw yourself out there,” Jim says with a laugh. “I think that J.D. kind of epitomizes what athletics, the good stuff, can do for people. He learned the value of teamwork and fair play and competitiveness. I think he likes the challenge and he likes to be able to show people that underdogs can win.”

As Scholten regularly admits, studying history was his delight. He picked it up in his first three years at Morningside, where he played for Jim — a father-son duo that would find success in Western Iowa. His junior season he struck out 44 batters in 52 innings and had a team-low 2.39 ERA.

Teammates watched the conversations he’d have with his father, a man known to be “ultra-competitive.” The fire was passed on before long. “You could see it when he was pitching,” Stevens says. “You can see it now running for Congress. This is 24/7. He has a great work ethic, especially when he’s passionate about something.”

Courtesy of the Scholten campaign/Illustration by Tyson Whiting

Outside of the diamond, Scholten’s friends regularly saw a man whose politics were sharpening. The quiet teenager was fading into the background. Scholten was doing what everyone does in college: the experimentation, the belief systems changing, the actual sculpting and evolution one pays thousands to acquire.

Scholten began poking his friends for opinions, on music, on baseball, on the Iraq War slowly bubbling to its beginning. But by then he had left the small confines of Morningside for his next challenge. Scholten had major league promise but no professional eyes gazing his gorgeous slide piece. He headed to Nebraska for one season in 2002. Jason Burch, one of the only black men on the team, was intrigued by the giant who read books in the clubhouse. The team made the College World Series, one of their only in history. The mountainous reader, Scholten, had the best ERA on the club.

By October 2002, massive opposition mounted against invading Iraq. Former president Bill Clinton spoke at a Labour Party conference pleading with America for peacekeeping, “I don’t care how precise your bombs and your weapons are, when you set them off, innocent people will die.” Pope John Paul II looked George W. Bush in the eyes in a private meeting and condemned such action.

So Scholten jumped on a 22-hour bus ride from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Washington, D.C. For 12 hours on the National Mall, he yelled and protested, voicing his opposition, skipping a day’s worth of training for the minors now that his Cornhusker career concluded. The next practice was at 8:00 a.m. two days later, something he couldn’t miss on the fringe of his professional career. By 6:00 p.m. that night he was on a bus back to Nebraska — exhausted but fulfilled.

Stevens recalls his understanding: “I was like ‘Yeah, of course he is [going]!’ It makes sense. It’s my same answer for why he’s running for Congress. ‘Of course he is.’ You know, that’s just kinda who he is.”

Burch says he saw something deeper.

“He was never overwhelmed by any failure that life might throw at him, pitching or anywhere else. J.D. is someone who is not afraid to do the things he wants to do and he can do. I would hope anyone paying attention to his candidacy would see that in him. A lot of what ails our current political position is a sideline attitude about what is right or wrong with the world rather than actually doing something. I find inspiration in his candidacy because he is, genuinely, trying to improve the lives of other people.”

Life on the pine with the Sioux City Explorers, an independent pro ball team in Iowa, tested much of Scholten’s maturation. His pitches were less effective, becoming more of a pure reliever, a ground ball-getter, than the flamethrower of his youth. His ERA doubled. His strikeouts lessened. He pitched more innings. He let more runs across. Father Time was ticking. But this dystopian fever dream was intoxicating.

Sports have a way of measuring a person for what they’re worth, highlighting the trueness of their nature once the coachspeak fades and meritocracy can no longer be believed.

“J.D. has toughness,” says Jim, widening his grin. It’s behind that nice facade he has. If he needs to be, he can be tough.”

It was Scholten’s second season with the Explorers, and the Lincoln Salt Dogs were in town. Luis Lopez, an infielder with Toronto and Montreal, found his way back to Indy ball after three years in the Majors.

Lopez was standing close to the plate. Scholten noticed and hurled slings near Lopez’s chin. “What are you doing?! Don’t you know who I am?!” onlookers could hear Lopez saying. The count went 3-2. Scholten threw to the inside corner. Walk. Lopez shot back while jogging down the line. “You don’t know how to treat a major leaguer.”

Innings passed and Lopez came back to the plate. “If this fucker hits me I’m charging the mound,” Lopez told Scholten’s catcher. Scholten launched a 90 mph missile into Lopez’s back. Lopez charged the mound and threw his bat at Scholten. A scruff emerged. Both men were ejected.

Ed Nottle, a 78-year-old manager with over 1,400 wins in his career, was impressed. Years earlier he didn’t think Scholten could make it in the minors. Nottle paid Scholten’s fine and slipped him some extra cash.

