IA-Gov: Ron Corbett responds to critics of his labor record

As Ron Corbett seeks the GOP nomination for governor, his support of project labor agreements in Cedar Rapids will be a leading point of attack by Republicans supporting Governor Kim Reynolds. Corbett’s stance put him on a collision course with Governor Terry Branstad in 2011. The mayor explained his reasoning in chapter 25 of his memoir Beyond Promises and in an interview with Bleeding Heartland last week.

On his inauguration day in 2011, Branstad signed two executive orders: one sharply curtailing voting rights for Iowans convicted of a felony, the other barring project labor agreements for any construction project receiving state funding.

Corbett didn’t have a pro-labor record during his thirteen years in the state legislature. In Beyond Promises, he noted that “Local labor didn’t like me much” after he defeated a Democratic incumbent and union leader, Doris Peick, in his first Iowa House race.

Early on as a legislator, though, I made a point of attending regular monthly meetings of the Hawkeye Labor Council just as I went to Chamber of Commerce meetings and meetings sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The Labor Council didn’t see many Republicans at its events.

I figured that labor represented people, and, as an Iowa lawmaker, I should be listening to a lot of people, not just some. And I wanted to hear what union members had to say. For all I knew, I might need their votes.

The president of the Hawkeye Labor Council during those years still chides Corbett: “He says I’d attend labor meetings on Saturdays and vote against labor on Mondays in the Legislature. Over time, he says he came to credit me for, if nothing else, being there on Saturdays.”

As leader of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce from 1999 to 2005, Corbett sought support from labor union members for various projects: a minor-league ballpark, redevelopment along the riverfront, and a bond issue to pay for school repairs and upgrades.

After taking office as mayor in January 2010, Corbett wrote in his memoir, he and the city council “found ourselves in a once-in-a-lifetime, post-disaster, city rebuilding effort.” He had heard the Republican arguments against project labor agreements (they “drive up costs and restrict the number of contractors willing to bid on projects”). He knew the Democratic arguments in their favor (they “help employ workers in safe conditions with good wages and benefits and come with the prohibition against strikes”).

I hadn’t given project labor agreements much thought.

That’s when Ray Dochterman, who then was business manager of the local Plumbers and Pipefitters union, asked me if I had ever read such an agreement. I hadn’t. I only knew the opinions.

As I read the agreement under consideration by the city, I found it to be different from what I thought it would be. It read like a community workforce agreement that would help ensure local workers did the local work.

Having campaigned for mayor on a promise “to buy local, build local, employ local,” Corbett agreed to pursue a project labor agreement for the Cedar Rapids convention center. Local officials thought they were in the clear on the deal, signed a month before Branstad took office. But state officials refused to release $15 million in funds allocated for the convention center, saying the city had violated the governor’s executive order restricting project labor agreements.

Corbett offered two proposals, hoping “to keep the governor happy and use local labor.” One alternative would have used state funds for other areas of the convention center project (such as acquiring land or paying for professional services). Corbett’s other idea would have shifted the $15 million from the state to other rebuilding projects where no labor agreement had been signed, like the Cedar Rapids fire station and library.

Branstad refused to compromise, and Corbett and the city council backed down in June 2011, rescinding the project labor agreement for the convention center. They could have challenged the governor’s executive order in court, but Corbett wrote in Beyond Promises, “we couldn’t risk losing the $15 million state grant or the $35 million federal disaster grant for the project.”

Cedar Rapids officials ended up signing project labor agreements on other projects that did not involve state funding. That solution is no longer legal in Iowa, because during this year’s legislative session, House and Senate Republicans approved (on party-line votes) a bill banning project labor agreements for any local government projects. Branstad signed that bill into law, superseding his 2011 executive order.

Corbett disagrees with the policy, he told me last week. Here’s the audio from that portion of our June 14 interview:

I thought it was an overreach [for] two reasons. One, it’s basically the state telling local governments–school districts and cities and counties–we’re going to, we know better than you do. We’re going to take away any type of flexibility that you have.

And I thought that was really short-sighted, because they don’t know the dynamics of every community. And every community has issues it faces, and sometimes issues get linked together.

So for Cedar Rapids, we needed to rebuild right after the flood. And this came, right after the flood came the recession of 2008. We were really concerned that we were going to get some out-of-state big companies that were maybe from Minneapolis, or maybe from Chicago, that, just to keep their workers working, come in and do the low bid and then bring in all their subs [subcontractors] that they already had relationships with, and here, rebuilding our town wouldn’t be our own people.

We felt that the project labor agreement, we really looked at [it] as a workforce development agreement, that we wanted to see local people doing the jobs, and local companies.

And I can tell you, as those banners started to hang around the construction fences, certainly they’re advertising, but they’re also pride. And people could drive around town, you know, that’s where my mom or dad worked, they helped build that library. And that sense of pride.

