The 16 Bleeding Heartland posts I worked hardest on in 2016

For the first time last year, I put some thought into what posts had consumed the greatest amount of my energy. I realized that some of those deep dives were among my most satisfying writing projects. That new awareness informed my editorial choices in good and bad ways. Unfortunately, some election-related stories I would have covered in previous cycles didn’t get written in 2016, because I was immersed in other topics. On the plus side, those rabbit holes led to work I’m proud to have published.

Assembling this post was more challenging than last year’s version. Several pieces that would have been among my most labor-intensive in another year didn’t make the cut. A couple of posts that might have made the top ten were not ready to go before the holidays. Maybe they will end up in a future collection of seventeen posts I worked hardest on in 2017.

Some guesswork and subjective calls went into compiling this list.

Certain pieces required a strong focus, but only for a day or two, like The Polk County Democratic convention fiasco or Do endorsements matter? Donald Trump’s performance in Brad Zaun’s Iowa Senate district. Others kept pulling me back over a period of weeks. Which was the more difficult task?

I didn’t include any of the six parts in How the Iowa caucuses work or any of the three dozen Iowa wildflower Wednesday posts, even though collectively, those projects involved many hours.

Here goes:

16. Iowa Democratic Party to consider caucus improvements, but not real change.

The surprisingly narrow margin between the top two Democratic candidates raised immediate questions from the Bernie Sanders camp about the accuracy and fairness of the delegate counts. Iowa Democratic Party leaders brushed off those concerns. But about a week and a half after the precinct caucuses, state party chair Andy McGuire announced plans for a committee “to start the process of innovating and improving, while keeping in place what makes the caucus process so special.”

This post looked closely at early signals from insiders, which indicated that the reform proposals would focus on fixing execution problems but not fundamental issues, such as barriers to participation or the simple fact that unlike the Republican approach, the reported results do not tell us how many Democrats supported each presidential candidate.

I also shared some anecdotes to highlight distorting aspects of caucus math. For example, almost the same number of people caucused in Windsor Heights 1 and Ankeny 4, with an almost identical proportion of Clinton and Sanders supporters. Yet the Iowa Democratic Party reported a 50-50 tie in one precinct and a 60-40 win for Clinton in the other.

15. A close look at Republican message-testing in key Iowa House races.

Years of urging readers to stay on the phone and take detailed notes about opinion polls paid off bigly. A bunch of people living in battleground Iowa House districts contacted me in late August after receiving phone calls with damaging information about Democratic candidates and positive statements about Republicans. Thanks to those readers, I was able to listen to several recordings of the calls. The scripts previewed several talking points used in direct mail or radio and television commercials paid for by the Iowa GOP.

This post also explained the difference between a legitimate message-testing survey and a “push-poll” designed to smear a candidate.

14. NRA’s Iowa affiliate targeting four Senate Democrats.

The Iowa Firearms Coalition, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, formed a political action committee and made “flipping the Iowa Senate” a top priority this year. This post examined their choice to go after four Democratic-held seats while not playing in two districts that seemed like obvious choices. Republicans ended up winning three of the four Senate races targeted by the gun lobby, along with the two other races I had mentioned and one seat (Tom Courtney’s) that wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

The same post also covered the key items on Iowa gun advocates’ wish list and the fate of recent gun-related bills in the Iowa House and Senate.

While writing this piece, I unsuccessfully sought details about the supposedly “very successful” early fundraising for Iowa’s leading pro-gun PAC. Campaign disclosure reports later showed that about 80 percent of the money came from just two individuals: Peter Brownell, owner of a big Iowa gun store and an NRA vice president, and Ron Martinez, CEO of a company that manufactures suppressors (silencers). The irony is, the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate had already passed a bill legalizing the use of suppressors by a wide majority in March. Governor Terry Branstad signed that bill into law at the Brownell’s gun store in Grinnell.

13. Ten Iowa legislative incumbents who raised surprisingly little for their re-election campaigns.

Who doesn’t love sorting through dozens of campaign finance disclosure forms? The chore is more fun when you find out a four-term incumbent reported $0.09 (yes, nine cents) in contributions over a four-month period.

