Iowa Public Television


Reporters Roundtable

posted on April 11, 2014

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Election year volatility.  Candidates seizing on opponents' missteps.  Iowa political journalists commenting on the political wounds and the bandages on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Election year politics is sensitive.  It's intense.  Expensive campaigns putting a lot at stake so when circumstances, sometimes serendipity circumstances, put a candidate on the defensive, there's a lot of maneuvering to quickly change voter perspectives and get the candidate back on track.  Well, there have been several serendipity circumstances in Iowa campaigns in the past few weeks and several attempts to derail candidate campaigns.  We're assembling Iowa political journalists to assess some of the more prominent campaigns and dive into some of the controversy.  Lee Enterprises Capitol Bureau Chief Mike Wiser, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich, Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.  Clay, start off with you.  One of the more prominent, you might say, missteps, if it can be construed like that, is within the executive branch of Iowa government.  Terminations of certain employees over the past few years, but then paying them to keep the confidentiality about the agreement.  Now, where are we on that because there was a key development just this past week?

Masters: So, the Senate Oversight Committee, which is controlled by democrats, heard from fired state workers who said that they signed confidentiality agreements.  The next day they heard from Mike Carroll, the Director of the Department of Administrative Services.  Carroll contradicted everything that those workers had said about getting the confidential settlements and then I was talking with Governor Branstad on Monday during Iowa Public Radio's "River to River" where he said, Carroll apologized to me, if it happens again heads will roll.  Well, just about a day or so later it came out that there was a smoking gun to link Carroll to show that he was lying about that and Governor Branstad fired him.

Borg: Kathie, does that stop the political bleeding?

Obradovich: No.  First of all, this is an election year so even if there was a sign of the bleeding slowing you've got a whole bunch of people there trying to re-open the wound, right?  But the other thing is, this situation is still unfolding.  It's not just a question of some people who were laid off who were paid settlement money out of state government and the effort to keep that quiet. There's also some more systemic concerns about whether people who are supposed to be protected, state workers who are supposed to be protected from political whims, in fact, their jobs have been converted so they can be fired however they want. There's also now a report that there is a list of people who were essentially put on a black list, that's a politically loaded term, but it's a list of people who cannot be re-hired by state government for one reason or another.  And, again, this is something where state officials claim this list did not exist and now all of a sudden it's in the newspaper that it did exist.  So that kind of thing where public officials have made, including the Governor, have made comments and statements that turned out not to be true tends to resonate with people.

Borg: Mike, on this list business, black list for lack of a better term and maybe that's a loaded term, but is there anything wrong with keeping a list of people that you don't want to re-hire?  Or is it the fact that you denied that the list existed and then it does?

Wiser: Well, I think from the perception -- you hit on a key point with the list being a loaded term.  Right after this happened, Dean, we heard from some of the Governor's staff that is saying, well there really is no list, there was a database that had these names in it and it's not a black list but there's a database and we compiled the list because of these journalistic requests.  So there's definitely sensitivity about the term black list in the Governor's office.  As far as the second part of the question, there's an argument there.  You sometimes hear from folks that we want to know if people are let go for what reasons.  One of these things that this list or this database, it doesn't tell us why people were let go.  You know from some investigations in some cases there are criminal offenses or it could be criminal offenses, abuse at say nursing homes or the type of reasons that brought down the Toledo Juvenile Home but we haven't, this still has to be fleshed out.  Some people are asking for more disclosure along these lines and we'll have to see where this goes.

Henderson: One of the reasons Terry Branstad was re-elected Governor in 2010 was that he convinced voters that he was a competent manager and the guy who was in the job at the time, Chet Culver, was incompetent.  This does directly at Branstad's main argument for governing and the time that this spends in the public eye and his inability to have his staff figure it out and provide an explanation that kills this story is going to make him bleed as a candidate.

Borg: But in the meantime, it is proliferating.  Am I right on that?  It's into the legislature now and the session is about to end but it looks like it may even extend the session.

Obradovich: Well, democrats, it's like Christmas for them.  It's a fairly limited agenda this session so they have time on their hands to hold hearings and call witnesses and dig into all of these statements that have been made and work on ways to contradict those statements.  And I would have to say so far they have been spectacularly successful at that.  So why would they stop?  So this is, I think they're not necessarily going to be in a really big hurry to see the session end while they have that spotlight.

Henderson: An interesting decision that the Governor and his staff made was that contrary to what Chet Culver did when there was a huge controversy in the Iowa Workforce Development agency and there were some people there that were accused of misusing taxpayer dollars, Chet Culver sent State Troopers over to make sure that none of the documents in that agency were destroyed.  In this instance, Terry Branstad chose not to do that, he appointed a new director and he says that director is making sure that no documents are destroyed.  But that leaves him open to allegations that he hasn't taken this seriously enough.

