The 17 most-viewed Bleeding Heartland posts of 2017

I had mixed feelings about compiling last year’s review of highest-traffic posts. Being hyper-aware of clicks and views can be demoralizing, because the most labor-intensive stories rarely attract the most attention.

On the other hand, it’s fascinating to see what strikes a chord with readers. A preview of stores coming to an outlet mall in Altoona was the fourth most-read Des Moines Register article of 2017. The second most popular New York Times story contained highlights from a boxing match. And this year’s highest-traffic piece at USA Today was about the “kiss cam” at the NFL Pro Bowl.

During an unusually eventful year in Iowa politics, some hot topics at Bleeding Heartland were predictable. But surprises were lurking in the traffic numbers on posts published during 2017 (418 written by me, 164 by other authors).

Bleeding Heartland’s traffic ticked up this year, due to progressive backlash against Donald Trump’s presidency and the Republican trifecta in Iowa. Approximately 75 posts published during 2017 drew more clicks than last year’s sixteenth most-viewed piece.

Since some posts that were close to my heart missed this list by only a few hundred views, here are the “honorable mentions”:

One White House reporter’s stunning inside view of access journalism

Major battle shaping up for Iowa House district 82

Kim Reynolds misled public about Iowa attorney general’s view of her powers

This is a witch hunt (the first of Tracy Leone’s commentaries about the power struggle in Muscatine)

Let the countdown commence:

17. Iowa Republicans unprepared for backlash on Planned Parenthood funding

Hundreds of people showed up at the Capitol for an Iowa Senate subcommittee hearing on a bill to create a new state-run family planning program, excluding Planned Parenthood. That January day was one of the first signs that rank-and-file activists were ready to fight the GOP’s radical legislative agenda, even though the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

My writing about previous Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services had never generated a lot of traffic, possibly because in past years, Iowa politics-watchers knew the Democratic-controlled Senate would hold the line.

16. Sexual harassment investigator had warned Iowa senators about clerks’ attire

My tipster learned in mid-November that Secretary of the Iowa Senate Charlie Smithson had been charged with investigating alleged sexual harassment in the Senate Republican caucus over the summer. She mentioned that months earlier, Smithson had shocked an audience of prospective women candidates when he mentioned that it makes some of the men “sweat” if skirts in the chamber get too short.

Although there was no published list of participants in that 50-50 in 2020 event, I tracked down several other women who were there and asked whether they recalled anything noteworthy about Smithson’s remarks. All immediately brought up his comments about young women’s attire. Even better, one thought she had taped the whole afternoon session. She eventually found the recording, allowing me to confirm that Smithson said, among other things:

A lot of the clerks you get are younger, and unfortunately, sometimes the females wear some stuff that kind of drew some attention. And so part of my job is to go to the member and say, “Hey, you might want to tell your clerk to wear something different. Some of our older male members are starting to sweat a little bit, right? OK? You know what I mean?”

15. Early clues about the Kim Reynolds leadership style are not encouraging

A few weeks before then Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds was set to take over for Governor Terry Branstad, I was blown away by how she reacted to Attorney General Tom Miller’s opinion on her constitutional powers. Her handlers and Republican allies had gone to a lot of trouble to convince journalists that she was a careful researcher who “takes perspectives from others” and “studies really hard.”

Yet when Miller told her something she didn’t want to hear, she led a full-court press to portray the attorney general as unprincipled and partisan. She asserted that he shouldn’t have weighed in on this legal question. She complained that Miller had caused “some problems” for her because “I laid out my plan and started the process [of selecting a lieutenant governor] based on what he told us in December.”

When I wrote this post the first weekend in May, I didn’t know that the whole victim routine was based on a false premise. The attorney general’s staff had informed top aides in the governor’s office a full month in advance that Miller had revised his opinion about Reynolds’ authority.

14. Why did Branstad and Reynolds request transition funds they didn’t need?

I didn’t expect this post to end up on this list. August tends to be a lower-traffic month, and no other Iowa political reporters had picked up on this story, which sought to explain a curious sequence of events:

• Branstad did not include any funds for the gubernatorial transition in his January draft budget for fiscal year 2018, even though he knew he would soon turn over the reins to Reynolds.

• Branstad’s revised FY2018 budget, released in late March, also did not request any funds for the gubernatorial transition.

• Sometime before April 18, the governor’s office asked legislative appropriators to add a $150,000 line item “for expenses incurred during the gubernatorial transition.”

