Iowa Public Television


Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Michael Kiernan

posted on September 25, 2009

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Borg: Consolidating power. Nationally and in Iowa democrats see the 2010 elections as opportunities for locking in big gains. We're questioning Iowa Democratic Party chair, Michael Kiernan, on this edition of Iowa Press.

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On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, September 25 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Last week on Iowa Press we heard from Iowa Republican Party Chair Matt Strawn. Today we're crossing the aisle for a conversation with Mr. Strawn's counterpart, he's Michael Kiernan. He took over as party chair in January of this year. He is Governor Culver's choice to lead Iowa democrats into the crucial 2010 elections where Culver himself is up for re-election. Chairman Kiernan, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Kiernan: Thank you very much for having me, I appreciate it.

Borg: You know the two people across the table I think.

Kiernan: I absolutely do.

Borg: Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Chairman Kiernan, the issue that seems to be dominating the headlines in recent days is a controversy about operations of the Iowa Film Office. While all the details and charges and counter charges are being sorted out give me a sense of the political fallout from all of that.

Kiernan: Well, I think this is a very serious matter and unfortunately I think you've got to keep politics out of this. I think the governor has taken the appropriate steps, he has asked the democrat attorney general and republican state auditor to look into this and to come up with the facts and in the meantime he has suspended those tax credits. So, I think we've got to let the facts come out and then go from there.

Glover: But isn't there going to be some political fallout because it happened under democratic watch and republican critics say this plays into the two main criticisms they have of Governor Culver, when he sees a problem he throws money at it and he's not a terribly good manager.

Kiernan: Well, first off I would say I don't hear that from all republicans. Representative Clel Baudler today said that he thought the governor was taking the appropriate steps and the appropriate actions. So, while some republicans say one thing, they say another too.

Glover: It seems to me that this is not going to go away immediately. The legislature is not even going to begin their investigation until next month. We've got at least three other investigations that will take a while. This is going to be around well into next year.

Kiernan: I can't speculate, I don't know how long it's going to take but I think the important thing is with an issue that is this serious that I think the governor did the right thing by getting the republican state auditor involved and the democratic attorney general and I think we've got to let the facts come out and until that point in time it's just a lot of speculation.

Henderson: You have democrats in the legislature who have long been critics of tax credits for businesses in a number of different arenas. In regards to this one which the state is essentially writing a check to movie producers and investors is this a good idea for state economic development?

Kiernan: Well, I'm not a legislator, I'm an advocate but I would tell you this, whether you're a republican or democrat they have used tax credits in many different programs and advocated for it. Most recently you saw in the GOP's health care plan they propose using tax credits to pay for it. But even in their program they don't know the specific costs of those tax credits.

Glover: But they bet the farm on this, they have about $165 million in tax credits and about $50 million of them go to the film industry. A third of their economic development tax credits are in one industry.

Kiernan: At the end of the day I think that the governor and the legislature and republicans and democrats alike have tried to do things to move this state forward and create new jobs and bring new industries here. I mean, look at viticulture in this state, it's a great example of an industry that we brought here, the wine industry, that people would have thought maybe a decade ago that doesn't make much sense. So, it's hard to say whether tax credits are good or bad. I'm not a legislator, I'm going to let those folks decide. But obviously we've got to wait for all of the facts to come out on the film tax credits and go from there.

Henderson: But as a democrat, as a person who is part of a party that champions raising the minimum wage for ordinary workers, in your party platform is there an endorsement of this kind of giveaway, as some democrats say, to businesses?

Kiernan: Not that I'm aware of in the party platform but tax credits haven't always necessarily been a bad thing. As I said, the GOP just proposed their health care plan paying for it with tax credits. But in addition to that there are some tax credits that have benefited people. If you look at low income housing and the projects that have been built with tax credits there that has allowed a lot of low income Iowans to find good, adequate housing.

Borg: Chairman Kiernan, you said early on you think it's important to take the politics out of this. Let's then go to the nuts and bolts of economic development. How much damage to the overall Iowa economic development strategy, take away tax credits and all included in the strategy, but just the overall strategy of helping business and industry get established to provide jobs in Iowa?

