Josh Byrnes not running for re-election in Iowa House district 51

Three-term GOP State Representative Josh Byrnes announced today that he will not seek re-election to the Iowa House. I enclose below the full statement he posted on Facebook, which expressed his "hope that the voters of House District 51 will continue to elect moderate candidates to represent them in Des Moines. The constituents of a district lose when we elect those who are hard line party people."

Byrnes was occasionally out of step with his caucus, having supported marriage equality and voted with Democrats for expanding Medicaid. Rumors of his impending retirement proved wrong during the last election cycle but flared up again in recent months, following his unsuccessful bid to be House speaker and subsequent criticism of excessive partisanship and failure to approve school funding levels on time.

House GOP leaders have resisted compromise on education funding during the past several years, which likely contributed to decisions by three other Republicans not to run for re-election in 2016. Like Byrnes, State Representatives Brian Moore, Quentin Stanerson, and Ron Jorgensen all have worked in the education field.

With Byrnes retiring, House district 51 immediately moves to the top tier of Democratic pickup opportunities in the lower chamber, which the GOP controls with a 57 to 43 majority. President Barack Obama received 55.19 percent of the vote among its residents in 2012. Only two Iowa House districts currently held by Republicans voted to re-elect the president by a larger margin; one of them was House district 58, which Moore is vacating. According to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, House district 51 contains 5,119 active registered Democrats, 6,074 Republicans, and 8,247 no-party voters. I enclose below a district map.

UPDATE: Tony Krebsbach announced on Facebook today that he will seek the GOP nomination in House district 51. He has served on the Republican Party of Iowa’s State Central Committee and chaired the Mitchell County GOP and is part of the "Liberty" faction, which supported Ron Paul for president.

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How Iowa political leaders could honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Congress finally passed a bill establishing a federal holiday named after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1983, national public opinion was split down the middle on whether the civil rights leader should be honored in this way. The holiday is no longer controversial, and members of Congress who voted against it, such as Senator Chuck Grassley, are quick to explain that they admire King’s work. Bleeding Heartland has compiled links related to Dr. King’s legacy and the long slog to establish this national holiday here, here, here, here, here.

I’ve been predicting for months that this year’s legislative session would mostly be a giant waste of many people’s time. I hope Iowa lawmakers and Governor Terry Branstad will prove me wrong by enacting not only the criminal justice reforms Branstad advocated in his Condition of the State speech last week, but also legislation to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, and improve police identification and interrogation procedures as well as police use of body cameras. The NAACP is pushing for a bill to ban racial profiling by law enforcement, which should not be controversial but probably will be a very heavy lift at the Capitol.

Branstad could act unilaterally to reduce one of Iowa’s massive racial disparities by revoking his 2011 executive order that has disenfranchised thousands of people, disproportionately racial minorities. (The procedure the governor established for regaining voting rights is "just about impossible" for felons to navigate.)

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. All three Democratic presidential candidates mentioned Dr. King during their opening statements during last night’s debate in South Carolina, and I’ve enclosed the videos and transcript below. I also included the part of the transcript containing Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ remarks on criminal justice reform.

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Weekend open thread: "Making a Murderer" edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

The more I hear about "Making a Murderer," the more tempted I am to become a Netflix subscriber so I can watch the ten-part documentary myself. The series follows the case of Steven Avery, released from prison after 18 years when DNA evidence showed he was innocent of the rape for which he had been convicted. A few years later, Avery and his teenage nephew Brendan Dassey were charged and convicted of murdering Teresa Halbach. The documentary suggests that Avery and Dassey, who are both serving life sentences, did not kill Halbach and did not receive fair trials.

Lee Rood has a front-page feature in today’s Des Moines Register about how problems highlighted in "Making a Murderer" point to the need for criminal justice reforms in Iowa, such as "uniform best practices for eyewitnesses and the mandatory recording of law enforcement interrogations." I’ve enclosed excerpts after the jump, but I strongly recommend clicking through to read her whole story.

Avery’s wrongful conviction for rape rested primarily on eyewitness testimony. The latest edition of the New Yorker contains an excellent piece by Paul Kix on how a similar "travesty led to criminal-justice innovation in Texas." Passages enclosed below cite Iowa State University Psychology Professor Gary Wells, who "has spent decades researching ways in which police lineups can be made more accurate." Wells testified at a hearing seeking to exonerate a man who had died in prison, serving time for a rape he did not commit. Some of Wells’ recommendations for improving police identification practices were incorporated into a Texas law.

Those measures are different from the reforms an Iowa working group proposed and Governor Terry Branstad endorsed in his speech to state lawmakers this week. But with statehouse Republicans and Democrats deeply divided over education spending, Medicaid privatization, and Planned Parenthood funding, criminal justice reform may provide a rare opportunity for bipartisan cooperation this year. I hope members of the Iowa House and Senate who applauded Branstad’s call to reduce racial disparities will also consider some of the steps Texas has taken to prevent wrongful convictions.

Speaking recently to the Marshall Project, the rape survivor whose mistaken eyewitness testimony sent Avery to prison during the 1980s recounted how seeing a picture of her real attacker doesn’t stir up any emotion for her. In contrast, she says, "I still see Steven Avery as my assailant even though I understand he wasn’t." I have read other accounts of traumatic memories being altered so that misremembered details evoke panic and terror. The way trauma affects the mind and body and the malleability of traumatic memories are major themes in Dr. Peter Levine’s latest book Trauma and Memory. I hadn’t heard of the book until I received a copy from a friend who found Levine’s approach to healing trauma life-changing.

