Leadership contest may leave Iowa Democrats more divided than before

UPDATE: Derek Eadon was the winner; have added more about the meeting below, along with the audio from his first comments to reporters as state party chair and background on the new vice chairs. Democrats avoided a polarizing result today.

For many years, the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee “elected” the state chair in name only. In reality, insiders rubber-stamped a decision made by one person (Senator Tom Harkin, Governor Tom Vilsack, or Governor Chet Culver). So I was thrilled to see an open competition among four talented people seeking the top position in 2015. Contrary to some predictions, that race was not a foregone conclusion for the establishment’s favorite candidate; Andy McGuire needed three ballots to win.

The spirited campaign to become state party chair for the next two years is encouraging, considering the huge challenges facing our party after losses in November exceeding most people’s expectations.

I decided early not to endorse any candidate, because everyone in the field brought valuable skills and experience to the table. Reading the pieces posted here by Julie Stauch, Kurt Meyer, Derek Eadon, Sandy Dockendorff, Blair Lawton, and Kim Weaver, along with messages to State Central Committee members from Mike Gronstal and Bob Krause, I felt confident that whoever won would understand the key tasks facing the party and could draw on many good ideas floated during the process.

As today’s election approached, I have become increasingly concerned that the outcome will leave Iowa Democrats more angry and divided–party because the voting procedure won’t allow for consensus-building, and partly because some old hands simply don’t understand the mindset of many activists energized by the Bernie Sanders campaign.


In January 2015, State Central Committee members voted for a favorite among the four candidates running for party chair. When no one had a majority after the first ballot, the candidate receiving the fewest votes was eliminated, and the committee voted again. The second ballot wasn’t decisive either, leading to a third vote between finalists McGuire and Meyer.

I assumed a similar procedure would elect the Iowa Democratic leader this time around, but last month, State Central Committee members voted to use a single ballot, ranking all of the candidates from favorite to least favorite. Staff will tally the results, eliminating contenders one by one. After any voter’s top choice has been excluded, that ballot will be counted for the second ranked person. If the number two candidate is out, then the ballot will be counted for whoever was ranked third, and so on. Procedure geeks can read this three-page document explaining the complicated rules in more detail:

Ranked choice or instant runoff voting has a lot of advantages when you’re dealing with large groups, as when hundreds of people at an Iowa Democratic district or state convention need to elect delegates from a large field.

But with only 49 people on the State Central Committee, a series of ballots would not have been logistically difficult.

Stauch withdrew from the race this week, telling committee members by e-mail that under these rules, “I do not have sufficient support to make it through the elimination process.” That leaves a field of seven candidates. At most, six ballots would be required to pick a winner.

The drive to elect the party chair on a single ballot came from people who are relatively new to the State Central Committee, having been brought into party leadership as district convention delegates for Sanders. I sought comment on the rules from many committee members. Those on the Sanders wing who responded all praised the new procedure. Here’s what Holly Herbert, who offered the motion to use instant-runoff voting for the state chair election, told me:

My motivation was not necessarily to save time, but instead to encourage the SCC members to look at the available candidates based on their qualifications and to encourage discussion before the election date, both between SCC members themselves and for SCC members to talk one-on-one with the candidates.

From Jason Frerichs:

I support the system. I voted in favor of the resolution. I feel ranked choice voting is fairest way. Every system has its flaws but I feel this system will choose a candidate the majority are comfortable with.

From Annaleah Moore:

I did vote in favor of the proposal at the December 17 meeting. Because IRV is a part of our platform, it makes sense to use it for our officer elections. We want to be consistent with what we say we support and what we actually do.

From Mike Carberry:

I’m not concerned. SCC members just need to be very thoughtful before they vote knowing that they need to get it right the first and only time.

In contrast, some Democrats who have been involved in party politics for many years view the rule quite negatively. From Rick Smith:

I voted against the change and believe it was a mistake. […] I would have preferred to have repeated ballots until we reached a consensus on a candidate that might have been acceptable to everyone. I’m concerned the IRV voting method has increased the division between the two factions. It has resulted in the two factions digging in on their preferred choices rather than be open to persuasion and compromise.

