The price of a flawed coordinated campaign

The “prevailing wage” bill, one of organized labor’s top legislative priorities, stalled in the Iowa House on Friday as Democrats were unable to find a 51st vote. Apparently the plan is to try to twist someone’s arm over the weekend:

House Speaker Pat Murphy will keep the voting machine open the entire weekend until Democrats can convince one of their dissenting members to change their vote. The move will mean Murphy will have to sleep in the chamber over the weekend.

“I want to be sure that taxpayer money is going to responsible Iowa employers who pay a decent wage, not employers who take advantage of people like we’ve seen in Postville and Atalissa,” Murphy said. “As the presiding officer of the House, I will stay in the Speaker’s chair and the voting machine will remain open until Monday. My goal is to get 51 votes and make sure we have good-paying jobs for middle class families.”

This post is not about the merits of the bill, which I support. (Click here for background on House file 333, which “would require that companies that contract for public projects pay workers wages and benefits comparable to private projects in the area.”)

This post is about why Democratic House leaders now face two unappealing outcomes: either they fail to pass a good bill supported by a key Democratic constituency, or they force one of their members into an embarrassing about-face that could affect the next election campaign.

Further thoughts on this mess are after the jump.

Why did passing the prevailing wage bill become such a headache in a chamber with a 56-44 Democratic majority?

Earlier this week, Republican Chris Rants wrote on his blog that

Republicans were relying on “the Sovereign Seven – the ‘conservative pro-business’ Democrats who were going to block” union backed legislation like prevailing wage. He lists Reps. Brian Quirk, Doris [Kelley], Roger Thomas, Geri Huser, McKinley Bailey, Delores Mertz, and Larry Marek as the seven Democrats who have voiced opposition to the bills.

Rants asserted that Democratic leaders had agreed to an amendment exempting some projects in order to bring Thomas and Bailey around on House file 333.

The compromise amendment passed on Friday, but Quirk, Kelley, Bailey, Mertz and Marek voted against the prevailing wage bill as a whole. (CORRECTION: Apparently the amendment Bailey wanted was not included in the bill. Could they add it and bring this back up for a vote later?)

Huser was not present but said she would have voted against the bill too.

I’d never heard the term “Sovereign Seven” before, but I knew that several Democratic legislators were not going to be reliable votes for the majority. That’s one reason I was so upset about the failure of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign to run a truly coordinated get-out-the-vote effort last fall.

During the summer the Obama campaign took over the “coordinated campaign” role from the Iowa Democratic Party and promised to work for candidates up and down the ticket. But staffers and volunteers in the unprecedented number of Obama field offices didn’t even collect voter IDs for our state House and Senate candidates. Our legislative candidates weren’t usually mentioned in scripts for canvassers and rarely had their fliers included in lit drops.

In the end, Obama carried this state by 9 points, but we lost several excrutiatingly close races:

Incumbent Art Staed lost House district 37 by 13 votes.

Incumbent Mark Davitt lost House district 74 by 163 votes.

Our incumbents almost lost House districts 1 and 8, which the Republicans weren’t even seriously targeting.

Jerry Sullivan lost House district 59 by 93 votes.

Kurt Hubler lost House district 99 by 370 votes (and boy was Rob Hubler unhappy with the GOTV effort).

If Davitt, Staed, Sullivan or Hubler had won their races, we would have a large enough Democratic majority to pass the prevailing wage bill without compromise amendments or weekend sleepovers.

The Iowa Democratic Party must run a better coordinated campaign in 2010 and must insist that the GOTV in 2012 is about more than re-electing President Obama. Even Obama’s general election campaign director in Iowa, Jackie Norris, admitted that more could have been done for the down-ticket candidates:

I also think that a lot of the people who voted were new voters and while we educated them enough to get them out to support the president they need to now be educated about the down ballot races.

If I were planning the political strategy for organized labor in Iowa during the next cycle, I’d get to work right away recruiting primary challengers for Quirk and Huser, and possibly also for Kelley, since she carried House district 20 with nearly 58 percent of the vote.

Quirk won House district 15 with 74 percent of the vote against an opponent who was nominated by petition, not the Republican Party.

