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Reporters Roundtable: Campaigns and Legislation

posted on March 19, 2010

Changing hats.  Iowa legislators pressing toward adjourning the 2010 general assembly.  Political campaigning is waiting.   Iowa political journalists providing a snapshot of the legislature's legacy and previewing election prospects on this edition of Iowa Press.

Reporters Roundtable: Campaigns and Legislation

Borg: There are important days on the political calendar in the next few weeks. First, just a week or so away now, March 31, the date state legislators pay ends for the current session, shortened by ten days this year to save money. Whether the legislature actually finishes work then or earlier is another question mark. But also mark Tuesday June 8, that’s the statewide primary election date. Major parties select their nominees for the general election, and that date is Tuesday, November 2. Between those two election dates, intense campaigning. Democrats trying to remain control gained in the Obama led sweep a couple of years ago. We're getting comments today from political journalists covering the Iowa statehouse and the emerging campaigns leading to November’s elections, Associated Press Writer Mike Glover, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson, James Lynch reports for The Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines Register columnist Kathie Obradovich. Kay, I’ll start with you. The legislature is coming up to that March 31 date right now. Give us a snapshot. It’s a work in progress, I know, the legislature's progress, but give us a snapshot because, as I recall, going into this session there were two priorities, keeping the state solvent and getting out of there by March 31.

Henderson: I think the rather remarkable thing about the 2010 legislative session is that there's been not much remarkable happen. You have legislators who went into this session saying that they needed to focus on the budget. They’ve done that. There haven't been a lot of issues percolate to the surface. We knew that democrats at the end of the 2009 session didn't have the votes to pass a wide range of labor related bills. That hasn't come to pass in 2010 either. So really the status quo is how I might describe the 2010 legislative session.

Glover: I think the record of this legislature is written. I think between now and at some point next week when they adjourn they'll do a few minor things, maybe a gambling thing, maybe not a gambling thing, maybe a bicycle rights thing, but those are all secondary issues. The big picture is this legislature convened facing a huge budget shortfall. Democrats at the top made a decision we're going to close the budget shortfall by cutting state government and not by increasing taxes. They did that. They approved a lot of painful spending cuts. They approved a reorganization plan to restructure state government to save a bunch of money. That will be the legacy of this year's session. Think it's already written.

Obradovich: The budget is going to balance on paper, Dean. And the question I think for candidates to hash out then during the next spring and fall is it really balanced or is it just balanced on paper. You know, there's still a lot of one-time money in the budget, opportunities for republicans to say that lawmakers did not do enough to reorganize state government and cut spending. Those are the kinds of issues that we're going to see out on the trail.

Lynch: I think lawmakers would disagree with Kay that they've done something remarkable, and that's the state government reorganization plan. But whether it is remarkable remains to be seen. We’ll have to wait until probably next year to see whether the savings actual materialize, and there's a lot of skeptics.

Borg: Is that what Kathie means by balanced on paper but not in reality?

Obradovich: They're facing a lot of -- and you always do this with budgeting, but you've got a lot of estimates on how much money you're going to save in reorganization, as James just said. There’s a lot of room to question whether those projections will really come true.

Glover: And I think the important thing is I think this is all interesting and this is all what's happened at the legislature. I think this will have absolutely nothing to do with what happens in the next election. I think what happens in the next election is being decided by what happened last week, which was the filing deadline for candidates. It’s all about the quality of candidates you recruit for the legislature. You can argue about, yeah, we balanced the budget and, oh, your savings aren't real. That’s not going to make much of a difference when the election actually happens.

Obradovich: It does feed into the argument, though, of which party is more fiscally responsible. And I think that is going to be one of the big themes of the 2010 general election is, you know, which party is being more responsible with your money. Taxpayers are upset with government. They’re still feeling the economic pinch and I think that is -- these are part of the little pieces that fit into the big picture of who is going to be more fiscally responsible with your dollars.

Henderson: And one of the pieces that has been sort of decided is education spending. This past week senate democratic leader Mike Gronstal said school districts out there were releasing doomsday scenarios to people to sort of say if the budget cuts that we expect happen, boy, we're going to have to lay off dozens, perhaps hundreds of teachers in some of the larger school districts. And legislators have by and large agreed to send an extra $350 million to schools in the form of general state aid, plus a one-time cash allowance to make up for some of the budget cuts that occurred last October.

Borg: Mike, Kathie’s newspaper broke a story on a scandal at the Iowa Association of School Boards. The legislature has gotten involved in its oversight committee. Why is the legislature involved in that, and what are the politics of it?

