Iowa Senate district 26 preview: Mary Jo Wilhelm vs Merlin Bartz

Only one Iowa Senate race in 2012 will pit Republican and Democratic incumbents against each other. First-term Democrat Mary Jo Wilhelm confirmed this week that she will seek re-election in the new Senate district 26. Her likely opponent is four-term Republican Senator Merlin Bartz. Follow me after the jump for a district map and first take on this matchup.

As a bonus, this post also covers the strangest failure to do basic damage control I’ve seen from a political veteran.  

The new Senate District 26 includes all of Worth, Mitchell, Floyd, Howard and Chickasaw counties, part of Cerro Gordo County (but not Mason City or Clear Lake) and part of Winneshiek County (but not Decorah).

Mary Jo Wilhelm,Merlin Bartz,Iowa Senate,Iowa,Iowa politics,2012 elections

That’s a lot of ground for candidates to cover. More of it lies in Wilhelm’s current district than in Bartz’s.

The new Senate district 26 leans slightly Democratic, with 12,775 registered Democrats, 11,468 Republicans, and 16,544 no-party voters as of April 2011. According to the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office, no-party voters are a plurality of the electorate in all of the counties that make up the new Senate district 26. Democrats outnumber Republicans in all of those counties except for Mitchell. Wilhelm’s path to re-election involves holding her own with no-party voters plus solid Democratic GOTV in a presidential election year, especially in her home county (Howard). Bartz will need to do well with independents and run up the score in Mitchell and his home base of Worth.

Democratic candidates higher up on the ticket may be working hard in the Senate district 26 counties. Christie Vilsack can’t beat Republican Representative Steve King in Iowa’s new fourth Congressional district without doing extremely well in the counties that lean Democratic and aren’t part of King’s current district. That list includes Chickasaw, Floyd and Cerro Gordo counties.

Representative Bruce Braley’s new Congressional district includes Worth, Mitchell, Howard and Winneshiek Counties, none of which he has represented before. He would be wise to do extensive voter outreach in those portions of the new Senate district 26.

Wilhelm officially announced her re-election bid in this November 15 press release, using similar talking points to Democratic candidates all over the state:

“I am running for re-election to the Senate so that I can continue to create more job opportunities for the people in North Iowa,” Wilhelm said. “I will continue to work hard to promote policies that create more high-wage jobs in our local communities, improve public safety, and create more opportunities for family farmers.”

State Senator Amanda Ragan of Mason City praised Wilhelm’s efforts on behalf of North Iowa families.

“Mary Jo Wilhelm listens to her constituents and works hard at the Capitol to get results and improve the quality of life for middle class families,” Ragan said.

Wilhelm pointed to several recent accomplishments by the Legislature, including:

·         Providing incentives to boost production of renewable energy, which results in creating jobs in Iowa that won’t be exported to another state or country.

·         Balancing the state’s budget without raising taxes.

·         Maintaining basic funding for local public schools and teachers.

·         Preserving Iowa’s successful voluntary preschool program so tens of thousands of Iowa children can continue to get a jumpstart on their education.

·         Holding down tuition costs at our community colleges so workers can get the training they need for 21st century jobs.

Wilhelm is Chair of the Local Government Committee and a serves on the Commerce, Economic Growth/Rebuild Iowa, Education, and Human Resources committees and the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.

Mary Jo and her husband, Michael, have been married for 28 years.  Michael works at the Donaldson Co. factory in Cresco.  They have two sons: Ben lives in Iowa City and Alex lives in Cedar Rapids. Mike also has a son, Christopher, who lives in Decorah.

Mary Jo previously served 12 years on the Howard County Board of Supervisors, and she owns and operates a real estate appraisal business. […]

Bartz hasn’t confirmed his plans, but observers in both parties expect him to seek a fifth term in the Iowa Senate. Last week he was re-elected as an assistant Senate minority leader. In contrast, Steve Kettering didn’t seek to stay on the Senate GOP leadership team, because he is retiring in 2012.

Bartz is a farmer in Worth County and former chair of the Worth County Republicans. Beginning in 1990, he served for two years in the Iowa House and ten years in the Iowa Senate. Bartz held various positions in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during George W. Bush’s administration. He returned to the Iowa Senate in 2008, when a fellow Republican retired from the current Senate district 6.

Bartz is the ranking member on the Senate Local Government Committee, which Wilhelm chairs. He also serves on the Senate Appropriations, Ways and Means and Rules and Administration Committees.

