Des Moines City Council Ward 3 forum: Neighborhoods and advocates

Thanks to Stefanie Running for a play-by-play of the October 10 candidate forum for Des Moines City Council Ward 3, featuring Michael Kiernan, Josh Mandelbaum, and Abshir Omar. First-person accounts of campaign events are always welcome at Bleeding Heartland. -promoted by desmoinesdem

6:30 PM
It’s really a lovely night. Mid 60s, you can smell fall emerging from the hundred-year-old neighborhood trees and the glowing sunset inching forward sooner each day. Max Knauer and Kate Allen have been working with neighborhood associations and advocacy groups since August putting this forum together. I volunteer as a social chair for Gray’s Lake Neighborhood Association (GLNA), so I’ve seen the work that they’ve put into the program. They’ve scheduled the forum right in the heart of my own neighborhood, so it’s barely a half mile for me to travel.

As I arrive, other neighborhood reps are setting up, Knauer fields questions from co-sponsors and attendees alike. The candidates arrive. I’ve spoken to all three digitally via email or facebook. Tonight I introduce myself. I’m Stefanie Running. I’ll be the rep for this very neighborhood. I’ll also be writing about tonight’s forum for Bleeding Heartland. All three are gracious and welcoming.

Unpacking my camera gear, I realize it’s non-functional. I forgot something. I can’t go back home because the event is about to start and I didn’t drive. So I sit and I prepare to take notes. I apologize, dear reader, for my lack of photos. That’s my favorite part. Sadly, what I lack in photos, I’m going to make up for in article length. I apologize in advance.

To make this article a little more readable, from this point on I’ll show the panelist’s comments in bold, the candidate responses will be in standard font, and my own comments in italics.

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With Hensley out, who will business interests run against Josh Mandelbaum?

Christine Hensley will not seek re-election to the Des Moines City Council this year, she announced today in an interview with the Business Record. The 24-year incumbent told Perry Beeman, “I’ve got a tremendous amount done, and it’s time for me to look at the next chapter and figure out what I’m going to do.” Hensley discussed spending “a little more time with family” and didn’t mention her challenger Josh Mandelbaum, though his capacity to run an effective campaign likely factored into her retirement plans.

The race for Des Moines City Council Ward 3 was shaping up to be a focal point for central Iowa progressives. Mandelbaum has raised more $110,000 in less than a month as a candidate, his campaign told Iowa Starting Line today. More than 150 people have volunteered to help spread the word.

While winning an open seat is usually easier than beating an entrenched incumbent, no one should celebrate victory too soon. Republicans and business groups will surely recruit and heavily promote someone to run in Hensley’s place. Proxies of the Iowa Farm Bureau have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television and radio advertising bashing the Des Moines Water Works during the last two years, so I anticipate a well-funded smear campaign against Mandelbaum. Countering that message will require a strong grassroots effort. City council races are usually low-turnout affairs, so a few thousand people will decide the outcome. You can sign up to volunteer here.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the west-side and south-side neighborhoods that are part of ward 3 (a map is at the end of this post). That reality, along with Mandelbaum’s early start and big fundraising, may deter other potential candidates. But some ambitious person with business connections will step up. Any speculation about who might enter the Des Moines City Council race is welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Mandelbaum released the following statement on today’s news.

I want to thank Councilwoman Hensley for serving her community for 24 years. While Councilwoman Hensley and I have our disagreements, we should all honor and respect the work that all of our civil servants do every day to make our community stronger.This race was and still is about representing the interests, values, and concerns of the residents of Des Moines. I will continue to champion clean water, strong neighborhoods with strong public schools, and investing in people through policies that support decent wages. I also want to thank my supporters. The outpouring of support throughout the community in the month since we have announced has made it clear that Des Moines is ready for a progressive voice on the City Council. With your continued support, we will be prepared to fight outside special interests that have been attacking champions of clean water like what the so-called Partnership for Clean Water has done to Bill Stowe and the Des Moines Water Works. This election will still be a fight to be won even if it’s not the original one we anticipated when we announced one month ago. This campaign has just begun and I look forward to continued conversations with residents throughout the third ward as I keep running vigorously all the way through Nov. 7th, 2017. Thank you again-

According to Jason Frerichs of the Progressive Voices of Iowa blog, he has interviewed another Democrat planning to run for city council in this ward. Will update once that person’s identity is known.

