The Democratic Party in Iowa

Dec 14, 2012  | 00:28:46  | Ep 4011 | Podcast


Borg: Iowa democrats are generally feeling pretty good about the last election.  As a so-called swing state, Iowa tilted to President Obama, democrats are retaining state Senate control, picking up some seats in the House of Representatives too when the legislature convenes next month.  Even republicans are admiring, and maybe a better word is envying, the democrat's strategies for getting ballots to voters well before Election Day.  Those are some of the reasons the democrats with us today are smiling.  Sue Dvorsky has been leading Iowa democrats for a little more than two years now, plans to exit her post in early 2013.  Brad Anderson directed the successful Obama campaign in Iowa.  And former state legislator, former democrat but constant political activist Ed Fallon, is now registered as an independent voter.  Welcome to Iowa Press.

Thanks, Dean.

Good to be here, Dean.                                                                                     

Borg: Nice to have you all back.  And across the Iowa Press table Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Mrs. Dvorsky, let's sort of treat this like an exit interview.  If you're advising the Democratic Party going forward, who do you think is the best candidate for governor among the ranks of democrats in Iowa for the 2014 race?

Dvorsky: I think the best candidate for governor is the person who comes forward and makes the case to continue this conversation that we've had, that Gronstal, that McCarthy, that the President made.  Problem solving, balanced approach, attack a problem the way we always used to do it, identify it, bring the sides together until you solve it and move onto the next problem.

Henderson: So is there a person's name that you would like to put out on the table as someone who has those attributes?

Dvorsky: You know what, I think we have a lot of people who have those attributes.  Honestly, honestly Kay I don't know who is going to run for governor.  What I know is that we are really -- we are leaving a party that is in incredibly good shape for that very big -- the races in '14 are going to be huge.  The statewide races, my gosh, there will be seven of them, there will be four congressional races, there will be the completion of the takeover of the House and there will be the continued work on the Senate majority.

Borg: But are you saying that as you're leaving state chair you don't have a bench ready for governor?

Dvorsky: Oh I actually do think we have a bench ready, Dean.  And when the people who want to sit on that bench are ready to announce that I know we're all going to be excited.  But what my job was, was to leave a structure that was in good shape for all those races.

Henderson: Mr. Anderson, on your political resume one of your previous jobs was the communications director for former Iowa Governor Chet Culver.  Do you think Chet Culver is a candidate in 2014?

Anderson: You know, I don't think it's any secret that he is considering it and looking at it.  I think he did a lot of great things as Governor, quite frankly, and I did have the privilege of serving with him as his communications director.  And one thing is I do think that Governor Culver as well as Governor Vilsack took a different approach to the number one issue, which any governor faces, which is jobs.  I think they focused like a laser on quality jobs.  They focused on advanced technology.  They focused on renewable energy.  I know as Governor Culver's communications director he talked about wind in every single speech he gave, as I'm sure you guys remember.  And the result was incredible.  We ended up with 7,000 wind jobs and now we're number one in the country when it comes to wind manufacturing.  So, I think the current Governor is beatable if you just look at him and measure him by his own metrics that he set out.  He promised 200,000 jobs.  Where are they?  He promised an increase of 25% in income.  I don't have that.  I didn't get that.  So I think there is an opportunity there and I think we'll find someone good to take him on.

Henderson: Mr. Fallon, you have run for governor before.  Are you going to run as an independent?

Fallon: No, not planning to do that.  I kind of like my role on the outside right now.

Henderson: Who do you think would be a good candidate for governor to contrast with Terry Branstad, unless you're going to vote for Terry Branstad?

Fallon: No, someone -- again, I think the Democratic Party’s prospects in the short-term are good because the Republican Party is just an embarrassing coalition of hard right theocrats and a very small sliver of the wealthiest elite.  But the Democratic Party has unfortunately become the party of the status quo.  Short-term it may do okay but to be the party that is really going to be around for the long haul and affect the changes we need it's going to have to get back to the progressive, populous roots that made it a key player in moving this country forward decades ago.

Obradovich: Mrs. Dvorsky, the top of the ticket will be the U.S. Senate race.  Are you confident that Senator Harkin will be the candidate for re-election in 2014?