Borg: Clay, is a way to minimize the political damage to get the legislature out of town, the final gavel and have them go home?  Or doesn't that limit it?

Masters: You know, it takes the public eye off a little bit more.  Some of the republicans at the Statehouse are saying that all of these Senate Oversight Committees are just a campaign for Jack Hatch who will likely be Governor Branstad's democratic opponent.  So, I mean, they'll still be able to have their way with it but this provides much more of a public forum where there are journalists present and the public.

Wiser: You know, Dean, it hit on a point too earlier about how this is bleeding over into the legislature.  If you look at Terry Branstad back in January he said, these are my four basic priorities, which were tax credits for historical buildings, Home Base Iowa which would bring veterans into the state, an anti-bullying legislation and a broadband initiative.  Right now I'd say two of those are safe, I think he actually signed the tax credits this morning.  But his broadband initiative there's different versions in the House, different versions in the Senate, it doesn't really match up with what he outlaid at the beginning of January and the anti-bullying is at best on life support.  He is not spending the time pushing these issues because he is distracted by answering to these other ones.

Masters: And I'd say too that democrats are needing to run for re-election, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal has said if they can't reach consensus on some of these things they're just going to adjourn.

Henderson: And republicans are not against that.  Republicans are for a more limited agenda.  If they had their druthers many of them would just pass an austere state budget and go home and pass no policy whatsoever.

Borg: So is it partisan politics, Kathie, that is lengthening or threatening to lengthen the session?  Because I remember after the Condition of the State Address there wasn't any criticism of the agenda, of Governor Branstad's agenda and it looked like they could be out of here at the end of February.

Obradovich: You know, it's all relative because we're talking about lengthening the session and it's not even the end of April yet.  We haven't really gotten to the 100th day, it's just that the expectation was that this was going to be a really short session.  Maybe they could get out by Easter or something like that.  Well, the thing is that there are always issues that end up prolonging the session at the end and most of them are related to the budget, that is the one thing that they really have to do and so those disagreements, you still have divided government, you're going to have those kinds of things.  This is a question of where the focus is right now.

Borg: Are you surprised, Clay, that the legislation and on the interview that you had with Governor Branstad is where he commented that he would be willing to sign legislation on a marijuana derivative for medical reasons?

Masters: Yeah, that was a surprise, kind of.  I mean, republicans are showing more and more support for it.  Charles Schneider comes to mind, republican in the Senate who said at the outset of the session he was against any form of marijuana and he has changed his tune after hearing from these mothers who have been lobbying lawmakers a lot because they have a need for it for their children that have epilepsy.  Now, the legislation that he is talking about, that he is interested in modeling after, primarily Utah, which is a very, very limited and it's not, it doesn't legalize medical marijuana as much as it makes it so those that have it for health purposes can't be prosecuted.  There is some bipartisan cooperation on here but I've heard from a lot of lawmakers who have heard from constituents who are veterans who use marijuana to smoke instead of a cannabis oil.

Henderson: But what they're talking about in the legislation Clay mentioned is not smoking marijuana, it is taking it as an oil that is derived from cannabis.

Wiser: And I think that's an excellent point because this is really a lesson in how to, this is a complete 180 from there I thought we might have been at the beginning of this session in terms of medical marijuana, cannabis oil.  James Lynch, our colleague who you know, had an interview with Clel Baudler, a republican chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, republican from Greenville, Iowa, last year he was, there was a national group pro-marijuana legalization named him I think like in the top five of legislators, enemies of this bill.  Just this week Clel Baudler told Lynch, he said, it's time, it's time for cannabis oil, this is something we're working on.  I'm not ready for PSTD but if you, PTSD, I'm sorry, but when talking to these mothers, learning about this issue, this is something we can do.

Borg: Well, the comment from Governor Branstad this week was a surprise to me because it hasn't been but within the past month we had an Iowa Press program on medical marijuana, per se, and the governor's drug czar, director of policy, was very adamant at that time that we needed more research and into the possible complications here and all of a sudden we have Branstad saying, I'm open to signing something in this session.

Obradovich: The main concern he has expressed all along is that this illegal prescription drug could be abused by kids, other people who get a hold of that medicine and use it themselves or sell it and really what they're talking about with this cannabis oil there's really no incentive to do that because there's no psychotropic properties to it according to the experts.

Borg: Appropriations, Kay, this is the time of the session on appropriations and the state universities are closely watching because they have said, the Regents have said, we have in informal deal with legislators that if they will pass what we think we need, I think it's 4% increase in appropriations for the state universities, we'll freeze tuition for the second consecutive year.  A lot of parents around the state are going to be listening to what you're going to say next.