Of the lawmakers discussed here, the Republican state senator and five state representatives all won re-election by comfortable margins in November. The Democratic senator lost, as did one of the three Democrats in the lower chamber. The GOP didn’t invest much in the other two House races.

12. Iowa Senate district 16: Nate Boulton raised more money in four months than Dick Dearden did in seven years.

To illustrate a strange feature of Iowa politics (the prevalence of long-serving legislators who put almost no effort into fundraising), I went through fifteen years of campaign finance reports filed by retiring Democratic State Senator Dick Dearden. One of the candidates seeking to take Dearden’s place, Nate Boulton, raised more money in four months than the incumbent had raised in seven years. When I took out the PAC contributions that come to many incumbents automatically, I found Boulton had raised more money from individual donors in four months than Dearden had in fifteen years.

Although I got some pushback on this post, I am not done talking about entrenched incumbents who do little to support Iowa Democratic candidates in marginal districts.

11. Have the Waterloo Police implemented any recommended reforms?

I was disturbed to read this summer about several excessive use of force incidents against African-American residents of Waterloo. Seeking to understand why none of the white police officers had been disciplined, I listened to a radio appearance by Waterloo Police Chief Dan Trelka. He told the friendly interviewer about a “favorable report” his department had received from an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Upon further investigation, I learned that the review (conducted by a non-profit organization) had suggested at least ten specific steps to improve the Waterloo Police Department’s community relations and complaint process. As far as I could tell, Trelka and his staff had not acted on any of the recommendations.

By the time I published this piece, Trelka was fighting to save his job. He has since spoken about improved officer training on implicit bias and other issues. City leaders and local activists should insist that the department implement every point in this so-called “favorable report,” because the federal government won’t be scrutinizing police treatment of black people under the Trump administration.

10. Five red flags about the Iowa Democratic Party’s Caucus Review Committee.

Shortly before members of this committee met for the first time, I pulled together a bunch of clues pointing to the same conclusion: “the exercise seems destined to produce minor improvements in how the caucuses are managed, as opposed to big changes to address the caucuses’ disenfranchising and unrepresentative features.” Fellow Iowa blogger John Deeth is still angry he was excluded from the caucus review committee, and I don’t blame him.

9. Iowa county governments: Don’t inconvenience us by protecting fundamental constitutional rights.

The Griffin v Pate felon voting rights case occupied quite a bit of my mental space this year. Shortly before the Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments in March, I started writing a preview of the key points raised in the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit on behalf of Kelli Jo Griffin.

My focus shifted after I read the “friend of the court” (amicus curiae) briefs, especially the rage-inducing call by the Iowa State Association of Counties to keep tens of thousands of citizens permanently disenfranchised in the service of administrative convenience. This post picked apart the main arguments in the county governments’ brief. Whereas the association warned justices that county auditors would be unable to provide “the orderly conduct of elections” if the high court did not abandon efforts to distinguish lesser felonies from “infamous crimes,” the chief elections officer in Iowa’s largest county maintained that a new standard would not be an administrative burden.

Although I was deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court’s eventual 4-3 ruling upholding current policy on felon voting, I was glad to see none of the justices accepted the premise of the county governments. Rather, the majority made clear that the constitution allows political leaders to narrow the definition of “infamous crimes.”

8. Where Iowa’s Latino, African-American, and Asian-American voters are.

As Trump gained ground in Iowa polls during the summer, many analysts remarked on this state’s overwhelmingly white population as fertile ground for the Republican nominee. Reading all those commentaries, I wondered, how many Iowans who aren’t white might vote this year? Could a “Trump effect” boost their turnout enough to affect the outcome, given national polls showing extremely low favorability ratings for Trump among African-American, Latino, and Asian-American respondents?

I expected to finish this post within a day or two, but collecting the data and figuring out the best way to present it took weeks.

