Three Iowa House Democrats retire in last three days of filing period

State Representative David Dawson announced today that he will not seek a third term in Iowa House district 14. I enclose below a news release he posted on Facebook at approximately 6:00 pm on March 18. Although I am on the press distribution list for the Iowa House Democrats, at this writing I have not received the statement by e-mail. Earlier today, Timothy Kacena filed for the Democratic nomination in the district, which covers the west side of Sioux City in Woodbury County (scroll down to view a map). I have not received a press release announcing Kacena’s candidacy, though it is not unusual for several days to pass between a campaign launch and the House Democrats e-mailing a statement about the race.

I have not found a campaign website or Facebook page for Kacena. He appears to have retired from Sioux City Fire Rescue. When I reached him by phone this evening, Kacena declined to comment on whether he is personally acquainted with Dawson or when he was recruited to run for House district 14. Most Iowa politics watchers had no idea until today that Dawson was not planning to seek re-election. No one who didn’t have advance notice could have collected 50 signatures and driven from Sioux City to Des Moines in time to file for the primary ballot by the close of business. Kacena will face Robert Henderson, who filed today for the GOP nomination in the district.

I am seeking comment from Dawson on why he didn’t announce his retirement earlier, whether he is acquainted with Kacena, whether he recruited him for this seat, and if so, when they first talked about the race. If I hear back, I will update this post. The photo accompanying today’s Facebook post shows Dawson with three young children. Spending several months a year in Des Moines is demanding work, taking a lot of time away from lawmakers’ families. Opting out is an understandable decision, and for all I know it may have been a last-minute call for Dawson. While I don’t begrudge anyone that choice, I wish state legislators would let it be known that they are wavering on a re-election bid, so others have a chance to consider running for public office in an open seat.

House district 14 leans Democratic, with 5,938 active registered Democrats, 4,102 Republicans, and 4,710 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. President Barack Obama received 59.33 percent of the vote here in 2012, and Bruce Braley ran only 1 percent behind Joni Ernst among the district’s voters, far better than his statewide showing in the 2014 U.S. Senate race.

Dawson is the third Iowa House Democrat in as many days to announce a surprise retirement. As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, State Representative Nancy Dunkel revealed her plans on Wednesday, the same day Tom Stecher declared his candidacy in House district 57. State Representative Deborah Berry disclosed Thursday that she will not seek another term in House district 62. Ras Smith filed to run in that heavily Democratic seat the same day. At this writing, neither Berry nor Smith have returned my phone calls or responded to my e-mails asking questions such as: How did they become acquainted? When did they first discuss her retirement and his possible candidacy?

I have received some pushback on this post, but even more encouragement from activists who are as disappointed by the insider dealing as I am. Iowa Democratic leaders seeking more grassroots involvement should think about the message these last-minute handovers send to ordinary people about the political process.

I learned today that California law extends the filing period by five days if a state legislative incumbent does not file for re-election. Five days isn’t “enough” time to give serious consideration to a campaign, but it would be better than nothing. The Iowa House and Senate should adopt similar language to prevent insiders from treating a seat in the public’s house like a private club membership.

UPDATE: Mentioned in the previous post but should add here as well that Nebraska law sets an earlier filing deadline for incumbents across the board. Iowa could adopt that approach rather than California’s.

SECOND UPDATE: Ben Nesselhuf commented,

As a grassroots activist in Woodbury County, I can assure you that the only people cut out of the loop were the [R]epublicans. The search for Dave’s successor ranged far and wide. Anyone with any association with the party who had ever expressed an interest in running, and several who hadn’t, was approached. This was not decided in some smoke filled backroom.

THIRD UPDATE: Democratic State Representative Brian Meyer posted this revealing comment on March 20: “I can assure you everyone knew about the retirements well in advance. It was not nothing [sic] wrong with anything my leadership did. It is hard to find candidates.”

Note Meyer’s use of the word “everyone,” apparently to connote members of the Iowa House Democratic caucus and select party activists. Clearly “everyone” did not know about the lawmakers’ impending retirements. On the contrary, I have heard two separate reports of people directly asking Dunkel about her plans, coming away with the impression that she was seeking a third term.

