Prominent Iowa Republican moderate switches parties

Todd Dorman has big news in today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette: Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson changed his party registration to Democratic last week.

As a Democrat, I welcome any fair-minded person to our party. But as the daughter of a Rockefeller Republican, I’m saddened by yet another sign GOP moderates are a vanishing breed.  

Oleson had been active in Iowa Republican politics for decades and worked closely with the late Mary Lundby when she served in the Iowa Senate.

However, he was increasingly out of step with his party’s ideology. When State Senator Swati Dandekar’s resignation opened up a competitive Iowa Senate seat in 2011, Republicans in Des Moines warned Oleson not to seek the GOP nomination, because he had supported marriage equality as well as project labor agreements for some flood reconstruction projects in the Cedar Rapids area.

While the Iowa legislature debated conservation funding in 2014, Oleson wrote a “rant,” cross-posted at this blog, about the (Republican-controlled) Iowa House attempting to “rape” the Resource Enhancement & Protection (REAP) program. He objected to using REAP dollars for “agri-terrace projects, forestry management (subject to logging), and water nutrient pollution clean-up programs because farmland soil is laden with fertilizer chemicals,” when REAP was intended to finance “special PUBLIC park projects, PUBLIC trails, PUBLIC lakes, rivers & waterways, and other PUBLIC recreational programs […].”

Later in 2014, Oleson endorsed and volunteered for Democratic State Representative Daniel Lundby, a longtime family friend who lost his re-election bid to Republican Ken Rizer in Iowa House district 68. For that act of disloyalty, local Republicans kicked Oleson off the Linn County GOP Central Committee in January of this year.

Speaking to Dorman, Oleson mentioned those and other issues that drove him away from the GOP.

He’s supported gay rights and marriage equality for two decades while his party continues to staunchly fight for discrimination. He’s opposed costly military interventions overseas while top Republicans loudly rattle sabers. Oleson favors immigration reforms while Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Steve King and others steer the Republican bus toward a big, beautiful wall. He’s worked with local labor unions and sees their value.

As a supervisor, Oleson has led several local efforts to promote conservation, environmental protection and safeguarding public lands. But he’s watched Republicans hostile to environmental concerns file dozens of congressional bills aimed at returning control of public lands to states or private interests, while our Republican

“I don’t see a lot of Bob Rays or Jim Leaches running around anymore, or Mary Lundbys,” Oleson said. “I’m not running to be something else. I’m running away from something I can’t be, something I can’t identify with anymore.”

Oleson was unopposed in his 2012 re-election bid to the county supervisors. Although Republicans may go after him next year, I suspect he will easily win a third term on the Linn County supervisors.

UPDATE: Pat Rynard speculates that Oleson’s party switch could make it easier for Democrats to hold Iowa Senate district 34 if current State Senator Liz Mathis runs for higher office. Mathis turned down efforts to recruit her to run for Congress in 2014 but is considered a possible candidate for governor in 2018.

Mathis will be heavily favored for re-election to the Iowa Senate in 2016. If SD-34 became an open seat, though, both parties would target the race. According to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, the district contains 11,801 active registered Democrats, 12,825 Republicans, and 15,980 no-party voters.

Oleson would be a strong candidate for the Iowa Senate, not only because he has won multiple elections for county supervisor.  His mentor Mary Lundby represented last decade’s version of that Senate district (covering parts of the Cedar Rapids suburbs) before retiring from the legislature in 2008.

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  • Ripple into IA-01?

    If you’re welcoming Brent into the Dems, which I do, it’s harder to bash Monica Vernon for making the same switch a few years earlier…

    • I've never been big

      on bashing latecomers to the Democratic Party. But it’s true, a favorable spin on Oleson joining the party can’t hurt Vernon.

      Then again, Linn County is her base; she needs more help from Democrats in other counties, where Oleson is not well known.  

  • Easy wins aren't necessarily that easy

    Oleson’s district in Linn County is heavily Republican (which is how he usually ran unopposed and won in the past).  Depending on his opponent (I can’t imagine the Linn County GOP letting him run unopposed), winning the district means convincing a lot of straight-party voters to cross-vote for his race, which also means getting them to turn over the ballot.

    That’s quite a bit of effort to exert for once-every-four-year voters.  It won’t be as easy as it sounds.

    • maybe not

      but I would guess his views are more in line with the district than the Iowa GOP’s party platform is.

      • Or maybe so

        Now that I double-checked the numbers, it seems that my comment was based on unfounded rumours told to me by others in the past.  That district went well over 50% Dem in 2012, so he should be safe going forward even without cross-party voters, unless there’s a strong Republican candidate for president.  Grassley v. Whomever could make it a little tougher, too, but doubtful.

  • The real issue is what happens to the values

    of the Democratic Party as more and more of yesterday’s Republicans become today’s Democrats?  The Democrats long ago jettisoned their support of working people and what little safety net we had.  What’s next?  Getting rid of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act because we’re in a post-racial society?  Approval of fracking, or more drilling, or Keystone XL?  More so-called “right-to-work” laws?  These things simply ought to be non negotiable, along with a lot of other issues central to the Democratic Party’s core values.  Compromise those simply to accommodate former Republicans?  That’s just allowing Republicans to co-opt what’s left of the Democrats for their own purposes.  

    So I guess my take is…these former Republicans are welcome in the Democratic Party, as long as they adopt the party’s values.  I have no interest in belonging to a party that wishes to find any middle ground here.  There is none.  If former Republicans have a problem with that, they can stay where they are.  No elected is so popular, so great that Democrats must accept them.  The likes of Arlen Specter are worthless to the Democrats.  

    • I think there's some confusion

      about the values of a local politician vs. the values of the greater party and/or national politicians.

      Very few County Supervisors have any say in “right to work” laws (Johnson County’s minimum wage issue is about as close as it gets), fracking isn’t occurring in Iowa, the Voting Rights act isn’t under the purview of Supervisors (Auditors, maybe), and I’m pretty sure that a Linn County Supervisor won’t be casting any votes on drilling in ANWAR any time soon.  You rarely, if ever, hear about County Supervisors having a knock-down, drag-out fights with their local AFSCME unions, either.

      Frankly, the lack of “party-line” issues at the local level (and the lack of legislative power in most of those seats) is a pretty good argument for taking those local seats out of partisan races.  I still don’t understand how party affiliation has any effect on the job duties of County Treasurers, Recorders, etc.

      There are plenty of hardline Democrats left in the party, but I’m not sure either party (or the country) suffers as a result of moderation in viewpoints and an ability to compromise for the greater good.