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New Faces in New Places: Representative Kraig Paulsen

posted on November 26, 2008

Borg: New faces in new places. Preparing for another legislative session in a minority power role republicans are anointing new leaders. In the House of Representatives it's Linn County's Kraig Paulsen and we're talking with him on this edition of Iowa Press.

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On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, November 28th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: When Iowa's General Assembly convenes on January 12th there will be new faces leading the minority republicans in the house and the senate. Part if not all of the reason for that change is because the republican minority is even more of a minority. In other words, they lost seats in the last election. Senate republicans are now going with Chariton's Paul McKinley replacing Senator Ron Wieck of Sioux City. In the house Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha replacing Sioux City's Christopher Rants. Representative Paulsen, congratulations on the new responsibilities and welcome to Iowa Press.

Paulsen: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

Borg: And across the table I think gentlemen you know from the statehouse and coverage there, Des Moines Register Political Columnist David Yepsen and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Mr. Paulsen, as Dean mentioned in his opening you lost seats in the last election despite a full touted press. What happened?

Paulsen: Well, I think a lot of things. Really if you go back and look the turning point in 2008 for us was in the middle of September when the financial crisis and some of those things started changing. There's no question we had enough really quality candidates running in the right places that we were in the game to be a threat to take back the majority and then the environment just turned on us once again, not dissimilar from 2006 only it occurred a little bit earlier in the cycle.

Glover: How do you fix it?

Paulsen: How do we fix it? Well, I think we start by going out and recruiting really good candidates in those house seats where we can be competitive in again and go back and hopefully the environment and republican label, the republican message will break through all the noise that's out there when you get into election season and we'll perform much better.

Glover: You're either down 56-44 or 55-45, they're still counting and tossing around some districts like that. How long is it going to take you to get back in the ballgame? In the senate Ron Wieck when he was the majority leader said it would take two or three elections. Are you looking at that?

Paulsen: I think in the house with all 100 seats up I think we're going to end up at 56-44. The recount, as you mentioned, is going on in Linn County but I really don't expect anything to change out of that and I think Renee Schulte is going to be a state representative. All 100 seats are up and it's the Iowa House of Representatives, we're going to try to get back in the majority in 2010.

Yepsen: As Dean mentioned you replace Christopher Rants as the republican leader. It's my understanding that the vote of your caucus you won by about two votes. What was your caucus looking for? And what will you do differently than what Mr. Rants did?

Paulsen: Well, I think that as far as the caucus is concerned it was a very respectful discussion. Obviously the caucus, including myself, appreciates the service of Chris Rants. He's one of the longest serving leaders not just in Iowa but in the entire nation and obviously we hold him in very high regard. But it was -- things have life cycles and it was just time for a change. I don't think it was anything personal and surely not between our two personalities or anything along those lines. I don't actually know the exact vote count so maybe you have better information than I do right now. The things that will be different -- I carry myself differently obviously. I would assume I probably have a little bit more muted response or way I address things but I don't think that is for lack of any passion and I don't think you'll see any diminishing in our passion in the republican caucus. When they try to repeal Iowa's Right to Work law we're going to fight tooth and nail. When they try to raise taxes that's not in the best interest of Iowans right now. So, I think you're going to see some of those things the same. Probably what you will see differently is probably you'll see a caucus that is a little bit more people engaging on various issues.

Borg: We are focusing here on what went wrong on the part of legislative leadership in the last election. But it's broader than that or I would ask you, isn't it broader than that? What does the state republican party need to do differently?

Paulsen: Well, I think the state Republican Party is obviously going through a dialogue and an internal discussion on where we're headed and what we're going to do. I really think one of the biggest problems we had in this case -- I appreciate the President, I appreciate that we haven't had an attack in the United States since 2001 and I appreciate the Supreme Court Justice he appointed -- but regardless when someone thought of a republican they didn't think about our message, they didn't think about our elephant, they saw George Bush's face so we had a persona and it eclipsed our message and so we need to move beyond that where it becomes more about what we're talking about.

Borg: What you're saying in the last election the name republican was a stigma?

Paulsen: I think there's some truth to that and I think we saw that in various different polls and it wasn't just our polling, I think all polling showed that in a generic test, that is a test without a name, democrats typically outperform republicans.

Yepsen: How important is what the state party does to republican legislative candidates? I get the impression that the two are kind of operating in separate ordinance.

