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Senator Mike Gronstal on the Upcoming Legislative Session

posted on November 12, 2010

Dividing power. Democrats at the Iowa legislature contemplating considerably less power in the new general assembly. The senate remains in democratic control with Council Bluffs Senator Mike Gronstal envisioning leading that majority. We're questioning Senator Gronstal on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: When Iowa's 84th General Assembly convenes January 10th there is a new look. The agenda, coming from the executive branch, will be reflecting republican Governor Terry Branstad's priorities. And those priorities will be coming to a House of Representatives with a new and substantial republican majority. In the Iowa Senate, the new look after the election has democrats clinging to a much narrower majority status than the previous two years. It is now 26 democrats to 24 republicans in the senate. But that puts a lot of pressure on our guest today. Senator Mike Gronstal has led the senate democrats. He wants to continue in that role. If senate democrats choose him for majority leader keeping that majority in tact on key votes will be testing his political skills. Senator Gronstal, we're anxious to see what you have in your bag of strategies.

Gronstal: Well, so am I, so am I. It's a whole interesting replay for me of what it was from '94 to '96. It was democrats in control, solidly in control in the senate.

Borg: We're going to be talking about that but I want to introduce two other people here at the table. Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson. Mike.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, as Dean mentioned in his introduction you're the majority leader of the senate. Will you be majority leader of the senate after this weekend because senate democrats are getting together to pick new leadership?

Gronstal: Well, I'm certainly hopeful that I will continue to be the leader. I have made the calls. I have called my members.

Glover: Do you have opposition?

Gronstal: None that I know of at this point.

Glover: One of the issues that was dealt with in the last election was gay marriage and you used your position during the last session of the legislature to block debate on whether a resolution ought to go to voters to vote on writing a ban on gay marriage in the state's constitution. Will that be your strategy again this year given the narrower majority?

Gronstal: I don't think I've really wavered on this subject. I have said it kind of from start to finish on this whole discussion. I'm not going to put discrimination into the constitution of the state of Iowa.

Henderson: The senate republican leader, the recently re-elected senate republican leader Paul McKinley said this past week that it lays at your feet the defeat of the three justices because you took that position and did not allow the wheels to be set in motion for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment. Do you bear responsibility for the defeat of those three justices who were up for retention?

Gronstal: I bear the responsibility of saying I'm not going to move forward with putting discrimination in the constitution of the state of Iowa. Everybody else can do whatever it is they need to do. I feel very strongly on that. So, I'm not inclined to move forward on a constitutional amendment that will put -- not my job. I voted for the judges. The people of Iowa have that right every year to vote judges up or down. That is their choice.

Henderson: Has the landscape of judicial retention elections been forever changed?

Gronstal: It's hard to tell, it's hard to tell. Look, you had a national group come into this state with over a million dollars to run a campaign against judges in this state. That certainly had some impact, I don't know whether that is going to come back in two years or not. We'll have to wait and see.

Borg: One thing that is being contemplated and that has been criticized in this whole process is the nominating commission -- the entire selection process. As you look at it and as you have reviewed it now in light of losing three justices and the fact that they're going to have to be replaced, should the nominating, the way that they are nominated be changed, the selection process?

Gronstal: I don't believe the selection process should be changed. I'm certainly willing to look at that but I can remember democrats in the 80s when Terry Branstad was governor and when we had had republican governors for decades in this state I remember democrats complaining that the judicial nominating system was biased in favor of republicans and only republican names got advanced for judgeships. So, I remember the same criticism from the other side. Here is what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says, they say we have one of the best systems of courts in the country. We have competent judges in charge, not influenced by political pressures and that that is good. They rate our state very highly from a business perspective as to our courts. That is -- I think we have been well served by the current system.

Henderson: What is your advice to the four justices who remain? Bob Vander Plaats, the spokesperson for the group which led the campaign to oust the three justices, has suggested at the end of this week that the four who remain should resign. Would your advice be to them to become politicians, to start raising money for retention elections in the future and campaign actively for retention?