Huser didn’t even have a Republican opponent in House district 42 in 2008. Facing a primary challenger with zero institutional support (Matt Ballard), Huser only got 60 percent of the vote last June. That tells me she could be vulnerable to a challenger with a well-funded and well-organized campaign.

By the way, I’ve heard from multiple sources the same rumor that Cityview’s Civic Skinny reported in December: Huser was removed as chair of the House Transportation Committee because late in the election campaign she refused to give the House Democrats money to use against a vulnerable Republican incumbent. (My sources say the Republican in question was Doug Struyk, who narrowly defeated Kurt Hubler.) If that is true, you could say that Huser cost organized labor two votes on the prevailing wage bill: her own and (by not helping to defeat Struyk) the vote Hubler might have cast. All the more reason to consider backing a primary challenger in her district.

I would leave Bailey, Mertz and Marek alone because they won by relatively narrow margins in 2008.

Thomas is the only one of Rants’ “Sovereign Seven” who voted for the prevailing wage bill on Friday. He didn’t have a Republican challenger in 2008, so if he votes against future bills that are important to labor, he might be a target for a primary challenge.

While taking on an incumbent Democrat in a primary is an uphill battle that may ruffle some feathers, I believe it is the best way to generate a reliable extra vote for labor interests in the Iowa House. Even if the incumbent is not defeated, a primary challenge may alter his or her voting behavior.

In addition, there are no more low-hanging Republican-held seats now that Democrats have had net gains in the Iowa House for four elections in a row. The Iowa Democratic Party should absolutely continue to target Republican incumbents, but that is not necessarily the best strategy for labor. A Democrat who defeats a Republican in a conservative district may balk at voting for labor bills like Bailey and Marek did this week. A Democrat elected in a safe district is much less likely to do so.

Speaking of Democrats who frustrate labor activists, Governor Chet Culver came out strongly in favor of the prevailing wage bill on Friday after it stalled in the House. He angered labor activists last year by vetoing a bill that would have expanded collective bargaining rights. Clearly, he would like to sign some pro-labor legislation this year.

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  • Marek also had a narrow margin.

    Well if you think Marek has any chance of winning in 2010 you might want to reconsider.  He also won with a narrow margin of 162 votes, thanks to the choosen ones coat tails.

    He ran as a blue dog democrat from the begining.  Why did anyone think he would vote with the democrats on labor issues.

    You seem to think the Obama did not help at all down the ticket.  I think the D’s got many more straight ticket votes this year from people only coming to vote for Obama.  If the election was run today with out Obama, you lose at least 2 house seats to the R’s maybe more and none of this stuff even gets voted on.

    Now off to the forums to see what punishment Marek has to take in front of his district today.

    BTW  I’ve been waiting all week for you to blog something on this.  

    • we did win some close races

      and I never said Obama didn’t help at all down ticket. However, we should have picked up more seats with the kind of statewide margin he had. The drop-off was a big problem for a lot of our candidates. In western Iowa in particular the Democratic turnout was poor, which is partly why we almost lost House districts 1 and 8 (which Republicans were not seriously targeting).

      Republicans were pleasantly surprised by how well they did in the Iowa House races. I know they expected to lose a few seats they won.

      Don’t get overconfident about beating Marek. Plenty of legislators win their first race in a squeaker but go on to serve a long time. Eric Palmer won by a bigger margin in 2008 than he did in 2006.

      I don’t think anyone expected Marek to vote with Democrats on all of the labor issues. That’s why I wrote that organized labor should focus on electing better Democrats from our safe districts and not just on electing more Democrats from conservative districts.

      Sorry to keep you waiting while I was working on a lot of other things in my non-existent spare time.

      • I'll bet Larry dosen't even run again.

        Well just got back from his forum.  Larry restated that he will hold firm on his no vote.  

        I’m not over confident about the next election.  Larry might not even run again if he continues to take punishment like what he got this week on the rest of the labor and appropriation bills.  Larry has 6 to 7 more tough votes just this session.  Larry is 68 years old right now.  After this week I bet he feels like he’s over 80.  

        This seat was held by Sandy Greiner for 3 terms with comfortable margins.  The next Democrat to run won’t be near as conservative as Larry.  The R will will next cycle.  It is the easiest pick up in the House in 2010.

        • what are you talking about?

          He voted no, and he says he will vote no again, so how will this vote hurt him in his district?

