Iowa Public Television


Doug Gross (R-Des Moines) and State Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Des Moines)

posted on December 3, 2010

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Adjusting to new realities.  New power brokers emerging as democrats and republicans weigh the election's tangible results.  We’re asking two political activists, republican Doug Gross and democrat Kevin McCarthy, to survey the political lay of the land on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: In general, last month's election gave republicans new life.  The new congress and the Iowa General Assembly, convening just after the first of the year, have republicans controlling the House of Representatives and more strength in the federal and state senates too.  Iowa will also be inaugurating a republican governor.  Terry Branstad returning after twelve years of democrats Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver governing the state.  Change, though, creates new expectations and it creates tension.  We’re asking two political veterans for some insight on what's ahead now, how Iowans are likely to be affected too.  Des Moines Attorney Doug Gross was chief-of-staff in an earlier Terry Branstad administration, and eight years ago he was the republican's gubernatorial nominee.  State Representative Kevin McCarthy, also a Des Moines attorney, is among the democrats adjusting to new roles.  He’s been leading a comfortable majority in the Iowa House of Representatives, and house democrats have just reelected him now to continue leading, but now in the minority role.  Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.


Gross: Good to be with you.


McCarthy: Good to be with you.


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


Glover: Leader McCarthy, let's start with you.  There are three openings on the Supreme Court, and the nominating commission is taking applications to fill those three openings.  Outgoing Governor Culver has not ruled out making those appointments if the names arrive on his desk before he leaves offices in January.  What would be the consequences of that?


McCarthy: Maybe I’ll answer the question a little more globally to try to address a larger issue, plus the judge issue --


Gross: I’ll answer your question.  


McCarthy: In my judgment, he should not appoint any submitted -- any set names from the commission.  It’s my guess that the commission won't have the process done in such a way that would allow him to appoint, so it's probably a moot point, but it's something that he should not do because there's always appearances and then there's reality.  The appearance would be such that the will of the people would have been subverted. and though, although I agree, for example, with former governor bob ray in his position regarding the judge issue and support the independent judiciary and keeping politics out -- I think that's where I’m at personally -- the voters spoke and I think it would be a mistake to try to do something that looks like it would be against what just happened at the elections.


Glover: Mr. Gross, what's your take on that?  What would be the reaction if the same voters who ousted this current governor and ousted the judges had him put others back on?


Gross: Well, the problem we have, Mike is that the legitimacy of the court system is at stake, and that's all about civil society.  This is a very, very sensitive and critical issue.  If the outgoing governor who got defeated in his run for office attempts in some way to reappoint the justices who got defeated by those same voters, the civil society would be at risk here because people would question the legitimacy of every decision of that supreme court and the next justices who would be up would also be at great risk of their retention.


Borg: So that's across the board, then.  Even if it would come up and phased and there is one nominee, you wouldn't even think that that should be -- appointee and leave the other two up to Branstad?


Gross: No.  And I think the good thing -- I think leader McCarthy did a good job of answering that.  I think the likelihood of Governor Culver making that decision is practically nothing. There’s no way logistically he's going to have that opportunity.


Glover: Leader McCarthy, there's also another logistical question.  The commission has not yet made this decision, but they could pick nine finalists for the three seats and send them up all at once or they could pick one from a field of three, send that up, meet again.  What should they do?  I mean the court is struggling right now.  It only has four justices.  Isn’t there some urgency for filling these?


McCarthy: No, I don't think there's an urgency.  I mean that's just my -- there's been vacancies before.  There’s going to be vacancies in the future.  We have a very good system, and I think we should keep that system.  But I think being prudently cautious is what they should do.  Take their time and make the decision.


Glover: Mr. Gross, how big of a problem is this for the court?  I mean it's going to be going on with roughly half its membership for a couple of months.


Gross: Yeah, this is a significant issue for court.  I think just today they indicated that Justice Kady will be the new chief justice, which means he will no longer be chair of the judicial nominating commission.  Instead Justice Wiggins will be, and he's also up in two years for retention for the first time.  So that's really an interesting situation.  It’s a very, very critical time for the court system.  It’s a critical time for the state of Iowa.  I think they ought to take their time and make sure they do it right.  Also make sure that they're transparent about it. Make sure people know what the process is so we can get as brought a group of candidates as we possibly can.


Henderson: Well, gentlemen, I’d like your opinion on what the justices who remain on the court should do when their names on the ballot in the judicial retention election in the future.  Should they form campaign committees?  Should they run advertisements, Mr. McCarthy?