In addition, Bartz serves on the Administrative Rules Review Committee, made up of Iowa House and Senate members. He’s a typical example of why I refer to the ARRC as the place “where good rules go to die.” This year Bartz was in the majority when the ARRC delayed a proposed ban on lead shot for dove hunting. Last year Bartz spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to ditch the most important Iowa water quality rules adopted in the last decade.

During the spring of 2009, Bartz was one of the Iowa Senate’s most outspoken critics of the Iowa Supreme Court’s marriage ruling in Varnum v Brien. He used his official Iowa Senate website to promote a petition drive urging county recorders not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Bartz even tried to amend Iowa law to protect county recorders who refused to issue a particular marriage license “as a matter of conscience.”

The persuasion campaign failed to win over any Iowa county recorders, but Bartz has remained “vigilant” (his word) against any state agency rule that extends new benefits to same-sex couples. In May 2010, that meant taking a stand against letting gay couples pitch more than one tent at a campsite.

Whereas Wilhelm rarely grabs the spotlight, Bartz comes across as one of Iowa’s more publicity-hungry legislators. Lately his legal dispute with two neighbors has been making news in northern Iowa. His failure to resolve this matter quietly is baffling.

Background: Bartz needs to improve a stretch of fence in order to put livestock on a bit of pasture he owns. According to an Iowa law adopted more than 150 years ago, the owner of the adjacent property is required to pay half the cost of the fence, or erect a fence along half the property border. Bartz’s neighbors, Julie and Brent Kuntz, don’t want to pay for his improvements. They see no benefit to upgrading the fence, since they are corn and soybean farmers who don’t raise livestock. As a matter of principle, they view the law as archaic.

You learn something new every day, and this week I learned that Iowa townships have trustees who act as “fence viewers” in disputes such as this one. The local fence viewers sided with Bartz in early October:

The trustees ruled Bartz and Kuntz each build 350 feet of the 700-foot fence, that the Kuntz portion would have a value of $1,000 and that each party pay $110.50 in costs.

Brent and Julie Kuntz must build the fence within 60 days. They have the right to appeal the ruling to district court within 20 days.

I spoke with Julie Kuntz by telephone on November 16. She confirmed that she and her husband appealed the ruling of the fence viewers and are taking the case to civil court. No judge has been assigned to their case yet. They plan to request a jury trial. Kuntz acknowledged that their chances of winning the case are “slim to none,” but they want to make a statement against what she described as an “obsolete” law. I also doubt a court will uphold the Kuntz appeal, but perhaps the publicity associated with this case will prompt efforts to amend the fencing statute.

Kuntz told me that she is a registered Republican and emphasized that she is “not a political person” and not pursuing legal action against Bartz “for political reasons.” She added that her family and the Bartz family belong to the same church and have gotten along in the past.

Now we’re coming to the damage control failure I mentioned near the top of this post. To my mind, Bartz never should have let this problem become fodder for news stories. Once he learned that the Kuntzes were determined not to pay for half the fence, he should have dropped the matter. His official statement of economic interests (pdf) indicates that he receives income from various sources in addition to his salary as a state senator. Clearly he has the means to upgrade his own fence.

But no, Bartz insisted on making his neighbors pay what he considers their share. He took his case to the fence viewers, generating a round of local media coverage.

Shortly after the trustees weighed in, Julie Kuntz discussed the dispute on Jan Mickelson’s popular WHO radio morning program. (I wasn’t able to find that podcast on the station’s website, because a guest host was filling in for Mickelson that day.) In response, Bartz was a guest on Mickelson’s show the following week.

This October 19 podcast has to be heard to be believed. Mickelson had Bartz on for approximately half an hour, and they spent the whole time discussing this fence dispute.

Every time Mickelson went to a break, I would think, now Bartz will change the subject to something more important. He had an opportunity to raise his profile with Mickelson’s large, conservative-leaning audience. It would cost a lot of money to buy that much air time on a WHO morning show.

But no, every time they came back from the break, Bartz kept explaining why he was in the right: the fencing law says such and such; good border fences benefit both property owners, not just livestock farmers; the Kuntzes declined our written request to meet; we offered to do this and that, but the Kuntzes refused; we had the laborers scheduled to be on site for such and such a date; the fence viewers agreed with us based on a valid interpretation of Iowa law; on and on.  

