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

posted on April 12, 2013

An eye for an eye.  Democrats and republicans trading partisan jabs and Iowans left wondering whether they're serving the state.  We're seeking political perspective from republican Doug Gross and democrat Kevin McCarthy on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: TheIowalegislature's partisan bickering got personal this past week.  Most of the Iowa Senate's democrats turning thumbs down on three of Governor Terry Branstad's nominees, one of them the Board of Regents incumbent president Craig Lang.  In Lang's case, democrats admitting they're peeved over the Regent's perceived role in fellow democrat Tom Harkin canceling donation of his political papers to an Iowa State University institute bearing his name.  But we're seeking perspective now on the overall legislative tug-of-war from Kevin McCarthy who leads the Iowa House of Representatives' democratic minority and from Des Moines Attorney, republican political activist Doug Gross.  He is a former gubernatorial candidate and chief of staff.  Welcome back to Iowa Press, both of you.

Gross: Good to be with you.

McCarthy: Thank you.

Borg: Mr. McCarthy, you made an interesting comment that I overheard.  You said this is the most uneventful session I've ever been a part of.  We're going to be asking you about that.  Across the table, James Lynch, Political Writer for the Gazette published inCedar Rapidsand Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Mr. Dean Borg mentioned one of the events that actually did occur this past week, the defeat of two nominees for the Board of Regents, the board that governsIowa,IowaState and theUniversityofNorthern Iowa.  Mr. McCarthy, let's make it clear for viewers, you don't have a vote, you're in the House. But I'm wondering if you could comment on this -- has the pendulum swung in terms of public attitudes about same-sex marriage?  Because that was heavily discussed during the defeat of Mr. Cramer's nomination.  He supports what he would term traditional marriage.

McCarthy: I wouldn't conflate the two issues, same-sex marriage and the Regent's votes, I really wouldn't.  There's no doubt that more often than not a person appointed to the Regent's Board by a particular governor has been a political contributor, more politically active.  I have some sympathy for what Senator Zaun lamented about, that that needs to stop.  Having said that, this particular instance I just think the Harkin Institute dust up created some ill will.  There was a sense that while there has been political stances, if you will, from the Regent's, a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right that they moved a little bit too much, too much in the political realm and there was some blow back.  The big picture though is, is that when this is all said and done the session is over, that 99% or more of the governor's appointees will have been confirmed.  And the big picture of it then is things are probably operating the way they should.

Henderson: Mr. Gross, you've been involved in these sort of fights over Regent's nominees in the past.  Does Craig Lang have a political future after this?  He is the former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Gross: Well, I thought it was disappointing that Craig was sort of an innocent, I think an innocent bystander in frankly a spat between Ruth Harkin and Bruce Rastetter on the Board of Regents over the Harkin Institute and as a result Craig Lang, who is a decent guy, dairy farmer from Brooklyn, very community-minded, former head of the Farm Bureau doesn't get confirmed.  That is frankly not fair.  He is a good man.  I think he does have a political future if he desires to have one.

Lynch: Gentlemen, it's that time of the year when people start thinking about taxes and in theIowalegislature we have a Senate GOP income tax cut that appears to be going nowhere.  There are competing property tax proposals that seem to be stuck in the same place they were a year ago.  And while public opinion seems to favor an income tax cut the Governor is insisting that we have property tax relief before he is going to sign on to anything else.  What are the prospects that we're going to get any sort of tax relief, any kind out of this session, Kevin?

McCarthy: I wish I could be more positive but right now unless things alter in the very near future the odds of consensus on the commercial property tax relief proposal, for example, is very slim.  There just doesn't seem to be a lot of discussions occurring.  There's a lot of focus right now on education reform.  There's some behind-the-scenes good bipartisan work occurring on mental health redesign.  But commercial property taxes, look, you had the Senate put out their proposal, they retained the majority, they think they've got something that is politically viable.  The House had their proposal.  They've got other proposals, which they have passed this year, but having something to force consensus just does not appear to be there and we've only got three weeks left in session.