          Demographics in districts change. There are a lot more registered Democrats in Iowa now than there used to be.

        • if he were planning not to run again

          the path of least resistance would have been to vote for this bill.

          Looks to me like he will stand and fight you guys in 2010.

          • Larry felt the pressure from home

            Larry is a very proud man.  He gave his word and he could not bear to look them in the eye and change his vote.  The unions had three people at the forum today to give their views.  After the forum ended they came and stood by him to talk some more then left with frowns on their faces.

            Read the newspaper articles.  He was waffling bad.  The people from that district expect more than that.

            Say what makes you feel good,  But twice to today Larry had to go out of his way to say that they treated him good.  My god they had to state reps on his side for two days.

            He will give them a vote or teo and break his promise to be a blue dog and that will be all it wrote on his career.

  • A primary campaign against Huser would be a waste of resources

    Her family has been in the area for generations. They’ve been influential for years with her father having served on the state Dem committee and  whose influence was acknowledged in the Washington Post.

    Ballard ran against her for the basic reasons you outlined and got smoked. The only precincts he was even competitive in were the precincts on the east side of Des Moines and Delaware Township where there is some union presence (and Hockensmith’s base comes from).

    The 42nd will come down to Altoona every time, and it’s not a town where a labor challenge is going to have success.…

    • I'll let others make that decision

      Ballard had very little money and no institutional support and got 40 percent against Huser in a primary.

      If I were running the political operation for a labor union, and we just lost by one vote on a key legislative priority, I’d start planning primary challenges against the Dems in safe seats who didn’t vote our way. What is the point of helping elect a 57th or 58th Democrat from a marginal district who’s not going to vote for labor anyway?

      You don’t always have to win the primary to get results from a challenge. Open Left user Floridalefty recently pointed out:…

      January 28th: [Congressman] Allen Boyd votes against the stimulus bill

      February 5th: Florida State Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson announces that he’s challenging Boyd in the Democratic primary

      February 13th: Allen Boyd votes for the stimulus bill

    • Not just lack of support...

      Ballard had flat out OPPOSITION from the state party. They refused to let him buy into the party voter file. Bet they regret picking Geri as their favorite now.

      And what the hell is Huser doing taking a vacation in Florida mid-session?

      • good question

        I was wondering that myself.

        Hypothesis: hoping this bill would pass without her having to take a stand on it?

      • ironically

        they punished Huser by giving the Transportation Committee chairmanship to Quirk. Wonder if they regret rewarding him with that one.

      • Where's Huser's priorities

        I commend her for her stated position against this garbage bill.  I’m a former Teamster and I have NO respect for them anymore.  I was treated like I was a NOTHING the last few years of my working life and they didn’t care about me anymore.

        I would be fine with all the unions just going up in smoke.  They treated me like crap and I just don’t have any time or respect for them.  

        With that being said, why is Huser taking a vacation during session?  Dear God.  They are only there 3 and half days a week anyway and for only three or four months…ridiculous.

  • Thank God

    As a former labor guy, I cannot be more excited. Brian Quirk is from near my area and I’m glad he voted against this garbage.

    This was a bailout bill for the unions.  What a joke.

    Iowa won – labor lost.  That’s the way it should be.

    • you lack understanding of this issue

      The people who lost are the ones who will be hired to work on these projects and will get paid less. As well as the people who own the shops and restaurants in their towns, who will get less business because the local workers are getting less take-home pay.

      Your indiscriminate use of the word “bailout” to describe anything you don’t like discredits your opinion.

      • Wrong

        DesMoinesDem, we both know that labor’s ranks are shriking and that’s why they need these sweetheart bills to keep the money flowing in.

        It is a bailout for them jsut as they are bailout out the bad corporate banks and the bad corporate companies and even worse…the people that bought too much house and now demand people like me to pay for it.

        What happened to populism in the Democratic party?  

        • this bill does not require

          that the jobs go to union workers.

          It does require that the companies that win the contracts pay wages in line with what the private sector gets.

          Perhaps you like the idea of your tax dollars funding projects whose workers get paid substandard wages. I don’t.

          The other businesses in those communities will benefit from local workers getting a little extra take-home pay.  