P.S.- Hensley’s decision to stand with the Farm Bureau against her local water utility was a political mistake as well as a betrayal of her constituents. And it was all for nothing, because despite lobbying by groups including the city of Des Moines, the plan to dismantle the Water Works stalled in the Iowa House and won’t be attached to an appropriations bill this year. Since the Water Works lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties will not move forward, state lawmakers will have little reason to pursue this goal during the 2018 legislative session either.

P.P.S.- If outgoing Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett seeks the Republican nomination for governor in 2018, as I expect him to do, Hensley will be a leading contender for the lieutenant governor spot on his ticket.

APRIL 24 UPDATE: Multiple central Iowa sources have relayed a rumor that Hensley is being considered for the lieutenant governor position under Kim Reynolds after Governor Terry Branstad leaves for China. Offering Hensley that job could be a way for Reynolds (who has a big head start on fundraising for the 2018 governor’s race) to hurt Corbett’s ability to tap major Republican donors in the Des Moines area. If Hensley joined the Reynolds administration, it would be a slap in the face to Corbett, with whom she has worked closely as an original board member of the Partnership for Clean Water.

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Josh Mandelbaum taking on Des Moines City Council member Christine Hensley

Promising to be a “voice for strong neighborhoods and strong schools,” defending local interests and fighting harmful state policies, Josh Mandelbaum confirmed Thursday night that he will run for Des Moines City Council against 24-year incumbent Christine Hensley. I enclose below the audio and full transcript of Mandelbaum’s first campaign speech, along with background on the candidate and a map of Ward 3, which covers west-side neighborhoods south of University Avenue and much of the south side.

I’ve been acquainted with Mandelbaum since before he was a policy advisor for Governor Tom Vilsack and Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson. More recently, I’ve closely observed his work on renewable energy and clean water issues through our mutual involvement in Iowa environmental circles. I’m an active supporter of the non-profit Environmental Law & Policy Center, where Mandelbaum is a staff attorney. Last year Midwest Energy News named Mandelbaum to its “40 Under 40” list of list of “emerging leaders” working on “America’s transition to a clean energy economy.” He was one of only two Iowans to receive that recognition.

Even if I couldn’t personally vouch for Mandelbaum’s talent and work ethic, I would be excited to see a progressive willing to take on this incumbent. Hensley’s 2015 vote to extend a tax abatement program was indirectly a vote to benefit her employer. Timothy Meinch reported for the Des Moines Register at the time that the city attorney “warned of an ‘appearance of impropriety’ and ‘potential of a conflict of interest’” before Hensley “cast a pivotal vote in favor of developers.” Des Moines Cityview’s Civic Skinny column explained here how Hensley’s deciding vote benefited Midwest Housing Equity Group, “an Omaha-based firm that syndicates and sells tax credits from developers” where she “is a director and paid consultant.”

Hensley has given Des Moines residents plenty of other reasons to look for new representation. Mandelbaum covered several of them in the remarks I transcribed below. Her most egregious act was joining the small board of directors of the Orwellian-named Iowa Partnership for Clean Water. This advocacy organization grew out of the Iowa Farm Bureau’s desire to discredit the Des Moines Water Works, which delivers drinking water to half a million central Iowans, including all of Hensley’s constituents. My theory is that Hensley hitched her wagon to this cause in the hope of becoming Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett’s running mate in the 2018 race for governor. Whatever her motives, she chose to stand with Big Ag against her own city’s utility, despite evidence connecting farm runoff with high nitrate levels and toxic algae blooms that threaten the local water supply.

This year Hensley urged the city council to support legislation that would disband the Des Moines Water Works. The bill is widely understood to be retribution for the Water Works lawsuit against drainage districts in northwest Iowa (see the first part of this post). Mandelbaum spoke against House File 484 at a public hearing earlier this month; scroll down to view the video.