Kiernan: Again, I'm not a legislator, I'm an advocate.

Borg: We're all Iowans and you lead a democratic party that is now in control of state government.

Kiernan: So your question is?

Borg: How much damage do you personally assess to what is happening here in the tax credits which was just a component of economic development? How much damage to the overall concept of economic development in this state?

Kiernan: Look, there's no doubt that what has happened here is a terrible matter, it's a serious matter and we've got to get to the bottom of it. So, until we get all the facts I think it is very speculative to start saying what we're going to do in the future whether there will be tax credits for any programs.

Glover: The governor says he learned about this last week. Let's take him at his word of learning about this whole episode late last week. What does that say about his oversight and management? You're a businessman, you're a manager.

Kiernan: I don't think there is an oversight. When you are a CEO and he's never said the buck doesn't stop there, he took quick, decisive action and I think that's what you do when it happens.

Glover: But if all this happened and he wasn't aware of it what does that say about his management?

Kiernan: Well, look, again I think when he was made aware of it he took the appropriate action to take steps to suspend those film tax credits and to call on a bipartisan team, a republican state auditor and a democratic attorney general to find out what those facts are.

Borg: I think Mike's real question there is shouldn't he have been, had he been actively involved in managing state government, shouldn't he have been aware earlier?

Kiernan: The governor is not going to write every check that goes out in state government, he's not going to look at every document that goes through state government, that's why you put people in place that are supposed to do those jobs. When you find out they're not doing those jobs then it's time for them to go.

Glover: This involves $300 million, this is not writing a check for $1.50 at Hy-Vee. This is up to $300 million, shouldn't he be aware of that kind of magnitude of stuff going on?

Kiernan: Again, I think when he was made aware of it -- I don't work in the governor's office on a daily basis, my job here is to get democrats ...

Glover: Probably thankfully so.

Kiernan: My job is to get democrats elected. But what I'll tell you is when he did find out he took the appropriate steps and the appropriate actions. It is naive to think that a governor will see every piece of paper that goes through every hand of every state employee of every program in state government. But he has shown managerial skills, he has stepped up to the plate and he took those appropriate actions.

Henderson: Speaking of naïveté, back to Dean's question, the governor said in Cedar Rapids this past week that Iowans will not be taken for suckers.

Kiernan: That's right.

Henderson: Isn't he essentially saying we were taken for suckers and we now have a black eye in terms of the film industry and it's going to take some time to recover?

Kiernan: Kay, I won't disagree with you. I think he's saying that we're not going to be taken for suckers, you're not going to go out and buy Range Rovers, you're not going to buy Mercedes and you're not going to get away with it on the taxpayer dime. So, right now the challenge is getting all the facts out and seeing who abused it and who didn't.

Glover: Let's get your assessment, step back for just a second. You're the chairman of the Democratic Party, we were heading into what was shaping up to be a pretty good democratic year in a lot of people's minds. You have an incumbent democratic governor running for re-election and you've built about 110,000 voter registration edge in the state, you carried the state pretty easily for Barack Obama in the last election, a lot of people look at this as a blue state, it was shaping up as a pretty good democratic year. How much damage has been done by all this? How does it percolate beyond just Chet Culver?

Kiernan: Well, we've got more than 400 days until the 2010 election and I don't see it as doing damage because right now we don't know what the facts are. So, we've got to let those facts come out. We can't be quick to judge and it is shaping up to be a good year. Have we had issues? Have there been things to deal with? Absolutely but there is in every administration and it's if you deal with them properly and I think we are dealing with those properly. We just came off of a great race in southeastern Iowa with Curt Hanson and we showed in a preseason opener that we have a pretty good ground game.

Borg: You said earlier, just a moment ago, my job is to get democrats elected and you were kind of shoving aside the other nuts and bolts question. Okay, if your job is to get democrats elected is this causing you some sleepless nights in being able now to raise money, recruit volunteers and persuade voters?

