Iowa Senate may reject two Branstad appointees (updated)

The Iowa Senate confirmed six of Governor Terry Branstad’s appointees to state offices and boards yesterday, but Democratic senators indicated that two of the governor’s picks may not receive the two-thirds vote needed in the upper chamber. Meanwhile, Branstad suggested at his weekly press conference that race may be a factor in opposition to Isaiah McGee as director of the Iowa Department of Human Rights.

Follow me after the jump for more on who was confirmed yesterday and the battles coming later this week.

UPDATE: On April 12 the Senate rejected McGee as well as William Gustoff, one of Branstad’s appointees to the state Judicial Nominating Commission. Senators confirmed Teresa Wahlert with two votes to spare and three members of the Environmental Protection Commission. Details on the April 12 votes are below.

Senators unanimously approved three of Branstad’s nominees on April 11: Mark Schuling as consumer advocate, Donna Harvey as Department for the Aging director, and Eric Goranson as a member of the state Board of Education. I was surprised to see no dissenting votes on Goranson, a lobbyist and parochial schools advocate who has been leading critic of the Iowa Core Curriculum (see here and here). When Branstad announced Goranson’s appointment, the Under the Golden Dome blog raised questions about his lobbying on behalf of clients concerned with education issues.

Senators confirmed three other Branstad appointees yesterday by lopsided votes. The Senate Journal for April 11 (pdf) contains the roll calls. Democrats, Joe Bolkcom, Bob Dvorsky and Rob Hogg voted against confirming Roger Lande as director of the Department of Natural Resources. Lande’s appointment aroused controversy because of his past work as a corporate attorney and also because he supports efforts to move water quality programs from the DNR to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. I don’t know why a director would back taking water programs out of the DNR, which has managed them efficiently, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Dvorsky and Democratic Senators Jack Hatch and Gene Fraise were the only votes against confirming Jason Glass as director of the Department of Education. Glass was an education consultant in Ohio when Branstad picked him for the job. He is best known for implementing a controversial merit pay program in Eagle County, Colorado. Glass has advocated bringing all stakeholders, including teachers’ unions, on board with reform efforts. However, unions are likely to resist some of the Branstad administration’s education policies. Glass has supported the governor’s proposal to transform the statewide voluntary preschool program for four-year-olds into a voucher-based system with help for families on a sliding scale. To my knowledge, he has not spoken out on the governor’s unprecedented efforts to allow zero growth in K-12 education budgets for the next two fiscal years. Glass has spoken favorably of options like charter schools and homeschooling, but he has made some conservatives wary by not rejecting the idea of a core curriculum and not pretending that school choice is the magic answer to all problems with public education.

The final Branstad appointee confirmed yesterday was Bob Skow, who will serve on the board that oversees the HAWK-I program (Iowa’s version of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program). Senator Hatch was the only vote against Skow, a Democrat who served three terms in the Iowa House while running an insurance agency in the 1980s. Since 1990 Skow has worked for the Independent Insurance Agents of Iowa as their lobbyist, governmental affairs director and eventually CEO.  

One of Branstad’s nominees is definitely in trouble: Isaiah McGee, Branstad’s choice to head the Department of Human Rights. Bleeding Heartland discussed the controversy surrounding McGee here. Although Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal informed Branstad last week that McGee lacked the votes in the Senate, the governor said at his weekly press conference yesterday he stands by his nominee: “I think he’s a very good guy and very conscientious and deserves to be confirmed.” The governor suggested that McGee’s restrictions on staff commenting to state legislators are being misinterpreted:

That policy is a response to legislative rules that limit staffers’ participation in policy discussions, Branstad said.

“You may know you have House rules that are saying staff from agencies should not be lobbying,” the governor said. “Then you have senators attacking him because he is basically trying to follow those guidelines.

“So he’s kind of between a rock and a hard place,” Branstad said.

Branstad then brought McGee’s race into the discussion:

“I think it’s unfortunate that a minority person that I’ve appointed is being attacked in this way,” Branstad said during his weekly news conference.

When asked by a reporter if McGee is being attacked because he’s black, Branstad responded: “Well, he’s the only black department head that I appointed.”

But Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, told IowaPolitics.com that Branstad should have worked harder at getting other minorities appointed. Dotzler has talked twice to McGee but still hasn’t decided whether to support his confirmation. The Department of Human Rights advocates for women, minorities, people with disabilities and other underrepresented populations.

“I view somebody in these positions as someone who can really handle the job and has the minority community’s support,” Dotzler said. “My vote is going to hinge on what the minority community thinks about him.”

Dotzler said should the Senate decline to confirm McGee this week he hopes the governor will appoint another person of color to that position. He acknowledged that those rejecting McGee would face criticism. […]

But Dotzler said concerns about McGee extend beyond the gag order.

“I think he’s trying hard to be understood but at the same time when you have members of the Latino community and African-American community and Asian community not real happy with him and board members not real happy with him, it’s more than just the gag order thing,” Dotzler said. “It’s a lot more than that.”

IowaPolitics.com posted links to Branstad’s press conference and Dotzler’s interview here.

One other Branstad appointee may be in trouble: Teresa Wahlert, whom Branstad picked to run Iowa Workforce Development. The sticking point is her plan to save money by replacing 39 Iowa Workforce Development satellite offices. In February, Democrats in the Iowa House as well as the Senate promised to fight those office closures. I had assumed that Wahlert’s business and political connections would ensure a smooth confirmation despite this controversy. After moving up the corporate ladder as a telecommunications executive, Wahlert eventually became head of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, and later ran a prominent central Iowa real estate firm. She served on the Board of Regents while Tom Vilsack was governor and advised Terry Branstad’s campaign last year.