Taking on an entrenched incumbent is always an uphill battle, especially for a first-time candidate. Hensley will raise a ton of money. Even so, this race is winnable for Mandelbaum. City council elections are low-turnout affairs. Hensley didn’t have a challenger in 2005 or in 2009 and defeated Cal Woods by 3,536 votes to 2,248 four years ago.

Ward 3 “has an overwhelming Democratic registration advantage and has a D+20 performance index,” Pat Rynard noted last month. The Water Works issue alone is highly salient for Des Moines residents. A large number of teachers and public workers live on the west and south sides of Des Moines, as do many progressives interested in economic and social justice. If Mandelbaum can tap into outrage over statehouse Republicans destroying collective bargaining rights and lowering the minimum wage in Polk County, don’t bet against him turning out a few thousand Democrats who have never voted in a local election before. He won’t be able to match Hensley’s fundraising, but with Pederson and former Attorney General Bonnie Campbell co-chairing his campaign, he should raise enough money to get his message out to Ward 3 residents.

This race will be one of the most important local elections in central Iowa this November. Please spread the word.

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Spokesman: Governor Terry Branstad uses neither public nor private e-mail

E-mailing practices by government officials have drawn an unusual amount of scrutiny this year, thanks to the national press corps’ months-long fixation on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server and e-mail account during her years as secretary of state. Though the most sensational reports about Clinton’s e-mails were wrong, a drumbeat of news articles and commentary pointed to her private e-mail use as a scandal, or at least a serious political problem.

For years, people who have submitted records requests for Governor Terry Branstad’s e-mails have been told the governor does not use e-mail. So I was surprised this week to see footage of Branstad telling his top donor and Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter to “send me an e-mail” with facts about Bruce Harreld, at the time a candidate for the University of Iowa presidency. Iowa Public Television’s “Governor Branstad: Behind the Scenes” documentary includes video of Branstad talking with Rastetter during the Iowa State Fair. I transcribed the brief conversation here.

In light of Branstad’s comment to Rastetter, I asked the governor’s communications director Ben Hammes to clarify whether Branstad has an e-mail account for official or private use. He replied, “The governor does not use email or have email. The governor was referring to sending information to our office, which is what he asks of constituents, when he is traveling around Iowa. He will often ask them to send information to the appropriate policy person in our office.”

Since Branstad asked Rastetter to send “me” an e-mail (rather than asking for the background to be sent to his staff), I asked Hammes whether he could confirm that the governor never communicates directly with Rastetter or with anyone else via e-mail, and that “people wishing to e-mail information to the governor can do so only by e-mailing intermediaries.” Hammes responded, “Correct. The governor does not have an email account.” Duly noted with regret, since the lack of an official e-mail account will make it harder for reporters and future historians to reconstruct Branstad’s actions and decision-making process during his fifth and sixth terms.

On a related note, today’s New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter “relied on a personal email account to conduct a portion of his government business during his first months at the Pentagon.” Today’s lead editorial in the Des Moines Register took Des Moines City Council member Christine Hensley to task for, among other things, using a private e-mail account to discuss city business. The newspaper also criticized city policy that allows officials to search for and disclose e-mails that are the subject of open records requests, because those people “lack the technical expertise to conduct document searches” and “have a strong motive to withhold damaging emails they have sent or received.” Hensley is refusing to release a legal opinion on whether she should recuse herself from a policy matter because of a potential conflict of interest. The controversy doesn’t reflect well on the longtime city council member, who I believe is positioning herself to be Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett’s running mate for the 2018 governor’s race.

UPDATE: I had forgotten that Branstad admitted during a deposition last year to using a Blackberry. More details on that are below. I am seeking further comment on whether the governor receives work-related or private messages from people on that Blackberry.

DECEMBER 21 UPDATE: Hammes was quick to respond to my first questions on this topic last week, but four days since I followed up with a question about the Blackberry, still radio silence from the governor’s office.

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