Iowa Public Television

 

Rep. Christopher Rants

posted on February 15, 2008

Borg: Lines in the sand. Republicans in Iowa's General Assembly don't have the majority votes to enforce their legislative priorities. Instead Republicans are hoping to influence the Democratic majority's legislative agenda. We're talking with House Republican Minority Leader Christopher Rants on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation; The Iowa Bankers Association, for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. Any by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure; by Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities where faculty teach and students learn. Iowa's Private Colleges employ over 10,000 Iowans and enroll 25% of Iowa's higher education students. More information is available at thinkindependently.com.

On statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, February 15th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Iowa's scheduled 100-day legislative session is considering some very high profile issues, possibly expanding the beverage container deposit law, considering where and how -- where to build and how to pay for a new maximum security prison and constructing and maintaining Iowa's highways just to name a few. Perhaps just as important, though, at least to the minority Republicans is what isn't on the agenda and that is looking ahead at this fall's election and possibly re-gaining majority control of the Iowa legislature. For some insight on both areas we're talking today with Christopher Rants who leads the Republican current minority in the Iowa House of Representatives. Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Rants: Thanks for having me back.

Borg: And here at the table too Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Representative Rants, let's start off with the basics. We're heading into a legislative set of elections. Are you running again?

Rants: Absolutely.

Glover: And are you heading up the legislative election efforts in the House?

Rants: Yes, we've got a good leadership team that is very involved, Craig Paulsen from Cedar Rapids-Hiawatha area is taking on an additional leadership role in doing that. We sort of split some of the duties but fundraising, candidate recruitment, overall strategy I'm involved with that on a day-to-day basis.

Glover: And let's look at the big picture, what are your chances?

Rants: I like our chances for the fall campaign. I mean, Dean just mentioned some of the issues that we're talking about this session so a lot of issues Republicans think should be on the agenda that are not be it property tax relief, be it higher standards for education, trying to make healthcare more affordable and portable for Iowans. Those are the kinds of issues Republicans will be talking about this fall and we think that voters are disappointed with sort of the left wing, big labor, liberal social agenda that has been pushed in Des Moines right now, they're looking for a return to some of those bread and butter, kitchen table kind of issues that Republicans are putting on the agenda.

Glover: Any races in particular stand out as places where you think you have a really good chance to make a change?

Rants: Well, there aren't very many Democratic retirements but there is one in particular that is very important for us, Representative Dandikar is retiring in Lynn County, that is one that we feel very good about picking up. There are a number of freshman Democrats be it Eric Palmer, be it Elesha Gayman are really out of step with their constituencies. They have been out in favor of things like getting Iowa's right to work law, they've been out in favor of things like raising property taxes in the state. Those are places where we think we can make easy gains.

Henderson: Voters have also been talking about this presidential campaign. You were an early and ardent supporter of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor. What went wrong?

Rants: Gee, where do you start? I think the Governor was -- I still believe Mitt Romney was the right guy. I believe that but unfortunately he couldn't close the deal in the early states. He bet very big on Iowa and he bet very big on New Hampshire. His strategy was to win those early states. We didn't respond early enough I think to Mike Huckabee's surge. A lot of people go back and will say, you know, should we have continued to play in the straw poll after some of the other names got out like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani? But, you know, ultimately people make a decision for a lot of different reasons and Governor Romney couldn't put it together. He ran very strong in a lot of states. I think what makes a difference in some of those early states, particularly in places like New Hampshire, is when you allow people to cross over and involve themselves in the primary, when you have Independents and Democrats who may come in to vote in a Republican primary you don't always get the true Republican candidate.

Henderson: You've mentioned the straw poll. Should your party have that straw poll in August in Ames in advance of the caucuses? In essence, as some people say, you're taking two bites of the apple, you're trying to have two first contests.

Rants: Well, I think it's been good for our party. I imagine we'll continue to do it in the future. I think we'll probably re-evaluate the emphasis that is placed on it because a lot of the candidates and campaigns are concerned about the expense that is associated with it but I don't imagine that the straw poll is going to go away.

Glover: Can you put a little bit finer analysis on this whole Mitt Romney thing? How much was he hurt by the presence of Mike Huckabee in a race which, in essence, forced a split amongst the right wing and Republican Party?

Rants: He was hurt by two things. Part of it was the Mike Huckabee factor. But also the fact that the moderate candidates, the John McCain's and the Rudy Giuliani's got out of the race all together. So, a lot of -- you weren't dividing up the Republican vote really into three different camps, you were really trying to just divide up the conservative part of the Republican vote. The moderates weren't necessarily involved. I think that perhaps hurt Governor Romney as well.

