Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 1)

I expected 2009 to be a relatively quiet year in Iowa politics, but was I ever wrong.

The governor’s race heated up, state revenues melted down, key bills lived and died during the legislative session, and the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Varnum v Brien became one of this state’s major events of the decade.

After the jump I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from January through June 2009. Any comments about the year that passed are welcome in this thread.

Although I wrote a lot of posts last year, there were many important stories I didn’t manage to cover. I recommend reading Iowa Independent’s compilation of “Iowa’s most overlooked and under reported stories of 2009,” as well as that blog’s review of “stories that will continue to impact Iowa in 2010.”

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Congratulations to Kathie Obradovich

The Des Moines Register announced yesterday that Kathie Obradovich will be the paper’s new political columnist. Her first column will run this Sunday.

Obradovich has covered Iowa politics for many years and been the Register’s political editor since 2003. She replaces David Yepsen, who earlier this year left to become director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Even though the Register’s statewide reach is not what it was a few decades ago, Yepsen still played an agenda-setting role for Iowa politicians and fellow journalists. Sometimes that was for the good, when he called attention to possible backroom deals at the statehouse. However, Yepsen sometimes forgot that his disapproval didn’t automatically make a political strategy illegitimate. I don’t think he ever apologized for wrongly giving his readers the impression that there was something unfair about encouraging college students to come back to Iowa for the 2008 caucuses, for instance. He was too quick to cite think tank reports as proof that Iowans are overtaxed, without considering the services Iowans get for our tax dollars compared to low-tax states like South Dakota. I also didn’t appreciate his suggestion that women’s political opinions are more “catty” than men’s.

May Obradovich use her agenda-setting power wisely.

I’ve posted the Register’s press release announcing Obradovich’s promotion after the jump.

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Why don't Iowa leaders do more to protect the environment? (updated)

David Yepsen published his final column in the Des Moines Register before starting his new job as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. It reprises some themes from many previous columns, such as the need to create a world-class education system and thriving economy in Iowa, with fewer layers of government.

As often happens when I read one of Yepsen’s columns, I wonder why he ignores some obvious paths to achieving his admirable goals. For instance, he wants Iowa to “set the goal of having one of the highest per-capita incomes in the country within 10 years.” Is this the same columnist who never met a labor union he liked? It reminded me of how Yepsen periodically slams the excessive influence of big money in politics, but won’t get behind a voluntary public financing system for clean elections.

In Yepsen’s final column, one passage in particular caught my eye:

Let’s set a goal to have the cleanest environment in the country within 10 years. The cleanest air. The cleanest water. The best soil- and energy-conservation practices.

We’ve had education governors. We’ve had sporadic focus on growing the economy. For some reason, we’ve lacked a similar focus on the environment. Creating a clean environment will create green jobs, but it will also make Iowa more attractive as a place to live and do business.

“For some reason”? I think most of us have a pretty good idea why improving air and water quality has never been a high priority for Iowa leaders. Follow me after the jump for more on this problem.

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David Yepsen has a new job

The Des Moines Register reported on Tuesday that David Yepsen will be the new director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale:

Carolyn Washburn, the Register’s editor and vice president, said the newspaper would miss the veteran political writer, who has been with the Register since 1973, and the newspaper’s senior political columnist since 2000.

“As a political journalist in Iowa, David has really done it all, for decades,” Washburn said.

Yepsen has been a familiar face to Iowans. He became the Register’s senior political writer in 1983 and a full-time columnist in 2000. The Jefferson native and University of Iowa graduate also has been a host on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” since 1975, and a frequent commentator on national news programs.

The Southern Illinois campus newspaper confirmed the story.

Yepsen interviewed for his new job in December, around the time the Register imposed yet another round of layoffs in the newsroom. (Political cartoonist Brian Duffy was among those fired at that time. I’ve seen several of his cartoons in the Des Moines area weekly Cityview since then.)

Best of luck to Yepsen in his new position, and kudos to him for taking on a new challenge after so many years at the Register.

Any guesses on who will become the Register’s chief political columnist? The obvious play would be to promote Tom Beaumont from the newsroom, since he covers a lot of the political stories already. Or, they could move columnist Marc Hansen, who is a great writer, over to the op-ed page.

Given the Register’s difficult financial position, I doubt they will bring in a senior columnist from outside, but they could hire someone currently working at a different Gannett newspaper.

UPDATE: Marc Ambinder shares  his reflections on Yepsen and predicts that O.Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa will be “Yepsen’s heir” as the most influential Iowa journalist during the next presidential campaign.

John Deeth (“not a Yepsen fan”) discusses the end of an era from his perspective. I agree with him about so-called objective American journalism.

SECOND UPDATE: Yepsen will start his new job on April 1, according to the SIU Saluki Times:

Asked why he sought the institute position, Yepsen said, “Paul Simon’s legacy prompted me to apply. I am really interested in spending the rest of my life in public service, teaching and working with students and working in the public policy arena.

“I am a great admirer of his and I have been to the institute and the campus several times,” he added. “I like the University and the people here. Also, I grew up in a small town in Iowa that was not far different from much of Southern Illinois. When this position came open, I thought this could be a really good fit for me.”