Glover: The legislature is involved in that because it's a big story and no legislator in his right mind is going to let a story like that go by without getting in the middle of it. They’re involved in their oversight because the Iowa Association of school Boards -- the scandal is there's some questionable spending that's gone on there, some executive head salaries that appear fairly outlandish, other questionable spending. And the legislature is getting involved because all of the money that finances the Iowa Association of School Boards is tax money. They’re financed by dues paid by local school boards. That scandal is going to run on for months. They’re going to meet again this coming week and call in some of the principals. Maybe they'll have to subpoena them eventually, but it will be -- if you recall the Central Iowa Employment Training Consortium, that scandal went on for months and months and months. Very similar. Also about questionable spending of tax money. This is going to -- legislators are competing with each other to be the most outraged at to what's happening with the school boards -- I’m really outraged -- no, no, no, I’m really, really outraged.

Borg: Is that what it is, Jim?

Lynch: I think part of it is. It’s a chance for them to show that outrage, to say this is awful, these people are bad, and they’re wasting our tax money, your tax money. And they can pound on the table and raise their voice and really act like they're getting something done. And in the end it will be turned over to the attorney general or county attorney to do the heavy work.

Borg: Kathie, go ahead.

Obradovich: There may be a little bit of legislation out of it. There was an effort to make the association open meetings and open records laws. And I think that down the line we may also see more about more requirements for these board members and oversight, but we probably won't see a lot of that till next year.

Borg: Kay, is that likely to spread, though, into other associations that also receive dues from public money, Iowa Association of Counties, League of Municipalities, if that's what they still call themselves?

Henderson: Legislators indicate their probe will eventually move beyond the Association of School Boards and go to all entities like, as you mentioned, the Iowa Association of Counties, which receives taxpayer money. To be a member of the Iowa Association of School Boards, essentially school districts forwarded fees -- dues to the Iowa Association of School Boards. I think what we need to do is take a step back and realize that at all levels of government this kind of thing is happening. The auditor this past week released an audit of the Oran Township, a tiny township in Fayette County which has about 700 residents, where the clerk there probably stole about $3,300 writing checks to herself. This isn't, I guess, just something that legislators need to look at in relationship to these huge organizations. They need to look at something statewide to make sure this kind of thing isn't happening at all levels of government.

Glover: And I think probably the people who are investigating this have said, yeah, we'll look at other associations like the Association of Counties, League of Municipalities, things like that. But as a practical matter, I think if I’m the Iowa Association of Counties, I’m asking a lot of questions internally about what we're doing, how are we handling this money. I think we're saying -- I think a lot of associations like that are quaking in their boots saying, oh, my god, let's look at ourselves. What would happen if they came and looked at us?

Obradovich: That's another reason for lawmakers to talk about this, frankly. It's a bully pulpit for them to get the message out there to all you associations out there, you better be cleaning up your own house.

Glover: And how would you like to be sitting in that chair?

Borg: Jim, let's going to the republican gubernatorial primary. What’s happening there?

Lynch: Well, we've got three candidates. They’re all promising to win the primary and defeat Chet Culver. One of them will be right on the first -- Terry Branstad --

Borg: Bob Vander Plaats and Rod Roberts.

Lynch: They've all filed now and they're out there working hard. I think this race is not yet determined. The heavy favorite I think is Terry Branstad. Bob Vander Plaats has been working very hard at this, and he's really been building on his base. Rod Roberts is sort of running under the radar, to a large degree.

Borg: By choice?

Lynch: No -- well, perhaps. But I mean he hasn't got the same level of attention, and he's been sort of chained to the state legislature. As soon as they adjourn next week, he'll be out there as prominently as anyone.

Glover: And I think both parties have real structural issues that this republican gubernatorial primary and then Chet Culver will illustrate. The Republican Party has a tension that's growing more and more between the evangelical conservative base and what we call the more moderate traditional base. Some in the evangelical conservative base have said if Terry Branstad is the nominee, he's too moderate for us, we'll sit it out. And if that elects a democrat, so be it. In the Democratic Party, you've got a base, organized labor, where this legislature and the governor have really done very little to satisfy organized labor's need. I don't think organized labor is going to go republican, but I don't know how energized they are to get out there and do the kind of door knocking and raising money for the democratic candidates as they usually are. So I think the party that solves that structural problem the best probably will prevail in November.

Borg: Are you surprised, Kay, that Rod Roberts, as Jim says, running under the radar, maybe not by choice just not getting attention, that he is still in the race?