From Marcia Fulton:

I voted against this method and do not like it. I don’t like ranking the entire ballot. I like individual votes as I believe as you see the climate change (candidate fails to gain support) you can adjust your choices. I also do not like phone in voting. I think you need to be in the room, to talk to other SCC members, to share concerns or thoughts, to exchange input or consideration.

Bill Brauch was even more discouraged:

I was the first to speak against ranked choice voting at the December SCC meeting. It is a fine system when you have multiple candidates and thousands of voters. It makes no sense at all in the context of a small election like this, with only 50 voters. I am extremely disappointed that this process will be used. Robert’s Rules of Order says it best in stating the big downside of this method of voting: “it affords less freedom of choice than repeated balloting, because it denies voters the opportunity of basing their second or lesser choices on the results of the earlier ballots”. One of my objections at the SCC meeting was exactly that – that this method of voting denies us the ability to make a fresh analysis after each round. I really hate losing that. Robert’s Rules also says that ranked voting should not be used when the traditional voting method is available. It is unfortunate that the SCC made this decision, particularly as how it was made at a meeting a lot of members couldn’t attend due to bad weather and bad driving conditions, though we did have a quorum.

The most extensive case against this voting method came from John McCormally:

Instant run-off voting should have a place in certain IDP elections, but utilizing it in the race for IDP chair is unnecessary and has proven to be counterproductive. IRV is useful when there are logistical issues, such as large numbers of voters or when there are multiple slots to fill, such as at a convention. The caucus review committee recommendation I authored advocates using IRV to count absentees in future caucuses. That’s the kind of scenario where IRV works.

For IDP chair, there is one slot to fill. There are 50 voters, and they are all in the same place. We don’t need IRV to solve logistical problems.

The problem with IRV is factions. Stanford researchers report IRV “forces candidates into opposing camps, slugging it out in a verbal prizefight…where no one is willing to make deals.”

Indeed, this is exactly what’s happened in the IDP chair race. Different factions are seeking to marshal voters, trying not only to get their preferred candidate elected, but openly advocating to rank a certain candidate last in order to ensure that candidate’s defeat. This is further deepening the wounds left from 2016 and preventing the party from moving forward.

At a time when we should be trying to build consensus, instead we are refighting the same fights.

In an election governed by a series of ballots, there is opportunity in the time between votes—opportunity to persuade supporters of an eliminated candidate, opportunity for productive discussion, and most importantly, the opportunity to engage each other as human beings as opposed to viewing the other side as the enemy who must be defeated.

By moving to IRV, we haven’t even tried to build consensus. There’s going to be one ballot, and 20 minutes later, once the votes are tallied, we’ll have a winner. No matter who wins, half the SCC is going to be angry. Not disappointed—angry. And we still have to work together for the next 18 months. This has been the saddest chapter of my six years on the SCC, and its not going to get better after Saturday.

Indeed, some Sanders supporters are urging their allies to rank Gronstal last. By the same token, some Gronstal supporters plan to rank Lawton last. Lawton worked on the Sanders campaign, as did many of his public endorsers.

A game theorist could come up with several plausible scenarios, but as Pat Rynard noted, “No one has any idea” what’s going to happen at today’s meeting. Letting people rethink their options as candidates were eliminated probably would have mitigated the hard feelings.

Another concern for me: some of Gronstal’s supporters do not seem aware that he is a polarizing figure.


Gronstal managed a one-seat Iowa Senate majority with exceptional skill for six years, during which he never had a defector on any important legislative vote. He kept the barbarians at the gate, stopping dozens of bad bills from reaching Governor Terry Branstad’s desk. He helped pass some very good legislation. He also raised millions of dollars to help retain the Senate majority, and everyone agrees that rebuilding the Iowa Democratic Party will require strong fundraising ability. (Whether Gronstal would be able to raise a comparable amount of money now that he’s out of power is an open question.)

To labor Democrats, or those most involved in protecting marriage equality and reproductive rights, Gronstal has been in their corner on every big fight. On some of those battles, it would have been easier for him to cave. Most of his constituents would surely have supported a 20-week abortion ban, and they probably weren’t thrilled about the Iowa Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling in 2009. One of the plaintiffs in the Varnum v Brien case, Ingrid Olson, argued passionately for Gronstal at the December State Central Committee meeting. Gronstal’s courage in welcoming the Supreme Court decision, then forcefully and repeatedly blocking Republican efforts to overturn it, will long be remembered.