Borg: You said education reform seems to be moving.  On the surface it doesn't seem to be.  Last session you passed what was called later watered down education reform and it looks like that's going to happen this time too.  But you're more optimistic.

McCarthy: Well, a bill will pass.  I would not assert -- you know, my daughter who may, you know, be able to go to college she's not all of a sudden going to go to Harvard or Yale now because this piece of legislation passes.  It will be very watered down, something that the Governor will accept.  We will have passage, we'll have allowable growth done but I would not assert it's a productive reform type proposal.

Borg: Doug, how are you reading these two things, taxes and education reform?

Gross: Obviously I'm not in the legislature -- I shouldn't call you speaker, Kraig would be upset about that wouldn't he -- the leader.

Borg: But politically do Iowans really have a -- they have a stake in it of course, but do they care?

Gross: Oh they care.  I mean, the three critical issues facing this legislature are also the critical issues facing the state.  It's education reform because our kids are in the back of the pack, we've got to do something about it, we need a sense of urgency to do something about it.  Property tax reform, our commercial property taxes we know the system has been broken for years and we have to do something about health care.

Borg: But politically is there a price to pay if nothing happens?

Gross: I think there would be in this instance.  And I think it is different this time than it has been the last two years, at least I hope so.  And the reason why it is different, this time both sides want something.  The democrats really want Medicaid expansion.  They want it badly.  They made that very clear throughout the course of the session.  The republicans really want property tax reform and education reform.  The democrats also want a four percent allowable growth.  It seems to me there is a relatively easy formula to put those together and get them all done.  I just hope they sit down and do it.

Henderson: Is divided government working inIowa?  You have essentially the same group of people that have been working in the past two years and haven't found accord on those topics.  The Governor, you know, has been in charge of divided government for most of his tenure as the state's chief executive.  Is divided government working inIowa?

Gross: Well, it hasn't yet.  That is pretty clear, Kay.  And, you know, Einstein said, if you do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result it's the definition of insanity.  So maybe I'm insane to think that we're going to get a different result because we do have pretty much the same players.  But I really do believe, Kay, in this instance there is a different dynamic.  Something has to be done on health care and how we’re going to respond to the ACA.  It has to occur.  The Governor has laid out a proposal, the democrats have laid out a proposal.  What is not happening that I don't see right now is everybody is going in a linear fashion.  They're saying well you have to do this before we do that.  I don't think that is how this process should work.  I think you should throw it all into a pot and do it all together.  I think if it's going to get done that's how it will happen.  It would be like a potpourri.

Henderson: Have you told your former boss that because he has a checklist, we do this first, this second, this third?

Gross: He does.  He and I have a disagreement on that -- among other things probably.

Lynch: One of the issues that really hasn't gotten much attention inIowathis year, although guns and gun control are top of mind everywhere else, Kevin, the only piece of gun legislation I can recall in this session was to make gun permits secret rather than public records.  Why is there no action on gun legislation, either expanding gun rights or gun control?  Is this sort of the third rail inIowathat no one dares touch?

McCarthy: Well, we talk about having difficulty in finding consensus on some issues.  The states position of the House republican majority was in their constitutional amendment that they passed this last session, every single republican voted for it, and that would have eliminated allIowagun laws, any laws regarding transporting, carrying, licensing, registration, permitting, all gone.  When you have that position, which is way, way to the right and I'm an NRA member, okay, but that is to me pretty extreme.  Trying to find consensus on closing the gun show loophole, for example, which we could do in Iowa is pretty difficult because their starting point is very, very far to the right.

Lynch: So there's no possibility of finding any middle ground there is what you're saying?

McCarthy: I don't believe so, no.

Henderson: Gentlemen, do you think your respective political parties are ready for 2014, Mr. Gross?  Do you think the Republican Party apparatus is in place that can effectively help candidates up and down the ticket?

