Nancy Dunkel shows how not to retire from the Iowa legislature

Democratic State Representative Nancy Dunkel is in the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame, but on Wednesday she acted more like a member of the Old Boys’ Club.

The Dubuque Telegraph-Herald reported that Dunkel announced on March 16 she will not seek a third term in the Iowa House.

Dunkel said her decision comes after consulting with late friend and former lawmaker Tom Hancock, who died in January. She said Hancock took an interest finding another Democrat to run for the seat.

A mutual friend of the two will soon announce a run for the position, Dunkel said, although she declined to identify the individual.

The Telegraph-Herald reported Wednesday evening, “Businesman and educator Tom Stecher has announced his candidacy for the District 57 seat in the Iowa House of Representatives.” He appears to be a contact of Dunkel’s from the banking world.

The deadline for candidates to file for the Democratic or Republican primary ballot is this Friday, March 18. Dunkel has been planning to retire for at least two months. Yet she gave her constituents in both parties barely 48 hours to 1) think about running for the state House; 2) collect at least 50 signatures; and 3) drive several hours to Des Moines to turn in nominating papers.

Did it ever occur to Dunkel that someone other than her personal friend might have something to contribute to public life in Iowa?

Campaigning for an open seat in the state legislature is a far more promising opportunity than challenging an incumbent, especially in a swing district. Covering most of Dubuque County outside the Dubuque city limits (map enclosed below), House district 57 contains 7,383 active registered Democrats, 6,417 Republicans, and 8,187 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. Mitt Romney won 49.98 percent of the vote here to 49.0 percent for Barack Obama the 2012 presidential election. Joni Ernst won 53.43 percent to Bruce Braley’s 42.67 percent in the 2014 U.S. Senate race, slightly larger than her statewide margin of victory.

Not only is House district 57 winnable for either party in November, the recent Iowa caucus results here show political diversity within each party. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio all carried precincts in the district. Hillary Clinton won Dubuque County and most of the precincts in House district 57, but one went to Bernie Sanders and two others produced a tie in delegates awarded.

All politically engaged residents should have had the opportunity to consider a legislative campaign. Last weekend’s county conventions were an ideal venue for new candidates to speak to party activists and collect signatures on nominating petitions. Instead of providing a level playing field for her would-be successors, Dunkel put her thumb on the scale for Stecher. I don’t care how wonderful he may be. Others should have had a chance to compete.

Contrast Dunkel’s behavior with that of fellow Iowa House Democrat Sally Stutsman. She appeared to have a successor in mind; North Liberty Mayor Amy Nielsen announced her candidacy only hours after Stutsman made her retirement plans known. But because Stutsman went public with the news more than a month ago, Abbie Weipert had time to plan her own campaign and speak to the Johnson County Democratic convention on March 12, along with Nielsen.

Dunkel’s predecessor, Republican State Representative Steve Lukan, announced more than two months before the 2012 filing deadline that he would not seek re-election in House district 57, giving everyone in both parties plenty of time to confer and plan.

Sad to say, keeping retirement plans secret so that only one favored insider has time to file is a longstanding bipartisan tradition in the Iowa legislature. In 2008, Democratic State Representative Ro Foege sought to hand his district over to Nate Willems. In 2010, Democrats Wayne Ford and Elesha Gayman, along with Republican Doug Struyk, waited until shortly before the filing deadline to announce their retirements. Last-minute retiring lawmakers in 2012 included Jeff Kaufmann, who wanted to prevent competition for his son Bobby Kaufmann in the GOP primary. In 2014, Democratic State Senator Dennis Black and State Representative Roger Thomas pulled the same stunt.

I’m disappointed Dunkel didn’t follow the lead of a half-dozen House Republicans, who announced weeks or months ago that they did not plan to seek re-election in 2016. While Dunkel may have broken new ground for Iowa women in her business career, she ended her political life with a statement for cronyism rather than open competition and fair play.

UPDATE: Several Facebook commentators defend this practice. Phil Specht argued that “an incumbent might well want to do a personal search to find someone who both can win and do the job as well as they have.” I reject the premise that the incumbent is best-placed to know everyone in the district who could do the job well. Other talented people may not know the incumbent or may not be favored by the incumbent because of some local political disagreement that has no bearing on whether the person could be a good legislator.