On the other hand, views of Gronstal are mixed in environmental circles and among Democrats who care most deeply about getting big money out of politics. Under Gronstal’s leadership, Big Ag sometimes got what it wanted, but the Iowa Senate didn’t enact any major recommendations from Iowa’s Climate Change Advisory Council. Even worse, environmentalists periodically had to fight bad legislation related to factory farms or nuclear power. UPDATE: Should also have mentioned that Gronstal pushed Senate Democrats to agree to the costly 2013 commercial property tax cut, which helped a few business owners while starving the state of resources needed for education in subsequent years.

Gavin Aronsen observed at Iowa Informer last month,

Since 2000, Gronstal has received strong financial support from unions. However, he’s also taken cash from groups viewed unfavorably by progressives, including $47,500 from Wells Fargo; $31,000 from Walmart; $13,562 from the Iowa Farm Bureau; $13,000 from Richard Stark, a major backer of Branstad’s gubernatorial comeback; $11,900 from Monsanto; $11,200 from the Iowa Association of Business and Industry; $8,900 from Advance America, a payday lender; and $2,500 from Energy Transfer Partners, whose subsidiary Dakota Access LLC is constructing the Bakken crude oil pipeline.

Democrats did not pass any meaningful campaign finance reform during the four years our party controlled the Iowa House, Senate, and governor’s office. Some people involved with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement still talk about the time Gronstal directed an expletive at an elderly Iowa woman who came to the capitol to advocate for the public financing system known as Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections.

In my conversations about the party leadership contest with various people who closely follow Iowa Democratic politics, I’ve been alarmed to learn that many don’t realize a sizable number of activists view Gronstal antagonistically.

One person told me he isn’t worried about progressives accepting Gronstal, citing Olson, who was a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. I assure you, her views on Gronstal are not shared by many of Bernie’s biggest Iowa fans. Overwhelmingly, they want a fresh face to lead the party forward. If not Lawton, then at least someone who hasn’t been calling so many of the shots for so many years. Olson spoke for many “Berniecrats” in her harsh post-election assessment of the state of affairs in the Democratic Party. She slammed the insiders who (in her view) “anointed” Hillary Clinton “because all the ‘good old boys’ in the Dem elite knew it was ‘her turn’.”

The problem isn’t just that Gronstal was a long-serving legislator who endorsed Clinton and became a superdelegate for her. More important, he will struggle to be seen as impartial in the next crucial race for Iowa Democrats.

Gronstal was instrumental in getting McGuire elected as state party chair two years ago. Now she is a near-certain candidate for governor next year. Who’s going to believe the party apparatus controlled by Gronstal is neutral in that a gubernatorial primary pitting McGuire against Rich Leopold and one or two other candidates?

One other matter, which to my knowledge has not been discussed among State Central Committee members, could become explosive in the near future. Gronstal is rumored to have promised a very large severance package (exceeding $90,000) to outgoing Senate Democratic Majority Fund director Amber Morrow. I hesitate to bring this up, because the Iowa Democratic Party’s latest financial disclosure form does not show any such payment, nor do I have access to terms of Morrow’s contract. Gronstal has not responded to my inquiries.

Not meaning to denigrate Morrow’s hard work over more than a decade with the party, I’ve never heard of a large severance payment for someone leaving a Democratic political job in this state. Morrow was already well compensated by Iowa standards. If these rumors are accurate, and a big check is cut shortly after Gronstal becomes the new party leader, a lot of people will be furious.

The Iowa Democratic Party has many pressing needs. Its current office building is in terrible shape. The work of the committee formed to analyze the catastrophic 2016 election outcome will require some funding. Improving our organization and rural outreach will cost a lot of money.

Since October, the state party spent more than $106,000 (to be precise, $88,221.62 and $18,154.86) to help Jim Lykam hold what should have been a safe Iowa Senate seat in Davenport. The party ended the year with $758,107.84 cash on hand and $206,000 in outstanding loans. We’re not in the red, but we’re not rolling in dough either.

The rules governing today’s vote call for those nominated to tell State Central Committee members “whether or not they require compensation” if chosen as state party leader. Nominees should also tell the committee whether they have recently made or promised to make any major expenditures on the party’s behalf.

Any comments about the future for Iowa Democrats are welcome in this thread. I will update this post later.