Henderson: It appears that John McCain is the party's standard bearer, Mitt Romney endorsed him this past week. Do you endorse Mr. McCain as well?

Rants: I'll be supporting Senator McCain.

Rants: Look, he's the nominee, the President is going to come out and endorse him next week, he is the nominee of the party. I would prefer John McCain over Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama any day. So, I'll be supporting Senator McCain.

Glover: Is that the level of excitement among Republicans for this nominee?

Rants: I think when we finally find out who the Democratic nominee is and we start exploring their record and their position and we get past this sort of just we believe in change whatever change is or we believe in hope whatever hope is, we really start talking about the issues I think Republicans will come home and they'll get fired up.

Henderson: So, talk to me about John McCain as the top of the ticket draw. Does he help? Does he have any coattails, so to speak, for legislative races?

Rants: I don't believe there are coattails any more for anybody. I think that these decisions -- for us to be successful as Republicans we have to localize our races and we really have to talk to Iowa voters about those issues that matter in their communities and that's what we're going to focus on doing. To the extent that there are coattails that's nice but I don't think anybody counts on them any more.

Borg: What does the caucus turnout, the demographics of the caucus turnout, Iowa's changing demographics, what you just said about well I guess I'll support Senator McCain ...

Rants: I said I'll support Senator McCain. I didn't say, well ...

Borg: It was lukewarm wasn't it at this point to say the most. But anyway, all those factors what does that say to you, Representative Rants, about your legislative chances? That is, that is the same electorate that may be electing, you hope, majority in the House of Representatives.

Rants: Let's be real specific about what the race last time looked like. House of Republicans lost the majority by 1400 votes in this state. Okay, we have to float a little over 700 votes in very specific districts. This presidential race is not going to be hotly contested in Sioux County and it's probably not going to be hotly contested down in say Burlington or Keokuk but it's swing districts that matter. And in those swing districts Republicans lost very small margins. So, if we can float, you know, say 50 votes up in Cedar Falls we pick up another seat. We flip a couple hundred votes over in Council Bluffs, Iowa we pick up another seat. Small margins in a handful of districts are what will make or break the House of Representatives.

Glover: Let's take a bigger picture look at what the challenges, I'll put it this way instead of problems, challenges that the Republican party faces. Democrats have built a roughly 80,000 vote lead in registered voters even though no party voters outnumber both of you. At the caucuses in January Democrats put roughly twice as many activists in pre-caucus as did Republicans including a lot of new voters that helped Barack Obama to his win. Isn't that a structural problem for Republicans to overcome?

Rants: You've got to remember though, Mike, Republicans also turned out in record numbers at the caucuses.

Glover: Exactly.

Rants: We had a huge increase in our caucus turnout. Did it equal what the Democrats did? No, it did not. Am I concerned about that? Absolutely I am. But I think, again, we've got to wait and see just exactly what the fall campaign's turnout or what the fall candidates look like and what the agenda's people are running on. I mean, it's awfully easy to get excited about these ideas about change and hope without really knowing what those mean. I think that the fall election is very different from what we saw in January and, again, my job and what I think Republican candidates have to do a good job at is try to localize the races. I mean, here's the difference for us, okay? Democrats last time ran on some bread and butter issues, kitchen table issues, you know, talked about education and healthcare, things like that and as soon as they came to power in the General Assembly and they control everything from the Governor on down they started talking about things like gutting Iowa's right to work law, we've had four new property tax levies added, property taxes in this state are skyrocketing over the next few years, that is not the agenda that those independents voted for last time around. So, if they continue to talk about that kind of a thing, you know, people may vote one way at the top of the ticket but Iowans are notorious ticket splitters, they're going to come back and give Republicans a second look and I think they'll end up being with Republicans who are talking about trying to control property taxes, talking about higher standards for our kids in education, trying to make healthcare more affordable and portable for Iowa families. I think the issues benefit us.

Henderson: So, are you suggesting that Iowa will be a swing state in 2008? It has been in the past several presidential elections ...

Rants: Yeah, we're the alpha and the omega, we're the first state where the candidates come and we'll be the last state for both parties' presidential candidates to come into. Iowa is a swing state and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Henderson: Your party, Iowa Republicans, have decided to give Senator Harkin a pass this year, there will be no candidate running against him with statewide recognition, name recognition. Why is that?

Rants: Well, I think that our congressional candidates a lot of times we run our candidates for the U.S. Senate out of the congressional seats. None of them have an interest in doing that right now for various reasons. We don't have another statewide person other than Senator Grassley since we don't have the Governor's office any more. I'm not convinced yet that somebody else isn't going to step forward. I mean, Steve Rothge is out there traveling all across the state. I know for a fact there are other people that are thinking about running.