Kiernan: Not at all, not at all. Do I have sleepless nights? Sure, but there's a lot of work to be done. You're always going to have bumps in the road but where we're at right now is we're in a tremendous place and democrats are still trying to get things done for people, we're still saying yes we can, we're still out there trying to make people's lives better. The one thing it's funny it seems we overlook all the time, we just came through the fourth largest natural disaster in our country's history, the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression and if you look at the job Governor Culver and the democratic legislature has done and President Obama they have done a tremendous job leading us through that.

Henderson: You said that we're in a tremendous place as democrats and as Governor Culver heads into re-election but democratic governors in other states and in Iowa were seen as vulnerable because of the economic downturn and because this will be the first election after Barack Obama's election in 2008. How can you say that we're in a tremendous place?

Kiernan: Well, I say that because we have a stronger party than we've ever had before. We're very fortunate to have the people that are elected representing the Democratic Party. It's exciting for me to be the chair and work side-by-side with people like Chet Culver, with Senator Harkin, Congressman Braley, these are all people that I admire, we have built the party, we have worked hard to build up our grass roots infrastructure and our party and we're going to be ready, we'll be competitive in 2010, there's no doubt.

Henderson: But with the health care debate going on at the national level how can you avoid a bloodbath akin to 1994 for democrats?

Kiernan: Well, I think the first way you avoid a blood bath is by getting the facts out there. I think you saw the mood of the public dramatically change when the president addressed the American people. He came out and he said, quit playing the games, quit coming out here and you're spreading misinformation. We saw that right here at home. We saw that with Senator Chuck Grassley. He came back to these town hall meetings and we were supposed to have an open, honest debate about the issues but what did he do? He talked about death panels and pulling the plug on grandma. Now, I think, in my personal opinion, what republicans are out there doing right now is taking advantage of people at their worst possible time. This is a time of uncertainty for people, this is a scary time that was inherited -- the democrats inherited this problem from George W. Bush, we're trying to clean it up, it's a scary time and I think you're exploiting people by driving that fear, by carrying guns to health care forums. It was out of line.

Glover: Let's exploit the fear come January. In January the legislature is going to come back, this issue of the film industry is still going to be there. Isn't this legislature going to have to do something to say to voters we had a problem, we did something to solve it?

Kiernan: Absolutely and I think democrats and republicans alike are saying that. Again, the republican Representative Clel Baudler came out today and said he thought the governor was handling the situation appropriately, that he's taken all the right steps but there is no doubt when you see representation from our governor and comments from Representative Clel Baudler, we're on the right track, there will be action I'm sure to clean it up. What that is I don't know, it would be very speculative to say so.

Glover: Give them some suggestions. You're a practicing politician and you know what the political problem is out there. What can this legislature do to quell it, to calm things down?

Kiernan: First off, you get the facts and you learn who abused the system and you make heads roll. To me that is the first step. You hold those people accountable that abuse the program. I think you're already seeing signs that the governor is going to do that. He's saying Iowans will not be taken for suckers. So, I think first off you find out who was responsible for abusing the program and you hold those people accountable. If that means that there are other people in the Iowa Department of Economic Development that will lose their job then so be it. But the governor will take appropriate steps to clean this up.

Glover: You seem to be suggesting there are others.

Kiernan: No, Mike, I have no idea. I don't work in the governor’s office, I have not talked with the governor's office about this issue. For me when we're talking about running and winning campaigns this is not what I have been focused on and frankly I'm still waiting for all the facts to come out just like the governor.

Borg: Have you talked to the governor’s office about this?

Kiernan: I have not had a conversation with the governor about this. He has been busy dealing with the situation at hand. I have had conversations with other staff members but not the governor himself.

Glover: So you have talked to people in the governor's office about this because it would strike me as irresponsible for the leader of a major political party not to talk to the governor's office about it.

