For the second straight year, Iowa Senate Democrats will head into the legislative session with a new minority leader. Senators met at the Capitol today to elect Janet Petersen, replacing Rob Hogg, who had led the caucus since last November.
Petersen was first elected to the Senate in 2012 after serving six terms in the Iowa House. She is best-known among party activists as a champion for women's reproductive rights, having led the Senate opposition to defunding Planned Parenthood during this year's legislative session.
As chair of the Senate Oversight Committee in 2014, Petersen also championed state government reforms after a series of scandals involving cronyism, retaliation against whistleblowers, and secret settlements for former employees. Scroll to the end of this post for more background on the new minority leader.
Nearly a year ago, Senators had unanimously picked Hogg after Mike Gronstal--who had served as either minority or majority leader for a remarkable 20 years--lost his 2016 re-election bid. Hogg told James Q. Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette today that stepping down was not his choice. He later commented to Bleeding Heartland via e-mail,
The Senate Democrats voted to make a change in leadership today. I am very proud of my effort as leader over the last 11 months to recruit strong candidates, raise money, and inspire hope among Democratic activists. All of those things are needed so we can compete across Iowa and give voters a chance to return Democrats to the majority in 2018. That is the only way we can un-do the damage done by Branstad, Reynolds, and Republicans in the 2017 legislative session. I wish Senator Petersen good luck and am confident that she will do a good job leading the Senate Democrats to victory in 2018.
Democrats have announced candidates in most of the Senate districts likely to be competitive next year. Challengers have also stepped up to take on Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix and Senate President Jack Whitver. Both were unopposed in 2014, allowing GOP leaders to shovel all the money they raised at targeted races.
Pat Rynard (a former Senate Democratic campaign staffer) asserted at Iowa Starting Line, "frustrations behind the scenes over lackluster fundraising from Hogg precipitated the change." When campaign finance disclosure forms are filed in January, we'll find out how much Petersen improved on that front.
I suspect fundraising for Senate Democrats will remain below levels seen in the previous two or three election cycles. The last six years Gronstal was in charge, he could tell donors his caucus was the only thing keeping Iowa from becoming the next Kansas or Wisconsin. Now our state is well down that depressing road, and many Democrats believe the party has a better chance of winning the 2018 governor's race than of picking up the six Senate seats needed to take back the upper chamber. Only a few Republican-held seats look like promising targets in the coming election cycle.
Adding to the challenge, many of the "usual suspects" among major Democratic donors have been writing five-figure checks to Fred Hubbell's gubernatorial campaign. He's probably raised at least $1.5 million in four months, whereas the 2014 nominee for governor, Jack Hatch, raised about $1.8 million during the whole election cycle.
Petersen told me via Facebook message, "Senator Hogg laid great groundwork in candidate recruitment and fund raising. I am looking forward to building on his work as we head into the next session and 2018 election cycle. Our goal is to regain the majority in 2018." If the groundwork was so strong, why the change?
It was a caucus decision to make some changes going into next session and the 2018 campaign cycle. Senator Hogg is an important part of our team and a long-time friend. He has helped build Democratic enthusiasm across our state and we are grateful for the groundwork he put in place.
On Democratic social media feeds today, I saw some cheer Petersen's selection, noting that she is the first woman to lead the Democratic caucus. (Iowa Senate Republicans picked Mary Lundby as their leader in 2006.) Others expressed concern; they appreciated Hogg's message-driven approach and welcoming stance toward newer activists, including many who were energized by the Bernie Sanders campaign or the Indivisible movement.
I asked Petersen whether Democrats were planning to emphasize different legislative priorities. She responded, "We will have our policy caucus before session. Iowans can count on us pushing for good paying jobs, strong public schools and working to ensure our state still has health care Iowans can access." Democrats are expected to introduce legislation proposing a "public option" for Iowans to purchase insurance through Medicaid, regardless of income level.
I also saw a number of Democrats not living in Polk County speculate that Petersen's selection portended a Des Moines-centric view. When I asked about that perception, Petersen countered, "Our leadership team includes people from all over the state." True: Minority Whip Amanda Ragan is from Mason City, and only one of the six assistant minority leaders (Matt McCoy) is from Des Moines. The others are Joe Bolkcom (Iowa City), Bill Dotzler (Waterloo), Rita Hart (Clinton County), Liz Mathis (Cedar Rapids suburbs) and Herman Quirmbach (Ames).
Senator Wally Horn told Lynch,
“I don’t think anything good comes out of this,” he said. “I don’t know how much worse it is. I think it is more toward the negative direction than the positive.
“I just can’t see anything better coming out of it, but when you’re in the Legislature, everyone has an ego,” said Horn, a former Democratic majority leader. He suggested the change was driven by incumbents who are up for re-election in 2018 who thought not enough attention was being paid to them.