Henderson: Name them.

Rants: But they are not ready to be public yet. If they choose to do so they'll be out there.

Glover: And you do have at least one statewide elected official, State Auditor David Vaudt.

Rants: That's correct, David Vaudt and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey I think they are focused more on the specific jobs that they have to do and right now especially the auditor's job given Governor Culver's budget proposals the auditor has got his hands full right now.

Glover: Let's look at Congress. You have two freshman Democrats completing their first term in Congress. I have not heard of significant opposition for either. This is the time you're going to get a member of Congress if you're ever going to get them. Why aren't you fielding more candidates?

Rants: To be honest, Mike, I can't answer that question for you. My focus has been on the Iowa General Assembly and where we recruit candidates from running the House districts against Democrats I haven't been involved in the effort to recruit congressional candidates.

Glover: Given all that we've just had in this discussion here I'd like you to answer a question that you hear conventional wisdom tell all of us which is 2008 is likely to be a pretty good year for Democrats. You've got a President sitting in the White House whose approval ratings are pretty low, all of Congress to beat you to the punch is even lower, you've got a war in Iraq that most polls show people generally don't support, you've got a Republican nominee who said it's okay to be there for 100 years. Why isn't this a Democratic year?

Rants: I would grant you that nationwide it probably is a good Democratic year. The interesting thing is people want change, well, the Democrats do control Congress. If people want change the Democrats control all branches of state government and I think fundamentally the change people are craving is not the change that the Iowa Democratic Party is giving them. Again, people didn't go to the polls because they wanted to gut Iowa's right to work law. They didn't go to the polls because they wanted the taxes raised. They didn't go to the polls because they wanted to dumb down our educational standards for our kids. Yet that is the kind of thing they got. So, the job for Republicans is to talk to Iowans about the real issues that matter to them and I think fundamentally issues prevail. Iowa tends to be, you know, we often times run counter to what the national trend is and I'm obviously working hard to make sure that happens this time around as well.

Henderson: So, tell me what the issue was in the Al Gore-George W. Bush election.

Rants: You know, to be honest Kay ...

Henderson: If this year ... isn't it personalities?

Rants: Well, occasionally it's personalities but Al Gore and George Bush offered very conflicting visions for the future.

Henderson: And didn't it come down to George Bush was more likeable than Al Gore?

Rants: Well, I found him more likeable. I can't say that everybody else did.

Henderson: Let's step back a little bit and look at the big picture. You have sometimes described yourself as a child of the Reagan revolution. Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Is it time for your party to re-craft its message to America's voters? Because a lot of people my age and younger don't remember Ronald Reagan.

Rants: Well, correct and I am part of that generation, probably the last generation that really has good memory of what the Reagan coalition was like and what the Reagan economic policies were. I think one of the challenges for our party is to continue to reach out and be relevant to younger voters specifically -- sometimes our party has very distinct wings and we need to make sure that the elements of our agenda, the talk about economic freedom, personal freedom, those are the kinds of things that those younger voters are looking for. Sometimes they get turned off with a bit of the social agenda but the fact is when they're concerned about gee, where am I going to get a job? How am I going to be able to afford my healthcare? What kind of school are my kids going to? Those are the issues where they lined up with Republicans, not Democrats. And we need to make sure that we are doing just as much to promote that part of our agenda with those younger voters as anything else.

Henderson: And so those younger voters are going to get ginned up by John McCain, a 71-year-old compared to Barack Obama who is our age?

Rants: That is why initially I supported Governor Romney.

Borg: Let's go back to some legislative issues now.

Rants: Oh, the Iowa General Assembly, sure, that's what I thought I was here to talk about today.

Borg: Statewide smoking ban comes up in the legislature now for debate next week.

Rants: Maybe, we'll see.

Borg: Why do you say maybe?

Rants: Well, I don't know. I was shocked when the majority leader pulled the plug on the debate yesterday.

Borg: On Thursday?

Rants: On Thursday. It was supposed to be scheduled for debate, we prepared for it, there were a lot of amendments filed to it and I thought it had the votes to pass. I mean, there are some Republicans and Democrats that are supportive of it, there are some Republicans and Democrats that are concerned about elements of the bill and had amendments to it and for whatever reason they decided to pull the plug because they didn't get an amendment filed. Come on, they could have filed that amendment to another amendment. We offered them unanimous consent.

Borg: So, you're inferring it's in trouble?