Kiernan: We've had conversations but the conversations -- the governor is taking the appropriate steps, we don't have all the information right now so that's where we're at. Unfortunately I think people want answers, they want action right now, I understand that, it is a serious, serious matter but at the same time until you have the facts you really can't make decisions on what to do except for the decisions that the governor has made by putting a bipartisan team in place, he called on republican state auditor and democratic attorney general to investigate, find out what the facts are and during the meantime you suspend those tax credits.

Henderson: Your opposing party, the Republican Party, has been having an internal debate about whether the coming election is a referendum on gay marriage or if it's about the economy. For democrats if the election is about the economy is that a winning issue for you? You have increasing unemployment, you have this black eye in terms of the Department of Economic Development. Can you turn things around in terms of the economy if that is the deciding issue of the election?

Kiernan: I think that at the end of the day -- we still have 400 days to go to the election -- people are going to say who is helping me, who is trying to move this state forward, who is trying to make my life better? All you hear from the Republican Party is no, no, no. They say they offer new ideas and I'm sure we can get into those in a minute but they're not new ideas. They have continually said no to everything. Look across the board, you guys have followed the legislature, they have said no to everything from raising teacher pay to health care reform to wind energy, they have said no to everything. They have said no to helping rebuild after the fourth largest natural disaster in our country's history. Their solution is to sit back and do nothing, do nothing.

Glover: I'd like to get your take on a bigger question and that is the political climate in this state as we head into next year's election. Look back historically -- the first mid-term election of a newly elected president is by tradition a good election for the party not in power so that would dictate that next year would be a pretty good year for republicans if you look at history. However, the economy is pretty bad, it's pretty soft. Typically that works pretty well for democrats. What is your take? How do those two things balance out?

Kiernan: I think we are at a different point in time in our country's history and it's the mess the democrats inherited from the Bush administration and the republican majority. If you take a look at what we have inherited and what we've had to clean up it is impressive what the president of the United States has done and frankly I'm proud of our governor for stepping up and not just saying, well we'll just wait and see what happens. He stepped in and you would appreciate this, even Warren Buffett says that pumping money into the economy, a stimulus package was the right approach, otherwise we would be in a time of economic depression. So, if you look at what the president has done and the governor has done in their short periods of time in office they have worked to stave off the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression. And things are improving, we've seen improvement.

Glover: You think the economy trumps history?

Kiernan: I think that people always try to gauge history off the past, we'll know in 2010 but I'm confident that there's one thing that Iowans know for sure, Iowans are pragmatic and they know the people that are out there working for them and making their lives better.

Henderson: The head of the Iowa Federation of Labor on this program said that he was unhappy with some democratic members of the legislature and he would like to see primaries challenging their re-election to the Iowa house. Is that something that you approve of?

Kiernan: No. I'm going to be very clear here today. First off, I grew up in an Irish Catholic family so my brothers and I used to beat each other up all the time but when you came at family, at the end of the day we're family. But I'm going to make something very clear here today -- the Iowa Democratic Party does not support primary and we're going to protect our incumbents and that is our position. We're going to protect our incumbents and if there are some that aren't happy about that well then that's tough but we are a family and we're going to stick together.

Henderson: Elesha Gayman who is a state representative employed by the federation of labor, did she make a mistake in taking that job?

Kiernan: See, those facts are still coming in. Representative Gayman has assured me that she's not involved in any primaries. She has assured me that operation win is about recruiting city council, county board of supervisor candidates, that indeed it's got nothing to do with a primary on her other members of the statehouse. And if you look at it nobody has filed, nobody has entered in any primary statewide.

Borg: During the 2008 election one of the phenomenon we noticed was the infusion of youth energy and that tie though seems to have quelled just a little bit with the youth taking other interests. How do you as a party strategist now keep that youth energy involved in your party?

Kiernan: Well, as Chairman Strawn said, I'm 34 years old, he's 35 so we hope we're not old timers yet. But look, I know everybody talks about Twittering and Facebooking, we're doing all that. But what young people are looking to do is change this country, that's what they voted for. They didn't just come out because someone was using Twitter or Facebook, that is absurd. They voted for President Obama, they voted for democrats because it meant change.