Dvorsky: And of course he has not made that announcement and honestly I will be very honest with you, I have not had -- I don't have any inside information on that.  That looks increasingly likely to me and what I do know is that Senator Harkin is, maybe of all the sitting Senators in the entire U.S. Senate, he is uniquely qualified to speak to county party infrastructure, he very strongly believes in grassroots and I look at him as the head of the health committee and I don't know who in the world we would want there except Tom Harkin.  So, he is healthy, he is at the top of his game and I anticipate that that may very well be the case.

Obradovich: Mr. Anderson, any doubt that Senator Harkin is going to run?  And if he does, do you think that he can put together the kind of field operation that will help democrats be more successful in 2014 than they were in 2010 after a successful 2008 election?

Anderson: Well, that is between Senator Harkin and his wife Ruth and I think they're having those conversations right now as far as whether or not he will run.  I will say I agree with Sue, the strength of our party is strong, quite frankly.  We had, throughout the campaign we had 67 offices, we had 350 team leaders throughout the state, we ended up knocking on I believe 1.9 million doors, making 2 million phone calls and we have a group of very highly trained, talented volunteers that are waiting to be mobilized on behalf of a candidate and a cause.

Obradovich: I guess my question is how much of that can you replicate in 2014 without the kind of resources that the Obama administration brought into the state?

Anderson: Well, I can say this, I went to a phone bank a couple of weeks ago for Desmond Adams and this is what we so amazing to me is that the Obamadales, what they call themselves, the Obamadale team which is a neighborhood team that worked for President Obama and democrats up and down the ticket, they were making phone calls and they -- we made 400 phone calls that night and they were entering the data that night just like we trained them under Barack Obama and it was functioning as if it was still a team working a presidential campaign.  And to me that was inspiring.  I come from a communications background and I have worked with you fine folks throughout the years but I have really fallen in love with the organizing part of campaigns and I am truly inspired by the hard work of our neighborhood teams and I do think a candidate like Tom Harkin can inspire them.  And frankly he did throughout the presidential campaign.  He was a huge asset to us campaigning throughout the state.

Obradovich: And Mr. Fallon, you just said that we have too much of the status quo.  Senator Harkin has been the status quo for many, many years in Iowa.  If he is on the ballot would you vote for him?

Fallon: Oh no, I would say Senator Harkin is a gem.  He is a true progressive democrat who understands the need to put people first.  Unfortunately we have too many in power that don't see that.  We have too -- money has become way more important in the Democratic Party than it used to be.  It used to be you could get elected based on hard work and shoe leather and now the other kind of leather that candidates are reaching for is in their back pocket and it is loaded with contributions from lobbyists and special interests.  Republicans have been bad at that for a long time.  Democrats have gotten too connected to that same source of money that corrupts the entire system and leads to, I think, a status quo party instead of a party that is truly fighting for reform on family farm issues, on campaign finance reform, on the environment, on a lot of labor issues too.

Borg: Mr. Fallon, you just called Senator Harkin a gem.  Brad Anderson brought Ruth Harkin, who is a member of the Board of Regents, into the conversation here too as an outstanding reputation in Iowa.  But do you think some of the luster, the gleam on that gem has been tarnished just a bit by the controversy over the Harkin Institute up at Iowa State University?

Fallon: I think that's small potatoes and will be forgotten before the dawn of the New Year providing the Mayans aren't correct.

Anderson: Can I take a moment to just disagree with Ed on something?  I think the strength of a party is measured by the courage of its convictions and I have to say I have never been more proud to be a democrat than I am in 2012.  If you had told me a decade ago that our candidate would be named Barack Obama, that he would be for gay marriage, that he would be for the Dream Act and he would campaign aggressively to increase taxes because it was the right thing to do and he would win Iowa I would have said you were crazy.  But he did and he was strong and the other side did not have the advantage of having a candidate that really stood their ground and had courageous, courageous convictions.  And so I just disagree.  I think our party is in great shape and it is because of what we stand for and it is because of the organization on the ground.

Borg: I just want to get Sue Dvorsky's comment on the Harkin Institute and possibly damaging the Harkin brand.  You looked very intent as Ed Fallon was answering that.

Dvorsky: Well, and I was pleased to hear Ed say that.  I actually agree with Ed on that.  I don't agree with him on the conversation he had before that.  Tom Harkin's integrity, Tom Harkin's body of work, that can not be tarnished by a political thing.  I think there's a bigger question tied to the Regents that tells us and reminds us elections matter and they matter a lot.  So when we talk about the broad impact of Barack Obama it means that Tom Vilsack is the Secretary of Agriculture and I would put Tom Vilsack up against anyone in talking about fighting for family farms, talking about sustainable agriculture.  So Kathleen Sebelius is the Director of that huge program.  These things matter and they matter broadly.  It's not just the President.