Apparently Bartz thinks rehashing the details reflects well on him. I suspect that many people will react to the story the same way as the last caller during Mickelson’s segment with Bartz (my transcript):

Caller Will: Good morning, Jan. Good morning, senator. I would love to pass on the business expenses of my business along to my neighbors, but [Mickelson cuts off caller, then asks Bartz to respond quickly]

Bartz: Well, the difference between that and this is that this is a property line, and it’s not about livestock or a business expense, it’s about defining the boundary.

With that, Mickelson thanked Bartz and moved on to the next guest. I wonder how many listeners were thinking what I was thinking: someone should sit this man down and tell him to pay for his own fence. The property line is already marked. Bartz wants a better fence in order to graze livestock nearby.

A novice like Herman Cain isn’t supposed to know how to deal with a damaging news story, but Bartz has been around the block a few times. I am stunned that an experienced politician would rather keep talking about this controversy than move on.

Only two possible explanations make sense to me. Perhaps Bartz isn’t used to worrying about unflattering media coverage. He was easily re-elected in 1996 and 2000, and he returned to the Iowa Senate in a safe Republican district for the 2008 election.

Alternatively, Bartz may believe this issue plays well in his district. He’s a member of several agriculture groups that support current fencing law, such as the cattle producers and the Iowa Farm Bureau. In fact, one caller to Mickelson’s show reacted favorably to Bartz’s position. That caller told his own tale of woe about rural folk who don’t always understand how Iowa fencing law works.

The fence problem may or may not receive another wave of local news coverage next year, depending on when the district court considers the case. Bartz told Mickelson that the Worth County attorney estimates a three-year delay if the Kuntzes insist on a jury trial.

To my knowledge, Wilhelm hasn’t commented on Bartz’s legal conflict. I wouldn’t advise her to do so. She’s better off sticking to her own message and making as many direct voter contacts as possible.

Any thoughts about the Senate district 26 race are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: For those wondering why Iowa Senate Republican leaders didn’t tell Bartz to get this story out of the news last month, then Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley was vacationing out of the country during the first half of October. The other senior GOP senators may have been distracted by Bill Dix’s failed leadership challenge and the special election campaign in Iowa Senate district 18.

  • Bartz

    Maybe Bartz is trying to sympathize with the property rights groups out there?  I think we know he just likes the attention. Wilhelm should just stay away from the issue and potentially let Bartz overreach and say something stupid.

    I hope Democrats don’t hammer Bartz about preferring to talk about this as opposed to the struggles that many constituents are facing.  I think it is better to stay mum on this issue so the cavalry doesn’t come to Bartz’s assistance.    

    • I would have thought

      that property rights groups would not be interested in defending the county’s ability to assess a tax on an individual (and heirs) via the auditor’s office to enforce this statute. You have to weigh that against the relative number of livestock owners: non-livestock owners.

      The nr of family-owned farms is very high in Worth County, but the value of livestock, poultry and associated products of the county’s total agricultural output is low at 22.04% I think researching the demographics is probably worthwhile to Democrats — not to get involved in this specific case — but to determine whether a general position of reforming laws associated with 19th C land patterns and uses may not prove popular.  

    • according to ISU Extension

      Worth County:

      Crops: 19.5% of the county’s total economic output

      Livestock: 0.5% of the county’s total economic output.

      as % of state’s economic output:

      Crops: 3.9

      Livestock: 2.1

    • not getting this part

      Why would property rights groups support forcing someone to pay for a fence they don’t need and derive no benefit from?

      I understand why marking the property line is in both parties’ interest, so I can see why the law would require both sides to pay for a fence marking the border. But in this case, a simple fence already exists on the property line. One person understandably wants a nicer fence, but why should the other property owners help finance that?

      • agree

        I’ve never been involved w/ prop rights groups, but I imagine that this statute is not something they would support as a matter of principle. Not only do external factors impact individual property maintenance, but the state is the enforcer — if you thumb your noise, you eventually get “your” cost of fence slapped onto … drum roll … your property taxes!

        The only groups likely to go to the mat beyond livestock owners is the associated industries like vets, feed etc. But the crop farmers have many support industries as well. I didn’t see employment nrs broken down for each ag sector in Worth, but the relative economic outputs imply that livestock owners making an issue of enforcing this law is something like the tail wagging the dog in Worth County.

        A legal challenge to strike down or reform the law in the Code would of course have ramifications statewide. While not as dramatic as Worth, it appears as though crops >> livestock holds.

        Of course, we have many antiquated laws on the books that don’t get challenged, largely because they are not enforced or nobody makes a production out of their enforcement. Bartz should have been a little more “neighborly.”