McCarthy: I don't think so.  I think you've got to step back a little bit away from it.  And if you respect our independent judiciary, you respect that process, you've got to recognize that every now and then you're going to have some politics enter into it.  I don't think the jobs of the justices -- and I think they would probably even agree with this -- are that important, are that sacred that you need to then respond in like kind and enter into the political realm.  We don't want to be like Texas and these other states.  I’ve traveled to other states and seen commercials on there -- negative attacks.  Where we have too much politics in our judiciary, so I think justices should do what they're doing; take a deep breath, be judicial, have judicial temperament, and move forward, and the system will adjust itself.


Henderson: Mr. Gross, what's your view?  Do you think this gay marriage issue will have resonance in the 2012 election as well as it did in 2010?


Gross: Yes, and 2014, absolutely.


Henderson: Why?


Gross: Why?  Because we had a perfect storm, when you think about it, when it comes to judiciary in this last election, because you had the Varnum decision which dealt with gay marriage.  You’re dealing here with what many Iowans consider a sacred institution in which the court on a 7-0 vote in effect gets rid of, in lots of people's minds.  At the same time you have the government proceed to be overreaching, getting involved in way too many things, spending way too much money, expanding beyond what they could ever expect in things like health care.  So you have all that together in a cauldron, you mixed it up together, and you have what happened.  So we need to be very, very careful now that the court handles this appropriately.


Henderson: But the soup that was served from that cauldron in the 2010 -- is it going to be the same in 2012.


Gross: No, it's not going to be the same.  It could be actually worse if we politicize the response to this by, in effect, some people trying to jigger the results of this renomination or the nomination of three new justices, we could have a worse situation in 2012.


Glover: But isn't this a virtual guarantee?  I mean Bob Vander Plaats, who led the campaign to oust those justices, has taken over what used to be the Iowa family policy center.  Doesn’t that more or less assure the campaign goes on?


Gross: Well, it really depends because bob has actually said that he's not really focused on the other justices.  Right now Bob's moved into a different role.  He’s focused on the presidential caucuses in 2012, as well I think, frankly, he should.  I think that's where he can have the most impact.


Glover: Mr. McCarthy, same question to you.  Doesn’t that virtually assure that this campaign just goes on?


McCarthy: It might but it's going to lose intensity.  That’s my view on it.  I mean I still believe that the big issues are pocketbook issues.  There are things that can help turn up and fire up one's base.  This clearly did that this time.  But --


Borg: Well, why do you say that, because we got our pound of flesh and now people are going to forget about it?


McCarthy: No.  I think that this issue -- we could spend a whole show on this issue, but I think the issue of civil rights -- I think the issue of civil rights, particularly with young people, is becoming less intense.  I’m not a very old person.  I’m only 39 but I’m young enough to remember just back in 1995 a gentlemen -- with the Des Moines School Board.  When someone came out and proclaimed they were gay or proclaimed themselves to be gay, it was the immediate kiss of death.  And it really wasn't -- the issue was so red hot.  Right now it still can gin up the republican base, but pocketbook issues I think are the primary thing.  This issue is lessening in intensity with mainstream voters, I believe.  Not with republican base, but with mainstream voters.


Gross: The only way to neutralize that cauldron is you've got to allow the people an opportunity to vote on the amendment.  This is like a pressure cooker without a release valve.  You’ve got to create a release valve.  And the people of Iowa are demanding -- by the election results are demanding an opportunity to vote on this and they ought to be given that opportunity.


Henderson: Mr. McCarthy, will that happen?


McCarthy: Probably not.  I forget the amendment -- I don't know what it's going to look like yet.  My suspicion is that the republican majority won't be able to help themselves and will continue to lurch toward more and more social extremism on the right.  So all this will be in this amendment besides gay marriage, but I predict something will pass the house.  And Senator Gronstal, within the senate rules, has authority to prevent any bill from coming up.  Unlike the house where you can suspend the rules with 51 votes.  He’s said it will not come up. And for those that argue on the other side, I understand that people say let us vote on the issue because we don't want the "M" word, the marriage for gays and lesbians to have that there.  The decision, of course, there's still a lot of lack of knowledge of that issue.  It doesn't apply to any church. Churches can sanctify or not sanctify whatever marriage that they want.  It doesn't affect that institution.  but we still have these other issues about civil unions, domestic partnerships, benefits out there that I think is more popular than not with the electorate, and I think the issue is lessening in intensity.


Borg: You're right, we could spend a whole show on this issue.  