Paulsen: I think they are as important as they want to be. I know they have the ability to do a lot of productive things. The thing that I have always asked for whether it was my local Linn County central committee or the state central committee is just let's get republicans to show up and vote and that's a good job for the party to do. I'll take care of the rest.

Glover: And the party is looking for a new chair, do you have a favorite?

Paulsen: I do not. In fact, I couldn't even list all the names that are running right now. I know some that are out there but I don't.

Glover: And let's look back at the last election, one of the largest growing minorities is Hispanics. You got killed in the Latino vote. Younger people turned out in this election in record numbers. You got killed among younger people. Those are two emerging parts of the electorate. How do you turn that around?

Paulsen: Well, I think we're going to have to find ways to engage them and I think one of the things we probably haven't done as well as clearly the Obama campaign did is find a way to communicate in a medium that they prefer. I'm thinking specifically with the younger voters and the Internet. The Hispanic voters I actually -- that one I need to think through some more. I don't completely understand that. I think they are typically center right as is the state of Iowa, that's where the Republican Party is, but for whatever reason our message didn't get there.

Yepsen: Well, I'll tell you one reason and the polling has showed that among Latino voters, they get tired of republicans beating up on immigrants. It becomes a hostile sort of message that comes out of the Republican Party.

Paulsen: But I think if you go back and look at the different materials, at least that Iowa house republicans communicate in the message we run, it wasn't us beating up on Latinos, it was the Democratic Party. They sent out hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail talking about illegal immigration and some of them, you know, not necessarily positive with regard to that entire population. It wasn't the Republican Party beating up on them as a group or part of the population or the electorate, that was democrats that were doing that.

Yepsen: Doesn't some of the party's message on social issues, abortion, gay rights, oppose both strongly, doesn't that turn off younger voters, under 30 voters?

Paulsen: My understanding is there is a poll that came out just today, I haven't looked at any detail yet but it sort of indicates that and that is something that we'll have to talk about but there is no question I think that Iowans and I support marriage between a man and a woman and I think that is where we end up being.

Yepsen: My question, Mr. Paulsen, is sort of a balancing act here. Your party doesn't like abortion, it doesn't like gay rights or gay marriage and it doesn't like illegal immigrants yet at the same time you take those positions which fire up your base it also has the effect of turning off even larger segments of the electorate. How are you going to balance the two?

Paulsen: Really that comes down to individual candidates and what they lead with and what they talk about. And we need to also not be confused, republicans are supportive of immigration, it's illegal immigration that there is an issue with. But that was not an issue that republicans led with in this last cycle. Some would say that was a mistake. I don't think so because when you went out and talked with the electorate whether either anecdotally on a one-on-one basis or through the polling data it's all about the jobs and the economy and that's what republicans were talking about.

Glover: And the next election to come up will be a governor's election. I recall talking to democrats in the 1980s when they dominated in the legislature and they said, it really doesn't matter so much who runs the legislature because the governor ends up setting the agenda. Who do you guys have to field against Chet Culver in two years? Do you agree that the governor sets the agenda?

Paulsen: Well, in reverse order I think there's no question that the governor has an opportunity to set the agenda if for no other reason than he's just got the pulpit to speak from and gets heard. So, that is the agenda that just gets more attention regardless of what ultimately ends up getting passed and becomes law. The governor's field as far as on the republican side there are some good people out there. Again, I don't have a favorite so we can avoid that question. But we'll just have to see where that goes. It's going to be a competitive race.

Glover: Who do you have out there?

Paulsen: Well, I don't want to start naming names because I'm going to leave somebody out but there's a number of folks that I think are being talked to ...

Glover: Shouldn't the Republican Party be opening and engaging in this debate right now? It is the next election, Governor Culver is up and running again for re-election if you haven't noticed, raising money, organizing and doing all that. Shouldn't the republicans be engaging in this debate?

Paulsen: I think they are and I think that will all come out as those individual candidates are interested in getting their name out there. That's not my fight today to do that but we need a strong gubernatorial candidate at the top of the ticket, there's no question about that. And if you look at 2008 clearly one of the things that was a problem for us was in those areas where we didn't have some help on the ballot it was a problem for us.

Glover: Look back just a second, what did John McCain do wrong?

Paulsen: Well, I think in Iowa John McCain did several things wrong. First of all, he didn't take Iowa serious early enough. And second of all, his stance on ethanol I think was a serious problem for him and it was not reflective of Iowa republicans.

