Iowa Senate confirmation fallout and discussion thread (updated)

Catching up on the week's news at the statehouse, the Iowa Senate rejected two of Governor Terry Branstad's nominees for the Board of Regents on Monday, and the governor withdrew two other nominees who were headed for trouble in the upper chamber. Details on the votes and thoughts about the implications are after the jump.

Branstad nominated more than 200 people to state boards and commissions this year. As usual, most were confirmed unanimously or with at most a handful of dissenting votes. Under the Iowa Constitution, the governor's nominees need support from at least two-thirds of the Iowa Senate (34 senators) to be confirmed. In practical terms, that means nominees need backing from all 26 Democrats plus at least eight Republicans, or all 24 Republicans plus at least ten Democrats.

For weeks, it's been clear that two of Branstad's Regents nominees were in trouble: current Board President Craig Lang (originally appointed by Governor Chet Culver) and Robert Cramer. Radio Iowa posted the audio and highlights from Lang's Senate hearing and from Cramer's hearing last month. Critics say Lang has interfered too much in state university policies and has a "vendetta" against University of Iowa President Sally Mason. I don't care for the way Lang uses his position to advance the interests of corporate agriculture. Cramer drew fire for his social conservative activism. He is a past board president of Bob Vander Plaats' FAMiLY Leader organization, and tried to ban two books from the Johnston High School library when he served on the Johnston school board. Branstad stood by both nominees and said Cramer's expertise in the construction industry would be an asset as the University of Iowa continues its flood reconstruction work on campus. I'm sure the governor can find some other conservative Republican with experience as a contractor who hasn't tried to ban books. I don't see how anyone with Cramer's mindset would be an asset to the Board of Regents.

On April 8, the Senate took up all three Regents nominations. Dr. Subhash Sahai easily won confirmation by 45 votes to 5, with Democrat Tod Bowman joining Republicans Brad Zaun, Sandy Greiner, Kent Sorenson, and Rick Bertrand to vote no.

Cramer received only 27 yes votes, seven fewer than he needed. All the Senate Republicans supported his nomination, joined by Joe Seng, Dick Dearden, and Wally Horn.

Lang did a little better but received only 30 yes votes. Democrats Daryl Beall, Dennis Black, Amanda Ragan, Joe Seng, Tod Bowman, Wally Horn, and Rich Taylor joined 23 Republicans to vote yes. GOP Senator Brad Zaun voted no, along with the other 19 Senate Democrats. Lang issued a gracious statement after the vote.

The governor condemned the allegedly "shabby" manner in which his Regents nominees were treated, but Senate Democrats pointed out that for the third year in a row, the chamber has confirmed more than 99 percent of Branstad's appointees to state boards and commissions.

Branstad can't renominate Lang and Cramer for the Board of Regents, and I haven't heard much speculation about who might take their place. Current Regents Pro-Tem Bruce Rastetter is likely to move into the president's position on the board. Branstad will appoint two new people on an interim basis, who will face Senate confirmation votes next year.

While the governor demanded votes on all of his Regents nominees, he withdrew two other nominations this week. Former State Representative Nick Wagner, a Republican, was one of Branstad's choices to serve on the Iowa Utilities Board. Confirming Wagner would have left that three-memeber board with zero attorneys and three former state lawmakers, two of them from Marion in Linn County. KCRG reported last week that Wagner lacked enough support in the Democratic caucus.

[Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Matt] McCoy cited senators' concerns with two of the three members of the board being from Marion. Swati Dandekar, a former member of the House and Senate, also is from Marion.

Senators also questioned having three former legislators on the board that has broad responsibility for rates and services of electric, natural gas, and water utilities, the services of communications utilities, and generally supervises all pipelines and the transmission, sale, and distribution of electrical current.

Also, McCoy said, Democrats thought at least one member should be an attorney. There has not been an attorney on the board since Rob Bernsten - formerly of Marion - left the board and was replaced by Dandekar.

Wagner, who has no plans to withdraw from consideration, noted that two current utility board members are from Polk County.