Borg: But how do you keep them there? The change occurred.

Kiernan: We well keep communicating with them. But here's an example. When it comes to November 2010 who do you think young people are going to support? Let's take gay marriage as an issue. Do you think young people are going to hold up to what the Republican Party wants as a litmus test on gay marriage? Do you think they want to be involved in a party like that? Do you think they want to revoke a woman’s right to choose? Do you think they want to ban stem cell research? Ask yourself those questions and so when they’re going to threaten the changes that have already occurred, I think that you’ll see young people stand up in droves.

Glover: Let’s come back closer to home. You have an election in November of 2010. Senator Charles Grassley is running for another term in Congress. He’s only been in public office since the mid 1950s, but you can’t seem to find a serious opponent again him.

Kiernan: Who said?

Glover: Well, I just keep hearing there’s another name out there.

Kiernan: Let me just say this, that there has been a lot of outrage among Iowa democrats since – as I told you – you asked me the first day I was sworn in as chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party did I have somebody that would run against Chuck Grassley. First off, we’ve got two amazing candidates that are running. They’re good people, they’re running, and they’re doing a great job out there.

Glover: I’m not denigrating them but in a first financial disclosure, Chuck Grassley said he had $3.8 million in the bank and the one of your candidates who has filed said he had $5,000 he has raised.

Kiernan: Well, you know, Doug Gross has gone and pulled out of retirement Terry Branstad to run for governor, so it got a lot of democrats thinking, including myself, maybe it’s time – and I’ll put this in a football analogy, since my counterpart owns a football team – that maybe it’s time to get a first-round draft pick. I’m going to tell you here today that Chuck Grassley will be in for the race of his life, that 2010 will be a tough race, and that person is – that person will announce.

Glover: Who have you drafted?

Kiernan: Well, you know, you’re just going to have to wait to find out. We want to wait until after, obviously, Terry Branstad announces his candidacy for governor.

Borg: Give us some of the characteristics of that phantom candidate.

Kiernan: Well, I can tell you this, that they’re – I’ll just wait for the announcement and you’ll be impressed.

Glover: Let’s say that you have Chuck Grassley out there running the typical campaign that Chuck Grassley runs, spending a few million dollars running up the score. How much of a problem is that for you down the ballot if you’ve got this behemoth at the top of the republican ticket piling up votes and a lot of independent and democratic votes?

Kiernan: Look, it doesn’t cut both ways, because what I hear from democrats is that we’re up 100,000 registered voters and that turnout is everything, driving young people out. Well, so when we talk about the election – and I’ve done past interviews where people have always said, well, Governor Culver will be the top priority. Well, like I said with football analogies, we’re going to call – there will be two top priorities in 2010. There will be a U.S. Senate race and Governor Culver, and that will drive turnout. If you look at it, we’re up over 100,000 registered voters.

Glover: But at what point do we just stop listening to this? Is another phantom candidate out there? I mean you’re about the fourth person that’s told me that and I have yet to hear a name.

Kiernan: What do you want me to do, start a 527 and start doing polling on this person?

Glover: Sure.

Kiernan: Like Doug Gross.

Glover: I know what Chuck Grassley is doing.

Kiernan: Look, I’m here to tell you today that it will be the toughest race that Chuck Grassley has faced since John Culver.

Glover: Okay, if you can’t tell me who it is, if you can’t tell me where they are, if you can’t tell me what they’re going to do, can you at least give me a timetable for when we’re going to learn this so I can make sure I’m not on vacation?

Kiernan: Very soon, but, you know, we’re still waiting for Terry Branstad to make the official announcement. So it will be very soon. But, you know, we don’t want to – we want to wait and see what Terry does here. Supposedly he’s going to make his formal announcement coming up.

Henderson: Well, what is the prototype of the person that you want to face Chuck Grassley?