Gross: No.

Henderson: What would you like to see?

Gross: Well, we had a report that came out of our RNC that indicated we've got some pretty substantial work to do at the national level to rebuild a party.  And at the state level our party infrastructure is largely being controlled by a very small minority of the party.  So that is not how you win elections.  So we've got a substantial amount of work to do between now and 2014.

Borg: Nationally or inIowa?

Gross: Both.  Both.

Borg: Steve King on this program last week said,Iowahas turned a bit to the left, it's going to be an uphill climb for any republican statewide candidate.  Do you agree?

Gross: No, I don't.  On that score I don't agree. I don't think thatIowahas turned to the left.  I thinkIowais very much square in the middle.  And there's great opportunity for republicans in 2014.  It's in the mid-term of the second term of a president's year, usually always the out of power party wins a lot of seats during that timeframe and I think we have the opportunity to do so.  But we've got to get our act together within the infrastructure of the party and it's not there yet.

Henderson: You mentioned the reports that Reince Priebus released in February I believe.  On this program last week Congressman Steve King said he never should have issued that, made it public.  Do you think your party needs to moderate on issues like same-sex marriage and some of the other items that were listed in that report?

Gross: Well, I've read the report.  I thought it was a courageous report.  It's very difficult for a party chair to come out and say basically we got our head handed to us last time, we've go to do some things differently.  But if you want to change and be successful you've got to acknowledge when you've got problems and I thought he did so in a very effective way.  Our party needs to make it clear that while we are welcoming to all that have traditional views on social issues we're going to be a party big enough to win elections.  That means we have to appeal to the middle as well.

Henderson: What about same-sex marriage in particular?

Gross: Well, I think what you're seeing within the republican party right now is at least a moderation of their views with regard to whether or not we insist upon a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.  I don't see that kind of pressure that we've had in the past within the party to do that.  I think there's still, there's still an affinity to the traditional view of marriage and we don't want government sort of incenting or promoting anything but that but we're not focusing on banning it either.

Borg: Mr. McCarthy, back to the comment that Kay asked first of all, party ready for 2014.  It's generally conceded, and he was saying we have some work to do, that means that democrats are ahead, that is in what they're doing in organizing.  Do you agree?

McCarthy: Um, a couple of things.  One is the narrative that the party in power in the down ballot races do worse when it's the opposite.  That has not necessarily been the case inIowa.  Just two example, Bill Clinton wonIowain 1996, that was the year Iowa Senate democrats lost a majority.  George Bush wonIowain 2004 and the House picked up five seats down ballot.  So we have bucked the trend.  I think we're a very purple state.  We're the purplest of purple states.  Our democratic party right now though is united and strong and we're going to have a very strong, coordinated campaign.  We're very healthy.  ButIowahas not tilted to the left, we haven't tilted to the right, we're a very purple state.

Henderson: Mr. McCarthy, let's talk about the statewide ticket.  Everybody is sort of focused on this U.S. Senate race but there are other down ballot races.  You have one candidate on the democratic side who has definitely announced he is running, Brad Anderson, a candidate for Secretary of State.  What is happening there?  It seems as if candidates need to announce earlier and earlier to get fundraising going.

McCarthy: Um, on that particular race I know that Brad Anderson has really got a strong start and I think he's going to be a very strong candidate.  I also know that former Secretary of State Mike Mauro has not ruled out running again.  And of course he did, I think most people would regard a very exemplary job and was just caught up in the 2010 republican tsunami.  So that is, that race I don't think the field has been set yet.  And there's other races.  We have a great person in my caucus, a friend, former Speaker of the House Pat Murphy is running for Congress.  It's no secret that current party chair Tyler Olson is also exploring running for Congress.  I think his window of decision-making is in the next three to five weeks.  And so we're keeping an eye on all those races.

Lynch: Doug, on the republican side of the ticket I think all attention is focused on the U.S. Senate race, who is going to challenge Congressman Bruce Braley.  Who should be the candidate?  Kim Reynolds?

