Iowa Senate confirmation news

The Iowa Senate approved many of Governor Terry Branstad’s appointees on April 4 and 5. Newly confirmed state department leaders include Iowa Department of Public Health director Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Iowa Department of Management director David Roederer, Iowa Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro, Iowa Veterans Affairs Commission executive director Jodi Tymeson, Iowa Civil Rights Commission director Beth Townshend, Iowa Department of Public Safety director Larry Noble, State Public Defender Sam Langholz, Iowa Department of Revenue director Courtney Kay-Decker, Office for State-Federal Relations director Douglas Hoelscher, and Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs director Mary Cownie. Senators also confirmed many of the governor’s picks for state boards and commissions, including the Board of Regents, Iowa Utilities Board, and Iowa Transportation Commission. Bleeding Heartland discussed most of those appointees here.

Two-thirds of the upper chamber (34 votes) are needed to confirm appointees. Almost all of Branstad’s picks have won confirmation unanimously or with just one dissenting vote. You can look up roll calls in Senate journals from April 4 and 5. The Des Moines Register posted links here to resumes of Branstad’s new department heads, as well as former Governor Chet Culver’s picks for the same positions. Most appointees confirmed earlier this session, such as Department of Inspections and Appeals director Rod Roberts, likewise won unanimous support.

Of the appointees senators confirmed this week, few were seen as controversial. After the jump I’ve posted some information about exceptions, public defender Langholz and Cultural Affairs director Cownie.

The Senate has yet to consider a few relatively high-profile appointees. Branstad’s pick to run the Department of Human Rights, Isaiah McGee, has drawn criticism for telling his staff not to speak to journalists or state lawmakers, and for discouraging staff from objecting to budget cuts Iowa House Republicans are seeking for the department. Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal told reporters last month that members of his caucus have reservations about confirming McGee. The leader of the Human Rights Department’s Latino Affairs office resigned a few weeks ago. The chairman of the Asian and Pacific Island Affairs commission wrote to Gronstal objecting to what he called a “gag order” from McGee, which, he asserted, undermines the commission’s work. McGee responded that “the majority of the 9 commissions we work with […] and the vast majority of my staff are fully aware that a ‘gag order’ is not in place in the Department of Human Rights, and the decisions I’ve made have been based on past policy of the department, personnel complications, Iowa code, and the Governor’s inclusive vision.” After the jump I’ve posted further background on McGee, who has served on the Iowa GOP State Central Committee and just hired the state GOP’s spokeswoman as one of his deputies an executive assistant.  

UPDATE: McGee expressed “deep concerns” this week about Iowa House Republican efforts to cut funding for the Department of Human Rights’ community advocacy programs by nearly 50 percent. McGee described the governor’s proposal to reduce that funding by 6 percent as “fair.”

The Senate also hasn’t acted on Branstad’s appointees to the Environmental Protection Commission. The governor submitted four nominees, all of whom have close ties to agribusiness. The Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club sent a letter to state senators noting that if all of the Branstad appointees were approved, the commission would have six Republicans, two independents and one Democrat. Iowa Code prohibits more than five members of that commission from belonging to any one political party. According to the Sierra Club, Branstad responded by rescinding the nomination of Eugene Ver Steeg, one of the Republicans. To my knowledge, the governor has not yet picked a registered Democrat or no-party voter to take Ver Steeg’s place on the Environmental Protection Commission.

APRIL 8 UPDATE: IowaPolitics.com asked Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal whether the Senate will confirm McGee:

“My read at the moment is ‘no,’” Gronstal said in an interview after the taping of Iowa Press at Iowa Public Television. “I’ve informed the governor of that, and they’re going to make a decision as to what they want to do. Isaiah has been talking with some of our senators this week … but my read is no, I don’t think the votes are there to confirm him.” […]

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said Friday that Branstad stands by McGee and does not plan to withdraw the nomination. “The governor will continue to work with senators on securing the votes for Isaiah’s nomination,” Albrecht said. “The governor is pleased his appointees are being confirmed.” […]

“I think people are concerned that there’s a set of advocacy organizations that are all there to be access points for people of Iowa that are of populations that are minorities and that want to advocate for things that are good for them,” Gronstal said. “There’s some filter on that at the top that isn’t appropriate, so I think that’s the concern. Not just the ‘gag order’ but that the priorities are going to be determined centrally rather than individually in individual advocacy organizations.”