7. Why did Chief Justice Cady change his mind about felon voting rights?

Before the Iowa Supreme Court announced its decision in Griffin, voting rights advocates were counting on Chief Justice Mark Cady, largely because of a decision he wrote in 2014. In the Chiodo case, Cady had argued that to be considered an “infamous crime,” an offense “must be classified as particularly serious, and it must be a crime that reveals that voters who commit the crime would tend to undermine the process of democratic governance through elections.” The opinion inspired Griffin’s lawsuit challenging her disenfranchisement.

Normally I try to avoid speculating about another person’s state of mind, but I broke that rule for this post, hoping to make sense of how the author of the Chiodo plurality ended up writing for the majority in Griffin that Iowa’s constitution “permits persons convicted of a felony to be disqualified from voting in Iowa until pardoned or otherwise restored to the rights of citizenship.” I also was trying to figure out why my expectations had been so wrong. What had I missed about Cady’s judicial philosophy?

6. If ISU pilots chose to land at Elmira, it wasn’t for cheap fuel.

A thought experiment: could I find any evidence to support this far-fetched narrative pushed by Iowa State University staff?

[I]t wasn’t [President Steven] Leath’s plan to take his brother Ken and sister-in-law on the plane to watch the Iowa State men’s basketball team play Connecticut in 2014 in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden. The pilots wanted to refuel before entering New York City airspace and unilaterally decided to stop at the airport in Horseheads, New York, before the game, allowing the couple who lives nearby to get on at no extra cost, the school said.

The university said the pilots planned a fuel stop there after the game as well, and the couple was dropped off.

I’d already shown the previous week that a Beechcraft King Air would not have needed to refuel twice on one trip to the east coast. But I decided to dig deeper, looking for any reason a professional pilot might have chosen to stop at the Elmira Corning airport in Horseheads, if not instructed to do so. In addition, I researched March 2014 fuel prices and other expenses associated with unnecessary landings to debunk the idea that the stops in Elmira incurred “no extra cost” to ISU.

5. Why is Iowa’s secretary of state playing politics with felon voting case?

During the ten days following the Iowa Supreme Court oral arguments in Griffin v Pate, Secretary of State Paul Pate conducted an extraordinary public campaign. In newspaper editorials, radio interviews, and speeches to Iowa GOP district convention delegates, Pate misrepresented the obstacles facing felons who want to regain their voting rights. He distorted arguments the ACLU and NAACP made before the high court, as well as how a narrower definition of “infamous crimes” would affect Iowa elections. He asked Republican activists for their help in fighting what he described as a liberal agenda to let child molesters, rapists, and murderers “play a larger role in determining who our elected representatives are and who they’ll be.”

Defendants don’t usually comment on pending litigation at all, let alone in such an attention-seeking way. The least-bad explanation for Pate’s behavior was a desire to promote his own career. More ominously, some of his statements sounded like a warning about the consequences of “unelected judges” siding with “liberals” instead of “we the people.” Looking back at television commercials that targeted Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010, I saw how easy it would be for Pate and conservative allies to build a case against the three justices who were up for retention this year.

This post took longer to write than I anticipated, in part because Pate’s demagoguery got so many facts wrong. My growing sense of panic about a right-wing campaign to intimidate and punish justices didn’t help. At the time, I expected the court to resolve the case in Griffin’s favor.

4. Cedar Rapids Gazette lets reporters grab other people’s scoops without attribution.

I had no master plan to write this piece. On the contrary, I raised my concerns about journalistic practices I consider unethical in private communication with the Cedar Rapids Gazette publisher. He was not receptive to my feedback, and I let the matter drop. A couple of months later, a story about University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld revealed an open-and-shut case of a Gazette reporter matching an exclusive without giving credit. So after publishing my take on Harreld’s excessive secrecy and corporate leadership style, I researched media ethics guidelines and commentaries about proper attribution when journalists re-report news from a competitor’s scoop. Organizing my thoughts took several days more.