A consultant working for Corbett’s gubernatorial campaign, Brian Dumas, told the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble this week, “We have way too much rancor in politics and people worried about getting elected rather than getting the job done. […] That’s where Ron is coming from. He’s a guy who has always worked to get the job done.” Corbett as problem-solver is a major theme running through his memoir.

Whereas many Iowa Republicans are hostile to unions and would consider any cooperation with organized labor a negative, Corbett told me his approach helped him accomplish important things for his city.

A few years later, we were trying to get a [local-option] sales tax passed for streets. And I went to labor and said, hey guys, we could use your support for this sales tax for streets. And the fact that I had built up a relationship with them on the rebuilding of Cedar Rapids through the project labor agreements, they came out and said yeah, we’ll support it. And it got passed.

See, so that’s how the dynamics of a community work. So just to look at this from some backroom committee as a favor to some special interest group, I thought was a huge, was a huge mistake. And just in general, it goes against any kind of local control that I historically believed in.

Though local control still receives lip service in the Iowa GOP platform, party leaders have almost totally abandoned the concept. In recent years, Republican lawmakers and Branstad took control over academic calendars away from school districts, pushed for a version of commercial property tax reform that will increase future costs for local governments (rejecting a Democratic alternative that “would have cut commercial property taxes while leaving local governments whole”), and banned local governments from raising the minimum wage, to name just a few examples. I am skeptical many rank-and-file Republicans care about the principle these days.

On the other hand, Corbett is banking on the idea that Iowans of all political stripes support good jobs for local residents. In the final section of his book chapter on his labor record, he portrays his labor record as consistent with past successful GOP appeals to working-class voters.

In the end, I didn’t consider the Branstad victory a defeat for the city.

Yes, I fought the governor on the labor agreement. The governor took a partisan position it, and I took a rebuilding-the-city position. From my view, Cedar Rapids residents suffered in the flood, and I wanted them to have the chance to participate in the rebuilding.

You build coalitions to get things done. To have accomplishments, it’s only logical to reach out to as many people as you can. For us in Cedar Rapids, that included the building trades unions.

If you think about it, it’s not any different than the coalition that President Ronald Reagan is credited with creating when he won the backing of some union Democrats. In fact, Republicans still fondly reminisce about the Reagan Democrats and how wonderful it was that Reagan reached into the labor movement for support.

In 2016, Donald Trump, who is credited with getting votes from some union households, did it too. […]

Trump talks about the forgotten men and women. And in rebuilding Cedar Rapids, I wanted to make sure we didn’t forget the local carpenter, plumber, pipe fitter, electrician, ironworkers, truck driver, bulldozer operator and all the rest.

Next time an Iowa community faces a natural disaster, state law will force contracts to be awarded to “the lowest responsive, responsible bidder.” Banning project labor agreements may produce the outcome Cedar Rapids leaders were trying to avoid: large out-of-state firms lowballing bids, then bringing in workers from elsewhere to complete reconstruction efforts.

You can find earlier posts on Corbett’s interview with Bleeding Heartland here (covering various tax policies) and here (covering the failure of the Branstad/Reynolds administration and Republican lawmakers to enact a plan to deal with the collapse of Iowa’s individual health insurance market). The series will continue next week.

UPDATE: Corbett spoke to the annual convention of the Iowa Professional Firefighters in Bettendorf on June 23.

Shortly after his speech, he tweeted, “Our brave first responders helped rebuild and protect Cedar Rapids during our historic floods. As Governor, I’ll have their backs.”

Seven Democratic candidates for governor also spoke at the professional firefighters’ convention. A source with the union told Bleeding Heartland that Reynolds was invited to speak as well. She didn’t show up, even though she was in the Quad Cities late last week touring downtown buildings with GOP State Senator Roby Smith.

No representative from the governor’s office spoke to the union convention on behalf of Reynolds either, which seems like a missed opportunity, since first responders are a less heavily Democratic group than other public employees. Then again, Reynolds probably wouldn’t have been well received. A few months ago, the Branstad administration and Republican state lawmakers slashed public worker collective bargaining rights and dramatically reduced workers’ compensation benefits for shoulder injuries, which are common among firefighters.

LATE UPDATE: Lobbyist Sandra Conlin previewed the Republican case against Corbett’s labor record in a July 11 tweetstorm. As the gubernatorial campaign unfolds, Reynolds and her running mate Adam Gregg will likely echo Conlin’s assertions that the convention center project labor agreement was “a lose-lose for taxpayers in Cedar Rapids” and was good for out of state unions, not Iowa workers, because local non-union companies were unable to use only existing employees. I have asked Conlin to provide evidence (if any exists) that most of the work on the convention center was not done by locals. On some other other state-funded projects completed after Branstad banned project labor agreements, contractors used mostly low-wage workers from other states.

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