Carroll High grad Tessa Lengeling shows her party pride at a pro-Obama event on Simpson College’s campus last year. Lengeling volunteered at the event.
Carroll High grad Tessa Lengeling shows her party pride at a pro-Obama event on Simpson College’s campus last year. Lengeling volunteered at the event.
September 12, 2013

They say she is on the "fast track."

A 2012 Carroll High School graduate, Tessa Lengeling plans to finish her education a year early, next May, with degrees in political science and integrated marketing communications from Simpson College. She worked with the Obama campaign as a freshman and landed two internships the following summer. She opted to work for the Iowa Democratic Party in Des Moines.

The decision proved fruitful. Lengeling connected with party leaders and candidates throughout the state, networking that led to her current involvement with Bruce Braley's Senate campaign and her position as campus co-chair of the new student arm of Tyler Olson's campaign for governor.

"I think it's just ingrained in me," Lengeling said of her love for politics, recalling her first Democratic vote in a fifth-grade mock presidential election. Though her own family wasn't that political, Lengeling was drawn to the issues and loved history and social-studies classes. As President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign unfolded, she paid attention to the news, sharing jokes with her high school teachers.

"Politics get me excited about upcoming events. I like to get out and meet people. I like to know that I helped this change happen, or this person get elected that I am passionate about," Lengeling explained. "It's a great way to connect, be involved in a community, state or nation and really put your stamp on the world."

Born and raised in Carroll, Lengeling said that her teachers helped forge her motivation. She credits her drive to excel, and much of her success, to the work ethic instilled in her at a young age by her parents, Nadine and the late Robert Lengeling. The youngest, and only female, of seven siblings, Lengeling said her brothers are proud of and excited for her, even when they don't agree with her political leanings.

Her enthusiasm for her work is clear.

Lengeling describes Olson as "young," "personable," and "down to earth." From the Cedar Rapids area, Olson has served four terms in the Iowa House of Representatives and is vice president of Paulson Electric, a fourth-generation family-owned business. He also fights for early-childhood education, affordable health care and job creation. In 2008 he spent 10 hours debating on the floor of the House to pass the Smoke Free Air Act, legislation Lengeling cites as his greatest accomplishment thus far.

"The governor's position needs a fresh face. Olson wants to be more progressive," she said. "The governor (Terry Branstad) has had six terms and he's done some good things, but Iowa needs someone new, someone with a young perspective, to move forward in the right direction."

She describes Braley as a "grounded" leader who listens. A U.S. representative since 2007, he hopes to be the Democratic candidate to fill the shoes of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin in a position that has not been open in nearly 30 years. In addition to Braley's experience in Washington, D.C., Lengeling cited "small-town values" and his work with veterans as two of his key qualifications. He has surpassed the 7,000 signatures needed to get his name on the ballot and already received Harkin's endorsement, Lengeling added.

"He's a politician, but he also is a normal person who will sit down and drink a beer with you. He's not so formal," she said, recalling a party event where she witnessed Braley sit down and chat with a senior woman who approached him. "He listened, and he takes those opinions and concerns back to Washington and fights for them."

Lengeling said neither candidate is above compromise. Both are targeting the young voter.

The 19-year-old spends a couple days a week in Braley's Des Moines office working on assorted campaign activities. Her work on the "Students for Olson" campaign is more promotional in nature this early in the game. She describes herself as the "liaison" on campus, working to recruit volunteers and engage fellow students through social media. On Sunday, Harkin will be holding his annual steak fry near Indianola, where Simpson College is located. Lengeling said she already has about 20 volunteers lined up.

"It's hard to get people involved when it's not a presidential election," she said. "So far, we've had a really good response."

Vice President Joe Biden and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro are scheduled to be featured speakers at the event.

Though she enjoys campaign work, Lengeling said, knocking on doors and making phone calls gets old fast, as well as carving a particularly unstable career path. Always wired in via Twitter of Facebook, she said that she prefers promoting and organizing events. She hopes to one day work with multiple candidates in a variety of regions through the state Democratic Party, or run communications for an organization or issues campaign. Her dream job is press secretary for the White House or a governor.

"Politics are important," Lengeling said. "They can be messy and confusing, but they're also a great way to make a change, have a voice and be heard."