Preview of the coming Iowa House Republican leadership battle

Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen announced yesterday that he will not seek re-election in 2016 and will step down from leadership before next year’s legislative session. His surprise move kicks off what will be the most competitive leadership election within the House Republican caucus since colleagues elected Paulsen minority leader shortly after the 2008 general election.

Linda Upmeyer, a seven-term incumbent who has served as majority leader since 2011, immediately confirmed that she will run for speaker. She would be the first woman to lead the Iowa House, and to my knowledge, the first child of an Iowa legislative leader to follow a parent in that role. Upmeyer’s father Del Stromer was House speaker for part of the 1980s.

She won’t get Paulsen’s job without a fight, though.  

At least two other House Republicans will challenge Upmeyer in the leadership race, and they will present more than token opposition. Over the years, many statehouse sources have independently mentioned to me that a significant number of Iowa House Republicans are hostile to Upmeyer. I’ve never gotten a clear picture on why. She doesn’t appear to be ideologically out of step with the caucus, even if she did play a big role in negotiating the final compromise on Iowa’s Medicaid expansion alternative.

As the “gatekeeper” who decides which bills reach the House floor, the majority leader may be a magnet for discontent among backbenchers upset that their pet project never came to a vote. Personality conflicts could be a factor; Upmeyer doesn’t give off a warm, fuzzy vibe. Misogyny could be involved too. Upmeyer is the first woman to hold the second-most powerful position in the Iowa House, and just like in the business world, many people view a strong woman in politics more negatively than they see her ambitious, assertive male peers.

Not that Upmeyer governs from a noticeably female perspective. To cite just one example, I spoke to women’s advocates this spring who were disappointed that Upmeyer–a nurse practitioner by training–stood with Paulsen as House Republicans pushed for cuts to Legal Aid and victims assistance grants for domestic violence and sexual assault. Iowa Senate Democrats had to fight at the negotiating table just to get funding for those programs restored to status quo levels.

Whatever the reasons, some House Republicans vehemently oppose Upmeyer for speaker. Two years ago, when Paulsen was considered likely to run for Congress in Iowa’s first district, a faction started mobilizing around Peter Cownie as an alternative to Upmeyer. According to the Des Moines rumor mill at the time, Chip Baltimore would have been majority leader under Speaker Cownie. Having been a state representative only since 2009, Cownie would have had remarkably little seniority for a legislative leader; ditto for Baltimore, who was first elected to the House in 2010.

Paulsen short-circuited the intrigue in 2013 when he chickened out of what promised to be a tough primary battle against Rod Blum in IA-01.

Upmeyer will have support from current House Speaker Pro-Tem Matt Windschitl, who told the Des Moines Register yesterday,

“I believe the best thing for Iowans and for the chamber as a whole is to have continuity in leadership,” he said. “And I believe Linda Upmeyer would provide that continuity and the leadership we need to move forward.”

I assume that House Majority Whip Chris Hagenow will also back Upmeyer, though he has not yet responded to my request for comment. Either Hagenow or Windschitl would likely serve as majority leader if Upmeyer becomes the speaker. Windschitl was first elected to the Iowa House in 2006, Hagenow in 2008.

Cownie has not responded to my request for comment on whether he will run for speaker or another role in leadership. When the Des Moines Register asked Baltimore about a possible bid for speaker, he said he would “give it some consideration.” Earlier this year, Baltimore publicly criticized the process by which House leaders moved a bill on raising the gasoline tax. Paulsen took one Republican off the Ways and Means Committee and temporarily replaced another to make sure the gas tax increase stayed alive.

I am seeking comment from five-term State Representative Pat Grassley on whether he will run for a leadership position. Grassley is considered likely to run for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2018, assuming the incumbent Bill Northey runs for governor.

The wild card in the speaker race will be three-term State Representative Josh Byrnes. As House Transportation Committee Chair, he has been the leading advocate of raising the gasoline tax. He has parted ways with most of his colleagues on marriage equality and Medicaid expansion. A former high school teacher who has been a community college administrator, Byrnes was dissatisfied with this year’s final deal on education funding. He the Des Moines Register yesterday,

“I’m disappointed with where we ended up (last session) on things like education. … There are some pretty big topics we need to be better about addressing.”

Via electronic communication, Byrnes told me, “We have to have a Speaker who can lead and get compromise accomplished.” When I asked whether he would seek another leadership position if he is not elected speaker, he replied that running for speaker “is an all or none proposition.”

UPDATE: On August 7, Byrnes posted on Facebook,

After much thought and discussion with my family we feel that it’s in the best interest of Iowans to pursue the Speakers Chair of the Iowa House. The majority of Iowans want bipartisanship and legislators working together. We have been drifting towards a more D.C. version of politics in Iowa and that is not the direction Iowans want to go. I have a track record of doing what’s right on behalf of Iowans and I am known for working with ALL legislators regardless of party. This is a vote within my caucus and I have to convince them I am the person for the job.

Any speculation about the future Iowa House Republican leadership is welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal was too charitable in his official comment on Paulsen’s departure:

“I have always had a deep respect for Kraig Paulsen,” Gronstal said in a statement. “He has always treated me decently and fairly. While we have had our partisan differences, we have done our level best to work those out with each other.”

From where I’m sitting, Paulsen deserves a large share of blame for House Republicans’ refusal to follow state law on setting K-12 education funding in time for school districts to plan their budgets. For several years in a row, House Republican intransigence has left school administrators uncertain how much money they will receive from the state, weeks or months past the date by which they are supposed to finalize local education budgets.

This year, Paulsen’s stubborn refusal to meet in the middle on allowable growth for K-12 budgets led to Senate Democrats accepting a compromise relegating extra school funds to a supplemental spending bill. That in turn allowed Governor Terry Branstad to veto the additional education funding sought by Democrats, claiming philosophical opposition to “one-time money” for ongoing expenses.

Had Paulsen agreed to a higher level of state aid for schools, Branstad would not have been able to blow the compromise apart with a stroke of his pen.

Paulsen claimed he had negotiated in good faith, with no advance knowledge that Branstad would veto the supplemental education spending. He could have proved that by calling his caucus back to Des Moines to override the governor’s vetoes. But he didn’t. Doesn’t look like a guy who did his “level best” to work out partisan differences.

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