Most conservative Iowa House Democrat retiring

State Representative Dolores Mertz announced yesterday that she will not seek a twelfth term in the Iowa House. First elected to House district 8 in 1988, she said she’s in good health but wants to spend more time with her large family. House district 8 includes all of Humboldt and Pocahontas counties, plus parts of Kossuth and Webster counties (map here).

Mertz has chaired the Iowa House Agriculture Committee since Democrats won a majority in the 2006 election. Rumors of her impending retirement circulated last year, but when I saw that she raised more than $20,000 for her campaign in 2009, I assumed she would be up for another term. No Democratic candidate has announced plans to run in House district 8 yet, but we should learn more before the March 19 filing deadline.

John Deeth sees this race as a likely Republican pickup, and given the partisan lean of the district, that should be the case. However, I would not be surprised to see Democrats hold this seat if Republican infighting resembles what happened last fall in New York’s 23rd Congressional district special election.

Steven Richards fell just 42 votes short of defeating Mertz in 2008 and is seeking the GOP nomination again. Richards is a mainstream Republican, but most of the local GOP officials are backing right-winger Tom Shaw. He had planned to run as an independent in House district 8 before returning to the Republican fold this year. Shaw and Richards aired their differences at a forum last month, and I get the impression that Shaw will run as a third-party candidate if Richards wins the nomination. If Shaw wins the nomination, which seems more probable, supporters of Richards may prefer the Democrat (assuming we nominate a moderate) or simply not vote in the House race. Shaw backs Bob Vander Plaats for governor, and he may follow Kent Sorenson’s lead and refuse to vote for Branstad for governor under any circumstances. That could alienate many Republican voters in the area. Richards supports Branstad for governor.

The financial disclosure forms Shaw and Richards filed in January indicate that Richards raised only $100 last year and had a little more than three dollars (!) cash on hand at the end of December. Shaw raised $1,753 last year and had just under $238 cash on hand. In other words, the winner of the Republican primary is unlikely to have an intimidating war chest.

Normally, I hate to see an incumbent Democrat retire in a marginal district, but Mertz is the exception that proves the rule. Even if Democrats end up losing House district 8, I can’t say I am sorry to see Mertz leave the legislature. She’s not only part of the “six-pack” that blocked labor bills, she has given Republicans cover on many other issues. For example, Mertz has co-sponsored constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage and end access to abortion and some forms of birth control. She has also pushed a lot of bad bills through the House Agriculture Committee while blocking many attempts to reduce pollution from factory farms. During this year’s session, Mertz supported a bill that would undermine new rules on spreading manure over frozen ground and a bill to give owners of agricultural drainage wells until 2020 to comply with a 1997 law intended to reduce water pollution.

I understand that the new Democratic candidate in House district 8 won’t be a liberal, but I’m hoping for more of a team player than Mertz has been. At the very least a new Democrat from this district wouldn’t have the seniority to chair a House committee.

I hope Mertz will enjoy a happy retirement in the company of her seven children and eleven grandchildren. Until I read this piece in the Fort Dodge Messenger, I didn’t realize that her political career began with the untimely death of her husband.

She was the first woman to become a Kossuth County supervisor. She was appointed to the Board of Supervisors in 1983 to fill the vacancy created by the death of her husband, H.P. “Pete” Mertz. In 1984, she won a special election to complete the remaining two years of her husband’s term. In 1986, she was elected to a full four-year term without any opposition.

Similar tragedies have pushed many other women into elected offices. In fact, one-fifth of all the women who have served in Congress have been widows who “directly succeeded their husbands.”  

  • ag committee

    Do we know who’s likely to take over the committee after Mertz is gone?

    • we don't

      Partly because we don’t know which party will control the Iowa House next January. Even if Democrats retain control, the committees could get shuffled around. Several Democrats currently serving on the Ag Committee were elected around the same time (Mike Reasoner, Helen Miller, Paul Shomshor).

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