Borg: But you tied it to the Regents.

Dvorsky: Well, because these things matter.  Who the Governor is matters. Who appoints the Board of Regents matters.  It matters immediately in their appointment and it matters in the long haul.  I think one of the points that Senator Harkin is making is that we are at a historically politicized Board of Regents where you have both the president and the president pro-tem of the same party, you've got this -- and I think that's his most important point.  What happens with his papers should absolutely be up to Tom Harkin, they're his papers.  And I think that at the end of the day this will be worked out and if it's not that will be a conversation for the Senator with whoever he leaves that with.  But I think that his broader point about the politicized nature of the Regents currently gets us back to why elections matter, why it matters that it is -- who those statewide races are.

Henderson: You mentioned Tom Vilsack.  I want to shift to congressional races and the name of Christie Vilsack might come up during this conversation.  You had four incumbent men re-elected in Iowa in congressional races in 2012.  Are they just going to be in office for a decade?  Is there any way to challenge incumbent congressmen in those four districts the way they are constituted?

Dvorsky: There absolutely is a way to do that in, in fact, both those races.  I would say, you brought up Christie's race, I think the race that she ran in the fourth district was remarkably important.  There are ways, you know, the metric because we don't have a parliamentary system, we win or we lose but the metric I believe that her race and the way that she ran in it is directly responsible for Chris Hall and Dave Dawson coming into the Iowa House out in Woodbury County.  I believe that the work that was done in that huge district, I believe she was partly responsible for Mary Jo Wilhelm coming back. 

Henderson: Who is a state Senator from north central Iowa.

Dvorsky: Yes.  And I know that the organizing that was done up there -- going back to something that Brad said -- our job in '13 as a party, as a group of activists, volunteers and electeds is to really make sure that we solidify, that we, you know, our job in '11 was to sort of rebuild the foundation.   Our job in '13 with the house building analogy is to get the drywall up and make sure that the wiring is in.  The groups all over that district, Storm Lake, Fort Dodge, Story County, Ames, the University -- Iowa State University, young dems, these groups are energized beyond belief and they are ready and they are prepared and that is because of the historic nature of her race.

Henderson: Mr. Anderson, do you see a Vilsack as a candidate of the future in Iowa?  And which one?

Anderson: You know, frankly they have proven to be great candidates and I agree, Christie ran a great campaign.  It is a tough, tough district, there's no question.  She raised money, she was a very, very hard working candidate and she did a lot of great things for our party as far as energizing and getting organized and things like that.  As far as Secretary Vilsack, I don't know.  You would have to ask Secretary Vilsack about that.  Obviously he is enormously popular here in the state.  If he were to run again I think he'd be tough to beat.

Henderson: Mr. Fallon, you live in the third congressional district and you had argued that it was time to vote for someone other than Leonard Boswell so that democrats could nominate a person from the more liberal wing of the party in 2014.

Fallon: Yes, someone who I think has a good grasp of the issues that are central to most people's lives.  And I think Frank Cownie would be a great candidate.

Henderson: He is the Des Moines Mayor, right?

Fallon: Des Moines Mayor, yes and I think it would -- I think having -- I'm not excited about a Latham, you know, Latham being my congressman.  I wasn't excited about Boswell either obviously.  But I think that this sets up the opportunity for an urban, progressive democrat to challenge somebody.  And I think it really is about issues.  I know there's lots of conversation about strategy and what not and Brad mentioned the shock at how President Obama went from being who he was to a very historic moment but I look at all the things we expected from him back in '08 and all the disappointments.  Now we're in Afghanistan deep.  Guantanamo is still open.  We're drilling more offshore for oil.  We've authorized the Keystone Pipeline.  There's so many ways in which people I think are disappointed.  That is what I think the democratic party's challenge is going to be is keeping people who came to the campaign in '08 and came to legislative campaigns as well, engaged because of disappointment over abandonment of some of those core issues.

Obradovich: Oh, go ahead.

