IA-Gov: Boulton, Hubbell lead in early legislative endorsements

State Senator Nate Boulton and Fred Hubbell have locked up more support among state lawmakers than the five other Democrats running for governor combined.

Whether legislative endorsements will matter in the 2018 gubernatorial race is an open question. The overwhelming majority of state lawmakers backed Mike Blouin before the 2006 gubernatorial primary, which Chet Culver won. Last year, former Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge won the nomination for U.S. Senate, even though about 60 current and 30 former Democratic lawmakers had endorsed State Senator Rob Hogg.

Nevertheless, prominent supporters can provide a clue to activists or journalists about which primary contenders are well-positioned. Where things stand:

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Highlights from this year's Iowa Senate votes on Branstad nominees

During the 2014 legislative session, the Iowa Senate confirmed all but a handful of Governor Terry Branstad’s more than 200 nominees for state boards and commissions. It’s not unusual for senators to vote down one or two appointees, but this year the Senate confirmed everyone who came up for a vote on the floor.

The only close call was former Iowa House Republican Nick Wagner, confirmed to the Iowa Utilities Board last month with just one vote to spare. Branstad originally named Wagner to the three-member utilities board in 2013 but pulled his nomination when it became clear that senators would not confirm him. Branstad named Wagner to that board anyway, right after the Senate adjourned for the year in 2013. By the time his nomination came up for consideration this year, a couple of factors that worked against him were no longer relevant. Former State Senator Swati Dandekar had resigned from the board to run for Congress, so there would no longer be two of three members from Marion (a Cedar Rapids suburb). Furthermore, Branstad named attorney Sheila Tipton to replace Dandekar, so senators could no longer object to the lack of a lawyer on the Iowa Utilities Board.

Still, most of the Democratic caucus opposed Wagner’s nomination. State Senator Rob Hogg cited the nominee’s support for a bad nuclear power bill that the legislature considered a few years back. Meanwhile, State Senator Matt McCoy (who incidentally wanted to pass the nuclear bill) noted that as a key Iowa House Republican on budget matters, Wagner “was not willing to listen” and “took very difficult and very hard-line positions.” After the jump I’ve posted the roll call on the Wagner nomination; 11 Democrats joined all 24 Republicans to confirm him.

As in recent years, the governor withdrew a handful of nominees who were not likely to gain at least 34 votes (a two-thirds majority) in the upper chamber. A few nominees for low-profile boards had to go because of party imbalance issues. Chet Hollingshead, one of seven Branstad appointees to the Mental Health and Disability Services Commission, never came up for a vote, presumably because of a theft incident Bleeding Heartland user Iowa_native described here.

I am not sure why Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal informed Branstad that Jason Carlstrom was unlikely to be confirmed as chair of the Iowa Board of Parole. The governor first appointed Carlstrom to that position in the summer of 2012, to fill out the remainder of someone else’s term. The Iowa Senate unanimously confirmed him during the 2013 legislative session. When Branstad reappointed Carlstrom to the parole board this year, I didn’t expect him to run into any trouble. I will update this post if I learn more details.

The highest-profile nominee withdrawn by Branstad was former Iowa House Republican Jamie Van Fossen, whom the governor wanted to chair the Public Employment Relations Board. Cityview’s Civic Skinny described the backstory well; I’ve posted excerpts after the jump. Van Fossen still serves on that board, having been confirmed to a full term in 2012. But the new chair will be Mike Cormack, a Republican who served four terms in the Iowa House and later worked for the State Department of Education. Senators unanimously confirmed Cormack last month. The outgoing Public Employment Relations Board chair, Jim Riordan, has alleged that the board faced political pressure from Branstad staffers to hire an employer-friendly administrative law judge.

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How not to retire from the Iowa legislature

Most election years, at least one Iowa House or Senate incumbent reveals retirement plans shortly before the filing deadline. During the last midterm, three Iowa House incumbents gave their constituents only a day or two’s notice that they were not planning to run for re-election.

Qualifying for the ballot is relatively easy here; candidates can collect the 50 signatures needed for an Iowa House district or the 100 needed for a Senate district in a day. But deciding whether to run for the state legislature is not so simple. Common courtesy demands that incumbents give their constituents at least a few weeks, or preferably a few months, to talk things over with family and friends, weighing what would be involved in a campaign and part-time work as a lawmaker. Lots of politically active people might want to serve. Most would not challenge an incumbent in a primary, but the calculus is different for an open seat.

Longtime State Senator Dennis Black announced on March 10 that he would not run for re-election. Presumably some insiders had advance warning, but every other Democrat in Senate district 15 had at most three days to consider this race, plus one day to collect the signatures and drive petitions to Des Moines.