Nottle is adamant about one thing: that good kids leave good memories. That of the thousands of games he’s managed and thousands of players he’s seen in 51 years of pro ball, he might not remember how much zip was on Scholten’s steamer or swing in his slider, but he would never forget good kids that leave warming memories during long seasons of pro ball.

“Did I ever think he’d go into politics? No. Honestly, I thought he was too good a guy,” Nottle says. “I always said in pro baseball you have to be a bit of a bastard to be a pro manager. That doesn’t mean you have to be a bad guy. But you have to have some tough stuff in you to handle a ball club. I think before you can picture someone running for Congress or Senator, in this day and age, you have to be a little bit of a bastard. And I never considered him that way. I hope he has enough of that in ‘em. And I think he might.”

Courtesy of the Scholten campaign/Illustration by Tyson Whiting

Ames in the middle of May is mostly desolate by evening, the remnants of a once vibrant college village now blessed with empty roads. The early voting period in this Iowa district just started. The Democratic primary deciding Scholten’s life is weeks away. Smushed between a KFC and a gas station on Lincoln Way, it’s impossible to miss the “Scholten for Congress” red, white, and blue Winnebago parked outside of his campaign office.

Scholten’s office is the same place Hillary Clinton and other democratic candidates have used in past elections, a political hub transformed from an old CrossFit gym. Thus, the space holds audacious mementos to Spartan lore — big, bold quotes on the back walls about victory under pressure, long shots for underdogs and longer hopes — an ideal steroid for a candidate of Scholten’s lore.

Jan Bauer, a 2016 Democratic National Committee superdelegate, and the leader of the county Democrats here, smiles seeing Scholten’s prized $51,000 Winnebago, which he named “Sioux City Sue” after a 1946 Gene Autry ditty that evokes the harmonies of a Manifest Destiny Wild West.

“Sing it, J.D. Sing it!” she yells. And for a few moments they’re crooning to the folksy tunes. This is the harmony Scholten has preached for months, the people who believe in his urge to dethrone a white supremacist king.

Scholten finishes glad-handing and jumps into the Winnebago, riding to a nearby Quality Inn between a Phillips 66 and a Jimmy John’s for an event called “Drinking Liberally.” During a walk for what feels like a football field of concrete through the cold, cloudless air, Scholten breaks free. He thinks about what he will say to concerned voters, folks tired of King’s reign. “There’s two things that rile me up,” he says. “If you embarrass Iowa or talk crap about Iowa.”

Scholten enters a dining hall and immediately delves into fighting King. He stumbles plenty saying he has “20 thoughts in his head,” to which women sipping lager and wearing shirts adorned with his name, excuse. Scholten name drops old Iowa favorites in politics to win over some smiles. Those frown once he tries referencing the rapper Post Malone. The facade eventually dries up when silence begins to counter his folksy charm.

“We have a primary here in less than a month and I’m scared. People tell me all the time, ‘you are doing the right thing. You’ve raised the money. You’re out there working and being seen as much as anyone else.’ But, at the end of the day, I’m a first-time candidate,” he tells the crowd. “We don’t know a lot of things.”

An embrace of virtue is his largest sell of the night. Being open, vulnerable, wins a room of Midwestern moms. Scholten often says he doesn’t think this is a national race, because this is about Iowa politics and his adoration for his home. The notion is egregiously false given examples and the ramifications involved here. The actor Mark Hamill dubbed him “J.D. The Jedi,” calling him a last hope for the party in the state. David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” donated $4,000 to Scholten’s campaign. The students who suffered the Parkland massacre in Florida have vehemently reiterated that it is time to vote King out of office, propping up Scholten’s campaign.

Scholten often turns red when he doesn’t want to answer something, as thoughts rush through the cerebellum, his assumption that crimson could be a shield. Questions about abortion, about the democratic nominee for Governor, even, at times, about race, one of the biggest tentpoles in opposing a beacon of white supremacy in the Midwest, leave him breathless. He sheepishly tries to sink into his skin.

When Scholten finishes with voters, the group heads three hours west for the next campaign stop in the morning. Stories of his youth spill out: tossing toilet paper on homes, his failed relationships during stints overseas playing ball, and the depression pro ball can bring. The Winnebago swerves around possums on the lightless interstate.

The conversation turns deeply to race, about how a white man learned bits of intersectionality through the lives of black and brown athletes from bullpens. About the future, how hard this is for him, Obamaism, Donald Glover’s artistry, whether listening to Kendrick Lamar could make someone religious, how moved he was attending Kanye’s Life of Pablo tour, and why he believes “Darkness on the Edge of Town” — a Bruce Springsteen croon — is a classic, and close to his ethos of why he’s running this race. And of course, about the pitfalls of being black in America.