"I'm qualified," said Wagner, 39, who is an electrical engineer. He's worked on energy and utility projects at The ESCO Group for the past 12 years. "There's no doubt in my mind I'm qualified."

He also pointed out April 4, there is no statutory requirement that a member be an attorney.

"That's why you have staff attorneys," he said.

Finally, McCoy said, some senators had "issues" with Wagner when dealing with him on appropriations.

"They thought he was not a good listener," he said.

Former Democratic State Senator Tom Rielly was to serve on the state Transportation Commission before Branstad withdrew his nomination. No senator raised any substantive problem with Rielly's qualifications; he had previously chaired the Iowa Senate Transportation Committee. As O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa, Rielly got caught up in the politics over the Regents votes.

Republicans had placed a hold on Rielly's nomination to the Transportation Commission, preventing senators from taking a vote. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal notified Branstad about the situation, but Gronstal says it was the governor's decision to withdraw both nominations.

"I neither recommended it or discouraged it," Gronstal says, "and he's made this choice."

Rielly's nomination got linked to the controversy surrounding two of Branstad's nominees for the Board of Regents. [...]

"It is clear that these two fine individuals were going to be collateral damage in the larger fight over the Regents nominees," Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Governor Branstad, said in a written statement. "The governor is withdrawing their names to preserve all of his options once session has ended. A decision has not been made with regard to who might fill these positions, and when."

Since neither Wagner nor Rielly were rejected in a Senate vote, Branstad could appoint them both on an interim basis after this year's legislative session ends. They would be able to serve until coming up for a confirmation vote during next year's legislative session. Last week Albrecht told KCRG that the governor would "continue his fight for Nick Wagner's confirmation," so my hunch is he'll get to fill that vacancy on the Iowa Utilities Board for at least a little while.

UPDATE: The FAMiLY Leader just demanded another Senate vote on Cramer. That's not going to happen, but for what it's worth, here's the press release.

Vander Plaats calls on Senate to "Right" their "Wrong"

Urbandale, IA - At a late morning press conference Bob Vander Plaats, president of the pro-family group "The FAMiLY LEADER, called on the Iowa Senate to "right" their "wrong." In breaking his public silence on Robert Cramer's nomination to the Iowa Board of Regents, Vander Plaats encouraged the Senators to "do what's right and confirm Robert in a re-vote."

Vander Plaats expressed high praise for Cramer's leadership of his family as he stated, "Robert Cramer is a man of exceptional character. He reflects the "gold standard" for marriage and family as he has been a faithful husband and father for twenty-five years."

Continuing his remarks on Cramer's exceptional character, Vander Plaats exclaimed, "He has extended the reach and impact of his family by being an oasis for several foster children. In addition, Robert leads with a "servant's heart" investing in many community and international missions. One of his focuses in his philanthropic missions is reaching out to the remote regions of South Africa, fueling the assistance to those who are in need of basic care and who are struggling with the devastations of HIV/AIDS."

Vander Plaats noted that he is not alone in encouraging the confirmation of Cramer. In addition to Governor Branstad who appointed Cramer, The Des Moines Register and the Association of General Contractors and many others who know Robert and have experienced his leadership character and competency have all advocated for Cramer's confirmation. "Robert's peers view him as the crème of the crop when it comes to the needed leadership traits to serve," Vander Plaats expressed.

In conclusion, Vander Plaats said, "Cramer's rejection by the Iowa Senate based on his core beliefs should send a chilling message to all Iowans. Tossing aside a person like Robert Cramer who has the utmost integrity and leadership competency for his core beliefs is a disturbing path Iowans do not want to travel."

"Although it would atypical and highly unusual, It would be a breath of fresh air for the Senators to join with Governor Branstad to identify a remedy that ensures Robert's service. To do this would be a great example of leadership for Iowans. It's never too late to do what's right."

SECOND UPDATE: A classic from the Iowa .Gif-t Shop blog: "When Bob Vander Plaats said the Senate should reconsider Robert Cramer, but rules don't allow it."

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