        In and of itself, this is an interesting issue because it comes under life|changing. Where Bartz might get lucky is if constituents on the whole are hostile to change of any sort, but that seems unlikely.  

      • Possibility

        Could Mr. Bartz be telling the media about this so someone will come to his rescue if the litigation surrounding this gets too steep?  

  • I would encourage the Kuntzes


    Kuntz acknowledged that their chances of winning the case are “slim to none,” but they want to make a statement against what she described as an “obsolete” law. I also doubt a court will uphold the Kuntz appeal

    in other states, plaintiffs in their position (it’s always a non-livestock vs livestock owners) have been successful in challenging the law based on changing land use patterns post-19th C that have made application of this law arbitrary and capricious, thus no longer serving the public interest.

    As Julie Kuntz has said: archaic.

    Unsurprisingly, the successful court cases have been in the northeastern US, but according to at least one Iowa-based opinion [43 Drake L. Rev. 709 (1995)]:


    Under the current law, however, the landowner who owns no animals is compelled to protect himself and his land from an adjoining owner’s livestock by contributing to a partition fence which he may not want or need. This fence out requirement was reasonably necessary to serve a public purpose when large acres of land were used in Iowa for grazing cattle. Today, however, land once used for grazing has been shifted to other purposes such as grain production, commercial development, and private development by citizens purchasing farm land for nonagricultural purposes. Unless Iowa fence law adapts to reflect the changing Iowa population and its demands, the law may be deemed burdensome, arbitrary, and confiscatory when applied to landowners who do not raise cattle, sheep, or swine.

    • it sounded to me

      like that will be the basis of the Kuntz position in court: in the 19th century, everyone living in the Iowa countryside kept domestic animals, but that is no longer the case, which means no public interest is served by this requirement.

      Julie Kuntz sounded very annoyed that Bartz has referred to her and her husband as “lawbreakers” in some communications with the media. The law provides for appealing the decision of fence viewers. Asserting your legal rights is not “lawbreaking.”

      • I think

        they have a very good case, although IANAL. From a political perspective, I am speculating that crop farms >> livestock farms, so perhaps Bartz doesn’t have his thinking cap on.

        Yes, consider how the Kuntzes have generously taken into account “community values” (same church), while Bartz is getting all “law and order” on them. I’ve noticed that Wilhelm’s community outreach appears to be A+, so when this issue comes up, she may be able to negotiate it gracefully in her favor.

      • speaking of lawbreaking

        isn’t Bartz the one who wanted county recorders to break the law?

  • too harsh on Bartz

    Maybe it’s because I’m from the west, but out there, sodbusters have an obligation to fence off the open range – that is to say, pay for all the fence if they want to keep livestock out of the crops.  This part of a long-standing compromise in Iowa, given that both parties benefit from the fence. Bartz is not out of line here nor in the wrong legally.  The Kuntzs (Kuntzes?) are wrong, and frankly acted like spoiled children. I’ll take them at their word but it’s hard to think that long-time farmers could be unaware of fence law.  And desmoinesdem – you are a city kid, aren’t you?  Not saying that to be mean, but you didn’t know what a township trustee was and that one of their powers was to settle fence line disputes?  That’s part of a legislative floor fight from the early 90’s (and yes, Bartz was there singing “Don’t Fence Me In”)

    • you are correct

      The fence law has been challenged twice fairly recently in court in IA — 90s and 2001 and has been upheld as constitutional. A challenge every decade would not be a surprise.

      However, Iowa’s land use patterns continue to change over time, so you should expect challenges from the “selfish,” who one day may prevail. They are obviously not as concerned about livestock trespass, otherwise they would not be challenging. The Kuntzes have paid (or intend to pay) the fence costs up front and are pursuing remedy as principle of the matter.

      I would expect the time scales for deeming the law archaic to be longer in IA given the still strong rural component (as compared to northeastern US, even though many areas of NY/VT are still rural). But every decade, the case for this law weakens. Challenging this law is not a fluke incident in the US, and it’s always non-livestock owner vs livestock owner.  

    • 6 yrs

      between 1995-2001, not a big gap of time. Two visits to the IA Supreme Ct. That indicates that there’s strong feeling against the fence law that probably can’t be attributed to simple selfishness.

      I am not sure I understand the argument of why a minority can force the majority (not just “sodbusters” but increasingly urbanized uses for land) to pay for what is essentially liability protection for the livestock owners.

      It seems that the law works well in areas where livestock owners are plentiful, but less so otherwise. That makes sense, but then why should the fence law be applied statewide instead of say, on a county-by-county basis?