Longtime State Representative Roger Thomas officially announced his retirement in a press release that went out  at 4:50 pm on March 13, barely 24 hours before the filing deadline. He gave the scoop to local activists at the Winneshiek County Democratic convention on March 8, but that news would only reach a small circle of insiders. A wider audience didn’t learn of Thomas’ retirement until he informed the Decorah Newspapers on the morning of March 12. Democrats in House district 55 (covering parts of Winneshiek, Fayette, and Clayton counties) deserved more than five days to think about running for the legislature, collect signatures, and make the four-hour drive to Des Moines. Nothing against Rick Edwards of Decorah, who has stepped up to run, but others should have had more time to consider the opportunity Thomas created.

Note: Iowa House district 55 will likely be a very competitive race this November, and Senate district 15 may also be in play, but my feelings about last-minute retirements also apply to seats that are safe for one party.

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Former Newton Mayor Chaz Allen running in Iowa Senate district 15

Only a few hours after State Senator Dennis Black confirmed plans to retire, former Newton Mayor Chaz Allen announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination in Iowa Senate district 15. Allen has strong business connections as executive director of the Jasper County Economic Development Corporation and as a board member of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. After the jump I’ve posted Allen’s campaign announcement, which contains more background on the candidate. Former Governor Chet Culver appointed him to the Rebuild Iowa Office’s task force on Infrastructure and Transportation, and he also served on Governor Terry Branstad’s Commercial Property Tax Review Committee three years ago.

Iowa Senate district 15 covers most of Jasper County and some eastern areas in Polk County. Click here for a map and the latest voter registration numbers in the Democratic-leaning district.

I am seeking comment from Iowa House Democrat Dan Kelley, who represents the eastern half of this Senate district. I will update this post when I can confirm whether Kelley will run for the Iowa Senate or seek a third term as state representative.

So far the lone Republican candidate to file in Senate district 15 is Crystal Bruntz. Her campaign is on Facebook here and on the web here. I’ve posted her official bio below.

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Democratic incumbent Dennis Black retiring in Iowa Senate district 15

Democratic State Senator Dennis Black announced this morning that he is retiring from politics after 32 years in the Iowa legislature, including five terms in the Iowa Senate. His retirement opens up Senate district 15, covering most of Jasper County and parts of eastern Polk County. As of March 2014, this district contained 15,238 registered Democrats, 13,184 Republicans, and 15,064 no-party voters. After the jump I’ve posted a district map and Black’s open letter to colleagues and the media.

In late January, it appeared that three Republicans would compete for the chance to run against Black this year. But the highest-profile candidate, former Iowa GOP Co-Chair David Fischer, opted against running last month. Meanwhile, the first Republican candidate to declare against Black, Patrick Payton, decided to run for Iowa House district 29 instead. That leaves Crystal Bruntz, a human resources executive for the convenience store chain Kum & Go, as the likely GOP nominee in Senate district 15. So far she is the only Republican who has filed nominating papers in the district.

Democrats have until this Friday to find a new candidate for the seat Black is vacating. I am seeking comment from two-term State Representative Dan Kelley of Newton. He currently represents Iowa House district 29 but has not filed for re-election yet. First-term Democrat Joe Riding has already filed for re-election in House district 30, the western half of Senate district 15. UPDATE: Riding confirmed by telephone that he is committed to continuing to represent residents of House district 30.

Although Black’s district wasn’t initially on my radar or Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal’s radar as one of the most competitive 2014 Senate races, opposing parties typically have a better chance of winning open seats than defeating state legislative incumbents. Senate district 15 will surely be a race to watch this year.

PROCESS GEEK UPDATE: Although it’s not relevant in this instance, since Riding will stick with the House race, a candidate who had already filed papers to run for an Iowa House district could file for a newly open Senate district. Scroll to the end of this post for the explanation.  

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David Fischer not running in Iowa Senate district 15 after all

Former Republican Party of Iowa co-chair David Fischer announced on Facebook February 18 that he has decided not to run for the Iowa Senate this year. Just a few weeks ago, Fischer sounded committed to the race, but he told his Facebook friends, “Much to my surprise, a great opportunity has just presented itself that I owe it to my family to explore.” He promised to return all campaign contributions and to keep working to promote principles of “freedom, prosperity, and peace.”

I had considered Fischer’s campaign a “game-changer” in that it pointed to a strong Republican effort to beat entrenched Democratic incumbent Dennis Black in Senate district 15.

Two other Republicans have announced plans to run against Black: Patrick Payton and Crystal Bruntz. But since neither has Fischer’s connections to the “Liberty” movement that dominates the current state GOP’s leadership, I’m not convinced Senate district 15 will rise to the top tier of competitive Iowa Senate races. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal doesn’t seem worried about holding this seat either.

After the jump I’ve posted a map of the district and the latest voter registration totals.

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