The 17 Bleeding Heartland posts I worked hardest on in 2017

Since I started writing for this website a decade ago, I’ve never worked harder than I did in 2017. This momentous year in Iowa politics provided an overwhelming amount of source material: new laws affecting hundreds of thousands of people, our first new governor since 2011, and a record number of Democrats seeking federal or statewide offices.

In addition, my focus has shifted toward more topics that require time-consuming research or scrutiny of public records. As I looked over the roughly 420 Bleeding Heartland posts I wrote this year, I realized that dozens of pieces were as labor-intensive as some of those I worked hardest on in 2015 or 2016.

A few words about posts that didn’t make the cut today:

The Iowa wildflower Wednesday series takes up considerable time every spring, summer, and fall.

During the legislative session, I wrote thousands of words about some of the most consequential bills:
• eviscerating public employee collective bargaining rights;
• preventing local governments from raising the minimum wage;
• approving “Stand Your Ground” and other provisions to make it easier for Iowans to acquire, carry, and use firearms;
• changing the workers’ compensation system in ways that will disadvantage injured employees;
• enacting voter ID and other new barriers to casting ballots;
• expanding the legal use of medical cannabis (which could have been a huge step forward if key House Republicans had not nixed a bipartisan Senate bill).
• trying without success to declare that life begins at conception–an effort that died due to lack of support from Republican leaders.

I spent many hours transcribing speeches by candidates or other political figures, especially after the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame Event in July, the Progress Iowa Corn Feed in September, and the event formerly known as the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in November.

Public remarks or interviews led to lengthy posts about gubernatorial candidates Todd Prichard, Jon Neiderbach, John Norris, and Ron Corbett, secretary of state candidates Jim Mowrer and Deidre DeJear, state auditor candidate Rob Sand, and Congressional contenders Austin Frerick, Pete D’Alessandro, and Jeff Danielson. (I apologize to the few candidates whose interviews I failed to transcribe this year. I plan to write in depth about each of those campaigns before next June’s primary.)

Collectively, all of the above consumed a lot of my writing energy during 2017, but no one post required days or weeks of work, like the following seventeen did.

17. Kathy Shelton’s voice needs to be heard

I started writing this piece in October 2016, with a view to publishing soon after Hillary Clinton was elected president. I shelved the project for obvious reasons, then resurrected the concept for Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. Maybe it would have been better to spike this post. It didn’t pan out like I’d envisioned, partly because I was unable to get any questions answered by Shelton or her attorney.

16. Now we can see which Iowans will suffer most from Planned Parenthood and victims assistance cuts

I pulled an all-nighter to finish this post in time to publish on a Friday morning. In retrospect, I should have written separate stories about the impact of Republican budget decisions on family planning and victim services. While many news organizations covered Planned Parenthood’s announced clinic closures, Bleeding Heartland was first to report specifics about which programs the Iowa Attorney General’s office eliminated or cut back after GOP lawmakers slashed state funding for victims assistance. Unfortunately, that scoop got buried in the second half of this piece.

15. Major battle shaping up for Iowa House district 82

The first of a half-dozen reports on a high-stakes campaign was among the site’s 25 most-viewed posts of the year. Iowa has held five special legislative elections since November 2016, but House district 82 was the only race where Republicans spent a significant amount of money. Too bad for them their candidate was flawed.

Democrat Curt Hanson, who represented House district 82 until his death this summer, had won Iowa’s most important special election during the 2000s. His friend Phil Miller gave demoralized Democrats a shot in the arm with a convincing victory here in August.

14. If all Iowa candidates had to win under rules Republicans forced on unions

In a blatant attempt at union-busting, Republicans established onerous rules for recertification elections, which will be mandatory for every public employee bargaining unit in every contract cycle under Iowa’s new collective bargaining law. After major unions won most of those recertification votes in September and October, I decided to fact-check a common Democratic talking point, expressed by AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan as follows: “There’s not one Republican in this state that could win an election under the rules they gave us.”