A videotaped confession by Avery’s "low-functioning" nephew became a key part of the prosecution’s case in the trial that is the focus of "Making a Murderer." Des Moines defense attorney Gary Dickey told Rood, "Set aside Avery’s innocence or guilt, the most striking thing of the whole series is the clearly coerced confession of Brendan Dassey." It is surprisingly easy to manipulate a person to admit doing things that never happened, as shown by the New York Police Department’s ability to obtain false confessions from five teenagers accused of assaulting the "Central Park jogger" during the 1980s. Discussing that notorious crime, Saul Kassin, Psychology Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Williams College, pointed out that "in some cases people accused of crimes, particularly kids and others who are limited intellectually, become so confused by the lies that they actually come to believe they have committed this crime they did not commit."

A chapter in Trauma and Memory focuses on "the pitfall of false memory," such as when therapists (either unscrupulous or well-meaning) induce patients to believe wrongly that they suffered ritual or sexual abuse as children. At the end of this post, I enclose a passage from Levine’s book addressing "malevolent police interrogation methods" used to implant inaccurate memories and thereby obtain false confessions or wrongful convictions.

Among other things, the final installment of "Making a Murderer" covers a post-script to the Avery case: the downfall of District Attorney Ken Kratz, who prosecuted Avery and Dassey. Ryan Foley, an Associated Press correspondent in Iowa, was working for the AP in Wisconsin when he reported that Kratz "sent repeated text messages trying to spark an affair with a domestic abuse victim while he was prosecuting her ex-boyfriend." Kratz lost his job over that despicable abuse of power, which he later blamed on mental health conditions and prescription drug dependence. All journalism students should listen to Foley’s interview with Kratz before the story appeared, a fascinating example of a newsmaker trying to intimidate a reporter. In quite a show of interrogation techniques, the DA warned that a "hatchet story" on his inappropriate behavior would reveal the journalist to be a "tool" for someone else’s political agenda. Kratz modulated his voice frequently—lecturing, mocking, shouting, even whispering—hoping to throw Foley off balance and trick him into revealing his sources.

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Criminal justice reform is major theme of Branstad's Condition of the State address

Governor Terry Branstad delivered his annual Condition of the State address to members of the Iowa House and Senate and the Iowa Supreme Court justices yesterday. If you missed the speech, the full prepared text is here. Iowa Public Television posted the video and transcript here. The early part of the 30-minute address included one false or misleading assertion after another.

· "Sound budgeting practices and fiscal discipline now have us ranked as the 3rd best managed state in the nation." Contrary to the idea that Branstad markedly improved Iowa’s operation, a major investors group also ranked Iowa the third best-managed state in 2010 under Governor Chet Culver, recognizing Iowa’s good fiscal position, high credit ratings from leading agencies, and low debt per capita compared to most other states.

· "The Iowa Economy has created 214,000 new jobs; surpassing our 2010 goal." Sorry, no. That’s a fake statistic no economist would accept. It’s a shame the governor has instructed Iowa Workforce Development to keep cooking the books on employment.

· "If the state fails to implement managed care, the growth of Medicaid spending will consume virtually all of our revenue growth." The Branstad administration has not been able to demonstrate that managed care will save the state money. Florida’s Medicaid privatization turned out to be more costly without improving patient care.

I was also disappointed not to hear more specifics about how Branstad envisions spending funds he would like to divert from school infrastructure to water programs. What kind of water quality programs would be prioritized, and who would administer them? Then again, details about this plan may be irrelevant, because Iowa House and Senate leaders don’t sound open to the idea.

For now, I want to focus on a much more promising part of Branstad’s address. To my surprise, the governor devoted a major section—roughly eight minutes of speaking time—to advocating for criminal justice reforms proposed by a working group he appointed in August. The group was charged with developing ideas to increase fairness and reduce racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system. Click here to read the full recommendations released in November. Bleeding Heartland will discuss some of the proposals in more detail in future posts. Advocates for defendants’ rights and racial justice have generally welcomed the proposals.

Although some policies do not go far enough, and other important reforms are missing from the document, I’m encouraged to see the governor apply some political capital toward reducing systemic racism and inequities in the justice system. I enclose below the relevant portion of Branstad’s speech, with some annotations.

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to mention one thing Branstad could do immediately to address a massive racial disparity in Iowa. His executive order making it extremely difficult for felons to regain their voting rights disenfranchises Iowans of all ethnic backgrounds but disproportionately affects racial minorities.

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Budget looms large, social issues largely absent on the Iowa legislature's opening day in 2016

Governor Terry Branstad wore a pink tie and many colleagues remarked on history made yesterday at the Capitol, as Linda Upmeyer became the first woman to preside over the Iowa House as speaker, as well as the first child of an Iowa legislative leader to rise to the same position. Erin Murphy’s take on the milestone is worth a read.

As in recent years, social issues were almost entirely absent from the leaders’ opening remarks to their Iowa House and Senate colleagues. State budget priorities dominated the comments relating to public policy, with Republicans emphasizing the importance of not spending too much and Democrats emphasizing the need to spend enough on education and other vital services. No one mentioned Branstad’s call to extend the penny sales tax for school infrastructure and divert part of the revenue stream to water programs.

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