Rants: I think it's in trouble but, you know, again, the Democratic Party will decide if they're going to do that. The key debate, the key debate is not about whether or not we're going to ban smoking in restaurants, okay? And I think that's what most Iowans think about, they think about a smoking ban, they'd just as soon see smoking go away from the restaurants. But I think the Democrats got themselves into a little bit of trouble over the last couple of weeks when they said we're going to exempt casinos, you can go to a bar or a restaurant in a casino but if you go to your neighborhood tavern down the street, no, you can't go smoke in there. We're going to allow smoking in the VFW Hall, you know, the American Legion Hall but you go down to your regular tavern or the Elks Club or the Moose Club or something like that, no, you can't smoke there. In fact, in certain circumstances you can't even smoke a cigar on a golf course and I think some people are saying well, wait a minute, why do you have exemptions for some people and not for others? And I think that is where they've gotten themselves into trouble and we'll see if they figure that out.

Glover: Let's put a finer point on it if we could. Do you personally favor a statewide ban on indoor smoking?

Rants: Statewide in all places? No, I don't. I'm a private property rights kind of guy. I believe that people should be able to make that decision, they make an economic decision. I've talked to some bar owners that have banned smoking and they have seen their business go up. I know some other bar owners who believe that a ban on smoking in a bar would just destroy their business. So, everybody has the freedom to make that kind of a decision. I specifically think, I think it's very hypocritical to say that we're going to allow smoking in a bar in a casino because boy, we don't want to see those casino profits go down because the state benefits from that but yet they don't care about the profits of the bar owner, you know, who is typically a really small business person, that's their livelihood.

Henderson: So, Mr. Sioux City legislator with a casino in your town would you vote to ban smoking in the casino?

Rants: I'm not going to vote for a statewide ban on smoking period. I don't think that that's the right thing to do. I believe in people's decisions to control their own property and make decisions, economic decisions whether they think it helps them or hurts them. You know, I don't smoke, I don't drink and I don't gamble so it doesn't impact me personally anyway but I think you need to be sensitive to people's private property rights.

Glover: Taking a larger look at it you say you have some Republicans in your caucus who support it, you have some Republicans who are against it.

Rants: Absolutely, there are Republicans and Democrats on both sides of this issue.

Glover: And you think it's in a bit of trouble right now. Will Republicans in the House be working to help bring that to a vote or get it away of bringing that to a vote?

Rants: Republicans have offered several different amendments, one to allow smoking on farms. The bill currently in many cases restricts farmers from smoking on their own property. So, we have an amendment to try to help with that. We have an amendment that says that, you know, if you're in an age restricted facility, you're going into a tavern or a bar at night it would allow smoking there just like we're allowing smoking at the casinos. I think if those two amendments pass I think the bill moves forward fairly easily.

Glover: Let's turn to another issues that's in some trouble at the Hill, at least if you listen to Democrats. Governor Culver has proposed doubling the deposit on bottles and cans, expanding the number of containers covered by that law. He has since scaled back that proposal to eliminate the doubling and to focus more on just the types of containers. Democrats say even that scaled back proposal is dead. Do you agree?

Rants: I think that is probably dead as well but who knows what next week will bring. Governor Culver has had four proposals in, you know, since sessions started, four proposals in eight weeks. So, he may have another proposal next week too that does something else so let's wait and see what the Governor comes up with next. But the proposal as he has it right now I don't think that people will find the votes to pass that.

Glover: And where are Republicans on that? Or is that a partisan issue?

Rants: It's not a partisan issue. I've got members of my caucus that are very concerned about the redemption centers, I've got members of my caucus that would like to see us really do something bold. We're concerned about litter, let's focus on curbside recycling, I mean, rather than just trying to add a little bit more that Iowans have to take back to their grocery stores, where do we stop? Why not, you know, include the cardboard and styrofoam and other things like that? If we're really serious about cleaning up our environment we ought to do something bold on curbside recycling. But every time we've tried to push that the bottle bill advocates get very concerned about that so, you know, we seem to be frozen in the ice on that issue.

Henderson: Let's talk about the gas tax. There appears to be some proposal up there which would raise the license fees for newly purchased vehicles in Iowa as a means of raising money to fix roads and bridges and build new roads and bridges in Iowa. Is that something you support? Do you think that is the correct approach?

Rants: I haven't made up my mind on that issue personally and to be honest I'm trying very hard not to come out and take a strong position and the reason being because I know when I speak I speak for my party and that, you know, can tend to politicize the issue. This shouldn't be a political issue, it shouldn't be a political issue. You've got a lot of different groups right now that are advocating that something be done to fund additional road or bridge construction and I believe that they are correct, that something should be done. It is problematic right now because we're not discussing all of the different elements we have to fund road construction. You basically either have fuel tax and/or registration charges. The Governor took the idea of the fuel tax off the table.

