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New meaning to PTO


Each January, 150 Iowans make the Statehouse their home away from home as they settle in for three and a half months of committee meetings, debates and votes that often stretch well into the evening hours.

And this isn’t even their full-time job.

Among the lawmakers are several Greater Des Moines professionals who must split their precious time among legislative, family and career responsibilities, leaving them to take a deep, cleansing breath as April comes to a close.

“If you really like it, it doesn’t get too tiresome,” said Rep. Libby Jacobs, a West Des Moines Republican. “But the days do tend to get long. When we’re in session and going through a lot of bills, we can easily be here for 14 hours a day.

In addition, Jacobs, director of community development for Principal Financial Group Inc., manages to put in 20 to 30 hours a week for her employer during the legislative session. When the session adjourns next month, she’ll return to a standard 40-hour workweek, but will still put in eight to 12 hours a week on legislative work.

“I have a fabulous staff and the company has been very wonderful,” said Jacobs, who is in her sixth term in the Iowa House. “They understand that I may drop a few balls, but it hasn’t been career-ending yet.”

She said she was “bitten by the political bug” at a young age. Her father served six years in the Nebraska Legislature, and she worked on her first political campaign, a race for Nebraska governor, at age 12. After earning a degree in political science from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Jacobs said, she dabbled in politics as a volunteer, until the former representative from her district, Dottie Carpenter, hinted that it was time to pass the torch.

“At the time, I thought she was kind of crazy,” Jacobs said. “But the more I thought about it, the more I really wanted to do it.”

She became a “guinea pig” for Principal, which instituted a public service leave when Jacobs was elected. The company allows employees to, depending on the length of their employment, either take time off or be temporarily excused, enabling them to become more involved in the community.

Still, family always comes first. Her daughters, now ages 14 and 19, long ago became accustomed to Jacobs’ schedule. Her husband becomes the one “who keeps the family together.”

Rep. Janet Petersen’s family obligations, coupled with her heavy schedule in the Iowa House of Representatives, forced her to make a career change. Now in her third term, the Des Moines Democrat left her job at Strategic America after her first year in office and after becoming a new mother. Now, with two children, she works between legislative sessions on a freelance basis, doing marketing and communications work for various companies, and otherwise dedicates her time to family matters.

“You look at people up her and see that they have everything together,” said Petersen, 34. “I’m flying out the door with bottles and knapsacks, making sure there’s not spit-up on my shoulder.”

But her dedication to family has also influenced her legislative priorities. In 2003, she delivered her second child, a daughter, who was stillborn. The loss inspired her to push a bill, signed into law last year, that calls for research into the causes and prevention of stillbirths by expanding the state’s birth defects registry.

“We need more women up here,” Petersen said. “I hate for women to feel like they have to wait until their kids are grown up if they have an interest in politics.”

Sen. Matt McCoy, whose district encompasses the southwest part of Des Moines, headed to the Statehouse at age 25, having worked on a number of local and national campaigns with the Democratic Party. Thirteen years later, he said a supportive employer has been the most important thing for him during his time in office – that and constant access to e-mail.

“I do a lot of work at home every evening on my e-mails,” said McCoy, vice president of community development for the Downtown Community Alliance. “It’s a balancing act making sure that at the end of the day everybody has been responded to.”

He joined the DCA one year ago on the understanding that for three and a half months each year, the majority of his time would be spent away from the office. But he’s in constant contact, whether by e-mail or cell phone, and is in the office Monday mornings, Thursday afternoons and all day on Fridays. He tries to stop in most other days to check his calendar and pick up messages.

“My personal life just goes on hold during session,” said McCoy, who still managed to spend one night last week on a campout with his 5-year-old son. “This year, I intend to take a little time off at the end of the session and regroup and recharge my batteries. But I change gears pretty quickly.”

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