Gronstal: First of all, I do think there will be an effort in coming years to provide greater support for judges in the tough decisions that they have to make and to not politicize those decisions. So, I think some level of increased political activity on the side of retaining judges is likely to happen. But let me say this, I'm not going to give a lot of advice to the judicial branch. They know what they can do. They know what is within their purview. They don't give me a lot of advice as to how to find 26 votes in the Iowa Senate, I'm not going to give them a lot of advice on how to do their jobs. They are a separate, co-equal branch of government.

Glover: Tell me a little bit about what you think voters were saying when they tossed those judges out? Were they voting on the issue? Was it just an angry electorate that was just mad at the court system? It struck me that towards the end of that campaign most of the ads were not about same-sex marriage, most of the ads were about activist judges.

Gronstal: I think it is hard to read what the public at large was saying about that and I think there will be people that will evaluate that. It looks like there were significantly more people that voted in the judge's race this time than last time and that is not really surprising when a group from Mississippi comes into your state and pours in a million bucks. That is going to have some impact in that world. So, the question is whether the effort on that side of anti-judges is going to be sustained for the future, whether they are going to continue that track or other tracks.

Borg: I have already alluded to the fact that you are clinging now to a very narrow majority in the senate and you may be majority leader. I'd like to take you back, Senator Gronstal, four years to an Iowa Press program just after the 2006 elections and, as you recall, that's when democrats were contemplating governing with complete control of the legislature and newly-elected Chet Culver continuing the governor's office for democrats.

Iowa Press 2006 - Glover: The last time that democrats had the trifecta, which is both chambers of the legislature and the governor's office, was 1964. In that year, democrats came in and enacted the Democratic Party’s platform, moved very actively and lost control in 1966. What is the difference in opinion and approach from democrats in this session?

Iowa Press 2006 - Gronstal: Well, look, I've been at this a long time, this is my third decade in politics, this will be my 25th year coming up. I think if I've learned anything over that period of time it is that majorities lose power when they quit listening and that is one thing we're going to stress to our members, both our old members and our new members, you've got to be listening to your constituents and I think democrats made some mistakes in the 80s and into the 90s and that is when we lost control. I think fundamentally it wasn't about any particular issue or going too far on anything, it was that we quit listening. Well, we're not going to quit listening to Iowans.

Borg: You heard that, Mike Gronstal, you heard that and Mike Glover has a question about that.

Glover: Question for you, Mike, did you quit listening? Is that what happened to you in this election?

Gronstal: I think nationally we were the subject of a dramatic change in our country's economy. We lost all across the country, democrats lost. We lost 19 chambers across the country. The Minnesota Senate for the first time in its history is controlled by republicans. It was a very, very republican year, a very strong way much as it was in 1994. I don't think we quit listening and I think we've been doing a lot but this year being on the ballot as a democrat was not a great place to be. But here's what I did hear voters say -- put us back to work. You know, people are talking about whether or not there is a mandate for this or a mandate for that, there is a clear mandate both parties have, the voters of the country, the voters of Iowa said, let's get people back to work. So, that's what we're going to work on this session is getting people back to work.

Glover: So, there was nothing you could do, it was just a bad economy and whoever is in power ...

Gronstal: I think that's some of it. I also think in the seats we picked up four years ago many of those were the marginal seats that were tough seats for us to hold in the first place. So, there are some seats we lost and I'm disappointed. We had some great people that were great legislators lose their seats this time. That is unfortunate but that is the political lay of the land and if you were listening on the campaign trail this year it was people saying, let's get our folks back to work. I think that's what this next general assembly should be about is getting Iowans back to work.

Henderson: If you were listening to the gubernatorial race you heard a lot of talk about preschool. You had one candidate, Chet Culver, say I want to expand to more children in Iowa. You had another who said I want to have the state stop financing public preschool in the state's school districts. What will happen to preschool now?