Meyer’s comment assumes recruiting candidates is a job for leaders before a vacancy becomes public knowledge. His perspective does not acknowledge any benefit to an open process, where people who want to run for office can come forward, even if leaders don’t know about them or prefer other prospects. Relevant background information: when former House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy resigned in 2013, leaving a safe Democratic seat open in the middle of a term, three Democrats announced their candidacies for the special election, only to have Meyer clear the field almost immediately after he expressed interest.

MARCH 21 UPDATE: Three days later, neither Ras Smith nor Deborah Berry have returned my phone calls or responded to my e-mails asking questions about how they arranged this transfer of power and why Smith was selected over all other potential Democratic candidates living in House district 62.

I forgot to mention that this Facebook thread from March 17 belies Meyer’s claim that “everyone knew about the retirements well in advance.” Democratic State Representatives Abby Finkenauer and Liz Bennett assert that they found out Berry was not running for re-election the day before the filing deadline. I have no reason to doubt their accounts.

Statement posted on the Dawson for Iowa Facebook page around 6 pm on Friday, March 18 (after the deadline had passed to submit nominating papers to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office):

Dawson Announces He Will Not Seek Re-Election

Sioux City, Iowa — State Representative Dave Dawson of Sioux City announced today that he will not seek re-election to the Iowa House of Representatives. Dawson has served four years in the Iowa House, representing District 14, which includes the western and northern parts of Sioux City.

Dawson said, “It has been my distinct honor to represent the people of Sioux City over the last four years. My decision to not seek a third term comes down to family. My wife and young children have sacrificed a lot to allow me to serve in the legislature, and now is the right time for me to resume full-time responsibilities to my family.”

Dawson, who is also a prosecutor in the Woodbury County Attorney’s Office, will return to that position full time when the 2016 legislative session ends.

Dawson is proud of the work the Iowa Legislature has accomplished during his two terms. Over the last four years, Dawson supported education reform legislation to strengthen teacher leadership for Iowa school children; historic commercial property tax reductions to attract business and retain jobs in Iowa; expansion of Medicaid for Iowa’s working poor; and the Home Base Iowa initiative to attract Veterans to live and work in Iowa.

Key bills for which Dawson advocated that benefit Woodbury County include: the Access Iowa Highways law, which prioritized funding for the completion of the four lane project on Highway 20; sustainable funding for the Statewide Poison Control Center in Sioux City; authorizing the juvenile crisis stabilization facility at Jackson Recovery Centers in Sioux City; and extension of the targeted jobs border city tax credit to enable job creation in Siouxland.

Iowa House district 14, The new Iowa House district 14, created under the redistricting plan adopted in 2011.

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  • Preach, desmoinesdem!

    You are spot on. Keep on speaking truth to power.

  • It's indefensible

    Why are we still afraid of primaries in this party? It makes no sense to me.

    • I don't know

      I have asked that question many times.

      In a competitive district, the excuse is not wanting to tip Republicans off about an open seat.

      In a safe district, I guess many incumbents feel they have earned the right to choose their successor. Or they sincerely believe they know the best person and can’t imagine someone unknown to them might deserve a shot at the seat.

  • Next time---

    In two years perhaps you should start beating this drum in January. Remind us how often it happens. Remind would-be challengers that they can file for the seat and later withdraw their petition if the incumbent really does also file. They don’t need to announce that it was attempted. They don’t need to file until the last day. They will be doing a public service.

  • Solution to these shenanigans

    I have a solution to these shenanigans: Primary everyone.

    Also, while we’re at it, shame and shun those who pulled that @#%$

  • Creepy.

    There should be some penalty if you appear creepy in public. Dawson should at least pay a fine.

  • an earlier filing deadline for incumbents seems like a reasonable bipartisan thing people could back

    unfortunately, it would require the current legislators to actually weaken their position (however slightly).

    • and it would weaken the leaders in particular

      because they benefit from being able to recruit people ahead of secret retirements. The recruits are likely to support them in future leadership elections.