Susan Staed (who clerks for her husband, State Representative Art Staed) commented that she has never known Dunkel “to play political games or be deceptive. She was asked a few weeks ago if she were retiring and responded no. Perhaps she changed her mind. I’ve heard that the drawn-out education funding fiasco last year has caused others to reconsider running.” Dunkel told a journalist that she consulted with Hancock about finding another candidate. He passed away on January 31.

No question, the way school funding played out last year influenced some of the recent retirements. Some Republicans who are stepping down had spoken out publicly on that issue or were rumored to be unhappy. They managed to give their constituents plenty of warning that their House seats would be open.

Ryan Dierks, a Democrat from the Dubuque area, speculated,

this could have been a strategy planned by more than just [Dunkel]. There are at least 2 strong republican candidates that have been waiting for her [to] retire. I wouldn’t doubt that this was a coordinated plan to try and box them out with the short notice decision. I do know that as recent[ly] as last fall she told one of this candidates that she was running for reelection.

How does a last-minute retirement box out a potentially strong Republican candidate in House district 57? On the contrary, if no one files for the GOP nomination by tomorrow afternoon, local Republicans will be able to take their time, recruit a good candidate, and nominate that person at a special convention. In contrast, Democrats will be stuck with Stecher. He may prove to be an outstanding candidate (in which case he would have had no trouble defeating a primary opponent), or he may be a flop (in which case an open process would have served the party well, in addition to being more fair).

SECOND UPDATE: Have heard from an additional source that rumors about Dunkel’s retirement have circulated for months. Someone who was interested in recruiting a woman candidate for the seat (if it would be open) asked Dunkel about it within the past few weeks and reportedly was told she was running for re-election.

John Deeth reminded me that Jeff Kaufmann announced his retirement a week before the 2012 filing deadline, not as late as I recalled. Struyk played this game twice–first to screw over his former Democratic colleagues when he switched his party registration to re-file as a Republican in 2004, then in 2010 when Mary Ann Hanusa filed at the last minute for the seat few people knew Struyk was leaving open.

Meanwhile, State Representative Deborah Berry announced today that she is retiring from Iowa House district 62, Cristinia Crippes reported for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Also today, Ras Smith filed to run in the Democratic primary to represent this district. Nothing against Smith, who seems like a good guy and strongly committed to education and community service. But others should have had more time to consider running for Berry’s seat. House district 62 has more than three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans, so the winner of the June primary will be the next state representative.

THIRD UPDATE: State Representative Abby Finkenauer’s latest Facebook status update points to a deep cultural problem within the Iowa House Democratic caucus.

Today, it was announced that the fabulous Rep. Deb Berry would not be seeking re-election which made us all sad as she leaves a big hole (Rep. Berry was one of the first to actually ask me to run for office!), but we did get to meet her friend and newest Democratic Candidate for her seat, Ras Smith a 28 year old dedicated to the Waterloo community who is bringing along energy and ideas for Iowa’s future. Rep. Hall, Rep. Bennett and myself were thrilled to meet Ras plus his wife Amelia today and welcome him to the team! Get excited Iowa Democrats! We have the energy and drive to keep up the fight for progress. Welcome, Ras! — with Liz Bennett and Chris Hall at Iowa State Capitol.

Hall was first elected to the House in 2010. Bennett and Finkenauer were first elected in 2014. Both had many months to plan their campaigns for open seats (Bennett in the district Tyler Olson vacated to run for governor, Finkenauer in the district Pat Murphy vacated to run for Congress).

When three young House members “welcome” a hand-picked candidate “to the team,” the message to outsiders is, “This is our club. We don’t care whether the process was fair, we’re happy with whomever our colleague picked to replace her.”

Finkenauer, Hall, and Bennett strongly object to my reading of this Facebook post. From their perspective, they were just being polite to Smith, as they would welcome any Democratic candidate for an Iowa House seat. Regardless of their intentions, I would not recommend celebrating the transfer of a state legislative seat in this manner, and I doubt Finkenauer, Hall, and Bennett would view the issue this way if their own political ambitions had been frustrated by a similar deal.

Deeth notes that Nebraska law sets an earlier filing deadline for incumbents than for other candidates, “Presumably to deter late retirement smooth handoff scenarios.” I would wholeheartedly support a similar rule for Iowa.

Iowa House district 57, The new Iowa House district 57, under the redistricting plan adopted in 2011.

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