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Discussion: Iowa Congressional District #1

posted on October 23, 2008 at 3:30 PM

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Three of the wealthiest counties in Iowa are in the first district along with two of the three poorest counties.  Two years ago the congressional race was wide open featuring strong candidates from both the major parties debating a litany of issues.  This time around the economy is dominating the political landscape

Paul Yeager: No one understands this better than two who have both run as candidates.  Michael Blouin, in fact, represented the district from 1975 to 1979.  He later, among other posts, served as director of Iowa's Department of Economic Development and today is the president of the Greater Dubuque Development. 

Brian Kennedy of Bettendorf is an attorney and has been active in politics in various capacities.  Two years ago he was the one of the three seeking to be the republican candidate in the congressional election.  Both of these gentlemen know the district well and we welcome you both to The Iowa Journal. 

First Brian I'm going to ask you, you've got to have the short-term memory of the district.  What has changed in two years since you ran?

Brian Kennedy: Well, not too much has changed.  I think on the issue front you see the economy emerging front and center.  Eastern Iowa really didn't have the boom that a lot of the country did over the past decade and so consequently we're not seeing the bust.  But we're not immune to the global economy and so as things slow down you're hearing the projects that were planned to go forward that maybe financing is not there.  I think over the next several months we'll increasingly feel the impact of the global economy slowing down.

Paul Yeager: Mike, you represented part of this district when it was known as a different district and you've been out of the area but now you're back in Dubuque.  What has changed since the time you represented it and ran as a candidate, ran economic development?  Now that you're back in the heart of it what has changed for you from your perspective?

Michael Blouin: Well, Dubuque is a very different community than it was in the late 70s, early 80s.  The city in 1981 had among the highest unemployment rates in the entire nation, 23% for a couple of months.  A lot of that industry that was predominantly blue collar in those days has gone through either transition or disappeared all together and the city has come back with a vengeance I think in the last eight to ten years especially but fifteen years it has reinvented itself, it has found a way to diversify its base, make itself less subject to a recession and more available to folks of various educational backgrounds.  But it's still Dubuque and it's still a river town.

Paul Yeager: In your eyes has that shift from blue to white been good for Dubuque and the region?

Michael Blouin: I think it has because it allows us to feed, if you will, the kinds of occupational opportunities for a broader region than just Dubuque.  We've got 5000 people that commute in from Wisconsin every day, another 5000 from Illinois and probably as many if not more that commute from the surrounding counties.  While Jackson County is one of those two poorest counties in the state a lot of those folks have the opportunity to take fairly good jobs out of Dubuque and bring that home.  So, it's a much stronger, healthier, more vibrant community and economy.

Paul Yeager: In other district profiles we've talked about a rural versus urban battle and that doesn't seem to be the case in this district because of Jackson County, as Mike is alluding to, drive to Dubuque or they might even drive to Davenport.  Is there that divide between rural and urban as much in this district?

Brian Kennedy: Clearly there are farms, we have small towns and we have these three urban centers.  But the rural counties seem to associate themselves with those metropolitan areas and I think that there's more of a sense of community around that.  So, Dubuque has done a fantastic job and it's interesting because it's so far from Des Moines and kind of the epicenter of the state here but what you see is in a community like Dubuque where local leadership and local initiative can really make a difference and as a result the economy has to diversify in order to grow.

Paul Yeager: Is that a model for two of the other big towns?

Brian Kennedy: I think so and they both are making progress in that regard particularly in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, the piece featured what is going on at Rath but you go over to Cedar Falls and you see lots of entrepreneurial activity, kind of spin offs and initiatives related to what goes on at the University of Northern Iowa.  In the Quad Cities as well I think you've seen a lot more entrepreneurial activity than we've seen traditionally.  So, the economy is changing.  We had the tough times in the early 80s when the manufacturing jobs left.  Another wave of that came in the 90s when some of the smaller manufacturers moved on but the economy has managed to diversify.

Paul Yeager: So, really the 80s kind of got us ready for the 90s and the 2000s when we had that frustration in the blue collar jobs?

Brian Kennedy: Well, and the question is now with the next big challenge, if the global economic slow down impacts eastern Iowa in a big way are we able to respond?  I think we are better than we ever have before.  The education institutions throughout the district are strong, we have a more diverse economy, you have a hard working educated workforce.  I think we'll be okay.

Paul Yeager: So, put your hat back on as a possible candidate, I'm not saying that you are by any means, but are these things that a candidate needs to discuss in any district, especially this one, about the issues or are there other things?

Michael Blouin: I would think a candidate for any office in either party needs to be aware of the transition that is taking place in eastern Iowa especially.  Davenport and Bettendorf have learned how to play, if you will, with the Illinois counterparts in a way that was almost unheard of not too many decades ago and it has helped the entire economy of that region.  Clinton is trying to find its identity and I think it's close to having worked it out, it's got a very good and improving infrastructure and the mindset there has gone from we can't get it done to yes we can.  And as you start to see those pieces happen the candidates whoever they are for whatever office need to be aware that this attitude is very, very positive today.  It's an attitude of can do, it's a very strong self-confidence for the most part throughout that district if I'm reading it right.  That doesn't have to be avoided, it has to be embraced and those folks need to be encouraged to continue down their successful paths.

Paul Yeager: So, there's certainly some history there and Brian I think you had told me that one thing that you picked up from the campaign was the traditions in a lot of these communities.  How does that role in traditions in those communities translate into someone understanding their needs and how they can grow as a district?