UPDATE: As expected, all seven candidates were nominated for state party chair. All except for Meyer indicated that they would require compensation if elected. Each candidate spoke for several minutes; I posted highlights on Twitter (Dockendorff, Eadon, Gronstal, Krause, Lawton, more Lawton, Meyer, more Meyer, Weaver , more Weaver).

Committee members had about ten minutes to fill out ballots, which party staff counted in the presence of observers for approximately 20-30 minutes. Eadon was declared the winner, I assume on the strength of being the second or third choice of many in the Gronstal or Lawton camps. I am seeking further information about the ballot preferences and will update this post when possible. Committee members elected Eadon state party chair by acclamation.

Eadon told reporters that he will dissolve his consulting firm Bluprint Strategies, because it would be a conflict of interest to do that work while leading the party. He also talked about some of his plans to improve the Iowa Democratic Party’s messaging and organization. Here’s the rest of that press conference (will transcribe excerpts later):

For those who missed it, here’s Eadon’s guest post for this site: “We Can Do Better.”

Here’s his guest post for Iowa Starting Line on priorities for the party to move forward.

Here’s his interview published on the Progressive Voices of Iowa blog.

Here’s the letter signed by thirteen former Iowa staffers or team leaders for Barack Obama on why they support Eadon for chair.

SECOND UPDATE: State Central Committee members elected Andrea Phillips first vice chair; she outlined nine ideas for putting Iowa Democrats back in position to win here. Phillips was the Democratic challenger in Iowa House district 37 (parts of Ankeny) in 2016.

Jordan Pope won the election for second vice chair; he is an undergraduate at Simpson College and chair of the Decatur County Democrats. (Decatur was Leonard Boswell territory for many years but has gone red more recently.) In a recent interview with the Progressive Voices of Iowa blog, Pope provided this short bio:

JP: I grew up on a small farm outside of Albia, Iowa. It was on this farm that I learned the values I still hold today. The values of hard work, honesty, and getting the job done. Although I’m young, I’ve experienced a lot in my life. From graduating High School in the top of my class, attending Simpson College where I now major in Political Science and Public Relations, to getting involved in the Democratic Party and becoming the youngest person to be elected a county chair, serving as 2nd Vice Chair of the 2nd District, to now serving on the State Central Committee.

Asked how he plans to help build the party, Pope said,

I believe that the key things that needs to happen as a party is that we need to engage the young voter and the minority voter, as well as retaking the rural areas that we have lost through the years. I have done this already in my short tenure as the chair of the Decatur County Democrats, where it can’t get much more rural or Republican. By making slight changes, we have increased membership and attendance at our meetings two-fold. On top of that, we have brought in a younger group of leaders. We were able to field a quality House candidate who we were proud to fight alongside. We did this while also putting our county party in a better spot financially than ever before. It is because of this that we will be in a better position moving forward to future elections. It will also be critically important that we are aggressively raising funds and in new ways. As the Finance Chair in the 2nd District I led our fundraising efforts this year. We were able to raise enough money on the night of our convention to not only pay our expenses, but also right a $10,000 check to our Congressman, Dave Loebsack’s reelection. We will end the year financially better off than ever before. I believe that if we start to build from the county up, we will achieve a stronger and more inclusive State Democratic Party. […]

We are not going to be able to rely on an outside group to come in and organize the state like in ’08. We are the party that fights for the working man and we need to embrace that and not be modest in the results that we produce. This means going beyond identified Democrats, recruiting new registrations, and convincing the independent voter that our objectives are best for their pocketbook. We can do this, but I must stress once again that it will be a county up initiative. […]

I am not going to know the best people to run out of Muscatine County, but if we provide training to our local county chairs, who are already established in the community, that’s when we get things cooking. It all starts by providing the resources needed to the county party and then going up from there.

June Owens won the election for third vice chair. She was an alternate Hillary Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. In addition to her hard work volunteering for Democrats, she recently received the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award from the Des Moines-based Pastors and Ministers Alliance.

I hope to publish guest commentaries by Pope and Owens soon.

State Central Committee members re-elected Don Ruby as party secretary. Ken Sagar was unchallenged to continue as party treasurer.

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  • Will Rogers seems appropriate

    “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

    This is why the Democratic Party will fail.