It is essential to how Scholten must think if he is to win a primary and scrap with a man like King, even if over 90 percent of the people he’ll serve are white. His difficulty with whiteness and his combat with its insidiousness can be understood. How does one who has learned race in dugouts and courts come to conceptualize the fight against oppressors in the form of powerful politicians?

It’s these moments, in between campaign stops, during which one truly begins to understand J.D. Scholten — his fears, his motivations, his will. This is a man who is willing to admit his faults, to speak a gospel befitting the flaws of moderate white men and try to find the answers. It’s refreshing. It is policy and campaigns embracing athlete activism, and it’s the political dissent we should expect in this decade.

Scholten may never find an answer to beating King. He may never figure out how to coherently and cohesively speak about race as an ally. But the attempt is more than we often get. Even if it loses him votes, fans, constituents, people can turn and know he tried in a way that upholds his truth about standing for everyone. It takes this type of optimism, this white courage, to believe the political kingdom overseen by a man like King can be upended.

This isn’t only believed by his most ardent supporters, but by the politicians Scholten mirrors himself after. Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, reflects on the current political moment:

“We’ve reached the tipping point with guys like Steve King. He’s no longer palatable to people who may agree with him. They don’t like the racism. They don’t like the overt demagoguery. It’s okay to disagree, you get that in athletics, too… but at the end of the day you are all on the same team and are trying to win.”

Ryan is currently the only person in Congress to endorse Scholten.

“He’s a classy guy, a gentleman and someone you can look at and say you respect him. He carries that. It’s sportsmanship. That’s how we grow up in little league. The idea is when you get out of sports, you transfer that sportsmanship into life, respecting each other, and respecting the opposition. He carries that sensibility. Steve King clearly does not. I think given King’s national profile and who he is, I think this has the potential to be one of the biggest political upsets this year.”

Scholten doesn’t really sleep in the Winnebago. He leans his head back and forth, nodding several directions. He plants his feet on the dash exhaling deep yawns in the middle of the night. He could curl up in the sheets in the back, the blue ones dotted with baseballs. Instead, he goes from phone to headphones. As the vehicle drifts into another town, he crosses his legs, stoic. Every few minutes a street light illuminates his bare face. And then he slides back into the darkness.

Courtesy of the Scholten campaign/Illustration by Tyson Whiting

Scholten begins the next day in Sioux City by eating Democratic-blue pancakes with potential voters. A woman highlights what many see in Scholten as he scarfs down a cerulean breakfast.

“He’s genuine and sincere,” Gretchen Gondek, 61, says. “You ask him a question and he tells you what he thinks. There’s no contrived preconceived answer. He’s not someone capable of deceit. He’s real. He’s real life Iowa. He’s growing and developing and the fact that he’s not a politician is working for him.”

These people do not care that he is not a polished politician — a spoil of living in a world where Trumpism reigns. Scholten knows this and it often makes him uneasy, but he rides the wave anyway. It’s a comfortable setting that allows Scholten to breathe and not speak much — an act that can spark his anxiety. These people have seen him pitch from high school to college, are friends with his mother, gave him speech lessons, and nurtured his maturation from pitcher to politician.

“I miss that shit,” Scholten says, talking about his playing days as the Winnebago rides away. “I felt like I was on a path and when I stopped playing. I didn’t know what to do. This past year has been the first time I feel like I’m back on that path.”

He is reassured when he stops in a Hy-Vee’s convenient store and a woman sees the Winnebago: “Good luck against King. You gotta win. Please. Please. I hope you beat the pants off him,” to which he thanks her while sipping coffee.

Driving through Iowa to each of its corners over a few days, we’re surrounded by the wonder people live amongst every day. A single home nestled among endless blankets of cornfields in Blencoe. The ethanol farms shooting from every crevice on Interstate 29. The stop signs standing on tires in Mapleton near Hawkeye Bar on South 4th street with the yellow neon lights. The glistening solar farms in Onawa. The black cows grazing by Norway Creek near Soldier. The $2 whiskeys Lost Wages sells to the 25 people who live in Buck Grove. The plains that used to make up the farthest stretches of the Midwest. It’s as much America as hoagies from Philadelphia, merengue in Miami, skateboarding in Long Beach, and taxis in New York.