Gronstal: I think we'll have some meaningful discussions with Governor Branstad. We're interested in cuts. We're committed to that. I think we've already got a pretty solid record going back to last session. The state government reorg efforts saved in the neighborhood of $250 million out of the state budget. We think that is significant but we don’t think we should stop there. So, we're very interested in working with the governor. I had a meeting with him on Monday. We talked about some of these things. We have expressed a willingness to consider those ideas and I think that's what we've got to do is try and get revenues back in line with ongoing expenditures.

Henderson: So, for parents who have a child in preschool this year what is your advice to them?

Gronstal: I think we're certainly willing to look at what Governor Branstad has recommended. We also hope he'll listen to some of the things that we have heard people say are important. So, I think a wholesale walking away from a commitment to early childhood education -- I think that is probably a mistake. But we're open to talking with the governor-elect about what road he wants to go down in that respect. I talked to him about national board certification for teacher quality. That is something he talked about on the campaign trail as well. We are very open to that. So, you know, the election is over, it's time to end the focusing on the things we disagree on and look for common ground. I think good people of good faith can sit down together and talk about getting Iowans back to work, talk about improving education in this state, talk about making sure kids have access to healthcare coverage.

Glover: The election is over, Senator Gronstal, but elections have consequences. One of the consequences could be to a series of programs that were produced by democratic governors. I'm thinking of the I-jobs program, the Vision Iowa program, those programs were adopted and phased in over a series of years. Should we assume that they are gone now?

Gronstal: I don't think you assume anything is gone but I think what we do is we keep our focus on the mandate we both have to get Iowans back to work. So, let's take those things we put in place and if they're not -- I think our economic development efforts for many years have been too focused on Wall Street and not focused enough on Main Street. Last session we passed a modest, small program as part of our efforts to set aside money to help establish Main Street businesses in this state. You know, bringing back a community's Main Street can give life to that community. So, I say we go to work on those kinds of things that will put Iowans back to work and take the focus away from Wall Street and get it back to Main Street.

Glover: Republicans have already taken aim on one of those programs, I'm thinking about the Iowa Power Fund and said that is going to be one of their top targets, getting rid of that. Should we assume that is gone?

Gronstal: I think we should assume that it's good that this state now has manufacturers that make turbines for wind power generation and blades for those turbines. I think all of those things are very positive. If republicans have another approach that will help keep us at the forefront of renewable energy in this state and clean energy and green energy we're completely open to looking at that. It doesn't have to be called a power fund, it doesn't have to be called I-jobs. Our mandate, both sides, democrat and republican is to put Iowans back to work.

Henderson: Speaking of changes, what about this idea that Governor Branstad, Governor-elect Branstad advanced over the past few years to have a public-private partnership for the Department of Economic Development?

Gronstal: We're certainly open to that, we're open to those kinds of discussions ...

Henderson: Because legislators would have to approve that.

Gronstal: ... about a more efficient way to deliver those services. Again, I want to say I think if anything it's been easy to kind of make the mistake of let's go chase some big company. I think a focus on Main Street makes a lot of sense and as long as the changes we make at the Department of Economic Development is about getting our structure of job creation to reach out and be involved in communities across the state of Iowa the delivery mechanism is imminently negotiable as to what makes the most sense.

Henderson: This past week republican legislative leaders expressed an interest in what they called hundreds of millions of dollars from the current year's state budget. They cite problems with the current budget suggesting it is structurally in deficit. Will democrats in the senate go along with that because any budget cutting can clear a republican controlled house but it also has to go through a democratically controlled senate?

Gronstal: Now is the time for people of good faith to set aside the campaign rhetoric, come to real accommodation of each other's interests. We are certainly willing to look at the cuts they have talked about and cuts to the current year's budget. That is why we made the efforts last year to cut $250 million out of the state budget. If they are real, if it's all pure symbol we're not going to go along with it obviously. But if they are real cuts that save the state money and don't jeopardize some of the important things we do in this state we're certainly willing to look at that.

Glover: Is there anything -- you say on almost every answer that you're willing to work with the governor, you’re willing to look at this, you're willing to look at that. Is there something you can tell this incoming governor is off the table, you're not going to look at?

