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.