The motorhome arrives in Harlan, Iowa, at a campaign stop in a breakfast joint off 7th and Court streets. Harlan’s old cinema and its engaging town square come into view with speakers affixed to street lights that play 80s bops.

Scholten talks to tables as they eat a light breakfast. People in Harlan remember his two games in the College World Series at Nebraska when he lost to Clemson and South Carolina. He tells a story he often tells about his grandmother, Fern, who was one of his inspirations of his campaign.

The smiles and eyes are mostly devoid of skepticism. He’s captivating a small town of coffee-drinking Iowans looking for a difference during a political cycle that makes one believe there could be a change. Originally the restaurant doesn’t listen, but then it becomes bone quiet. Scholten commands the floor. The promise he gave of controlling these crowds finally finds its audience.

These are the people who believe Iowa can be worth more to the world than a picture of white supremacy from their most-seen politician. The farmers who want more from their government. His usual stumbles and stammers do not matter here. His first-timer status acts as an invigorator rather than a blip. This was the candidate as suggested. The preconceived loser versus Iowa’s congressional king. A relief pitcher that finally begins throwing strikes.

“Tell me this race is unwinnable,” he says. “Tell me that Steve King is unbeatable and I’ll walk through the fire. I’ll tell you what, I felt the buzz in this district, I feel it across Iowa and across this nation. When I first launched my campaign a friend of mine said, ‘J.D., if you want change, you’re going to have to get uncomfortable. Once you get uncomfortable, you are going to have to get other people uncomfortable.’ Well, I’m uncomfortable. If you guys get uncomfortable until November, something special is going to happen.”

“Just out work that son of a bitch!” a man from the crowd adds.

Back on the road, the night ends in Dennison, Iowa, one of the only towns in the district with a sizable Latinx population. Scholten sits at Hillside Grill on Oak Ridge Drive for a quiet dinner with voters in the most conservative part of the district. Men show Scholten their belt buckles, exerting their sense of patriotism.

Before the tedious affair closes, a surprise walks through the door. Nancy Salinas, 25, a Mexican immigrant and hostess comes in to shake Scholten’s hand. She’s heartened by this man’s spirit. “America has done so much for me but I want them to know that we are here to help and not hurt,” she says.

When Salinas first moved to Iowa she picked up a job working in a meat-packing house in Dennison, as it afforded health benefits for her two sons. Almost immediately, she experienced the racism woven into America’s DNA. She was looked down upon, degraded, and assumed to be a criminal.

“I see Scholten and I wanna be believe in a change,” Salinas says. “If he’s going to support all of us, any race, and help stop some of this racism we face, he will have my vote. We are overdue for that change.”

Scholten has said more than once he wants to open a center that adheres to the hopes of the Latinx community in the district. On the way out, he finds Salinas to express gratitude and explain a bit of his platform. Then, he hands her a card. He says he needs to hire someone full-time to help with his goals.

If racism is to die, it must start with white hands. And if Scholten is serious, why not have Salinas assist in all the blind spots he fears? He tucks his head down as he exits into the night, and Salinas smiles from the hostess counter. Hope had crept into Hillside Grill.

WheelHouse Bar and Grill in Sioux City is a strip mall of sorts. It’s disjointed yet brings the allure of several different entities under one roof: beer, burgers, basketball games. An amusement park for those past adolescence. Scholten walks in nearly at midnight on a May evening, exhausted from the campaign.

People point and nod as he walks by. Here, as much as he is J.D. Scholten, he isn’t. He can relax in the anonymity he enjoyed a year before running. He visits this haunt once a month and enjoys its comforting, homey vibe.

He sits back in a high chair and watches college baseball. A re-run of Arkansas vs. Texas A&M is on. Two of his former coaches now lead both clubs. Flashbacks enter Scholten’s mind. The glory days. The fastballs. Postseason spoils. A life of baseball.

This brings an odd peace. Just a man and his beer in the middle of a city backing him in what could be a historic election. Someone asks him about his thoughts on some legislation. And J.D. the minor league slinger goes back to J.D. the politician. He takes a hearty chug from his seat as the day turns over.

“This is my life now. Every fucking day. This is what I think about. This is what I do.”

During this bliss, I turn and ask him a question: “What would you rather be doing right now, playing baseball or running for Congress?”

That same deep laugh emerges. This time he doesn’t turn red, he doesn’t hide his face in his hands, he sits forward and thinks long, before showing the gap-toothed grin Iowa has seen on the mound for decades, the one that’s been winning over a part of a state wishing to start over, to be washed anew.

“C’mon,” he says. “You know I can’t answer that.”


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