Final note: Hogg had vowed to stay neutral in the Democratic primary for governor, but Petersen endorsed fellow Democratic Senator Nate Boulton months ago, as did Bolkcom, Hart, Mathis, and Quirmbach. (Earlier this month McCoy endorsed Hubbell.) Boulton did not attend today's caucus meeting in Des Moines; he had previously scheduled a campaign event in Hancock County.
Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.
Iowa Senate Democrats press release, October 22:
Democratic members of the Iowa Senate elected Sen. Janet Petersen of Des Moines today to serve as the new Democratic Leader of the Iowa Senate.
Senator Petersen released this statement:
“I am honored to have the support of my fellow Democratic Senators.”
“Last session, the Republican-controlled Senate passed damaging policies that went after hard-working Iowans and their pocketbooks. Senate Democrats are focused on helping Iowans get ahead. It’s time to get our state moving in a direction that reflects real Iowa values.”
“Senate Democrats are united in supporting hard working families, students, seniors and Iowa’s quality of life. We will work to find common ground with Statehouse Republicans, but we will never back down from our commitment to good-paying jobs, having the best education in the nation, revitalizing our small towns and big cities, and enhancing the quality of life for all Iowans.”
Petersen is in her second term in the Iowa Senate after serving six terms in the Iowa House of Representatives. She represents Senate District 18 in northwest Des Moines.
Throughout her tenure, Petersen has served on a variety of committees, most recently as the ranking member on the Commerce Committee, she also serves on the Government Oversight, Judiciary, State Government and Ways & Means committees.
Petersen was born in Beaverdale and has lived in northwest Des Moines most of her life. She graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in Communications and earned a master’s degree in Integrated Communications from Drake University.
In 2008, Petersen founded a nonprofit organization with four other central Iowa women called Healthy Birth Day. The organization, best known for its Count the Kicks campaign, is devoted to preventing stillbirths and improving birth outcomes.
Petersen and her husband, Brian Pattinson, have three children.
The next session of the Iowa General Assembly will convene on Monday, January 8, 2018.
UPDATE: From a message Hogg sent to his e-mail list on October 23:
I want to tell you about several upcoming events, but first I want to address the news you may have heard from yesterday that Iowa Senate Democrats voted to change leaders from myself to Senator Janet Petersen.
I am proud of the work I have done as our leader over the last 11 months: to lead the Senate Democrats through the ugliest and most damaging legislative session of my lifetime; to help win special elections for Jim Lykam, Monica Kurth, and Dr. Phil Miller; and to recruit candidates, raise money, and inspire hope for Iowans that we can actually compete across our state and give voters the chance to return Democrats to the majority in the Iowa Senate in 2018, not some distant future.
The majority of the Senate Democrats voted for a new leader. I hope Iowans will continue to support Senate Democrats and all legislative Democrats. I am confident that Senator Petersen will do a good job leading the Senate Democrats to victory in 2018 so we can un-do the damage being done to our state and get Iowa going forward again for good-paying jobs, the best schools, health care for all, and safe, healthy, vibrant, inclusive, and growing communities in every county in Iowa.
As for me, I will continue to do all I can to represent the people of Cedar Rapids, work on issues like water management and climate change that are so important for our future, and look for additional ways to make a better future for Iowa. I also will continue to urge Iowans to renew our spirit of citizenship, uplift our democracy, organize and speak up to stop further damage at both the state and federal level, and help us take back the Iowa House, the Iowa Senate, the Governor’s office, and Congress in the 2018 elections – the biggest political comeback in Iowa’s history.
SECOND UPDATE: Speaking to the Des Moines Register's Kathie Obradovich suggested she wouldn't be changing the direction of her caucus in a significant way.
If Democrats in the Senate weren’t looking to change direction, why change leaders?
“I don’t know, maybe they were looking for a scrappy entrepreneur,” Petersen said with a laugh.
She didn't confirm that fundraising worries drove the leadership change, but Senator Jeff Danielson told Obradovich a “small group” of senators felt "we’re going to need to raise more money than we presently are and people thought maybe Janet could be better at that."
Danielson wants broader changes in "how we’re actually doing business" as a party, since “The pendulum effect will not save us in Iowa. The math of elections will not save us." He discussed his views on the mechanics of campaigning and Democrats' "culture problem" at length with Bleeding Heartland this summer.
For his part, Hogg told Obradovich,
“I’m obviously disappointed. I will tell you I actually think they made a mistake in changing leaders.”
He doggedly defends his leadership, candidate and volunteer recruitment and fundraising for the next election. “We have raised more money than the Senate Democrats had raised at this point two years ago,” he said, adding that he has worked to expand the party’s donor base in recognition that it was harder for the minority party to raise money.
“That’s why I had this view that we needed to substantially broaden the donor base and why, to me, we needed to be increasing the number of donors, which we were doing in a significant way,” Hogg said. “And that’s a different model of fundraising.”