A former Iowa Democratic lawmaker's message to candidates in rural areas

Former State Representative John Whitaker is the executive director of Rural Forward, an organization formed last month to promote progressive solutions for communities of all sizes, as well as to help Democrats organize in rural areas and demonstrate that rural areas matter. -promoted by desmoinesdem

In 2002, I won my legislative district (Iowa House district 90) by only 55 votes. I had a difficult time raising the funds I needed, even though I was serving my third term as a Van Buren County supervisor, and district 90 was then held by a Democrat who was retiring.

Sometime during that first legislative session, a lobbyist who had served in the legislature (as a Democrat) told me the reason that out of district funders were not interested in my race was because a Democrat should not win that seat. The district had 16 percent more registered Republicans than Democrats. It didn’t matter that the district had one of the widest swing factors in the state or that the Democrats had held it for three terms.

When I left the legislature in 2009 to become state executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, Curt Hanson held House district 90 in a hard-fought special election. Hanson was re-elected four times in a district that since the last census has been House district 82, covering slightly different territory. After Hanson passed away this summer, Democrat Phil Miller won a special election here, even though President Donald Trump had carried the district in 2016.

That is a lot of history, but it is important because it proves a point: Democrats can win in rural areas!

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Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 2)

Following up on my review of news from the first half of last year, I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from July through December 2009 after the jump.

Hot topics on this blog during the second half of the year included the governor’s race, the special election in Iowa House district 90, candidates announcing plans to run for the state legislature next year, the growing number of Republicans ready to challenge Representative Leonard Boswell, state budget constraints, and a scandal involving the tax credit for film-making.

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Update on Iowa House districts 90 and 21

Governor Chet Culver has set September 1 as the date for the special election in Iowa House district 90, which includes Van Buren and parts of Wapello and Jefferson counties. The seat opened up when State Representative John Whitaker decided to take a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you live within striking distance of this district, please consider volunteering for Democratic candidate Curt Hanson. His campaign website is here, and he’s also on Twitter and Facebook. This will be a low-turnout election, so a strong volunteer effort will be essential.

According to Bleeding Heartland user im4klein, the GOP will announce its candidate in House district 90 today or tomorrow. Supposedly he is a farmer who has won elections in the past. Sounds like a county supervisor to me, but we’ll find out soon enough.

UPDATE: The Republican candidate for this special election is indeed a county supervisor–to be more precise, Jefferson County supervisor Stephen Burgmeier. Click the link to read his press release. The last time Burgmeier was on my radar screen, he and his fellow supervisors had passed a resolution on April 27, 2009, asking the Iowa legislature to stop same-sex marriages. Burgmeier’s timing was either brilliant (because April 27 was the first day for legal same-sex marriages in Iowa) or stupid (because the legislature had just adjourned for the year on April 26). I expect him to make gay marriage a major issue in this special election campaign.

SECOND UPDATE: According to The Iowa Republican’s Al Swearengen,

Ed Failor Jr. and Iowans for Tax Relief are running the entire campaign effort in the [House district 90] special election…

Word is that Failor has committeed big dollars to the race and already has his ITR staff embedded in the district and running the race… […]

Anybody that questions the power and influence of Failor and ITR need to look no further than this race…they are running this race…and are in charge of all [Iowa] House and Senate elections…

Meanwhile, the Des Moines Register reports,

Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is investigating a case that involves a state audit that indicates a representative shortchanged an Iowa school $37,000, a state spokesman confirmed today.

No charges have been filed against Rep. Kerry Burt, D-Waterloo, but if the accusations prove to be accurate, they ultimately could lead to his removal from office, according to Iowa law.

House Speaker Pat Murphy told the Register, “I think [Burt] has a very good record, and I stand behind him at this point, and I’m 100 percent with him.” I hope Murphy has a plan B in case the criminal investigation confirms the allegations in the state auditor’s report. Burt’s seat wasn’t going to be an easy hold even before this scandal, because of his arrest in February on a drunk driving charge, which has not yet gone to trial.

We have a lot of good Democrats in the Waterloo area, and I’d like to see someone else on our ballot line in House district 21 next year.

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We need new candidates in House districts 90 and 21

A special election will be held in Iowa House district 90 to replace State Representative John Whitaker, who is becoming Iowa State Executive Director for the Farm Service Agency at the USDA. In theory, Democrats shouldn’t have trouble holding this district, where Whitaker won re-election last year with more than 80 percent of the vote. (His only opponent was from the “4th of July Party.”)

However, John Deeth noted last month that this district has been competitive in the recent past. I want to hear from Democrats familiar with Jefferson and Van Buren counties: who should run for Whitaker’s seat? Anyone know who might run on the Republican side? (UPDATE: According to IowaPolitics.com, “community activist and educator Curt Hanson of Fairfield,” a retired teacher and Democrat, has already announced that he’s running for this seat. His campaign website is here, and he’s already on Twitter and Facebook.)

In unhappier news, State Representative Kerry Burt appears to have lied about where his children lived to avoid paying tuition fees:

The University of Northern Iowa’s Malcolm Price Laboratory School failed to collect more than $250,000 in tuition from a dozen families, including a state representative and the school’s former executive director, the state auditor said Thursday.[…]

– Burt had children enrolled in the school since 2001. He listed a home owned by Marguerite Pircer, who said Burt is her daughter’s paternal uncle, as his childrens’ address. Pircer said Burt’s children never lived in her home. Burt told state auditors that “Mr. Smith and several other staff knew my niece lived at the 1815 Franklin Street and no one questioned it.” He also said David Smith knew he had a Waterloo address.

The unpaid registration fees for Burt’s children were $37,139.

Burt declined comment Thursday, saying all questions had to be directed to his attorneys.

In an unrelated matter, the first-term lawmaker has also pleaded innocent to a drunken driving charge filed against him earlier this spring.

For once I agree with Republican Party of Iowa chairman Matt Strawn, who called for Burt to resign and repay the tuition fees his family evaded. I don’t want this guy on the ballot as a Democrat next year. I don’t want other Democrats publicly defending him. I don’t want the Iowa House Ethics Committee to settle this matter. Whatever they do to discipline Burt, they’ll be accused of going too easy on him.

It’s a real shame. Burt’s victory over Republican incumbent Tami Wiencek was a pleasant surprise last November. Iowa Democrats hadn’t targeted House district 21, but Burt won by about 200 votes. I want to hear from Democrats familiar with Black Hawk County: who should run for this seat if Burt steps down?

Districts 90 and 21 are more important holds than, say, Larry Marek’s seat in House district 89, because Whitaker and Burt weren’t part of the “six-pack” that kept us from getting 51 votes for some important bills.

P.S.- When will Strawn call for the resignation of Republican State Senator James Seymour, who pled guilty to a prostitution charge in 2002?

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