Henderson: Do you think it should be put back on?

Rants: I had two different chambers of commerce in my office this week, one from western Iowa and one from eastern Iowa, that all think it ought to be back on the table. They say why is it that you would only raise the tax on people who live here in Iowa with the registration costs but that 18-wheeler that is coming out of Illinois or coming out of Nebraska and tearing up our roads just as much, they're not paying anything for that. I think that some Democrats as well think that the fuel tax ought to be back on the table but it's not going to be this year. I think we have a take it or leave it sort of option. Are we going to raise the registration costs on trucks -- and there's a lot of different trucks, large trucks and small trucks? And are we going to raise it on cars as well? And that is what we've asked, I've encouraged my members to go home and have that conversation with their constituents because if nothing is done projects like Highway 30, the I-29 corridor, projects like Highway 20, they're not going to get funded any time soon. So, are people willing to bit the bullet or not? I think we're going to find that out over the next month.

Glover: To your personal position are you a take it or leave it guy?

Rants: Well, I haven't made up my mind on that.

Glover: And turning to another issue that is before this legislature there is a lot of talk about building a new prison to replace the current maximum security prison in Fort Madison. Governor Culver has come up with a bonding proposal to pay for it. Where are you on that? Do we need a new prison in Fort Madison? Is that the way to go about paying for it? And should it be in Fort Madison?

Rants: I think there are multiple problems out there. The first problem being the Governor's bonding proposal, okay. This is a little bit like the whole sub-prime market, I mean, he wants to go out and bond and pay interest only and not pay any of the principal. At the same time he is proposing that we bond for $200 million, he is suggesting that we take $90 million a year out of our infrastructure fund for other purposes but we wouldn't have to bond at all if we just used the money in the infrastructure fund to build the new prison. So, that is one problem.

Borg: You're saying the money is there?

Rants: Yes, the money is in the infrastructure fund today but he wants to use the money that is for infrastructure for other human service needs and then go bond and pay only interest for the first several years to pay for the prison. Well, we shouldn't build it, we should do pay as you go frankly on that prison situation. The second question really is, is Fort Madison the right place to do it? I know there are a lot of folks that want to put it there because you've got the workforce there, that is a community that is already attune to that. But a lot of people are asking does it really make sense to put it there given where the whole process flow is for intake on prisoners. How do you put them in the right categories? How do you deal with them when they have medical problems? You have to take them back up to Iowa City. We just built a new facility around the Newton area and there is additional land there. Wouldn't it make more sense for the state maximum security prison to be more centrally located? And so a lot of our members believe that we ought to be taking a go slow approach to this getting more information about where the prisoners are coming from. We're not sold on the fact that it has to be in Fort Madison.

Glover: And you're not sold on the fact that it has to be done this year? You're willing to wait a year?

Rants: That's correct. I'm not sold on the fact that we should bond for it, first of all. If we're going to build a new prison we should do pay as you go. We have the money to do that.

Glover: Are you sold on the fact that we need to replace the prison at Fort Madison which dates before the Civil War?

Rants: I think that, yes, I think it's time that we reevaluate where we house maximum security prisoners.

Borg: That's a terrific new fight, location, if you're going to bring that up.

Rants: Well, and I think that makes the whole issue more complicated. But again, you put it in Fort Madison all those years ago because, you know, it was along what was at the time the Interstate system of our country. It was along the river but that's not where the population of Iowa is and that is not our method of transportation to take people down there. I'm not sure if you were doing it from scratch today, if you were starting this process from scratch and we had no maximum security prison anywhere, we were going to build one you probably wouldn't pick Fort Madison just like you probably wouldn't pick say, you know, Sioux Center, Iowa. You'd pick some place more geographically centered.

Borg: I'm sorry that we're out of time. Thanks so much for taking time to be with us today. On our next edition of Iowa Press we're switching to the legislative Democrats' perspective talking with the Speaker of the House of Representatives Pat Murphy of Dubuque. And you'll see our conversation with Speaker Murphy at the usual Iowa Press airtimes, 7:30 next Friday night and 11:30 next Sunday morning. I hope you'll watch. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation; The Iowa Bankers Association, for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. Any by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure; by Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities where faculty teach and students learn. Iowa's Private Colleges employ over 10,000 Iowans and enroll 25% of Iowa's higher education students. More information is available at thinkindependently.com.


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