Glover: Let's not spend a whole show on this issue. Let’s go to another.


McCarthy: I want to say one thing that's very important just to finish up on that, and then I’ll shut up.  But -- I’m sure there's a lot of folks in the south in the '60s that said, gosh, this is going to be terrible politically for us, it's going to gin up the other party's base by dealing with immigration in schools.  If you believe it's a civil rights issue, as many people do in my caucus and as I do, then you don't just say we put everything -- the majority rule to a vote when there's minority rights at stake.


Glover: That's exactly what it did.  Mr. Gross, let's go to another issue.  Governor Culver has cut a deal with the largest union representing state workers before he left office.  What’s your take on this?


Gross: Unconscionable.


Glover: Tell me more.  Why? I mean he makes the case:  I’m governor till January 14, I’m acting within my powers.


Gross: It's never been done before by an outgoing governor.  When Governor Branstad left, he turned it over to Governor Vilsack to negotiate.  And it only makes sense because Governor Branstad has to deal with the results for the next few years.  This is a two-year contract.  It could cost, through reverberations for the rest of the state employees and local governments, over $500 million of taxpayer money over the next two years.  It could be as much as 15-percent increases for some state employees when 110,000 people in Iowa don't have jobs.  The governor -- the people of Iowa spoke very clearly.  They wanted limited government so they voted out the incumbent governor, the first time in fifty years.  How in the world then can he go out and hand the employee unions who gave him a ton of money during the campaign a gift like a 15-percent increase!


Glover: Mr. McCarthy, it's the governor of your party.  What’s your take on this deal he cut with the unions?


McCarthy: I have to say a few things on that.  I won't take as long as you did --


Gross: I could talk again.  


McCarthy: -- on that topic.  But I think first of all, I can see how this happened.  Governor Branstad -- Governor-elect Branstad basically declared war on state employees with campaign rhetoric.  When the election is over, he's made it very clear that he's going after state employees.  Secondly, a lot of people aren't aware of this; under the contract that they're under right now, AFSCME was required to submit their proposal by November 30.  And they complied with their contract -- they complied with the law by submitting that proposal.  The governor, I haven't visited with him about this issue.  I’m assuming he also did not think about some of the appearance of how this would look because he hasn't always had a rosy relationship with AFSCME.  There’s never been an accusation he's out there delivering for some political partner.  He vetoed their big bill, open scope bargaining.  Also, just on the substance of it all, if you look at what's done, what they did, AFSCME last year agreed to a zero-percent pay increase, also agreeing to a 2-percent cut in pay in the form of furlough days to help balance the budget.  This proposal -- at least for the first of year, basically it gets -- again and it seems pretty reasonable.  Now, having said that, as I said at the beginning of the show, sometimes appearance -- perception is reality in politics, and I think this raises a lot of questions that did not need to be raised and I think Culver should have waited.


Glover: What are you going to do about it?


McCarthy: Here's what I know will happen. We have an incoming governor.  I know that he will be having conversations with AFSCME.  Danny Homan, the head of AFSCME, has stated on the record in the newspapers that I’ve read that any conversation that will occur from Governor Branstad to AFSCME that he will take that in good faith and then the members will have a conversation.  Legislatively, I’m in the minority party.  I don't get to set the agenda.  As I said, I think on the substance, once you look at the proposal, it's pretty reasonable.  But the perception of it -- the perception that I’m referring to, he should have waited.


Henderson: I’m curious about you two players.  Mr. Gross, will you have a role inside the Branstad administration?


Gross: No.


Henderson: Why not?


Gross: I did that before.  I know Governor Branstad did too --but he wants to go back.  I don't.


Henderson: Mr. McCarthy, we had legislative leaders on this show after the election essentially saying, hey, I’m announcing I’m going to seek re-election in 2012.  What are your future plans?  


McCarthy: Well, I don't know about my immediate future plans.  I’m going to try to move the ball down the field for house democrats politically, and I think we'll have some good opportunities in that regard. Also in terms of governance, I met with David Rohner on behalf of Governor Branstad about a week ago.  We’re going to on the house democratic side -- the voters have spoken.  They want divided government right now, so on every opportunity we have to do good government, we're going to work in a bipartisan way.  If they start veering, which I think is going to happen, more to the right, to the extreme, then we'll make our voices be heard.


Borg: I just want to tie up a loose end here, and maybe you said it in what you said earlier.  But you said Governor Culver should not have made the agreement with AFSCME.  Does that mean that if House Speaker Paulsen and the majority republicans bring that up -- the contract up for modification in the -- that you would support modifying that contract?