Gronstal: Here's what I'd say to this incoming governor -- I was in the Iowa legislature all of the time he was governor. We passed his agenda, the republicans didn't. In '97 and '98 democrats were more about helping Terry Branstad in the minority. We were more about helping Terry Branstad pass his initiatives on education than his own republican colleagues in the legislature. We look forward to working with this guy. We have both been elected and whether it is a mandate or not we don't need to worry about that. There is a ton of common ground to be had, Governor Branstad I remember -- as a matter of fact I remember asked about his legacy when he left office when Vilsack was elected -- when he left office I was asked about his legacy and I said he always had a commitment to education and in particular K-12 education. I still believe that today and I think that is the same commitment democrats have and we're willing to work with him.

Glover: One of the items that the Iowa Senate is going to face is ratifying major appointments that the new governor makes, agency heads and so forth and so on. Typically most of those get ratified. What is your approach going to be? Are you going to try to knock down a bunch of those? Are you going to basically give him what he wants?

Gronstal: You know, when we went into the minority after the '96 election in '97 and '98 and I became the leader I made it my strategy to confirm every appointment he sent up and if there were ones that had significant problems we privately made suggestions that maybe that name shouldn't come up and the reasons why. But I'm not sure but I think we confirmed every appointment he made in '97 and '98. I have no reason to pick a fight with this governor unless there's some really appropriate reason based on policy to deny that person the job.

Henderson: Speaking of picking fights. The chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, Sue Dvorsky, who is married to one of your colleagues in the state senate, said that in the coming year democrats would respectfully stand in opposition to republican proposals and those advanced by Governor-elect Branstad. You, for the past year, have sort of been complaining about republicans accusing them of being a party of no. In answer to Mike's previous question, are you not willing to stand in opposition in the same way that your party chair suggests you will?

Gronstal: Of course we're going to stand in opposition if he's got some really dumb ideas. If he's got ideas that we don't think make sense or that we don't think are good for Iowa, if he's going to try and take healthcare coverage away from children in this state we will stand in his way every way we can. But the vast majority of the stuff the legislature deals with is the kind of stuff that you sit down and you work out your differences over. We worked out our differences with Governor Branstad in 1992 over healthcare and in the end we preserved access to healthcare coverage in this state. We will do that again. We will work with him in good faith. You guys in the press all want us to fight, you want to keep the election going. I say the election is over, it's time right now for people of good faith and I believe Terry Branstad is of good faith, for people of good faith to sit down, work through our differences, compromise where we can compromise and agree to the stuff we're going to disagree on.

Henderson: Speaking of sitting down and working in good faith, state employees who are part of a union are now starting to negotiate contracts. Governor-elect Branstad has made it clear that he would like changes in the benefit packages for state employees. Would you ratify such changes as a legislator?

Gronstal: He'd like changes to the contract, that is done through the collective bargaining process. I commend him and he should go put together the best deal he can with public employees in this state. If he's asking us to dramatically change the balance of power as it relates to the collective bargaining process we're going to take a very serious look at that.

Glover: It wouldn't be an official Iowa Press program if we didn't talk a little politics. You mentioned this election is over, this election being over means the next election is starting. I look around at the field of potential democratic gubernatorial candidates, I don't see many who I see as legitimate gubernatorial candidates. A two part question -- one, are you one of them? Are you contemplating running for governor? And two, look around at your fellow democrats and tell me who would make a potentially powerful gubernatorial candidate.

Gronstal: You know, I'm glad you asked that question. The day after the election I talked with my wife and my daughter, Kate, called my daughter Sarah, had conversations with my staff and so I'm here to give an exclusive to Iowa Press. I have decided I'm going to run for re-election in 2012.

Borg: As senator?

Gronstal: Well, yes. Yes, the governor's race isn't up until 2014.

Henderson: So, why wouldn't you run for governor? Why is that not ... ?