Dvorsky: Well, just a couple of things.  First of all, we just absolutely -- I just don't think that that is born out by the results of the election but I don't want to relitigate all of that.  I want to say a couple of things.  I want to take this opportunity to thank Congressman Latham for the event that he spearheaded yesterday on the floor of Congress talking about Leonard Boswell's record, lifetime record of achievement in service to the people of this country and state and district.  I think that Congressman Latham, when we look at that district and you look at the registrations and you look at those 16 counties, I think it is clear, in answer to your first question Kay, it is clear that that district is going to be in play every two years forever until ten years from now when perhaps it changes because that district is an absolute microcosm.  It is very nearly, some days I think actually literally equal in registration but it is virtually equal in registration.  It has an urban area.  It has a wide swath of very rural and then goes over to Council Bluffs.  It is in two media markets.  It will be in play forever.  Will a woman eventually get to Congress from Iowa?  Yes. It was disappointing it didn't happen this time but it will happen.

Obradovich: Mr. Anderson, with the departure of Mrs. Dvorsky and Norm Sterzenbach as executive director of the party, this is an opportunity now to talk about what changes in the structure of the party might be a good idea for the future.  Do you have any suggestions for the state central committee as they look at the future of the party itself?

Anderson: Well, I would say, again, in my completely biased opinion, at the county level they should look to some of these neighborhood team leaders from the Obama campaign if they are looking to change county chairs and that kind of thing -- and that is obviously up to the folks at the county level -- because I think there is some incredibly talented people out there that are hungry and they want to organize and they would do their counties a great service by serving in that capacity.  As far as the state chair, you know, Sue leaves some big shoes to fill, there's no question about it.  Such an incredible advocate for the President and any time I'd call her she would be willing to do whatever we asked.  And so I don't know, I think obviously Tyler Olson's name has been floated.  I like Tyler.  I think he'd be terrific.

Borg: Full-time shoes though.  She was working full-time.  Are you going to have a full-time party chair?

Anderson: That is up to the state central committee.  I don't know the answer to that.  But, again, I thought Sue did a terrific job and Norm is the executive -- Norm Sterzenbach as the executive director.  So, you know, the party is in great shape.  You look at the other side and you're just grateful that you're not in that situation where they're totally disorganized and dysfunctional.

Obradovich: I'm going to let you respond to this last, Mrs. Dvorsky.  But Mr. Fallon, first, are there changes in the party structure that you would like to see going forward perhaps to recruit more of the candidates that you would like to see running for office?

Fallon: The structure is not the problem, it's the issues and it is the fact that money has become so influential in the Democratic Party that you can have --

Obradovich: So the next chair shouldn't be a fundraiser?

Fallon: The next chair should be careful about how he or she raises money and should make sure that issues become the priority.  And, again, we have a great platform.  The Democratic Party platform is I think brilliant.  But it is ignored by candidates who get elected and then do very little based on that platform and that needs to change.

Obradovich: Having the right message is important.  But isn't the money what you need to get that message out and promote the message?

Fallon: If you're taking money from the wrong sources then you're not going to deliver the right policies based on that message.

Obradovich: Okay.  Well, Mrs. Dvorsky, what is your advice for your successor?  And should the party consider continuing with a full-time chair?

Dvorsky: I think what needs to happen is the new team, and I think that the chair and the ED, that relationship is incredibly important -- they are going to look at what the goals of this party are for '13 and '14, preparing in '13 for what we need to do in '14 and then I think the job expands -- I was uniquely situated as an empty-nesting, retired teacher to come in and do what needed to be done in '11 which was an entirely different task than '13.  Each cycle is very different.  I am absolutely confident that the chair and ED, the new team over there is going to absolutely get the job done.  One of the things we saw, it was so important to be able to get out and around the state.  The new team will do that.  They see it.  We have got this great infrastructure now that needs to be solidified, make sure that everybody is included.  I am not worried about this at all.

Henderson: Let's turn to 2016.  If Hillary Clinton decides to run for President, would she have your support?  And would you assume that she would be the front-runner from the get go?

Dvorsky: Without knowing -- Hillary Clinton always had my support.  I am one of that generation and gender of people who made -- it was a little heartbreaking to make the choice between Barack Obama, which I made in late '06 and early '07.  Hillary Clinton is a woman of such accomplishment and such skills that it's hard for me to imagine anyone currently that could have my support that wouldn't have that because I would be able to do both then.  I would have been able to do Obama and Clinton.  And I know when -- if it's her, that of course changes the field, but I also know that it would be another historic race that would be fabulous.  I think it would be wonderful.  She will come, people know her here, they respect her, I dare say a great deal of affection.  I think it would be super exciting.