Yepsen: Was Sarah Palin an asset or a liability to the republican ticket in Iowa?

Paulsen: By the time Election Day showed up I'm not sure one way or the other. There is no question, though, when he announced her selection and as we moved through that process huge asset and I think the trailing effect of that ended up -- I think ultimately she was an asset but no question that the energy she pumped into the republican base probably diminished over time.

Yepsen: And a tactical question here, absentee ballots. For the last several cycles republicans have been defeated by the absentee ballots. Democrats go out, they find more absentee voters and they get them, they put them in the bank. Time and again we've seen races where republicans win the vote on Election Day but then lose it on absentees. Is this a problem? If so, what do you do about it? Some republicans say it's not a problem, our people like to vote on Election Day and we're not going to waste our time with absentees. How do you feel about this?

Paulsen: It depends on what you're talking about. If you're talking about -- I always pick on my wife when I talk about this -- if you're talking about my wife it really doesn't matter whether she votes absentee or on election day because she's going to show up and vote and my guess is she probably knows, well at least I hope she's voting for me. So, if you're talking about that category of voter it probably doesn't really matter when they vote. It's no different whether they vote at 9 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon. But some of the new votes that have been generated, and the democrats have been working very hard at this and it really started to a large extent in 2004 with Americans coming together in moveon.org, they have actually generated new votes. That is a problem. I think that as we look back we did some things with the absentee voting that I think we mitigated some of that damage or the disparity in this last cycle. What we didn't do was address the satellite voting and satellite voting is kind of a new category of early voting that definitely changed things.

Borg: Did that hurt in the last election because of satellite voting or same-day registration?

Paulsen: Same-day registration I haven't seen enough data yet to know for positive. My instincts tell me there was probably some damage. Satellite voting I think there's no question especially as you break it down and look in certain parts of the state where they had more affected programs than others. Scott County, for example, the early vote count there was really quite dramatic.

Glover: Democrats this time specifically targeted voters who they consider marginal voters unlikely to show up but would tend to trend democratic for their absentee and early voting strategy. Isn't that a real tactical, mechanical problem for republicans? Don't you need to get in that ballgame if you hope to succeed?

Paulsen: In a word, yes, absolutely.

Glover: What do you do about it?

Paulsen: Well, I think we've made some strides this year. Obviously we didn't move far enough. We're going to have to match them on that. We're going to have to match them whether that means an investment of putting people on the street or whatever infrastructure is needed there. Yes, that's a problem, generating new votes really regardless of whether they vote early or not is a big problem and they have done a better job than us.

Yepsen: What kind of political environment do you think you're walking into in 2010? You've had a couple of bad cycles. Democrats have a huge registration edge now in Iowa over republicans, they outstrip you on the voting effort, they have raised more money in most of these legislative races, they have an advantage of incumbency. Is this going to be a tough environment for you even in 2010?

Paulsen: It will always be a tough environment, it's the Iowa political world and that will be. But I think the generic atmosphere -- history would tell us it's going to improve and some would argue and put a pretty sound argument together that it's going to be a dramatically improved environment for us. But a lot of that is going to be determined also by, again, the top of the ticket and what sort of dialogue is occurring in the gubernatorial race.

Yepsen: So, Obama may not be as popular in 2010 as he is now and the economy could still be bad, George Bush wont' be around.

Paulsen: I think all of those things are correct or at least have the potential to be correct.

Yepsen: Let's move off of politics for a little bit and turn to some of the issues in front of the legislature. One of the issues that is floating around up there is the notion of raising the gas tax. You have said republicans don't want to raise taxes and other people say that's a fee, not a tax that you pay to use our roads. How will the republicans in the Iowa house come down on the question of raising the gas tax or not? Democrats are saying we're not going to do this unless there are going to be republican votes up there on the board too. So, where do you come down on this?

Paulsen: I don't think it's a secret that there's republicans who think this needs to be part of the discussion, they thought it needed to be part of the discussion in the past and I think you'll see that moving forward. The problem we have is that some of those republicans who just weren't even necessarily supportive of it just thought it needed to be part of the debate and ended up getting attacked for that. A perfect example is Dan Rasmussen, they took a quote where they said, I think this is something we need to talk about and all of a sudden the campaign literature is he proposed the gas tax, he supports it and they take him out. That really causes people to back up and say, you know, maybe that's not where we want to be. So, I think there is a political problem coming in. The enthusiasm among those who are even supportive has clearly diminished. The other thing I think on an issue this big is ultimately it's going to come down to whether the governor wants to provide some leadership. This is a -- you guys know this -- this is a big lift, this is a heavy thing to do for a legislative body and without his leadership I don't see it happening.

