Where are they now? Non-existent heated sidewalks edition

Bleeding Heartland’s “Where are they now?” posts usually focus on new jobs for former elected officials, candidates for high office, or other prominent individuals in Iowa politics.

Todd Dorman’s latest commentary for the Cedar Rapids Gazette prompted me to follow up on a smear from the 2010 state legislative elections.

24-Hour Dorman is a must-read for any Iowa politics watcher. Dorman’s latest column on Governor Terry Branstad’s budget cuts ended on a strong note.

The vetoes were a blunder, putting the last coat of shellac on a legislative session that now qualifies as an abject failure. Coupled with his reckless vetoes of bipartisan water quality and conservation funding in 2014, Branstad’s legacy is fast becoming that of a shortsighted chief executive who failed to make investments Iowa needed, setting up plenty of trouble ahead. The governor’s biggest accomplishment of 2015 is a pile of rejection slips.

There would be a silver lining in this cloud if I thought 2016 legislative races now would be fertile ground for a real debate over fundamental differences on supporting public education and protecting the environment. If Iowans indeed stopped whining and started voting. Unfortunately, I see more heated sidewalks and flower pots ahead. Overriding those vetoes would have sent a long-overdue message about the limits of executive authority. But Republicans can’t muster the courage to stand up to the ‘stache.

What’s that about heated sidewalks and flowerpots?

The biggest lie of the 2010 election season in Iowa was unquestionably the so-called “billion-dollar budget gap” (sometimes described more misleadingly as a “billion-dollar deficit”).

Deceptive talking points about thousands of dollars for heated sidewalks might have been a close second, spawning countless robocalls and direct mail pieces targeting Democratic lawmakers. Bleeding Heartland examined the origin of that canard here. Flowerpots in Des Moines featured prominently in campaign attacks as well; click here for the background.

The short version: Iowa House and Senate Democrats never voted to spend money on heated sidewalks, nor were such sidewalks installed anywhere in Iowa using state funds.  

The city of West Union (Fayette County seat) did receive some state money to support streetscaping for its historic downtown. One goal was to reduce salt runoff to high-quality trout streams. After determining that porous pavement would be a more cost-effective way to address the problem, local planners rejected the idea of extending geothermal heating to streets and sidewalks in the central business district.

Although heated sidewalks were off the table well before Iowa lawmakers voted on the appropriation for West Union’s pilot project, that didn’t stop Republicans from hammering Democrats on this allegedly wasteful spending for months in 2010.

So, what’s going on today with those infamous sidewalks?

I haven’t visited West Union, but a friend traveled there not long ago to present a 1000 Friends of Iowa “Best Development Award” to the city. (I’ve long been active with 1000 Friends of Iowa, which advocates for sustainable land use. I have no role in selecting the annual award-winners.)

West Union’s Green Pilot Streetscape Project won last year’s prize in the renovated commercial or civic category. The downtown area’s transformation was phenomenal. You can view photos here and on West Union’s website. What involved citizens achieved in this town is inspiring.

A RAGBRAI event motivated community members to turn a standard streetscape infrastructure project into a transformational sustainable revitalization. With a population of less than 2500, West Union established their own “first principles” for the endeavor, which prioritizes a collaborative process, sustainable community investment, a vibrant economy for Northeast Iowa, and additional goals that align with smart growth development concepts. […]

West Union’s Streetscape Project features:

• Porous pavers and rain gardens with the aim of capturing and retaining 95% of stormwater that falls in the downtown district

• Protected trout streams, community water quality, local aquifers and city infrastructure resources

• Renovations to 10 historic facades

• 12 new 2nd-story housing units in three historic buildings

• A district geothermal heating and cooling system providing service to 60 historic downtown buildings

• LED street lights

• New Civic Plaza gathering area

Sounds like the state of Iowa got a good return on its investment in West Union. While heated sidewalks weren’t the dominant factor in the 2010 Republican landslide, I believe the Iowa GOP got a good return on its investment in that deception too.

I’m with Dorman: the 2016 state legislative races should focus on a “real debate over fundamental differences on supporting public education and protecting the environment.” More likely, local campaigns will get bogged down in catchy diversions like flowerpots and heated sidewalks.

  • There is a heated sidewalk at the Capitol that was built around then...

    mainly to comply with ADA accessibility requirements, if I understand correctly.  It’s on the east side of the Capitol, where the legislators park, and is bounded by a sweeping, curved brass rail because the sidewalk slopes up to the Capitol on a curve (it’s an employees-only entrance, and the sidewalk/ramp is handicap accessible). It even has a little brass plaque embedded in the concrete, noting its heating elements.  I never knew if that was the one causing all the fuss in the ads, but thought there was a strong chance.

    We’ve had legislators in wheelchairs before, and there’s also a parking lot for vehicles with handicapped display permits just to the west of the legislators’ lot that could potentially use this ramp for capitol access, too (if they have a state employee badge with the right access privileges).

    I never understood why someone didn’t just explain the facts, or show someone in a wheelchair on that heated ramp. Ad campaign would have been over.  Now, explaining the relationship with the Downtown Partnership is a bit more complicated….but still doable.  It’s really about state agencies as tenants, not directly about flower pots.

    Let’s hope this time there’s someone who’s quick at crafting an effective, factual response if that kind of crap gets raised again.  It’s so frustrating to watch, over and over and over, with no response.  Please, better messaging.  Please!

    • the source of this claim

      was not related to that sidewalk at the Capitol–it was related to Democrats voting against a Republican amendment about green streets pilot programs.

      But your points are valid. It may make sense in a small, targeted area to heat a sidewalk for greater accessibility. At least one Iowa town (Story City? can’t remember) has heated sidewalks on the downtown main street to make it easier for people to get in and out of businesses.

      It’s hard to hit back on messaging like this, because explaining why the claim is misleading takes a lot longer than accusing someone of voting for heated sidewalks. Plus, every minute you spend explaining is a minute you’re knocked off your own message.

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