3. Memo to journalists: Craig Robinson’s firm makes money off the Iowa caucus campaign.

On Christmas Eve last year, Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin reported for the New York Times that Trump had “conspicuously opted against spending in conventional ways” during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. They quoted Craig Robinson, “a former Republican Party of Iowa executive director who now publishes the Iowa Republican website,” on factors driving that strategic choice: “On any given day, Trump can dominate the news coverage of the entire race.” Robinson went on to assert that Trump should have supplemented his earned media with paid television ads, direct mail, and phone banks.

What was missing from this account? Robinson runs the Global Intermediate direct mail firm, which had done some work for the Trump campaign during the summer of 2015.

The New York Times story was not an isolated case. National reporters covering the caucuses frequently quoted Robinson without mentioning his other business. I assumed the journalists didn’t know about the conflict of interest, because Robinson’s blog posts invariably failed to disclose his company’s work on behalf of campaigns or entities making independent expenditures.

For the next several weeks, I worked intermittently on this post. The first part chronicled Robinson’s financial interest in the Iowa caucus campaign, not just the small jobs for Trump but also Global Intermediate’s much more lucrative work for a super-PAC supporting Mike Huckabee. The second part cited more than two dozen articles at The Iowa Republican or social media postings, in which Robinson promoted Trump or Huckabee or discredited Ted Cruz without disclosing his company’s direct mail contracts. The third part provided a small sampling of national media reports quoting Robinson without noting that he led a firm getting paid to produce mail for or against certain presidential candidates.

2. Twelve holes in the ISU Flight Service audit.

When I went to an Iowa Board of Regents meeting on a Monday afternoon, I figured I would post something about the internal audit of ISU’s Flight Service that evening or first thing Tuesday morning. I’d been following the ISU “planegate” scandal closely. How long could it take to write up a report that contained only ten pages of substance?

The original working title (“Six holes…”) kept changing as I found more flaws in the official whitewash audit of how President Leath used university airplanes. I finally hit the publish button on Thursday afternoon, and I’ve never felt so exhausted after finishing a blog post. I can’t think of a more intense three days of writing since I was in graduate school. This post turned out to be the longest of more than 6,300 pieces I’ve written for Bleeding Heartland since 2007. That wasn’t my intention, but twelve points plus an introductory section and conclusion added up to a lot of words.

1. “The View from Nowhere” in Iowa legislative news coverage.

Just like last year, the post I worked hardest on analyzed political coverage in the Des Moines Register: in this case, a series of stories about the Iowa Department of Revenue’s unprecedented attempt to rewrite tax code through administrative rule-making.

Several times during the month-long writing process, I seriously considered spiking this piece. My hesitation stemmed from fear that the post would be received as an attack on Brianne Pfannenstiel. My goal was to critique prevailing standards in the news business, which give “both sides” equal claim to the truth. A “he said/she said” frame can distort reality while allowing a journalist to posture as a neutral observer. I kept going because I felt someone needed to raise these points, and no one else was in a position to do so.

I stand by every word in this post. But I want to make clear that I admire Pfannenstiel. Though she could have kept busy with other news likely to generate more clicks and views, this young reporter in her first year of covering the Iowa legislature recognized that the Branstad administration’s power grab merited her ongoing attention. Her persistence kept the Register’s readers better informed about an important story than consumers of any other mainstream media in Iowa.

Joyce Russell and O.Kay Henderson have much more experience at the statehouse. Yet to my knowledge, the attempt to circumvent the legislature on a sales tax break projected to cost of tens of millions of dollars a year was a one-and-done story for Iowa Public Radio. The proposal received two treatments at Radio Iowa. The first uncritically passed along the official line, not mentioning that tax code changes are supposed to go through the legislature. The second touched on the controversy, but not in the depth Pfannenstiel provided. The Associated Press, a wire service on which many Iowa media outlets depend for state government news, put out a condensed version of one Register story by Pfannenstiel and a brief a week later that was less than 130 words long, utterly failing to convey the magnitude of the developments. Later meetings of a legislative committee that considered the tax rule went unreported.

I’m grateful to all the readers who followed me into the weeds on these or other stories.

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