Coffee shops and public policy were mainstays of Janet Petersen’s life long before she was first elected to the Iowa General Assembly.

“Most of my ideas come out of coffee shop conversations,” she said. “You can get a lot accomplished in a coffee shop.”

She wasn’t looking for it, but the blueprint for a life in the public eye probably was drawn out while she was a young girl growing up in Beaverdale, where her family moved from Pella shortly before she was born.

Her father had been recruited to Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. He died a few years later, and her mother, not wanting to return to a small town as a single woman, landed a job as a lobbyist for a coalition of churches.

“I don’t know if she knew what a lobbyist was when she took the job. It was baptism by fire for her,” Petersen said. “I was just starting preschool and my sister was in first grade, and we just grew up talking about public policy issues around the table.”

Petersen has been in the Iowa Legislature for 17 years, first as a state representative, now as a state senator. For all that time, she has represented a district she knows well.

“I live less than a quarter mile from the house where I grew up,” she said.

Having grown up around remarkable women, she was a student of women in politics. Still, when she took a telephone call wondering whether she was interested in running for a soon-to-be-vacated seat in the Iowa House, she wasn’t quick to respond.

“I really didn’t have intentions of running at that point. I was still in my 20s, but my boyfriend and I at the time had lost friends who left Iowa for different cities, and we wanted young people to stay here; we need young people at the table focusing on public policy issues that will make Iowa a place they want to stay. So, I decided to take the plunge,” Petersen said.

She has been at the forefront of key policy debates.

“I’ve gotten to see a lot of amazing things since I started in the Legislature,” she said. “I’ve seen the expansion of civil rights, gay marriage issue; no one thought we could get smoke-free Iowa (my youngest asked me what an ashtray was and I thought we have come a long way).”

Petersen had a life-changing experience 14 years ago when her second child, Grace, was stillborn. She died of a knot in her umbilical cord five days before her due date. With four friends, Petersen founded a nonprofit organization called Healthy Birth Day and launched the Count the Kicks campaign, which teaches expectant parents the importance of and a method for tracking their baby’s movement in the third trimester.

The effort now has an international presence, including an app that parents can use to monitor their baby’s movements with the touch of a finger.

Grace died nearly 83 years to the day after her grandmother lost a baby.

“I thought how isolated she must have felt,” Petersen said. “How different it is now with this platform we have available to us to reach people all around the world.”

Three Areas of Influence

  • Being in the Senate gives you the power to influence.
  • Never being scared to ask for help. “I think that gives you influence.”
  • Having tenacity. “I’ve been told I’m kind of tenacious. I show up and stick with.”