Gronstal also said there may be one or two additional appointees who may not be confirmed, but he declined to name who else is at risk.

From Jason Clayworth’s March 27 article in the Des Moines Register, Branstad conducted narrow director searches:

STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER, SAMUEL LANGHOLZ

EXPERIENCE: Langholz was a law clerk for six months in 2006 for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District in Iowa, and a prosecuting intern for three months for the Muscatine County Attorney’s office in 2007, where he prosecuted simple misdemeanor cases. He worked as a judicial law clerk for Judge Steven Colloton in the U.S. Court of Appeals for a year beginning in 2008, then took a job as an associate attorney for the Davis, Brown law firm in Des Moines. (Note: The education and experience requirements listed for Iowa’s public defender 3 position, which is under the director’s position, call for five years of full-time professional legal criminal trial advocacy or prosecution work. Langholz has worked three years full-time since graduation from the University of Iowa College of Law in May 2008. His focus hasn’t been criminal trial work.)

POLITICAL TIES: Langholz was an intern for the office of senior White House adviser Karl Rove in 2001; has been a delegate to county, district and state Republican conventions; was an executive board member of the Johnson County Republican Central Committee from 2005 to 2008; and was Johnson County co-chairman of Jim Nussle’s run for governor in 2006.

RESPONSE: Langholz acknowledged he has no full-time criminal trial advocacy or prosecution work since his law school graduation. That’s OK, he said. “I don’t appear in trial court. … It’s my job, I view, to bring a fresh perspective to the office and to provide management and guidance support to make sure we are doing things in the best way possible.”

DEPT. OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS, MARY COWNIE

EXPERIENCE: Cownie worked as a liaison with President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and later on his inaugural committee. The jobs included working with the White House communication agency and the Secret Service, directing trips and helping to coordinate press, military and volunteers. Cownie also worked as a community relations specialist at Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino.

POLITICAL TIES: Cownie is married to Republican Rep. Peter Cownie of West Des Moines. As previously noted, she worked in the Bush administration. She is a former spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Iowa.

ACTIONS SO FAR: Cownie agreed with a few lawmakers last month that the state’s historical museum should not have allowed the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa to display a 90th anniversary exhibit. Several lawmakers said the display allowed an advocacy group to present its own ideological spin on history. Cownie agreed to establish rules that future exhibits would need approval by the cultural affairs director before display.

RESPONSE: Cownie acknowledged she hasn’t had direct employee management experience but said she acquired management skills through her Bush administration work. “I know if you look at my resume that I don’t have employees I’ve overseen in a direct hierarchy. But in terms of what I did in Washington, acting as a manager or essentially the director of international trips for the president, where I had people reporting to me, I don’t know how you put a price tag on that in terms of experience.”

DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN RIGHTS, ISAIAH MCGEE

EXPERIENCE: McGee is a former Waukee city councilman. His resume does not list management experience, although he said he has managed interns with McGee Strategies, a consulting firm he runs to help businesses with training and other services. He also worked as a liaison between direct service staff and administration during his former job as a campus coordinator for Youth Homes of Mid-America. He is a former economics, government and history teacher for the Waukee school district.

POLITICAL TIES: McGee is a former state central committee member. He was the Dallas County chairman for Jim Nussle’s run for governor in 2006, and the 2008 chairman of a Dallas County committee advocating for Arizona Sen. John McCain for president.

ACTIONS SO FAR: McGee has directed the department’s 49 staff members not to speak with the media or legislators. He also wants department staffers to avoid advocacy and remain neutral on policy issues. Advocacy should be left to volunteer commissioners, he has said. Human rights advocates this month held a news conference in protest, saying his actions silence the department.

RESPONSE: “I’ve spent my life advocating for myself and my community and my background,” McGee said. “I feel like I’m qualified for my position.”

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