UPDATE: The day after this post appeared, Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen yanked Highfill from the Ways and Means Committee.
Did anyone read Josh Hafner’s feature on Republican State Representative Jake Highfill in Sunday’s Des Moines Register? The gist was that Highfill, the youngest current Iowa House member at age 24, has grown into his job as state legislator. He now feels “mature, more confident, he said, like he has a handle on the issues,” and his constituents aren’t bothered by his youth.
A few salient facts were missing from the profile.
1. Lucky breaks helped Highfill win his 2012 Republican primary.
Hafner reported for the Register,
Highfill campaigned for his House seat during his senior year [at the University of Iowa], clearing his class schedule on Mondays and Fridays to come home and campaign. […]
For Highfill, getting the gumption to run for state office at 22 came down to a jump into the deep end. A lot of smart people never fulfill their potential because they won’t take a chance, he said.
“Maybe I’m not the smartest person,” he said last week, “but I’m willing to take that risk and put my name on the ballot.”
Kudos to Highfill for recognizing and seizing an opportunity. Out of a dozen primary challengers to sitting Iowa House Republicans that year, he was the only successful one. Knocking on lots of doors surely helped Highfill, but he also benefited from the incumbent’s many blunders.
Erik Helland was one of the younger Iowa GOP state legislators when he was arrested for drunk driving in June 2010. It was too late for anyone to challenge him in that year’s primary, and no Democrat had filed for the suburban and rural Polk County House seat, so Helland won re-election without an opponent.
The OWI didn’t seem to affect Helland’s political trajectory, as he became Iowa House majority whip in January 2011 and took a position with Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign later that year. But a lack of maturity continued to show from time to time, as when Helland shut down a subcommittee hearing and took part in a priceless exchange accidentally caught by a live microphone. In the spring of 2011, a Pawlenty staffer who was living at Helland’s place was involved in an embarrassing drunken incident.
Still, Iowa House leaders kept Helland on as House majority whip for the 2012 legislative session. I don’t recall hearing any speculation that he was in real danger of losing to the unknown Highfill, even though Highfill had the backing of fellow Ron Paul supporters as well as former State Representative Walt Tomenga, whom Helland had beaten in the 2008 primary.
My dad used to say, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. All in all, this looks more like a case of Helland losing the election than Highfill beating him. A member of the Iowa House leadership team should have been able to turn out more than 572 supporters to vote in a primary.
2. Highfill came close to losing the 2014 primary to represent Iowa House district 39.
The Sunday Des Moines Register article didn’t mention that Highfill drew not one, but two primary challengers last year. Good thing, too, because he gained less than 50 percent of the vote in that primary. Highfill could have ended up as a one-termer if two GOP opponents hadn’t competed for area voters dissatisfied with the incumbent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Republican with more stature run in this district and win the 2016 primary.
3. Fellow Iowa House Republicans don’t give Highfill much to do.
Hafner wrote of Highfill,
As he walked through the Capitol’s halls talking with various constituents about various bills, none seemed bothered by Highfill’s age. His age didn’t matter: He had a vote and a voice.
Too bad the Register axed so many copy editors. Otherwise someone might have caught that dangling modifier. But I digress.
While Highfill’s vote counts the same as that of every state representative, he doesn’t have as much clout as others in his own caucus. When Iowa House Republicans announced new committee assignments in December, Highfill was listed as chair of the International Relations Committee. However, the Iowa Legislature’s official website indicates that Highfill is vice chair on that committee, which includes members of both the House and Senate. State Senator Rita Hart is the current chair.
More important, the International Relations Committee is rarely active. The committee doesn’t appear to have met during the 2013 or 2014 legislative sessions and only met once during the two years before that. So far this year, the International Relations Committee has not convened and has had no legislation assigned to it. Just about every other committee has held at least a few meetings and has some bills pending consideration.
While Highfill is vice chair of a committee that does little, a bunch of Iowa House Republicans in his cohort have more important jobs. Consider the key tasks assigned to other lawmakers who were first elected to the chamber in 2012:
John Landon chairs an Appropriations subcommittee.
Megan Jones (formerly Megan Hess) chairs the Environmental Protection Committee.
Rob Taylor chairs the Ethics Committee.
Bobby Kaufmann chairs the Government Oversight Committee.
David Maxwell is vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee.
Rob Bacon is vice chair of the Human Resources Committee.
Dean Fisher is vice chair of the Natural Resources Committee.
Larry Sheets is vice chair of the Labor Committee.
Tedd Gassman is vice chair of the Education Committee.
Incidentally, Jones and Kaufmann are both under age 30.
Several lawmakers who were just elected for the first time in 2014 got better committee assignments than Highfill.
Zach Nunn is vice chair of the Economic Growth Committee and vice chair of the Education Appropriations subcommittee, and has a seat on the full Ways and Means Committee.
Ken Rizer is vice chair of the Appropriations Committee.
Gary Carlson is vice chair of the Commerce Committee.
John Wills is vice chair of the Environmental Protection Committee.
UPDATE: Forgot to mention a few others from the “just elected for the first time” cohort.
Terry Baxter is vice chair of the Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
Darrel Branhagen is vice chair of the Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee.
Brian Best is vice chair of the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee.
John Kooiker is vice chair of the Transportation, Infrastructure and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee.
Norlin Mommsen is vice chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.
David Sieck is vice chair of the Administration and Regulation Appropriations Subcommittee.
The Iowa legislature’s website makes it easy to search for legislation co-sponsored or floor-managed by individual lawmakers. Highfill has co-sponsored a number of bills, but I don’t see him assigned as floor manager for any legislation, in contrast to Iowa House newcomers like Wills, Rizer, Carlson, and Nunn.
I’m glad Highfill is becoming more comfortable in his role as a state representative, but he doesn’t seem to have a lot of responsibilities up at the Capitol.
Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.