Yepsen: Doesn't everybody's fingerprints have to be on this? I've heard democrats saying the issue was used against them too. Don't you have to have republicans and democrats all saying we're going to vote for this and take the pain together?

Paulsen: Well, that's the way it's always been handled in the past, correct.

Yepsen: If you had to bet right now do you think there will be a gas tax increase or not?

Paulsen: Based on what I've heard I don't think so.

Glover: And to be clear what you're saying is if Governor Culver doesn't propose the gas tax increase it's not going to happen?

Paulsen: I think the political environment is such that that's exactly right.

Yepsen: Mr. Paulsen, how do your members rationalize this? I hear rural republicans in northwest Iowa say oh, we've got to finish four-laning U.S. Highway 20 and I hear people over in eastern Iowa saying we've got to do something about that freeway between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. And yet you come down here to Des Moines and don't want to vote for the very dollars to do those kinds of projects.

Paulsen: Well, if you're asking a policy question I think there are legitimate, very good reasons of why the gas tax should have been part of the debate last time and it has some merit to it. You referenced it as more of a fee for service. I think there is merit in that. It also ends up 25% to 30% of non-Iowans would end up paying for that and they're using our roads, there's no reason why they shouldn't be contributing. But I think the political environment is such that I don’t see that happening and I don’t think you're going to see republicans excited about pushing it.

Glover: Let's turn to another issue that hit the state this year and that is the recovery from last summer's flooding. The state has spent just over 100 million in state money for flood relief. What else can this legislature offer in the way of recovery money, recovery programs to deal with the flood?

Paulsen: Well, first of all, we have a long ways to go and not just in finances but this is going to be five to ten years working out of this. And some of those places that were devastated, the community that I represent that was the hardest hit was Palo. Cedar Rapids obviously also had problems but I don't represent those portions of Cedar Rapids directly but I've been down there and it is going to be the better part of a decade working back out of this. So, this needs to be a commitment over the long-term. In the meantime some of the things we need to do is there are some smaller policy things we need to go in and do with regard to property taxes. It's going to be awful hard -- we pay in arrears on property taxes so someone is going to be paying for a full undamaged piece of property when they're looking at something that's not damaged. I'm concerned that people walk away from that. There's penalties and so on and so forth for late payments that some of the counties want to waive and they're not permitted to. There's also a fair amount of discussion about maybe we need to look at one of them is the local option sales tax. We created some limitations on when those special elections could occur, maybe that needs to be the talk. And then ultimately I think we're going to have to look at the economic emergency fund and say if this is not what it's designed for then I don't know what it's designed for and therefore we need to engage with that and make some distributions there also.

Glover: And which steps do you expect the legislature to take this year -- if you're talking about a five to ten year program -- which of the steps that you've ticked off will be taken this year?

Paulsen: Actually personally what I've done is I worked for some of the local legislators and we have about 20 different ideas of which I won't be able to remember them all sitting here today but about 20 different things we worked out together and we've got bill requests coming in on that. My anticipation is the Governor will also propose a bill that, to a large extent, will mirror what the Rebuild Iowa Task Force did. My hope in my discussions with the democrat leaders at this point in time is that this is going to be one of their top priorities and this is going to be addressed as soon as we walk into legislation and before a whole lot of the stuff that was leftover, fair share, so on and so forth, the repeal of Iowa's Right to Work law. Before we deal with any of those things we need to take care of Iowa's families and Iowa's businesses.

Borg: Was it a good idea not to have a special session?

Paulsen: No, I think we should have had one. I supported one all along. I don't think it would have exploded in the way people are concerned about especially I know my caucus came over and visited the flood damaged area in Cedar Rapids and were just stunned with the magnitude and I think we're ready to go to work and keep a very focused debate, agreed to debate and we could have been in and out actually quickly.

Yepsen: How long do you expect the other Iowans to want to keep trying to help bail out Cedar Rapids? You had a terrible event there, there's no question about that, you said it's going to take ten years. Do you expect the people of Iowa for ten years to be putting money into programs to help Cedar Rapids? Or at some point does Cedar Rapids say, we have to deal with this ourselves?