Gross: Someone who can win.

Lynch: Kim Reynolds?  Bill Northey?  Steve King?  Who should be the --

Gross: I don't expect Steve King to run.  I know he was here last week indicating that he is analyzing it and usually when I've worked with politicians over the years when they're analyzing something they're usually trying to figure out how not to do it because usually their gut tells them when they're going to do it.  So I don't expect Steve to run.  I think he has been a great congressman from northwestIowaand he'll do a great job there.  I'm also skeptical as to whether or not the Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey or the Lieutenant Governor will run for that spot.  I don't think either one will.  So I don't think we know who the candidate is going to be right now.

Lynch: How do you find a candidate then?

Gross: Oh don't worry, they tend to self-select.

Lynch: But you said it has to be somebody who can win.

Gross: This is the United States Senate.  It's the first time it has been open in decades.  It will be hotly competitive, very competitive in an off year where republicans have a good chance of winning.  I think we'll have a good candidate, I just can't tell you who it's going to be.

Borg: But you have just eliminated the top three that are being spoken of.

Gross: Well, there are more people eligible to run for Senate than those who happen to hold a particular office at any particular time.

Borg: Doug Gross?

Gross: No, no I'm not running.

Henderson: What is the one thing people underestimate about running statewide?  As a candidate in 2002 what is your advice to folks?

Gross: Be prepared to work hard particularly as a republican.  You need to go to every county and it isn't just Chuck Grassley's shtick as a republican, you have votes in every county, you need to go to every county.  And it's a big state so you really have to work it hard.  So one thing I am concerned about is I'd like to see our candidates come forward this summer, no later than this summer because people need to get to know them if they're going to have a good shot at winning.  One of the mistakes I think I made back in 2002 is getting in too late.

Henderson: You also ran against --

Gross: -- among other things.

Henderson: You ran against Tom Vilsack.  Do you think Tom Vilsack could beat Terry Branstad?

Gross: No.

Henderson: Why not?

Gross: Because Terry Branstad has never lost an election, is a proven vote getter and is wildly popular right now and is doing a great job and the state is in great shape.  So Iowans don't tend to change horses when they're satisfied with how things are going and I found that out in 2002 as well.

Lynch: Well, let's throw that to you, Kevin, the old adage is that the minority leader's job is to become the majority leader and you've certainly made it your mission to take back control of the Iowa House.  Looking ahead to 2014 what are the prospects there to pick up seats and get to 51?

McCarthy: We feel -- we feel pretty good where we're at and, you know, this last cycle we were outspent by we think about $2 million.  We returned 35 of 36 incumbents, picked up an additional twelve seats.  Difficulty in fundraising so we were only able to target or protect 11 seats in total.  9 of those 11 we outperformed the President and the congressional.  So we feel good about our operation.  We're going into 2014 and we've got some good recruits lined up.  We'll be rolling those out over the next year and we feel positive we can have a good shot of getting to the majority.

Lynch: Does it make it harder to flip the House given that at least so far the House republicans haven't hit the hot button issues, abortion, same-sex marriage amendment, some of their stand your ground castle doctrine gun rights legislation, that they have avoided that so it's going to be harder to make the argument that they need to, you know, flip the House?

McCarthy: Speaker of the House and Majority Leader to their credit have done a better job this year of containing what is a lot of kind of I would describe Tea Party angst in their caucus.  17% of their caucus filed a bill just a few weeks ago that would describe murder, the penalty of murder for women that would use contraception such as the pill.  But only 53 seats right now being able to contain that over the next year, I don't know.  But -- I don't know the answer moving forward.  I will tell you in this last cycle there wasn't a lot of so-called negative campaigning, we would just tell people what the republicans were saying about themselves and that seemed to work pretty good for us.

Borg: What is the issue that is going to work for you in trying to, as Jim says, flip the House and win a democratic majority?