Henderson: Well, Governor Branstad has agreed to the plan laid out as you described by the Board of Regents. Senate democrats have agreed to that plan. House republicans are reluctant to do so and they are poised with a bill to be debated on the House floor that would take money from the University of Iowa's allotment and redirect that to the University of Northern Iowa.  By freezing tuition UNI gets hit harder than the other two institutions because over 90% of the students at the University of Northern Iowa are in-state residents --

Borg: Because this is a tuition freeze for in-state students.

Henderson: Only.  Correct.  And so this is something that is going to get hammered out in a back room by people yelling and screaming at each other and whoever wins that argument will win the day.  I don't know what's going to happen.  There has been some discussion at the Statehouse in regards to the way the Regents' institutions are financed that they should come up with a "formula".  And the reason for that is because UNI's budget is far less than Iowa and Iowa State.

Borg: I want to quickly go, Kathie, then to another subject that relates to the universities and the legislators' perception of how the universities are performing.  The VEISHEA celebration this week was cancelled because of student riots.  Bring us up to date now, not so much on the riot, but on the possible fallout.

Obradovich: Yes, well, I'm an alum of Iowa State, I grew up in Ames.  VEISHEA, which is an acronym for the colleges at Iowa State, is the oldest student-run celebration in the country.  It has got a long history and people really care about it in the community and now for really I think the third or there's been multiple times over the last ten years where riots, drunken riots in campustown have disrupted this and this time a student has been seriously injured by a falling light pole.  So Steven Leath, the President of the university, came out in his press conference this last week and really sounded like he is fed up, wants to not just cancel VEISHEA this year but maybe do away with it all together.  So this is something that puts a really negative view of the nation on Iowa and especially on Iowa State.

Henderson: When we use the phrase campustown it is not the Iowa State campus.  So these riots aren't happening in the dorms, they're happening in an area of the city that is adjacent to the campus, number one.  Number two, they're often associated with block parties or people throwing a party and this past week the Iowa Senate sent the Governor a bill that attacks what people call social hosts.  So if you're the owner of a property or you're renting property and you host a kegger or a big drinking party and they find out there are 18 year olds there or someone younger then you could be charged with a simple misdemeanor if you are the host.

Obradovich: That's not the same thing though as targeting Iowa State or targeting Iowa State's budget. It may be a reaction to big drunken spring parties.

Henderson: Well, they didn't cut Iowa State's budget -- they cut Iowa's budget.

Obradovich: Yeah, they haven't.  But Steven Leath was brought in to raise money and if he is the guy who killed VEISHEA I don't know how that will play with alumni around the country and around the world.  VEISHEA was a big important part of student life all through history.

Borg: Talking about, I used the word serendipity circumstances, you could say that Bruce Braley fell into a serendipity circumstance a few weeks ago speaking to a Texas group of attorneys trying to raise some money there in which he said, if we don't keep control, democratic control of the Senate, Charles Grassley, Iowa republican, a farmer, could end up chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee.  There was fallout from that.  Has he stopped that, we'll use the term again, bleeding?

Wiser: You know, that's tough to say. I don't know -- that got a lot of play from people who were probably predisposed not necessarily to support Braley in the first place although I have seen that there is a, there was a group that used sort of the clip -- this is a clip that I imagine Braley is just there, there's liquor bottles next to him and he's talking to this group and the person is right in front of him.  You just wonder, besides the comments, if maybe his staff should have moved him over to the left a little bit just so the booze wasn't present.  And one group has already used that, has used that clip and --

Henderson: His opponents as well have started running an ad, Mark Jacobs is running an ad which uses the sound from that.  I think this is really interesting because it's a rookie mistake.  This would be like maybe a Benedictine criticizing the new Jesuit Pope.  Grassley is pretty much as popular as the Pope is and for you in even a private setting to say something like that about a politician in Iowa who is generally liked, who wins re-election by incredibly weird, absolutely gargantuan margins it just shows that you might not have been ready for primetime.

Masters: And then that was the same week as well that Joni Ernst, the republican State Senator, released that ad about I'm used to cutting pork by castrating hogs by growing up on my Iowa farm.  So now it's like who can be the most farmerish?

Henderson: Yeah, and the other thing was Braley didn't immediately make himself available in Chris Christie fashion and have an hour long news conference and answer every question about that.  He waited nine days before he talked to anyone about this on the record.  And after nine days he still didn't have a good explanation about why he said it.  And he mentioned being a trial lawyer as one of the reasons why he said it, which I don't know what advisor is telling him he should be bragging about being a trial lawyer but it is one of his negatives, not one of his positives.

Obradovich: I think that you mentioned that Branstad had sort of undermined his brand as being an efficient manager.  This speaks to Bruce Braley's brand of being kind of a populist, an every man, somebody who can speak to the little guy, works for -- came from humble beginnings and now this video shows him looking down his nose at Chuck Grassley, non-lawyer who never went to law school, right?  And so it does undermine that, it makes him look kind of snobbish and that is absolutely not the image that he has really been trying to build.