McCarthy: First of all, there's a nuance here I want to make. Number one, we can't. It’s a binding contract.  The legislature can't go in and modify a contract.  That’s first of all.  It’s first of all --


Glover: The speaker thinks you can.


McCarthy: I don't believe you can modify a contract.


Gross: I actually handled a case like that.


McCarthy: But your question is --


Gross: That's another reason why they voted a few of them out, I think, in fact.


McCarthy: Your question is on the substance of it all, what I want to make clear is it's the appearance of how it went down that's creating perception problems.  I had two forums in the last couple days.  These were all the questions that were being asked, and nothing I said really was breaking through because it creates a fog.  Maybe Governor Culver could have done this, but there should have been something -- more of an educational process that should have been done.  I think he should have just waited and allowed the new governor -- because something else too, this is important for organized labor.  You've got a lot of other labor unions in the state:  SEIU, Teamsters, IUP, International United Professionals and others, that never really did any negotiating with this new governor, and we want to make sure that the relationship between our collective bargaining organizations, our workers, and the new governor is good and healthy.


Borg: Earlier Mr. Gross made a comment that related to justices.  Appearance is at the will of the people in the election was subverted.  Would you say that Culver's action of AFSCME also subverts the will of the people in the electorate?


McCarthy: No.  But I think it creates the appearance that raises questions that don't need to be asked.


Borg: Well, as we're looking ahead concerning the effects of last month's election, I’d like to bring up a video clip now of a prediction Mr. Gross made on Iowa Press just before the June republican primary about a significant segment of the Republican Party threatening to sit out the general election if Terry Branstad would be the party's nominee.


Gross – : You'd think if they really want to pursue their goal, which is to get a marriage between a man and a woman sanctified into Iowa law once and for all, they would try to work with the party that's committed to doing that.  Unfortunately they've not indicated they're willing to do that.


Borg – : Do you think that might moderate after if Branstad is nominated?


Gross – : From some of their leaders probably not, Dean, because they seem to be really on a mission here in an odd sort of way.  Yet among their members, yes.  I think the republican base will come together, and you'll have a very strong turnout in November.


Borg: All right, Mr. Gross.  The republicans did turn out.


Gross: For once I was right.


Borg: But what was the message that was sent?


Gross: The message -- we had a united party. It was interesting when I was on that show that all the talk was about a divided party, republicans were having a difficult time, it was civil war.  Our party was united in this election like never before.  Our turnout in some of our key republican counties was like 88 percent.  Branstad had, what, an 80-percent margin in some of those counties, so he clearly did get support from all sectors of the party and united the party.  It was a big part of our success.


Glover: Leader McCarthy, tell me what split government is going to look like at the hill.  As Dean mentioned, you have a very heavily republican house, a narrowly democratic senate.  Is that a recipe for gridlock?


McCarthy: I think we'll work together, by and large.  I’ve said this before a couple of groups this last week because it is the truth, we have a pretty good system of government in Iowa.  Unfortunately we've had too much of what I call federalization of our politics, where the partisanship that exists nationally gets kind of transferred down to our politics.  The reality is that we'll probably do around 200 pieces of legislation.  That’s been about the average no matter which party has been in control.  The vast majority, about 90 percent, are bipartisan. I think we're going to work together.


Glover: Mr. Gross, do you see gridlock coming?


Gross: No.


Glover: Why?


Gross: Because I think there's a conservative majority in both the house and the senate regardless of the parties, and the conservative majority will dominate particularly the first year of the general assembly.  When you've got a hot hand -- and Terry Branstad has a hot hand -- you play it. And he'll play it early on issues like government reform, issues like the job creation efforts that he wants to take, education reform.  He’s going to play those early and strong.


Henderson: Will Iowans be surprised by this Terry Branstad?  Is this a new Terry Branstad, or is this the old guy?


Gross: It's the same Terry Branstad.  I think the DNA is the same. Terry Branstad is a conservative pragmatist. He’s a gentleman who will do what it takes to achieve his principles.  and he's got specific goals he laid out in the campaign, which I think is very good because people know exactly what he wants to do and what he's always done, and he'll pursue them aggressively.


Glover: Mr. Gross, let's switch hats, if we could, and let's talk about Iowa’s republican precinct caucuses, the campaign for those.  That seems to me to be getting off to a relatively slow start.  I would have anticipated more aggressive campaigns at this point.


Gross: Incredibly slow.


Glover: Why?