However, Lynn Campbell reported yesterday at IowaPolitics.com that Iowa Senate Democrats are not all on board with confirming Wahlert:

About a month after Gov. Terry Branstad took office and Wahlert assumed the directorship of Iowa Workforce Development, the department announced a plan to close 39 work force offices on July 1. A February news release described it as a “reformed and enhanced delivery system” that would turn 55 field offices into “16 regional integrated one-stop offices and over 500 locally enhanced access points.”

The plan was quickly decried by Democrats who said work force development services should not be restricted at a time when more than 100,000 Iowans are unemployed. Dotzler said there’s language in both House and Senate budget bills to keep the work force development offices open, but it appears that the department is still moving to shut them down against legislative wishes.

“I really truly believe it’s a plan to reduce costs to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund,” Dotzler said. “I do know that they plan on bringing in individuals for enhanced services to the remaining few offices. That would require in some cases 87-mile trips in one direction. If an individual doesn’t show up for those enhanced services, they have stated in our budget committee that they could remove them from their unemployment roll. I’m very troubled by that. I think that it almost sounds like a plan to kick people off unemployment benefits and make it more difficult for them.”

Dotzler also said he’s concerned about comments by department officials that some others were behind this plan when they really weren’t. He said the department ignored its board of directors and didn’t present this plan to the board ahead of time. And he said while the department said it hadn’t instructed directors not to talk to legislators, notes from phone calls show otherwise.

“There’s a list of things that are very troubling coming out of the department,” Dotzler said.

Dotzler told Campbell that some Senate Democrats support Wahlert’s nomination. She needs 34 votes to be confirmed, meaning that at least 10 Democrats would have to vote yes, assuming all 24 Senate Republicans are present when a vote is called.

The future membership of the Environmental Protection Commission remains unresolved. Yesterday senators unanimously confirmed two holdover appointees from Governor Chet Culver to that commission. Culver nominated Diana “Dee” Bruemmer and John Glenn after the 2010 legislative session had concluded. They will fill out terms set to expire in 2013. Glenn is a Republican and the chief executive officer of the Rathbun Regional Water Association. Bruemmer is a no-party voter and administrator for Scott County. She previously served as Public Works director and assistant administrator of the city of Davenport.

The Senate has yet to take action on any of Branstad’s appointees to the Environmental Protection Commission (note: see update, below). In March, Branstad named four people with strong agribusiness connections to this body: Eugene Ver Steeg, Mary Boote, Brent Rastetter and Dolores Mertz. He later withdrew Ver Steeg’s nomination after the Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter pointed out Branstad’s picks would put too many Republicans on the commission. Yesterday that governor’s communications director Tim Albrecht confirmed to me that the Branstad has not yet announced who he will choose to replace Ver Steeg.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: The Senate considered many other Branstad appointees on April 12; roll calls are in the Senate Journal for that day (pdf). McGee’s nomination failed:

The vote was 30 yes, 20 no.  McGee needs three more “yes” votes in order to win confirmation. (One of his supporters switched to a “no” at the last minute in order to be on the prevailing side and, as such, be able to file a motion to reconsider the vote.  So that means McGee had 31 yes votes today in reality, but not technically.) […]

Senate Republican Leader Paul McKinley has filed a “motion to reconsider” on McGee’s nomination.  It’s a parliamentary move, meaning McGee’s vote could be discussed again in the senate if four senators change their minds and vote for him.  The deadline for changing minds is April 15th.

All the Republicans voted to confirm McGee except for McKinley, who switched his vote to “no” so that he could file a motion to reconsider. The Democrats who backed McGee were Dennis Black, Joe Bolkcom, Swati Dandekar, Dick Dearden, Rob Hogg, Wally Horn, and Joe Seng.

Teresa Wahlert was barely confirmed on a 36 to 14 vote. All 24 Republicans voted to confirm her, as did Democratic Senators Swati Dandekar, Jeff Danielson, Dick Dearden, Mike Gronstal, Tom Hancock, Wally Horn, Pam Jochum, Matt McCoy, Amanda Ragan, Tom Rielly, Joe Seng, and Steve Sodders.

Senators rejected William Gustoff, an attorney whom Branstad nominated for the Judicial Nominating Commission. The pick was unusual because Gustoff is an attorney, and Iowa governors have traditionally nominated lay people for that commission. Also, Gustoff had represented clients who were challenging the constitutionality of Iowa’s current judicial nominating system. Gustoff received 27 votes for confirmation, from all the Senate Republicans and Democrats Swati Dandekar, Dick Dearden and Joe Seng.

Senators unanimously confirmed John Baldwin as director of the Department of Corrections, Mark Schouten as Drug Policy Coordinator, and Mary Boote and Dolores Mertz to the Environmental Protection Commission. Democratic Senator Rob Hogg was the only vote against confirming Brent Rastetter to that commission.

Former Story County Treasurer Dave Jamison was confirmed as head of the Iowa Finance Authority with 46 yes votes. Democrats Bob Dvorsky, Rob Hogg and Herman Quirmbach voted against confirming Jamison, while Jack Hatch voted “present.”

Quirmbach was the only vote against confirming Gary Steinke as a member of the Iowa Higher Education Loan Authority. Steinke is president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

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