    • guilty as charged

      I am a “city kid,” and I also wasn’t living in Iowa during the early 1990s.

      Bartz appears to be exercising his legal right to force neighbors to pay for half of the improved fence he wants for his business. I expect the Kuntzes’ legal challenge to fail on the grounds that it’s the legislature’s business to decide whether an obsolete law needs to be repealed or amended. Politically, I still think Bartz is an idiot to pursue this claim rather than pay for his own fence.

      • I expect them to lose at the district level

        however, I don’t agree w/ the reasoning you offer, which is tantamount to the legislature should decide on marriage equality as well.

        If application of the law is arbitrary & capricious, it should be struck down as unconstitutional. If it was not a foregone conclusion that the law should stand in 1995, it is even less so now.

        If neighbors see mutual benefit — which is what the law currently claims — nothing stops them from cost-sharing.  

        • marriage equality is different

          because the DOMA denied fundamental rights to a group of people because of their sexual orientation. That law could not withstand heightened scrutiny.

          Forcing some people to spend money on a fence they don’t want is more comparable to some town/city residents being forced to spend money installing or maintaining a sidewalk on their property. The fencing law would not need to withstand “strict scrutiny” or “immediate scrutiny.” I think it would not be too hard for the state to show there is a “rational basis” for this law.

          But you’re right, with changing land-use patterns in Iowa, the basis for the fencing law seems less and less rational. I have no sympathy for Bartz’s position here.

          • don't agree

            there’s a reason why sidewalks fall under municipal ordinances. You can’t tell every property owner in Iowa to install/maintain a sidewalk along property for public safety reasons. It stops making sense for lower population densities. It’s a local issue because, bc if a govt official enforced a “sidewalk law” in rural/exurban areas, it would be viewed as government coercion.

            Why is this any different? The original basis for the law was “everybody owns livestock.” The more modern interpretation is that there’s a sufficient number of livestock operations to warrant claims of mutual benefit and public safety. For example, if a winter storm damaged fences in an area with a high density of livestock operations, animals milling about would be a real problem.

            But in areas w/ few livestock operations, there is no longer a need for a government response to secure public safety. Here, the livestock owners bark that there’s a mutual benefit, but that’s a little hollow when clearly, the Kuntzes (and others) see no benefit. Any good Republican/libertarian should recoil at the notion of the govt telling you “what’s good for you.”

            This is why Bartz is going on and on about it, IMO. Let’s look at the optics:

            1. Like a good Republican, he cried “don’t fence me in” twenty years ago

            2. He is a govt official. The applicability of the law in areas w/ relatively few livestock operations is already on  shaky ground. Sure, “the law” is on his side, but he’s using the power of government on a neighbor/constituent. The he is a representative of the government makes it worse.

            It serves his purposes to take the issue outside of the district, because interested parties from other areas of Iowa where the law makes more sense can weigh in on his behalf. It doesn’t look like coercion to them.

            Within his district, there may be general acceptance of the law, but the local publicity may cause people to rethink the issue along the lines of what the first caller to the program said: it’s a business subsidy. Worse, it’s subsidizing the business interests of a govt official who is using the state law to impose his will on his neighbor.

            The level of judicial review is irrelevant. Didn’t the SCOTUS just agree to review the individual insurance mandate? While no fan of the mandate, I think the case for it is stronger than warranting fence-building statewide!

  • perspective

    I have posted the relative economic impact of crops: livestock for Worth County above. Now, some data from another county:

    Audubon: 22.3% Crops

            27.2% livestock

    compare to Worth: 19.5% Crops

                      0.5% Livestock

    The law may make perfect sense in Audubon County, less so in Worth & others, where IMO, it is legitimate to question subsidizing expenses associated w/ livestock management. The greater the regional variation over time, the more likely that the statewide applicability of the law is defeated.

    • that's a real can of worms

      I bet the Farm Bureau and the Cattleman’s Association would rather see the fencing law struck down statewide than become a rule that can be applied on a county by county basis, depending on the relative importance of livestock production. Once we go down that road, it’s only logical to allow local control with respect to CAFOs.

      In Dickinson County, tourism is far more important than livestock farming to the economy. Why shouldn’t the Dickinson supervisors get to determine whether new CAFOs can operate there?

    • Julie Kuntz asserted

      during our phone conversation that the fencing law is outdated even with respect to areas of heavy livestock production, because most of those farms are confinement operations. When animals stay inside confinement buildings all the time, you don’t need a fence to keep them off your neighbors’ property.

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