Days after surgery, Mary Lou Freeman heads back to the hill with a fresh outlook on life
Suddenly, those inevitable political battles under the golden dome don't seem like such a challenge anymore.
Even as veteran state legislator Mary Lou Freeman begins another volatile session in Des Moines this week, she is also beginning chemotherapy as a new victim of breast cancer.
On Tuesday of last week, she was undergoing surgery to remove the cancerous tissue. This Tuesday, she's headed for the statehouse with a daunting agenda.
The idea of resigning from her elected job - it isn't even crossing her mind.
"I am very positive, and I plan to remain that way," she told the Pilot-Tribune over the weekend. "It doesn't do anybody any good to sit and whine and cry about yourself."
When the local grandmother was most recently reelected, she had told herself that she wanted one more term on the hill, for which she would come up for election this fall.
"And I'm still up for that," she said.
Last fall, Freeman was asked to take part in Upper Des Moines Opportunity's "Walk a Mile" program, which pairs a local leader with a person living in poverty in their community, and requires them to spend time together. Freeman had to spend the season living on $154 a month, the amount a single woman on welfare in Iowa would qualify for. "I went over, but not by much. It was a learning experience for both of us," she reflects.
Freeman arranged for herself and her partner, single mom and student Mieghan Middleton of Storm Lake, to ride along with an area State Patrol officer for a night around Thanksgiving. That was the same day she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She, as anyone who knows her would not be surprised to find, went on patrol that night anyway.
"My first thought was that the real important thing was whether I was going to be able to spend enough time on the hill representing people as I was elected to do," she explained. "In fact, I arranged for treatments to be done mainly in Des Moines, so that I can go back and forth and be in the chamber when crucial voting times come up."
She is not yet certain of how her chemo-
therapy schedule will play out, and she notes that she will by doctor's orders have to depend on others to drive her for at least a couple of weeks.
"You know, when I found out about the cancer, I knew right away that it was bigger than anything I could
handle. I put it in the Lord's hands," she said.
"I'm not going to let it make me pout. There are many women around here that have been through this and are very much positive and productive people."
Some, like local judge and breast cancer survivor Mary Timko, have already heard of the diagnosis and thrown support Freeman's way. "It's your own personal journey to make, but it always helps to be able to talk to someone who knows what you are feeling."
Freeman is not yet certain if her experience will color the way she views health issues in the statehouse.
"I hadn't considered that," she reflects. "I can say that I have been approached by other cancer victims asking why insurance companies will cover a breast cancer prosthesis but not the cost of wigs when the victim's hair falls out. That may be a small thing, but to people who have been through it, it's an issue."
And issues are what Mary Lou Freeman does best.
While she would appreciate the prayers of her constituents, she wants to talk about getting to work.
"I've kept up on the issues through this," she says. "I'm ready to go."
Among the debates that will be key this session are gambling, teacher salaries and the environment.
"I do believe the gambling thing will definitely be an issue. The concerns over the TouchPlay lottery machines has brought the gambling issues back to the forefront," Freeman said. Although she has been one of a minority of lawmakers to warn the state about becoming addicted to gambling revenues, she admits that it would be hard for the state to backtrack on gaming now.
"At this point, I'm assuming that everything we have on gambling today would be grandfathered in with any new legislation. I know The Depot in Alta is looking to put in two more of the lottery machines, and they are really all over now," Freeman said. "The state has gone quite far into this."
Teacher salaries should dominate the discussions on education, Freeman predicts. "This is definitely something the governor wants us to look at, and I think it will get plenty of attention."
She is pleased that environment seems to be poised for legislative focus as well. "Water quality is expected to get a lot of attention, and rightfully so." Freeman said. "I am very hopeful we can get more targeted money to put into the watersheds, like Storm Lake's. I think we have the opportunity to do something meaningful, not a Band-Aid here and there."
Property taxation will be addressed, as well.
Sexual predator laws will be hotly debated, as the public demands strong protections and convicted offenders demand their rights.
"Whether anything will come of this depends on how much bipartisan agreement we can produce. We have found that you can't blanket everything with a one-size-fits-all law," she said. "I think you have to be able to make it tough on the true pedophile, while you try and work with some of the other people. We have people who have been involved with what they thought was a consentual sexual act, or have been with someone who lied about their age, and our laws currently treat them the same as the honest-to-god pedophile."
One issue she would just as soon not see is the likely return to the perpetual death penalty debate.
"I don't think we should even address that," she said. "The Senate is going to try to work the death penalty up as the issue that regains control for the Republicans. It is mostly about posturing," said Freeman.
The former Senator and now member of the Iowa House, despite her own GOP standing, is longing for a truly bipartisan session.
"There are a number of us from both parties that seem to get along with each other equally well on either side of the aisle. That makes me hopeful that we can have a bipartisan session," she said. "When it gets to the point that elected officials can't show a basic respect for each other because of party politics, it should not be the way that it is. We are all responsible adults, and we have been elected by people who are counting on us to do a job, not fight each other."
While candidates position themselves for the looming governor's race, Freeman is quick to share some respectful words for Democrat Tom Vilsack.
"From what I have heard from him, he isn't going to let himself become a lame duck," Freeman said. "I believe he is leading the way on a lot of issues, and I can assure you that he has no intention of just sitting back now," Freeman said. "I have respect for the governor as a friend and a colleague, even though we have not always agreed. He has certainly worked to promote his agenda, and one would assume that is what voters elected him to do. I think it would behoove lawmakers to work with him."
For Freeman, cancer is just another issue to deal with and move forward.
"I'm still enjoying what I do," she said. "I'm looking forward to being able to be on the hill as much as I possibly can and functioning as other cancer survivors have - with a high degree or normalcy."
There is the same not-to-be-messed-with lilt to her voice that she has when she feels strongly about an issue on schools or lakes.
"You could say I'm counting on it."