Borg: Suffice to say, we probably haven't heard the last of those comments that were serendipitously videotaped.

Obradovich: No, but this came early enough in the cycle that it is at some point going to become old news unless he makes another gaff that plays into the same narrative.

Borg: Mike, let's go then to the republican side of that race for Tom Harkin's seat.  Candidates there have a couple of debates coming, in fact one is going to be on Iowa Public Television on April 24th.  But what issues do you think that are going to need to be fleshed out before those five candidates go to the republican primary to winnow out who is going to run against the presumptive democratic nominee Bruce Braley?

Wiser: Well, it's interesting because a lot of what I have seen so far in the debates and some of the interviews is they still seem to be focused on Bruce Braley in terms of calling it Braley's Obamacare.  They're saying it's time to -- they're attacking the democrat but there is a widening between I think what you would assume would be the frontrunners maybe in that group, which would be Mark Jacobs, a former energy executive who grew up in Iowa, went to Texas and New York and has come back, Joni Ernst, an Iowa Senator, probably the top two tier and then followed by maybe Sam Clovis, Matt Whitaker and Mr. Schaben.  So you have to -- where they're going to go after each other the pressure is going to be a little tighter and we'll have to see do they go in the way of burgeoning sort of the populist conservative, maybe even appealing to the sort of Tea Party or are they going to start moving themselves more centrist as they go forward?

Henderson: It's interesting to cover these events because you talk to people heading in and many of them have no idea who these people are.  It is their first -- they're going to have these candidates make a first impression and it is not issues, I think they're looking for somebody who has a little chutzpah, somebody who is going to take it to the democrat --

Masters: Even in the first debate that they had nobody could even name a candidate that they heard from when I was talking with voters.

Borg: So this Iowa Public Television debate on April 24th is going to be key then, Kathie, to just getting acquainted with personalities?

Obradovich: Yeah, I think so.  I mean, candidates are still introducing themselves to voters. They want to make a strong impression and particularly I think the impression that republicans are looking for is can this person go toe-to-toe with Bruce Braley and come out on top?

Borg: Let's speak, Paul Ryan is in the state this weekend speaking in Cedar Rapids.  I was interested that the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Friday has a full page ad here paid for by they call themselves VVW,  But they're talking about the renewable fuel standard.  I'm not going to get into why are veterans interested in the renewable fuel standard, it has to do with overall defense and American security and things like that.  But the basic question here is, outside organizations, special interest groups, learning how to use the Iowa caucuses.

Henderson: Of course.  It's a litmus test.  You have all sorts of issues on both sides of the aisle who are pushing their own agenda and they want their people in the state of Iowa to go to candidate events and ask the candidates specific questions about ethanol, about other issues on which these groups base their operations.

Obradovich: I don't think that's new, Dean, but I think we're seeing this maybe a little bit earlier than we normally would in the cycle.  I remember going to straw polls, etc. where interest groups would have big floats and inflatable, eye-catching displays to get the eyes of people who are going to the republican straw poll so that they would have that issue in mind when they're talking to the candidates.

Borg: Any candidates that you are especially watching now, presidential candidates, coming in, Mike?  We've only got about a minute left.

Wiser: Well, it will be interesting just to see who is showing up.  We had Mike Huckabee here actually earlier this week.  On Tuesday he was speaking to the Faith and Freedom Coalition.  We had, as you mentioned, Paul Ryan coming here on Friday.  And I've always found it interesting to see who is sticking around after I believe that Ryan is coming and just doing this event and then taking back off to Wisconsin as opposed to maybe doing an around-the-state meet-and-greet, which you might suspect someone who wants to line up, who has presidential ambitions and wants to line up.  So it's kind of interesting to see who is coming in and who is sticking around and to see who they're meeting with.

Henderson: I'm finding it more fascinating who's not coming.

Borg: Well, who isn't coming?

Henderson: Hillary Clinton is not coming because she does not want to raise any more expectations or speculation about her campaign until she is ready to come in and put her foot down.

Obradovich: And she doesn't have to come really.  Iowa is not being overrun by democrats who are seeking to be the Hillary Clinton, anti-Hillary Clinton.

Borg: Thanks for your comments.  We're out of time.  We'll see what happens in the future and we'll have you back.  Next week on Iowa Press though we're following up on Iowa's Racing and Gaming Commission's decision on a new casino possibly in Cedar Rapids, getting insight on that decision and the future of Iowa's casino industry and the communities who are seeing casinos now as economic development.  We'll be questioning Racing and Gaming Commission Chair Jeff Lamberti and other casino interests.  Usual times, next week, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: Clay Masters Dean Borg Iowa Kathie Obradovich Kay Henderson Mike Wiser news politics reporters roundtable