McCarthy: It is one, looking at who we fight for.  I think every day we try to fight for the middle class and too often the republicans I think are fighting for whatever out-of-state big box corporations or whatever.  But I will tell you most politics is local and as counterintuitive as it may seem a good quality candidate that fits their district locally and people say, I know that person and trust that person, and they go out and door knock, sometimes these issues at the Capitol don't matter.

Gross: I'm willing to make a prediction on this.  If you wanted to be the Speaker it was last time because you snuck up on them and you had some good candidates and the President had an unbelievable machine out there with turnout.  2014 republicans will stay in control of the Iowa House.

Henderson: Very quickly, Mr. McCarthy, who is the democrat to emerge as your candidate for governor?

McCarthy: Um, I know Senator Hatch is out there talking right now.  There is a draft Tom Vilsack movement that is starting to build momentum.  Obviously that would be very exciting to have a Braley-Vilsack top of the ticket and then I think the narrative that it would be an off year election for democrats we could put that to bed.  But we don't know.  We hope we can have a very good candidate and I heard Bill Clinton say once, and I'll say this in ten seconds, but everybody likes to prognosticate early on and if you're not really well known you kind of get poo-pooed and then he said, you know, once you become a star, if you will, or you become well-known then the narrative changes.  Whoever our nominee will -- whoever our nominee is will be strong I think.

Borg: Thanks for your predictions and prognostications.  Thank you.  And we'll be continuing Iowa Press in just a moment with a reporters' roundtable.

Borg: Jennifer Jacobs of the Des Moines Register, Political Writer mostly at the Statehouse is joining us now.  Jennifer, you just heard the conversation that we had with Doug Gross and Kevin McCarthy.  What surprised you about that comments?

Jacobs: I thought it was very interesting to hear Doug Gross, who is a very influential republican in the state, talk very frankly about some of the weaknesses in the party right now.  He said, our party apparatus in the state has some weaknesses, has some flaws, we also have no clue who our United States Senate candidate is going to be to take Tom Harkin's position.  He did say he thinks that there will be a strong candidate but they just have no idea who it is and he actually went out on a limb and predicted it won't be Congressman Steve King, it won't be Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds and it won't be Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey.

Borg: That's going to shock a lot of people.

Jacobs: Yeah, exactly.

Henderson: Well, the other thing he said was that, you know, he learned his lesson as a candidate statewide in 2002 that he got in too late.  So I think there is huge pressure on somebody to step forward and make a decision, we just don't know who that somebody is.

Borg: What is the timetable do you think?  He gave us a timetable because as Kay said, he said, when I ran for governor I got in too late.  Well, he is really saying there is a deadline then.

Lynch: I think there is.  And especially if it's somebody we don't know, they need to get out there and hit the county fair circuit and all those sorts of things and meet people, make themselves a household name and build that organization that it's going to take to run against Bruce Braley who is out there every day now campaigning for that Senate seat.

Borg: Well let me ask you, do you agree with his prediction that the three top names are not going to run?

Lynch: Uh, I'm not sure.  He probably knows a lot more about that than I do.  They're the obvious choices, you might say, out there but, you know, sometimes it's the person you don't know that, the fresh face that comes out that actually captures the voter's attention and is intriguing whereas we know a little bit about Bill Northey and Kim Reynolds and even more about Steve King, they come with a certain amount of baggage.  A fresh face might be just what the GOP needs.

Borg: But yet they don't have a portfolio, Kay.

Henderson: But they can make one up, not make one up but come up with a story to tell Iowans.  Whoever runs is going to have a lot of money behind them because this is an open seat, both parties will be pouring a lot of money in here.  The other thing that I heard Doug Gross say that sort of was interesting to me was that in terms of statehouse politics you need to sort of put everything in the same pot and I give you this, you give me that and every issue being intertwined whereas Governor Branstad has sort of been trying to play this game where we do A, then we do B, then we do C.