Brian Kennedy: Well, people take great pride in their communities, they take great pride in their affiliations, their churches, their service clubs, the high school teams and a real sense of community.  And in some ways that's a great strength for the area and in some ways it's a challenge because there is a resistance to change.  With new people coming in is that going to change our church festival, is that going to change our town's celebration in some way.  So, that's part of what we struggle with but it also tells you a little bit about the politics of the district and the incumbents tend to do well in eastern Iowa and throughout Iowa frankly but in eastern Iowa we see that, incumbents tend to get re-elected because people pretty much want to keep things the way they were.

Paul Yeager: And the way they were was different two years ago, wide open race.  How has that race shaped what is going on there now since it was so wide open?

Brian Kennedy: I think part of it is they kind of blew off some of the political energy.  It was such an active race, in 2004 we were the swing part of the swing state in the presidential race, both Kerry and Bush were campaigning there all the time.  One week we had both of them in Davenport the same day and things were held up on the other side of town.  And then in 2006 we had a very heated, contested congressional race and a gubernatorial race and everything going on.  And I think in 2008 after the caucuses so much of the energy was dispensed that in fact it's been kind of quiet over there throughout the 2008 general election.

Paul Yeager: Do you agree with those statements, Mike?

Michael Blouin: I don't follow the elections as close as I probably ought to because it's not something that I make my living off of but Iowans are well described by the way Brian just described the second district and I wouldn't necessarily say the air has gone out because I sense -- Dubuque is always a political town -- I sense a lot of interest in Dubuque.  You drive down any street there's yard signs everywhere and our door has been knocked on multiple times and we're not an easy street to get to, you've got to want to go there if you're going to walk up and down those hills.  But it's probably not the peak of energy that was there in the caucus in both parties.

Paul Yeager: Does that have anything to do with the candidates that are running or is it just there was that big excitement and now there's a big let down?

Brian Kennedy: Well, I think the presidential race is where all the action is and to the degree that Senator Obama is from neighboring Illinois right across the river, it's a swing part of the state and it kind of tends to trend with what the national trend is and with the economy being the dominant issue I think Senator Obama has benefited from that in eastern Iowa.  But at the same time we've see in Iowa all these time these races tend to kind of close up but as you move down the ticket we really don't have many competitive races at the U.S. Senate level, the House level, a lot of legislative races in eastern Iowa.

Paul Yeager: So, that will take the steam out of it a little bit.  Let's talk about here in the last couple of minutes about the future of this district.  We'll likely see a congressional district fall in four years.  What is the future of the district?  Mike, I'll start with you on this one.

Michael Blouin: In terms of what it looked like?

Paul Yeager: What are some of the issues that we think in the future will have to be addressed?

Michael Blouin: The transitioning economy has got to be a key issue.  In other respects agriculture, manufacturing -- eastern Iowa if you drew a line from Iowa City to the Quad Cities to Dubuque to Waterloo and down you pretty much have the manufacturing nerve center of Iowa.  That is changing.  It's not disappearing and we're probably holding as much manufacturing base as any part of the country but there's a lot of white collar, a lot o 21st century kinds of jobs that are being created all across that district.  Education is an industry in that district when you look at where the post secondary institutions are.  We did a 100 mile circle around Dubuque not too long ago for a client and found 30 post secondary institutions within that circle.  That kind of rivals Boston -- at Cambridge there is a huge concentration of it.  And those issues better be paramount to candidates and office holders for a lot of years to come.

Brian Kennedy: I think economic development and education are always paramount in Iowa politics and will continue to be so in eastern Iowa.

Paul Yeager: And what do you see -- let's talk a little bit about the race itself that is going on right now, not as well known is the republican challenger David Hartsuch is struggling to get a lot of money to get any traction.  He is going against an incumbent.  What is he going to have to do to pull off a fourth quarter rally to get himself into position in this race?

Brian Kennedy: Well, David had a very late start in this race.  As I mentioned in Iowa we tend to favor incumbents and it just doesn't strike you as the type of year that an upset is going to happen in that district.  I think David was running in part to serve the party and to advance a message and his cause, I just don't see it as a race that he's likely to win this time.

Paul Yeager: Mike, I know you're not in the political position as much but handicap the race just a little bit to what you see.

Michael Blouin: I don't anticipate incumbents in Iowa being run out of office in large numbers.  I think there will be spots here and there and they'll have more to do with local personalities than with major issues.  Turnout is going to be good and I think that's being driven not by the U.S. Senate or congressional races, I think it's being driven by the presidential race.

Paul Yeager: Are you seeing early voting very popular?

Brian Kennedy: Absolutely.

Paul Yeager: That's something that you didn't see before so that's kind of interesting.  Any idea what way that is leaning towards this party's voting?

Brian Kennedy: Well, I think the democrats have really made it an initiative, it's a priority for them and have done a great job of going to their voters early, getting them out to vote.  We won't know the results until election day but clearly it's been made a priority and it's something republicans going forward are going to have to look at and understand better to utilize it.

Paul Yeager: That's Brian Kennedy, former chair of the Republican Party of Iowa, candidate in the first congressional district and an attorney from Bettendorf.  Michael Blouin now is in Dubuque where he is president of the Greater Dubuque Development group and I appreciate you coming in tonight for the Iowa Journal.

Tags: 1st Congressional District campaign 2008 Congress deer Dubuque Iowa John Deere manufacturing politics tourism water

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