• The governor’s office spent none of those dollars, because as they could have anticipated when they made the last-minute request, the transition occurred before the end of the 2017 fiscal year and cost far less than $150,000.

I believe the unnecessary appropriation was intended to serve a different political purpose for Branstad and Reynolds.

13. Union-backed candidates win many Iowa school board seats

The Republican evisceration of public employee collective bargaining rights was one of the biggest Iowa politics stories of the decade. The policy will be a disaster for teacher recruitment and retention. That said, this post focused on one small silver lining: allies of educators elected many school board members who will advocate for better teacher contracts going forward.

12. Everything you want to know about Iowa’s horrible new collective bargaining law

Only nine days after publishing a draft bill on collective bargaining, Republican lawmakers cut off debate in both chambers and swept away a system that had served Iowans well for more than four decades. To help readers make sense of what happened, I published statements by legislative leaders from both parties and documents prepared by Iowa House Democratic and Republican staff, which discussed how the new law would affect collective bargaining rights for different types of public employees.

11. We are not the ones we were waiting for

After months of trying to make peace between conflicting Iowa Democratic Party factions, superstar volunteer Laura Hubka resigned as a member of the party’s State Central Committee, the first Congressional district committee, and as chair in Howard County.

She explained her difficult decision in this open letter, which many Iowa Democrats shared on social media when it first appeared in October. Her words reached quite a few readers outside Iowa in November, when David Wasserman linked to this post in his excellent profile of Howard County for FiveThirtyEight.

10. Higher education, human services take biggest hit in final Branstad budget cuts

Stuff that didn’t happen before 2017: publish a detailed post about the state budget on a Saturday morning, get more than 200 shares on Facebook. The Branstad administration had tried to bury this news in a late Friday letter to state lawmakers, with no accompanying press release.

9. Four things I learned about the Iowa Republicans who just voted to defund Planned Parenthood

My report on the Iowa Senate debate and party-line vote to create a new family planning program, excluding Planned Parenthood clinics as qualified providers. Some GOP lawmakers, including Senators Mark Costello, Jason Schultz, Jeff Edler, and floor manager Amy Sinclair, at times appeared to have no idea what they were talking about.

8. Grassley, Ernst vote against Harvey aid/debt ceiling package

I’ve been writing about Congressional votes for ten years. Rarely have those pieces generated a lot of clicks. None have reached as large an audience as this one did. My hunch on why: other Iowa news organizations said little, if anything, about how our state’s senators voted in their reports on the Hurricane Harvey aid package. Incidentally, all four Iowans in the U.S. House voted for the same legislation in the lower chamber.

7. Iowa House Republican repeatedly refers to constituent with gay slur

State Representative Ralph Watts was never going to win any congeniality awards. When he made gratuitous and offensive comments about his 2016 Democratic challenger Bryce Smith at a weekend legislative forum, Bryce’s husband Kale Smith caught the whole exchange on tape.

6. The real reason Iowa Republicans want to break public unions

This piece analyzed two of the most blatant union-busting provisions of the Republican collective bargaining bill, then on a fast track to passage: a mandate to hold recertification elections before every new contract negotiation, and a ban on automatically deducting public union dues from payroll checks.

Few Republicans who voted for this bill could have won seats in the legislature under the rules they imposed on organized labor. Even so, almost all the bargaining units for Iowa’s largest public-sector unions voted to recertify this fall.

5. Branstad bill would reduce insurance coverage for mental health care

I had another post in mind for that Friday morning in February, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to complete it before a 10:30 appointment. Casting around for a story I could write quickly, I noticed a Facebook friend had shared an action alert from the Iowa Mental Health Counselors Association. A bill proposed by the governor would make mental health counselors “registered” rather than “licensed.”

I probably spent about 20 minutes on this piece, which warned, “The likely consequence would be insurance companies refusing to cover services by unlicensed providers, depriving Iowans of access to therapy unless they are able to pay the full cost of mental health counseling out of pocket.” I published, shared the link on Facebook and Twitter, and went to my appointment. Within hours, more readers had viewed it than I get on a typical post over several days.

Branstad’s licensing bill didn’t even make it out of subcommittee. A less extreme version introduced by a Republican House member also went nowhere.