Borg: Jennifer, what happened this past week in rejecting the three nominees, particularly Craig Lang?  Do you think, I mean, there you're dealing with personalities, you're dealing with a thumbs down on a person rather than just voting no on faceless legislation.  Do you think that increases the intensity of the gridlock?

Jacobs: It could.  I do think there were some republicans who really thought it was unfair, that you had a couple people who are good, upstanding people in the community and to have them be rejected was really unfair to them personally.  But you've got the democrats saying, it wasn't partisan and also the appointees for the Governor tend not to be involved in horse-trading.  It's not like, you know, someone would say well if you agree to this bill, you know, we'll agree to your appointee.  They tend to kind of stand on their own or fall on their own.

Borg: I'm interested too in the strategy, Governor Branstad's strategy as each one of these priorities, property tax changes, K-12 enhancement and changes in the education system and also Medicaid, that that all be thrown in together and some horse-trading there.  How is that going to go over?  And what is the strategy of the Governor in not doing it that way?

Jacobs: Usually at the end of the session that's what tends to end up happening anyway.  Like they pointed out there's only three weeks left for lawmakers to be paid in the session so the time clock is ticking down.  So if they're going to get anything done they're going to have to possibly pool these things together and allow the other side to get something that they want.

Borg: Likely to be, you think, a special session on Medicaid?

Jacobs: I don't think so.  Do you guys think so?

Lynch: Well, the leaders keep saying no but it's possible that they get down to the end of the session and say, look, we don't have to do anything.  They can't even agree on when the Iowa Care program expires and when they have to do something.  I mean, some people are saying it is July 31st, some people are saying December 31st.  So I think we could get down to the end of the session and they say, okay, we're going to come back in a special and do that.  But I think one thing I think is missing in this legislature is the whole horse-trading aspect.  I don't know that the people there are horse-traders.

Borg: You mean leaders?

Lynch: Right.  I just -- I haven't seen any evidence of a lot of horse-trading going on, that that's the way they operate.  So I'm not sure that if it gets down to crunch time they can make those deals.

Borg: But is part of that, Kay, is part of that just what happened this past week is that it's so personal that there is no horse-trading atmosphere, environment?

Henderson: Well, I think Kevin McCarthy hit it on the head that, you know, they have staked out positions on commercial property tax reform in each of the last two years and those positions aren't changing.  So you have to insert some other dynamic into that mix.  I mean, a lot of times what has to happen is there has to be a huge flare up and conflagration about some issue and both sides scream and moan and then people say, okay, we let that steam out, let's go back in the room and talk like adults and figure out what's going on here.  The other component of this is that House republicans heretofore have been unwilling to horse-trade, as you say, and so until they're able to as a group agree to some of these things that Senate democrats are willing to do or wanting to do I don't think there is prospect for property tax relief.

Borg: We've got less than a minute, Jennifer.  But I'm wondering, back to this 2014 top of the ticket race here in Iowa and it's frozen right now as to who the republican candidate might be -- what does that do to other candidates who might be wanting to run?

Jacobs: Well, I think there's a lot -- there's an interest in having a woman run and I think the democrats have been talking about that a lot which is why they're really excited about having Staci Appel possibly run for a congressional seat against Tom Latham here in the Des Moines area and that is why some people are very excited about Kim Reynolds running for Harkin's seat.  So I don't think that people are giving up on Kim Reynolds especially just yet but, you know, I think that is definitely a dynamic that there's going to be a lot of interest in getting a woman on that ticket.

Henderson: And Governor Branstad would very much like to appoint a woman to be the state auditor so that in 2014 that female could seek re-election to the post.

Borg: And that is empty now because David Vaudt has resigned in mid-term.

Henderson: Correct.

Borg: Good.  Thanks for your insights.  And we'll be back next weekend with another edition of Iowa Press.  You'll see us at the same times, 7:30 Friday night and again at noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: Democrats Doug Gross government Iowa Kevin McCarthy legislature news politics Republicans