Democrats looking more likely to hold Iowa House district 21

First-term Democratic State Representative Kerry Burt announced yesterday that he won’t run for re-election in Iowa House district 21, which comprises part of Waterloo and some rural areas in southern Black Hawk County (map here). The state Attorney General’s Office filed charges against a group of parents including Burt, who allegedly gave false addresses to avoid paying higher tuition fees for their children to attend the Price Laboratory School in Cedar Falls. Burt said in a statement, "I look forward to my day in court.  I believe I am innocent and strongly believe my name will be vindicated once all of the relevant facts come to light. […] I am extremely grateful to the citizens of Waterloo for allowing me to serve and look forward to continuing my public service in the future."

I wish Burt the best but won’t deny that I’m one of those relieved Democrats John Deeth mentioned here. I’ve been hoping for some time that Burt would not seek re-election, not only because of the tuition scandal but because of his drunk driving arrest in February 2009.

After the jump I cover the recent electoral history of House district 21 and reasons Democrats can feel optimistic about holding the seat.

House district 21 is unusual in that it switched parties two elections in a row without being highly-targeted in either cycle. In 2006, Republican local tv personality Tami Wiencek pulled off a shocking upset of 24-year incumbent Don Shoultz. He had not been considered vulnerable, especially in a Democratic wave election. The total number of votes cast in that race was just 9,318, which was much lower than in most of the competitive Iowa House races that year. In nearly House district 20, which was expected to be a battleground, more than 12,300 votes were cast in November 2006.

Iowa Democrats didn’t target House district 21 in 2008 because of Wiencek’s perceived popularity in the area. However, Burt ran a solid campaign and won by 219 votes. Again, the total number of votes cast in district 21 lagged behind most of the House districts widely considered to be battlegrounds in the last general election. Just 13,141 votes were cast in Burt’s district, compared to 16,973 in nearby House district 20.

So, in the last two general elections, votes cast in the House district 21 race lagged 20-25 percent behind turnout in highly competitive Iowa House districts. That indicates Democrats have room to significantly improve their performance if they target this district. According to the most recent numbers available from the Secretary of State’s office, House district 21 has 7,010 registered Democrats, 4,194 registered Republicans and 7,193 no-party voters. (Those totals are for all registered voters, not just “active” voters who participated in 2006 and/or 2008.) That’s a decent edge for Democrats, but I suspect it could be improved further. The total number of registered voters in House district 21 is just 18,410. Many Iowa House districts have more than 20,000 registered voters.  

Black Hawk County Democrats should make it a priority to register more voters in district 21 and turn more of them out this November. It will be critical to remind voters to fill out the whole ballot. In 2008 we lost a few statehouse districts because of a high “drop-off” (hundreds of people voting for the top Democrats on the ballot without voting for any Iowa House or Senate candidate).

Conveniently, Democrats may have the perfect candidate to motivate a lot of new voters in district 21. Anesa Kajtazovic filed last month as a Democratic primary challenger against Burt. She works as a mortgage analyst for GMAC and was recently appointed to the Waterloo Community Development Board. She serves on the Black Hawk County Democratic Central Committee and worked on State Representative Bob Kressig’s campaign in nearby House district 19 in 2006.

Kajtazovic has a compelling personal story. Her family came to Waterloo from Bosnia when she was 10 years old in 1997. A decade later, she graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a double major, having completed her degree in just three years. Kajtazovic also finished fourth in the 2007 Iowa State Fair pageant and was a Miss Iowa semifinalist last year.

If elected, Kajtazovic would become the first immigrant from Bosnia in the Iowa legislature as well as the youngest woman ever elected to that body. John Deeth noted last month that her yard signs feature Bosnian blue and gold, adding, “Black Hawk County observers call the area’s Bosnian community a ‘sleeping giant’ politically.” I would expect her candidacy to motivate large numbers of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia to register to vote. Her yard signs feature “Anesa” in big letters, which is going to be easier for many voters to pronounce and remember than Kajtazovic.

Technically, Burt’s withdrawal doesn’t guarantee that Kajtazovic will become the Democratic nominee in House district 21. Deeth pointed out yesterday that Burt’s name will remain on the primary ballot. If he wins the primary, a district convention will have to select a replacement nominee, assuming he still refuses to run for re-election. I doubt that scenario will play out, but if some other Waterloo Democrat wants to get in this race, he or she could lobby Democrats on the party committee while urging voters to support Burt on June 8.

It’s not clear whether Iowa Republicans will make a play for this House seat. Kathie Obradovich reported last month that Republicans are “closely watching the Democratic primary in District 21 […] If Burt is the nominee, they see an opportunity for one of two Republicans vying for the seat.”

Lyn Tackett, who runs a music recording studio in Waterloo, declared her candidacy in January. Her campaign website is here, and she’s @tackett4rep on Twitter. One unique feature of Tackett’s campaign website is the highlighted disclaimer that catches your eye at the top of the main page:

NOTE:  The political ads that are placed on our site are beyond our control and therefore have not been endorsed by us.  We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

There’s an arrow pointing to the right at the end of that disclaimer, drawing your eye to the advertisement instead of to information about the candidate. One time I logged on and saw the Iowa Democratic Party’s Terry vs. Terry ad there.

The far more experienced Republican candidate in the race is former Waterloo Mayor John Rooff.

[Rooff] served a record-tying 10 years as mayor. He is largely credited with the city’s “Renew Waterloo” affordable housing revitalization initiative, but came under criticism in 2001 following a Courier investigation of his use of city credit cards for big-ticket meals, plane tickets and other travel expenses. A subsequent citizen-petitioned state re-audit of city books found no wrongdoing, but led to the City Council adopting tighter city credit card policies. Rooff won re-election in 2001, but was unseated by Tim Hurley in 2003, and unsuccessfully challenged Hurley in 2005.

Based on his past campaign experience, Rooff would seem to have the edge in the GOP primary, but I know nothing about the local dynamics. Please post a comment or contact me (desmoinesdem AT if you have any insights.

Whether the GOP nominates Rooff or Tackett, I like Kajtazovic’s chances, and I look forward to learning more about her as the campaign progresses. The issues page on her campaign website emphasizes education, opportunity and fighting for working families. She’s having a kickoff event on April 17 from 1:00 – 3:00 PM at 1225 East Ridgeway Avenue in Waterloo.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: Thanks to Deeth for pointing out that Burt has already endorsed Kajtazovic. I see the Iowa GOP is claiming (without any evidence) that the Attorney General’s Office delayed filing these charges until after the legislative session had ended.

  • Register notes:

    This AM the Reg quotes Kevin McCarthy saying Burt has endorsed Anesa. Still no guarantee but it makes the convention scenario even less likely.

  • Kerry Burt

    He had a bad start from the beginning.  One of those guys who was probably not ready for prime time.  It’s a shame because despite his many errors, he’s not a dumb guy by any stretch.  

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