Henderson: Mr. Anderson, in your capacity with the Obama campaign you may have hung out with a certain Joe Biden.  He seems eager to run, does he not?

Anderson: You know, I don't know if that's true.  He is a unique political figure certainly and I think his eagerness is just his eagerness about everything, quite frankly.  And in watching him, I will say this about the Vice President, there are few better people on the stump that can really get a crowd fired up and talk about issues important to the middle class than Vice President Biden.  And one of the great moments on our campaign, quite frankly, was obviously the President didn't do too hot in the first debate and then that second debate came and Vice President Biden delivered and we saw, again, just an influx of volunteers.  I know labor got fired up again.  So it was -- he was great for the campaign in so many ways --

Borg: Kathie?

Obradovich: And Mr. Anderson, before we run out of time which is coming soon, I've heard that you may be interested in running for office yourself, perhaps for Secretary of State.  Is that on your agenda?

Anderson: I'm certainly looking at it.  I think there are a lot of innovative things that we can do with that office that are not currently being done.  I think the current Secretary of State has, quite frankly, wasted a lot of money on fruitless DCI investigations.  Obviously preventing voter fraud is important to everyone.  We all support that.  There are just different ways to do it.  And I don't think --

Obradovich: What would be the most important issue for the Secretary of State's race?

Anderson: You know, I think the broad theme should be trying to find out how to get more people to vote.  And, quite frankly, back in I think it was '92 we were at 80% turnout.  We're at 73% right now.  I always believe we can do better.  And we should always focus on how do we get more people involved in the process?  How do we get more people out there to vote?  As opposed to this idea that we constantly have to threaten penalties and felonies and things like that.

Obradovich: Mr. Fallon, Tom Miller, our Attorney General has actually worked with Secretary Schultz on some of his voter investigations.  Has he burned bridges that he may need should he decide to run again for Attorney General?

Fallon: Oh yeah, I totally agree with Brad's analysis of Secretary Schultz and I think a lot of us are very disappointed that Tom Miller has kind of thrown his support in.  Generally speaking I've been a supporter of Tom Miller.  I think he's done a fine job.  But, again, I think all these candidate questions to me are secondary to what are the issues.  The issue you're talking about makes sense.

Obradovich: And Sue Dvorsky, what's next for you?  Are you planning to run for office?

Dvorsky: I am not planning to run for office.  I'm going to go home, take a breath and I don't really know what's next for me.  I have to -- I've got to find a next big thing.

Henderson: Going back to the idea that this is an exit interview, if you could redo one thing from the 2012 campaign, what would it be Mrs. Dvorsky?

Dvorsky: Well, those close races are always -- John Wittneben not being in the Iowa House kind of breaks my heart.  We were disappointed about Christie and Leonard, there's no doubt about it.  But honestly I don't think we would have done anything differently.

Borg: Well, let's look ahead then.  You said that every election cycle is different.  In Wisconsin and now Michigan organized labor has taken a hit and has energized.  That was the problem on Chet Culver's re-election, organized labor didn't participate as well as they probably could have.  Is it going to be a problem getting organized labor in this off year election two years from now?

Dvorsky: No.  And one of the reasons is because in '11 a big part of our task was going back and really rebuilding and restrengthening that coalition.  And I'll tell you that in the narrow path that we were on, Dean, any coalition is always, it's a difficult thing to manage.  We are still the Democratic Party so it is not the -- it is a little bit like herding cats sometimes.  But we are up against -- what Governor Branstad and what the House republicans have suggested is really an existential threat and we're watching it in Wisconsin, we've watched it in Ohio, we're watching it in Michigan, organized labor is a core constituency of this party and they are there.

Borg: You wanted to say something.  We've got about a half a minute is what we have.

Anderson: Well, I was just saying, as far as 2010 is concerned that was a tough election year all around.  I don't know if you can necessarily attribute Governor Culver's loss just to organized labor.  But it was a tough election year in general.  But I do think organized labor is certainly engaged, had a seat at the table with regards to the Democratic Party this cycle.  It was a pleasure to work with them.  And I think they will be active in 2014.

Fallon: It didn't help that he vetoed the only labor bill passed by the legislature.

Borg: Thank you all for being with us today.

Dvorsky: Thank you.

Borg: And we'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next weekend, usual times, 7:30, that's Friday night and a second chance to see the show Sunday at noon.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

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