Paulsen: Cedar Rapids is going to have to deal with this but in this immediate future they're also going to need some help.

Yepsen: I want you to elaborate on your discussion there of local revenues. It isn't just flood related. I hear local governments all over this state complaining about added demands, they have needs they have to meet. Here in Des Moines the city council sticks it to people with a franchise tax on their utility bills, it's in the courts now. How do republicans feel about this notion of more diverse revenue sources, local option income taxes, giving local governments something other than the property tax to use to finance their services? Or do you guys see this as just another back door tax increase?

Paulsen: Well, I think as far as the proposal in and of itself it was moving forward last year, that was the concern that it was just a back door tax increase. Even this dollar-for-dollar property tax relief goes to the question of what should property taxes pay for then it's a meritorious debate and we need to have that. What I was referring to more was an example from my house district, the city of Palo had a local option sales tax that they put in place for a specific purpose that expired but now they find themselves in a new set of circumstances where they'd really like the opportunity to have that discussion again but because of some Iowa laws they are not permitted to.

Glover: Most predictions say that the state is going to be about $600 million short of having the money to cover spending already on the books. Other than blaming democrats for the budget problems the state faces what do you propose? What do republicans bring to the table when it comes to the idea of dealing with this budget shortfall? You've already said no new taxes, you've got to cut spending. Where do you cut?

Paulsen: First of all, one of the very first votes that ever remember taking in the Iowa house was when we had tough economic times and republicans at that point in time went in, made tough decisions and we passed a bill where we did make cuts. That, again, was one of the very first bills I remember. I think as you move through it you've got some smaller things, different pieces of pork, I still don't understand why we spent however many hundreds of thousands of dollars on the train station in Dubuque where the train doesn't go and several smaller things that will add up and then you've also got bigger things. We spent over 1 billion more money in two years, we have 600 more employees in the state of Iowa and I'm not sure the average Iowan can tell you how their life has changed with that kind of investment.

Glover: Where do you go? Where are those big things that you're going to cut?

Paulsen: The caucus is going to get together on December 18th and we'll talk through some of those things. I don't have a specific thing that I'm ready to commit my caucus to going in and cutting. But I will tell you the republican approach to this will not be to put a bigger burden on the back of Iowans, it will be to go in and find places in state government to reduce spending.

Yepsen: What is wrong with the state laying off some people or freezing pay? Many Iowans right now are going through layoffs, pay freezes, their companies are downsizing. Why shouldn't state government reflect the same pain that the people of Iowa are reflecting?

Paulsen: I think the state of Iowa should take a look at that. I'm not advocating for layoffs in corrections or anything like that but, again, we've added 600 new employees to the state in the last couple of years and I'm not sure I can tell the difference.

Glover: There's been a pretty hectic fight up at the legislature over labor legislation. Do you anticipate the Governor and democrats who run the place, their majorities are bigger, do you anticipate them coming back with more labor oriented measures this year? How will you react to it?

Paulsen: I think you will see just as passionate of a fight as you saw the last two years. We have three fewer votes in the Iowa house and that makes it a tougher hurdle for us no question about that and I think that probably is the funnel. But I absolutely am expecting to see the collecting bargaining bill back, I expect to see the repeal of Iowa's Right to Work law being proposed, I expect to see prevailing wage which is the property tax increase, all those things are going to come back.

Glover: I'd like to flip the coin on you. If I'm a democrat I got re-elected largely with the backing of labor, labor money, labor organization, why wouldn't I come in and do those things?

Paulsen: Because you don't get elected by labor, you get elected by a particular house district and those 30,000 people had better be your priority when you sit there and take those votes and I think it's more important that when you look at a prevailing wage bill you look at the impact of the property tax payer than the impact of some particular union.

Yepsen: Wouldn't you lose that debate? Those issues, all the things you mentioned were discussed in this campaign, you lost seats. Why shouldn't democrats come in and do those things? They won.

Paulsen: That's a decision they'll have to make. I can't tell you the exact answer on that but I can tell you from my perspective, from my caucus' perspective those are all movements in the wrong direction and they don't pass the test of ...

Borg: I'm sorry, I can't even let you finish.

Paulsen: That's alright. Thanks for having me.

Borg: We'll be back next weekend at the usual Iowa Press airtimes, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I hope we'll see you then, I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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