  • Leadership and Larry

    This is a failure of leadership. The “Boondock Saints” (Murphy and McCarthy) are just bad leaders, period. They don’t do a good job at recruitment, and if their guys win, they do so without any ties to the party.

    But as bad as the Saints are, labor leadership is worse. I know my union spends no time organizing a lobbying presence, and most of the labor fed leaders are more interested in getting their pix taken with celebrities. Chet’s veto of C20 last year was a no-brainer; he knows that Danny Homan will have his lips attached to his butt in 2010….no matter what Chet does. The IFL is all dead weight, and Ken Sagar may be worse than Mark Smith.  Sooner or later, the Internationals will give up on these folks and they’ll have no more money.  Then this state will be a cross between KY and KS.

    As for Larry, my guess is no one even lobbied him effectively. He is an interesting guy and has some valuable input on Ag issues, but he was left hanging and he won’t accomplish anything.

    These House Dems had better grow up soon or they’ll be in the minority….and it will be a well-deserved fate.

    • I don't blame Larry Marek

      for this mess. It’s the Democrats in safe districts who need to give people like him and McKinley Bailey cover in a situation like this.

      • Larry is to blame for all the grief he took this last week!

        Larry had told everyone at home how he was going to vote, then went to DesMoines and started listening to his leadership.  If he had told them up front I can’t vote for this bill, he would have had a much nicer week.  

        But when you take over $300,000 from your party, you owe them something.  Larry’s first mistake was taking the parties money last fall, especially since he was running proudly as a blue dog democrat.  Hell the only difference between Larry and Jarad was the smoking ban in casinos.

    • True

      I am represented by a moderate Democrat in the Iowa House but as I’ve told him several times…

      The seat isn’t a real strong Democrat seat and he needs to be careful. Why?

      People are starting to get the sense that they aren’t really voting for “Representative X” – they are voting for “Representative X’s team” – i.e…the whole leadership and some of the garbage coming out.

      People may like their representative but they are starting to figure out who really calls the shots in Des Moines.

  • Don't blame the Obama or the coordinated

    because yes, while the font was smaller than the candidate for US President(which is why most people turn out to vote and who paid for the doorknockers) the county candidates weren’t even on the door knocker in previous elections.  

    The CFC took on the lion’s share of the costs including phone lines and office space that was also used by Iowa Democratic Party, state house and senate candidate staff.  

    Saying President Obama didn’t have coattails is a cop-out for candidates who didn’t effectively message their candidacy or didn’t raise enough money to be get that message out.  Too many candidates think that running means buying yard signs and talking to the Democratic Central Committee instead of raising money to get an effective message to independents via direct mail, robocalls and TELEVISION ADS.      

    • sorry, I cannot agree

      Most Democrats and even a lot of Republicans were surprised that the Democrats didn’t have larger net gains in the Iowa House and Senate. A lot of factors went into that, and some of our incumbents didn’t run as effective a campaign as they could have.

      At the same time, some of our statehouse candidates ran highly competent campaigns and raised much more money than previous challengers in their districts, but still fell short because of an enormous “drop-off” problem.

      Also, Democratic turnout in western Iowa was very weak. Obama didn’t even carry Pottawattamie county.

      This wasn’t just a problem in Iowa–in many other states, down-ticket gains were disappointing despite huge Obama wins. The coat-tails were not what they should have been.

      • Sure people expected Democrats to have a huge year

        but in reality the Republicans put all their eggs in the Iowa House and still didn’t take it back(They actively talked about not financially supporting Reed and Hartsuch).  Besides Dems control the House, Senate and Terrace Hill, if people are unhappy about things there really is only one party to blame at the state level.    

        Obama lost by eight hundred votes in Pottawattamie and John Kerry lost by eight THOUSAND.  So I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of turnout or persuasion.  The fact is, there are more Republicans and more Republican leaning Independents than Democrats in Western Iowa.

        Yes, Barack Obama has more independent appeal than many down ballot candidates and he may have driven more independents and republicans out to vote for him and the rest of the Republican ticket.  His bipartisan rhetoric helped him win the support of a lot of these people and get him elected and probably also hurt down ballot Dem’s who didn’t have the same appeal to voters.  

        I just think that when someone else is buying the meal you can’t complain about what they choose.  Obama’s team went out of their way to help candidates and all levels.  Did John Kerry do half as much while losing?