Gross: A couple of reasons, Mike.  First of all, none of those candidates wanted to step on the republican success in 2010.  The Republican Party was so focused on the results of the 2010 election, they didn't want to come in and mess it up, and so they stayed out.  They were very, very careful what they did.  Largely being money that didn't really get out here. Secondly, nobody is exactly sure how to run this campaign.  This is going to be a caucus campaign like we've never seen before.  There are some who in the past always said, hey, you've got to get out early, organize, organize, organize.  Get hot at the end, like Dave Nagle used to say. That didn't work for Mitt Romney last time because you basically had Mike Huckabee who rode somebody else's organization and got hot at the end and won the republican nomination -- or the republican caucuses.  And politicians generally try to fight the last war like a lot of generals do, and so a lot of people will attempt to do that.  In that, you've got the Fox News issue.  You’ve got three of these candidates who are regulars on Fox News.  Seventy percent of the caucus goers watch Fox News religiously.  They don't think they have to be out here in order to run.  They think they can be hot on Fox News and not spend time in living rooms.


Borg: You're referring to Huckabee, Palin, and Gingrich.


Gross: Gingrich.


Glover: Is there a danger to the Republican Party the state is getting too conservative and that some potential candidates will skip past it?


Gross: I was certainly concerned about that, Mike, prior to this election.  I think now there's such a strong interest in the Republican Party on the economic issues -- on the limited government economic issues, government efficiency, that I don't think that danger exists.  Plus, Mike, you're going to have multiple socially conservative candidates, so they'll divide up that piece of the pie in a way that's different than what we had last time.


Henderson: One last question on the republican caucuses.  Should the Iowa Republican Party have a straw poll?


Gross: Yes.


Henderson: Why?


Gross: Absolutely, because it makes our party stronger. We can raise a lot of money.  Secondly and more seriously, some early candidates who want to take the traditional way of show leather campaigns -- a John Thune, Jim Pawlenty -- they need validation early in the process, and the caucus -- or the straw poll allows them to do that.


Glover: Mr. McCarthy, was this last election Barack Obama’s fault?


McCarthy: We're still doing the post mortem on this election.  It was clearly nationally felt.  We talked about our Iowa politics, say we've been one ship at sea in a very large storm.  Just a couple things here.  We won an open seat, Rod Roberts who ran for governor did not run for re-election.  Our democratic candidate won in his conservative leaning district.  A little fact for you -- that was an open-seat pick-up for democrats, one of only two in the United States of America.  This was a national tsunami and we have to figure out exactly nationally what has happened.  I will caution the republicans who may think there's a fundamental transformation in the national electorate has happened.  I think this electorate is getting short on patience.  They want stuff done. They want jobs.  They want a change.  If republicans don't start delivering -- and I just read today the tea party caucus nationally, the U.S. Congress requested a billion dollars in earmarks this last year.  So they've got to govern like their rhetoric.


Glover: Is Obama a one-term president?


McCarthy: I think that when he -- no, I don't think so.  I think that when he gets his organization going nationally -- he's a tremendous fund-raiser -- and the economy starts to turn around.  I still think voters are voting their pocketbook, and I think we're going to see an economic recovery nationally --


Glover: The republican view, Mr. Gross?


Gross: I think what the republicans need to understand is this was not about republicans. This was against the democrats.  They didn't -- they didn't buy into a republican brand, because it hasn't been identified yet.  And the last time republicans were in control, they didn't do what they said they were going to do, so they have to do that.  They have to take action on limited government.  If they do, then I think 2012, frankly, could be even better for republicans.


Glover: So you think he's a one-term president?


Gross: I do.


Borg: Mr. McCarthy, just a quick question here in the last thirty seconds.  What’s going to be the major achievement of this new general assembly?


McCarthy: One achievement I hope happens is more education with the voters on the state of the budget that we're leaving to republicans, because the cash reserves are full now.  And I think my prediction is at the end of this legislative session, the republicans will be proud that we have full cash reserves.  I want to let the voters know that they're already full now, and we look forward to working with them in good faith.


Borg: Thanks so much for being with us.


McCarthy: Thank you.


Borg: We'll be back at the usual Iowa Press times next week.  That’s 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning.  And a reminder, too, that the Internet is your direct connection to our Iowa Press staff.  The e-mail address now at the bottom of the screen --  I’m Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: AFSCME Democrats Doug Gross elections Iowa Iowa legislature Iowa Supreme Court judicial retention Kevin McCarthy politics Republicans state employees State Representatives unions