Kiernan: Well, look, a person that obviously stands for change. If you look at Senator Grassley – I know that one of the things we haven’t gotten in here is polls. And as former Governor Branstad said, the only poll that matters is Election Day. But if we want to talk about sliding poll numbers, let’s take a look at Chuck Grassley and that he’s fallen 17 points since January.

Henderson: And some suggest he has polling problems with women – women are abandoning him. Would it make sense to run a woman against him? And is your candidate a female?

Kiernan: I think what makes sense is to run a person that’s got great ideas, got great experience, and knows how to hit the ground running.

Glover: Let’s talk about Terry Branstad for a second. That is a republican story. Do you think he’s going to run? And if he does run, how tough of a race is that for Chet Culver?

Kiernan: As you folks know, I have said that he’s in the race. I mean this game of political hide and seek we can play all day long. But, you know, his former chief of staff is out with a 527 organization running polling, supposedly a draft Terry Branstad movement. I don’t think he wants to get in this race and I don’t think it’s because of Chet Culver and I don’t think it’s because he’s – he doesn’t want to get in this race because he doesn’t want to face a republican primary. So I think he’s going to wait as late as he can to announce because he doesn’t want to talk about the issues in the Republican Party. Hey, I’m not scared of him in the general election. Look, here’s a guy that’s raised the sales tax twice, the gas tax. I mean he had two sets of books that he was accused of. So this is not somebody that we’re scared to run up against. We’re going to be ready for whoever gets out of the primary. The real question for Terry Branstad is will he make it out of the republican primary?

Glover: And there are some who suggest the Republican Party – I know this is the other side of the fence from you – there are some who suggest the Republican Party faces real structural problems because the party currently is dominated by social and religious conservatives that are busily squeezing out moderates. Give us your analysis of where the Republican Party is right now. These are folks you have to run against.

Kiernan: Yeah, my analysis is – you talked about gay marriage as an issue. It is a litmus test. Doug Gross sits over here and says, well, this is not what the party should be running on, but it’s a litmus test. It is a litmus test for the Republican Party. These social issues are a litmus test. I’m going to find it interesting whether Terry Branstad is an example. I mean where is he going to stand on stem cell research? Let’s forget about gay marriage for a second. Let’s talk about even more modern issues. I do think it’s going to be – that party has shifted all the way to the right. You’ve seen gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats. He disavowed Joy Corning as a good running mate for Terry Branstad. He said he was going to have somebody that was pure on the tickets. And look at the republicans that are in this race. Most of the time if you had a former governor that was going to run, everybody would clear the field and you haven’t seen that. You’ve actually seen Chris Rants and Bob Vander Plaats – Bob Vander Plaats says he’s staying in. Chris Rants was taking shots at him last week. These guys are not scared to take on Terry Branstad in a primary. And let’s face it, the political landscape is much different than when Terry Branstad first ran for office. I mean, look, the Cosby Show hadn’t even aired at the time. At the time Ronald Reagan was the president. And the republicans were up almost 100,000 votes. It’s a much different political landscape.

Borg: We’re out of time. Thanks for what you have said and what you didn’t say.

Kiernan: All right. I appreciate it very much.

Borg: On our next edition of Iowa Press we’re zeroing in on the fast growing list of issues facing the new legislative session convening in January. We’ll be questioning the man leading the Iowa Senate’s majority democrats. That’s Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs. Senator Gronstal will have his hands full juggling major financial challenges and other issues – we’ve talked about some of them today – while still attempting to preserve the democrats’ hold on the legislature and the governor’s office. And a programming note too, Iowa Press next week won’t be on the usual channels on Friday night, where you usually see us. Because of a Ken Burns National Parks special programming this coming week, next Friday’s Iowa Press airs on IPTV’s World Channel. Then on Sunday we’re back on the usual channels. I hope you’ll make that note for a programming change. We’ll return to regular Iowa Press airtimes, that’s 7:30 Friday night and Sunday morning at 11:30. And a final note too, if you’d like to contact the Iowa Press staff directly, do so on the World Wide Web. The address is Your message then goes directly to the Iowa Press staff. I’m Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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