4. Where did the Iowa I love go? A student’s perspective

First-time guest author T.J. Foley, a high school student from West Des Moines, contributed this commentary two days after the Iowa legislature had wrapped up its destructive work for the year. He began on a downbeat note: “As a high school senior, son of a teacher, and lifelong Iowan I am increasingly disillusioned with the direction of this state.” He closed with a call to action: “Although darkness settled on Iowa in January and continues to hover over us today, as citizens, we have the power to bring about the dawn of new leadership in 2018 by voting. I suggest we use it.”

The favorable response from readers of all ages was overwhelming.

3. Democrats dropped the ball in Iowa House district 22 special election

I can only guess why so many people were interested in a Sunday morning post about a June election in a not-particularly-competitive Iowa House district. Frustrated Democrats couldn’t believe experienced hands had failed to ensure that a novice candidate submitted his nominating papers on time. For amused Republicans, the story reinforced their views about the other major party’s incompetence. Some jubilant Libertarians shared the link to underscore that unlike Democrats, they had completed a basic organizational task.

A few weeks later, Republicans held this seat, as expected. The Democratic candidate received more than four times as many votes as a write-in than the Libertarian managed with his name on the ballot.

2. Czech newspaper: Steve King’s name submitted for U.S. ambassador

Sigh.

The tip came from an old friend who has closely followed Czech politics for more than 25 years. Citing two unnamed diplomatic sources, one of the most respected Czech newspapers had reported that Representative Steve King might be President Trump’s choice for U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.

My husband reminded me that Czech President Milos Zeman is a pro-Trump buffoon. We figured that if Czech diplomats were freaking out over King becoming the next ambassador, they might try to scuttle the appointment by leaking the news to a media outlet with a good reputation in the business community.

King enjoys visiting central Europe. He had met with Trump at the White House in March, to talk about health care reform. Was it possible they had discussed other matters too?

I got the tip on May 18. Two weeks earlier, King’s chief of staff had abruptly announced she was taking a new job in Washington. Did she know something we didn’t know?

It was after hours, too late to seek comment from King’s office, and I didn’t have the new communications staffer’s cell phone number. If I waited until the next day, someone else might get the scoop on a huge Iowa politics story.

Since I wasn’t able to confirm the report, I didn’t claim in my post that King was going to be the ambassador. I was careful to attribute the story to a Czech newspaper, which cited unnamed sources and could not get a comment from the U.S. embassy in Prague. One of the Czech reporters later told my husband that King’s staff had not responded to his inquiry.

King is a nationally-known figure whom many Democrats love to hate, so my post spread rapidly on Twitter. Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg was first to correct the record: “Sorry, Iowa. It’s not our US Rep @SteveKingIA. Different Steve King, Trump aides tell me.” I updated my post, tweeted a correction, and pinned the correction to my Twitter profile. Initially, I didn’t delete the original tweet, because I didn’t want to appear to be erasing evidence. By the time I deleted it the following day, hundreds of people had shared what appeared to be news that King was leaving the country.

Now I know the right way to handle this situation: take a screen shot of the misleading tweet, then delete it and post your correction with the photo to limit the spread of the information.

1. Iowa House Republican: I received Planned Parenthood services, we need to preserve access to health care

After attending the first Linn County League of Women Voters forum during the legislative session, a reader shared a newsworthy nugget. Responding to a question about Planned Parenthood funding, newly elected Republican State Representative Ashley Hinson had revealed she was a former Planned Parenthood client and had called for preserving access to reproductive health care services. Hinson (a former journalist) did not respond to my request for clarification.

I was anxious to confirm this story, which hadn’t been reported anywhere else, as far as I knew. A technical issue with the livestream prevented me from listening to the later portions of the Saturday morning forum until a cleaned-up version was posted to YouTube the following Tuesday. Indeed, Hinson had said, “When I first moved to town here eleven years ago, I couldn’t get in to an OB/GYN for over a year. And I did receive services from Planned Parenthood.” She further promised, “We need to make sure those services are available, and that will be my top concern in dealing with this bill as it comes forward in the Iowa House.”

I wrote the post in a hurry, under pressure to get to a meeting by 10 am. It took off on Facebook.

For reasons I was unable to determine, House leaders never brought the Senate-approved bill defunding Planned Parenthood to the floor as a stand-alone measure. Several Republicans in addition to Hinson had expressed doubts, but surely they could have found 51 votes for the bill among the 59 GOP caucus members. In the end, the new family planning program language was included in the massive health and human services budget. Hinson voted yes.

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