It's the most list-making time of the year. Let's start talking about Iowa political highlights of 2011.
This thread is devoted to master strokes. I don't mean our elected officials' wisest actions, or the policy choices that affected the greatest number of Iowans. I mean acts of such skill that even opponents had to grudgingly acknowledge their brilliance.
My top picks are after the jump. Tomorrow Bleeding Heartland will review the year's most bewildering acts of incompetence. On Thursday we'll look at the events that are likely to have the greatest long-term impact on Iowa politics.
The Machiavelli award for 2011 has to go to Governor Terry Branstad, or to the person who planted the idea of giving Democratic State Senator Swati Dandekar a seat on the Iowa Utilities Board. In one move, the governor:
1) gave Republicans a shot at deadlocking the Iowa Senate for the 2012 legislative session;
2) gave Republicans a chance to enter 2012 with the momentum of a special-election victory;
3) removed a Democratic incumbent who was known to have crossover appeal with business groups and conservative voters;
4) fulfilled his obligation to appoint a Democrat to the Iowa Utilities Board with someone who shares his corporate-friendly energy policy agenda;
5) appointed someone who will have no trouble being confirmed by the Iowa Senate.
You have to hand it to Branstad or whoever was pulling his strings. That was genius. It's not the governor's fault that Republicans bungled their chance in Iowa Senate district 18 (more on that failure in tomorrow's post).
One Iowa politician showed remarkable talent in 2011: Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal. It's easy to wield power when you're heading the largest Democratic Senate caucus in state history, as Gronstal was in 2009 and 2010. But Democrats lost six Iowa Senate seats and almost a seventh in November 2010. I thought Gronstal would come into the 2011 legislative session weaker, with a few nervous members of his caucus ready to show off their independence.
I thought wrong. Gronstal kept the 26 Senate Democrats united throughout the longest Iowa legislative session since 1978. Democrats on record opposing marriage equality stuck with Gronstal as he again blocked any vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Anti-choice Democrats went along with an alternative way to stop a late-term abortion clinic, rather than passing the 20-week abortion ban approved by the Iowa House.
The Iowa Republican blogosphere was full of complaints about "Gronstalling" in the first half of 2011.
One could argue that Branstad helped cement the Senate Democrats' unity. He went after the public preschool program and was remarkably inflexible during negotiations over the state budget. He insisted on zero allowable growth in K-12 education budgets, an action without precedent in 40 years. Furthermore, Branstad gave Democrats no reason to assume he was dealing in good faith. He line-item vetoed their top tax priority, having raised no objections to the policy while the bill was being negotiated.
Iowa House Republicans also may have strengthened Gronstal's position by sending one extremely conservative bill after another to the upper chamber. I didn't sense much effort by House leaders to craft legislation that moderate Senate Democrats might support.
As for other impressive political maneuvers of the year, I would give honorable mentions to the following:
Some Republican activists urged presidential candidates to skip the Des Moines Register's planned debate. We may never know which candidates accepted or declined the Register's invitation, but the boycott effort forced the "newspaper Iowa depends upon" into an embarrassing role as ABC's junior partner.
Republican State Representative Kim Pearson punched above the typical first-year legislator's weight, forcing Iowa House members to go on record supporting or opposing a vote on "personhood." Some may question her tactics, but I call that a skillful use of legislative procedures.
Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom found an ingenious way to let his colleagues oppose a new abortion clinic without restricting reproductive rights.
The floor is yours, Bleeding Heartland readers.