Gronstal: Because I'm a lot more interested in this moment in time in putting Iowans back to work. We just had one election, give people a break. Let's save the election -- I always say electioneering belongs in even numbered years, this is not an even numbered year that we're coming into.

Glover: So, as a legislative leader one of your jobs is political, advancing the cause of the Democratic Party. Look around and tell me who you've got to run against this guy in four years.

Gronstal: I'm not worried about four years right now, I'm worried about ...

Glover: Well, somebody in the Democratic Party ought to be.

Gronstal: I'm worried about putting Iowans back to work. I have always said good policy is the best politics. The best politics for us, the best politics for Terry Branstad, for Mike Gronstal, for Kraig Paulsen, the best politics for all of us is to put Iowans back to work. That has got to be our focus.

Henderson: During your last appearance on this program shortly before the election with Kraig Paulsen, who is the incoming house speaker, you both expressed an interest in changing the rules for campaigns in Iowa. What do you see advancing in the Iowa Senate in regards to campaign finance or disclosure of donors, those sorts of issues?

Gronstal: The courts have made, have certainly made the ability to make certain changes in terms of outlawing contributions and things like that pretty challenging. So, the Supreme Court decisions don’t leave us much leeway there. When I read the most recent Supreme Court decision on campaign finance I think they made it abundantly clear that laws requiring disclosure would pass constitutional muster. I am sick and tired of out-of-state groups that don't have to disclose their contributions, you don't know whether it's big oil paying for it or tobacco companies or whatever paying for these secret 501c4's. I think there ought to be disclosure of those contributions.

Glover: How far can you go?

Gronstal: I think you can pretty much tell them that they have to open their books.

Henderson: If these are federally charted ...

Glover: Yeah, let's look back at this last election. The campaign against the Supreme Court Justices was run by a group from Mississippi that isn't governed by Iowa law. How do you approach that?

Gronstal: I think the same way you approach it with campaign finance. We can require disclaimers, we can require disclosure. I think that's what the Supreme Court decision said, requiring disclosure is certainly within the state's purviews.

Borg: I'd like to go back to this Monday meeting that you had, I think it was Monday you said with Terry Branstad, the governor-elect. You have sent quite a message here today of being quite conciliatory and willing to cooperate. Are you going in with some sort of an agenda yourself or are you going to sit there and listen to what his priorities are and then react? Or are you going in with some proposals yourself?

Gronstal: I think he'll see some of both.

Borg: What are you taking in?

Gronstal: I think we need to expand our efforts at Main Street, economic development as it relates to communities, helping to rebuild their communities, their inner cities, their small town Main Streets, all of those kinds of things.  I think we need more of a focus on homegrown job creation in this state. For too long the focus has been on Wall Street. It's got to be a focus on Main Street. So, you're going to see us work to expand those kinds of efforts and we will also react to what the governor proposes and if he's got good ideas we're going to do our best to go along with them.

Glover: A big debate last year was over a package of labor backed bills none of which eventually made it through the legislature. Should we assume that those labor backed bills are off the agenda because of political changes at the Hill?

Gronstal: I'll pass any one of them that comes out of the house.

Glover: None of them will come out of the house ...

Gronstal: I said I'll pass any one of them that comes out of the house, yeah.

Glover: And what do you say to your friends in organized labor?

Gronstal: I say it's not possible at this moment. By the way, calling them labor backed bills, I call them middle class bills.

Henderson: We haven't much time left, you used to have a mustache, Terry Branstad has a mustache, will you grow a Gronstache in support of the new governor?

Gronstal: Um, I started growing my mustache when I was eighteen years old and graduated from high school. I did it to look older. I realized five or six years ago it was working way too well.

Borg: With that, Senator Gronstal, we're going to have to close. Thanks for being our guest today.

Gronstal: Sure.

Borg: On our next edition of Iowa Press we're moving to the House of Representatives where republicans, as we said, are contemplating life with a 20 seat advantage there. We'll be talking with Hiawatha Representative Kraig Paulsen who is moving from minority leader to Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.


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