Henderson: I'm not surprised because he said he would be in the race. I think what's surprising is to go to events at which the three candidates appear and see the reaction that they're getting from the crowd. The three candidates spoke to the Iowa Christian Alliance earlier this month. They spoke to home-schoolers at the statehouse earlier this week. What's remarkable about those events is that Terry Branstad received a polite, and I might characterize it as even tepid, response from those groups. He has bridges to build which he, I don't think, has figured out how to build yet to conservatives within his party. He has to rely on people who may not even be plugged in or paying attention to the gubernatorial primary yet to put him over the top.

Lynch: I think that illustrates part of Terry Branstad's problem. When he spoke to the home-schoolers, to a large degree he's responsible for home schooling in Iowa. That's work he did as governor. But it's been so long since he did that, people at that meeting don't remember that he's responsible.

Henderson: He told them I'm the reason you exist, and the reaction on their faces was so what.

Borg: Did you invent the internet too?

Obradovich: Home-schoolers have a natural tie to Bob Vander Plaats and his campaign, however. The home-schoolers were the ones responsible for getting Mike Huckabee started and really getting him to be organized to win Iowa caucuses. Mike Huckabee has endorsed Bob Vander Plaats, and some of the people who worked for his campaign are working -- so there's some natural -- there's a natural affinity there, and I have a feeling you might have seen a little bit of theater there.

Henderson: But the other part of the theater is Rod Roberts and Bob Vander Plaats each spoke to that group of home-schoolers in a way that they could relate to. They both made a religious pitch to these people, whereas, Terry Branstad, the only mention about religion was that he sent his own children to a parochial catholic school. It was very strange.

Glover: And I think the one question that Terry Branstad has to answer -- and the late Ted Kennedy faced this same problem when he ran for president -- was Terry Branstad needs to answer the question why, why he wants to be governor other than he was governor for a long time and he'd like to be governor again. Maybe he got bored being president of Des Moine6s University.

Borg: But he's saying the state is slipping financially, and I've got to get back there to put things right again. That's what he's saying.

Glover: That's what he's saying but that's not a real reason. That's what they're all saying. But the point being why Terry Branstad? What's the rationale for him to be governor other than he just wants to be governor?

Obradovich: I think it's Terry Branstad's primary to lose, honestly. Des Moines Register's poll in February, admittedly a general election population of voters, had him beating Chet Culver 53 percent to I think 36 percent, something like that. Nobody else comes close. Bob Vander Plaats also tops Chet Culver, but it's a much closer race. He has probably a million and a half dollars that he raised in 2009. He has a lot of significant advantages. And I'm not quite convinced yet that his problems with the conservatives in the Republican Party are life threatening at this point.

Glover: I would be surprised if Terry Branstad lost the primary. I would not be shocked.

Lynch: What I'm hearing when I've gone to republican caucuses in the off year conventions is that -- I talk to activists and they say the people in this room are Bob Vander Plaats supporters, but in the whole of the Republican Party, Terry Branstad will win. But the activists are Bob Vander Plaats.

Glover: A lot of that will end up being -- I think you're right, Jim. A lot of it will end up being what's the turnout in this republican primary. If it's a big turnout, I suspect that favors Terry Branstad. It's a small, tepid turnout driven by the evangelical Christian base, I think it will be a much closer election.

Borg: Kay, Kathie has just cited a Des Moines Register election poll that says Branstad runs ahead if the election were today against John -- not John ,that's his dad. -- against Chet Culver. What's he doing to shore up his popularity ratings?

Henderson: Well, he's done some unusual things in the past months. He's tried to insert himself in the dispute over Wellmark rate increases for the private insurance about 80,000 Iowans have obtained through Wellmark. Those premiums are going up on the average of 18 percent. The governor asked the regulators at the state level to rethink that. Wellmark went along with it. Then this past week he asked Alliant, which is a utility company that provides electric and power to many Iowans, to rethink their rate increase and they said, no thanks.

Borg: So the governor is trying to run as a populist.

Henderson: Yes.

Glover: And he's also -- perhaps -- those are important things. He also went to Iraq -- Showed flag with some Iowans in Iraq . More importantly I think what he's doing is he's very, very active at putting his political campaign together. He's very busily raising money. He's very busily putting together a field organization. He's very busy doing the kinds of things that candidates do putting together a political campaign. He proved to be in the last election a pretty good retail politician. He gets around the state. He's always on the road. He goes to the little towns. He goes to the rotary meetings everywhere. He's putting that retail operation together.

Obradovich: He's finally starting to do that now. I thought he waited too long to get out on the campaign trail and do what he does well, which is that retail politics. We really didn't start seeing it until this spring.