He said the institute presents a “nice combination of academic work and public policy work,” noting it reminds him of the Harvard Kennedy School “in terms of bringing students, academicians and practitioners together to solve problems.”

That article also quotes former Senator Paul Simon’s book about his 1988 presidential campaign:

“Every four years, the chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register becomes the most important reporter in the nation. It is a position that could cause vanity and abuse. To his credit, David Yepsen handled this position with sensitivity and balance. And he worked hard.”

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Ax falls on Register's political cartoonist

Across the country, newspapers are trying to save money by cutting experienced staff and relying more on syndicated material. The Des Moines Register continued the trend by announcing dozens of layoffs this week. Brian Duffy, who has been the newspaper’s political cartoonist for 25 years, was among those let go.

A brief story in the Register’s business section on Thursday noted,

The Register was said to be the only newspaper in the United States with an editorial cartoon on the front page. The tradition extended back to at least the early 20th century, according to Register archives. Ted Rall, the president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, estimated that about 20 editorial cartoonists have been laid off or retired in the last three years without being replaced.

Meanwhile, the Register’s chief political columnist, David Yepsen, interviewed this week for the position of director of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. You can’t blame him for looking around. After several rounds of layoffs, the atmosphere in the Register’s newsroom must be quite depressing.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen also announced job cuts today.

My sympathies go out to all those whose jobs were eliminated. I was “downsized” myself once (two days before Thanksgiving), and even with a good severance package it is a very demoralizing experience.

UPDATE: I was with friends tonight who were outraged that the Register turned its back on a long history of featuring political cartoons prominently. They are old enough to remember the work of “Ding” Darling, who drew cartoons for the Register for much of the first half of the 20th century, and Frank Miller, who was the Register’s cartoonist from 1953 to 1983.

SECOND UPDATE: Blogger Ron Maly, who worked at the Register during the 1980s, lists others who got laid off this week at the Register. They include outdoor writer Julie Probasco-Sowers. Maly agrees with an unnamed acquaintance who predicts that firing Duffy “will cost the Register a lot more than they’ll save with his salary.”

THIRD UPDATE: Jason Hancock reports that the Register will also reduce or eliminate various special sections. The annual RAGBRAI preview will be among the discontinued publications.

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College students have the right to caucus in Iowa!

The blogosphere has been ablaze this week after Register columnist David Yepsen’s piece about trying to preserve the sanctity of the Iowa Caucuses by essentially banning out-of-state students attending school in Iowa from coming back to Iowa to caucus.

First of all, I think desmoinesdem is right with her post here calling for Yepsen to apologize to Obama.  As Obama’s been the most vocal of the Democrats calling for students to come back and caucus, he’s been the brunt of Yepsen’s attacks.  Instead, the Obama campaign has been busy fighting with the good progressive ally Paul Krugman instead of David Yepsen who often will smack down truly progressive ideas without indulging them fully or honestly.  So, while the Obama campaign may desperately want the Register’s endorsement, challenging his assertions and his problematic claims against students may do even more to boost your campaign than the endorsement.  But that’s another story entirely.

But secondly, I felt it was my place to respond as a college student (admittedly from Iowa) with many, many friends from outside of Iowa who plan on staying in the state to caucus.  These students spend at least nine months of the year here in the state and have the choice to register to vote here as Iowans.  When you spend 3/4 of your year in a state where you pay income tax on any jobs you might have and pay the local sales tax it seems quite clear to me that you ought to have a say in the elections the state holds, no matter who the candidates are.  The Iowa Democratic Party agrees.  From a statement released this afternoon by IDP Chair Scott Brennan:

“In running the First in the Nation Caucuses, the Iowa Democratic Party follows the Iowa Code in determining the eligibility of potential caucus goers. According to the Iowa Code, all college students who are at least 18 years old are eligible to vote and, therefore, eligible to caucus.

Any student who attends an Iowa college or university may participate in the Iowa caucuses provided they are 18 by November 4, 2008, and are a registered Democrat in the precinct in which they wish to caucus.

The Iowa Democratic Party encourages all eligible caucus goers to attend their precinct caucuses on January 3rd to strengthen the Democratic Party and declare their presidential preference.”

It is really just that simple.  And like others before me have said, David Yepsen is just being elitist in this column and implying tactics that are shady when in fact they’re completely legitimate and legal.

What is even worse is that some presidential campaigns are still agreeing with the rhetoric calling for all out-of-staters to stay away from the caucuses.  While Clinton’s campaign has been back-tracking, they still can’t offer a full answer on whether students from outside Iowa should caucus.  Chris Dodd’s campaign is the one that started the pledge, and both Biden and Richardson have tacitly or overtly signed on and offered rhetoric in support of the policy.  This is absurd to me, and I hope that the campaigns are questioned about this in tomorrow’s Register Democratic debate.  But I doubt it will come up.

And, just to rub it in David Yepsen’s face, here is the Drake student newspaper’s article on how students can sign-up to stay overnight in the Olmsted Center–Drake’s student union–and caucus on January 3rd.

College students in Iowa, stand up and have your voices heard!

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