Glover: And I saw your poll and I think that right now if the election were held today, Chet Culver would be in some degree of difficulty. I think by November there will be a different picture out there.

Obradovich: I think he's depending on some economic recovery, and that could very well happen. He's tied a little bit to the same fate as all incumbents, which people are just upset at government in general, but I think he's got it worse than a lot of incumbents.

Borg: Jim, what were the politics of him getting involved? Kay mentioned the utility rate and so on, that he's inserted himself in going to Iraq and so on. But why get involved in the gambling? He wrote a letter to the gaming commission saying let's have more gambling.

Lynch: That's a good question and I think it stumped a lot of people. I know the legislator leaders were sort of taken aback when they heard he had written that letter. I talked to some long-time democratic activists who really were shaking their head at that one.

Glover: We're counting on Jim to explain that one to us.

Lynch: I'm not sure I have a good explanation. I'm sure it plays well in those communities that want a license, but then there are 17 other communities around the state that probably don't want to see more casinos. I'm not sure that that helps the campaign.

Henderson: And he runs the risk, should the members of the Racing and Gaming Commission not follow his suggestion of being -- of them sort of saying thank you for the advice, governor, but we could care less.

Obradovich: I think it's a little refreshing, actually, that he came out and made it clear where he stands on this issue --

Lynch: That's true.

Obradovich: -- because usually the governor -- I think the governor -- their hands-off policy is for public and not really -- and not really their -- they will certainly let those commissioners know how they feel. They've just been doing it below the radar probably. I like to see it out in public.

Borg: Let's quickly switch, Kathie, to the senate race. Senator Grassley up for re-election. There are some democratic people running for their party as well.

Obradovich: Yes, right now two, maybe three candidates on the democratic side running against Chet Culver. Roxanne Conlin is the best known of the three. She has a primary challenge as well. She has really kind of started her campaign from the bottom up. She's been traveling the state, going to small towns, meeting with groups of voters. We know that she has the ability to raise quite a bit of money. But right now Chuck Grassley is -- you know, he's still pretty popular. He's lost some of his job approval ratings, but he's still pretty popular. I would not be prepared to say at this point that he is absolutely vulnerable.

Glover: I think what she's counting on is what you mentioned earlier, this sort of anti-incumbency mood that people -- voters seem to be upset with incumbents who have been in office. Chuck Grassley -- no one has been in office longer than Chuck Grassley. That is a big hill to climb for democrats. Grassley does -- I keep coming back to this, in Iowa it's all about the political basis -- how much do you get around the state, how many doors do you knock on, how many coffees do you go to -- and nobody does more of that kind of stuff than Chuck Grassley. That's going to be a tough hill to climb.

Lynch: Democrats are saying that Roxanne seems to be improving her campaign, that what they were hearing after she would speak to central committee groups and things like that, that she sounded like a lawyer, and now they say she's learned to sound like a candidate and she's getting a much better reception.

Borg: Kay, I'm going to go back to something that was said here a moment ago. What are the republicans’ chances of taking at least control of the House of Representatives? And you went back to the labor bills are languishing up there right now. Isn't that key to democrats and their campaign in the legislature?

Henderson: Well, the governor himself has sort of made some overtures to organized labor. Democrats in the legislature will argue that we're your friends, republicans aren't your friends in terms of labor issues. This past week the house republican leader told us that they would field candidates in 80 plus legislative districts. There are 48 democratic incumbents in the house who plan to seek re-election, and the house speaker said they had something like in the mid 70s, races where democrats would compete for seats in the Iowa house. They also said that they were having trouble convincing people to run in a year before redistricting. So I think they're seeing what is being seen on the nationwide level is that republicans are seeing more enthusiasm for their base and a willingness of people to step forward.

Glover: In short, the odds of republicans getting control of either chamber are -- they have a shot at the house, not a really great shot but a shot. They have no chance in the senate. So I think the odds are we're going to go into next year's redistricting year -- it's a very important year. This is a very important election year. This legislature will draw new districts. I think the odds favor right now democrats retaining both chambers.

Lynch: I think, though, it's going to be --

Borg: Mike, we're going to have to stop there. I'm sorry that I'm out of time. Save that till next time, Jim. Thanks so much for your insights today. This is the final weekend of our annual Festival programming. Your continuing support enables Iowa Press to be here with you. You tell us that Iowa Press is important to you, and we consider it an important component of our programming service too. Iowa Press is now in its 38th season. That's a tribute to your unwavering support. Thank you for what you're doing. Well, next weekend back to our regular Iowa Press airtimes, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg, with apologies for cutting everyone off here. Thanks for joining us today.

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