I reviewed results from every 2014 and 2016 statewide and legislative race to see which candidates, if any, received votes from a majority of all registered voters, not just a plurality of those who cast ballots.

13. Iowa Democrats face incredibly difficult path back to legislative majorities (part 1)

Republicans hold 29 of the 50 Iowa Senate seats and will be gunning for independent Senator David Johnson’s district next year. In my first look at the terrain for Iowa Senate races in 2018, I saw only three GOP-held districts as promising targets for Democrats. Meanwhile, Republicans could mount well-funded challenges to as many as five Democratic incumbents.

Other work got in the way of completing the planned “part 2” of this series, examining prospects for Democratic gains in the Iowa House. That’s on my list of projects for March or April, once candidates have filed for the primary. Republicans now have a 58-41 majority in the lower chamber. A special election in House district 6 next month will fill a seat in the Sioux City area.

12. Kim Schmett didn’t disclose political donations while acting for Saudi Arabia

Brian McGlinchey of the 28Pages blog broke the news in March that eight Iowans, including Kim Schmett and Connie Schmett, were among “70 Americans Working for Saudi Arabia Against 9/11 Justice.” In September, McGlinchey’s reporting indicated that Connie Schmett sought out veterans to lobby Congress and did not disclose to them that Saudi Arabia was footing the bill for their all-expenses-paid trips to Washington.

As I dug into the story, I learned that Kim Schmett did not disclose to the federal government at least three political donations made after he had registered as a foreign agent. My inquiry prompted the Schmetts to file paperwork reporting additional contributions to Republican candidates and party organizations–which led me down a fascinating rabbit hole a couple of weeks later.

11. Iowa political opinion is shifting against corporate tax giveaways

In what Governor Kim Reynolds touted as a major economic development achievement, the state of Iowa and city of Waukee offered huge tax incentives to the world’s most profitable corporation. I compared the political reaction to the Apple deal (extensive criticism from Democrats, skepticism from some Republicans) to the near-unanimous bipartisan support for similar breaks Facebook, Microsoft, and Google had received only a few years ago.

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

After Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix told reporters he would not release any findings from the internal investigation of sexual harassment in the GOP caucus, a reader recognized the investigator’s name. She had heard Secretary of the Senate Charlie Smithson speak in March, when he mentioned that young women wearing short skirts sometimes made older men in the chamber start to “sweat.”

Other women who had attended the same workshop recalled the controversial remarks, but I could not have written this piece based on hearsay about a speech given eight months earlier. I committed to the project after one participant provided a recording which allowed me to confirm what Smithson said before seeking comment from him. The post also involved research on Iowa Senate rules and interviews with several human resources professionals on how they would handle a complaint about inappropriate clothing in the workplace. It made my year-end compilation of most-viewed stories.

9. Defunding Planned Parenthood will cost much more than Iowa Republicans let on

I began working on this piece well before the start of the legislative session. Iowa House Republicans had been trying for years to eliminate state funding for Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services. Senate Democrats had blocked the plan before, but that chamber was now under GOP control for the first time since 2004.

My post focused on a little-known fact: Iowa Republicans were not planning to disqualify Planned Parenthood as a Medicaid provider, as other states had tried to do through laws later struck down in court. Rather, the GOP would create a new program to replace the Medicaid Family Planning Waiver. Whereas the federal government covers 90 percent of family planning expenses through Medicaid, the state would be on the hook for the entire cost of the new program, about $3 million a year. Republicans planned to siphon that $3 million away from the federal Social Services Block Grant, which currently supports a range of services for vulnerable Iowa children and adults.

I thought I was set to break some news. Sad to say, I didn’t finish the post before the legislature convened on January 9. When Governor Terry Branstad released his draft budget the next day, I shifted gears to write about his proposed mid-year spending cuts and his stance on an obscure tax policy that might become an issue in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary. I published both of those posts on January 11 and planned to finish my Planned Parenthood piece the following morning.

Bad choice, because Barbara Rodriguez of the Associated Press got the governor’s spokesperson to confirm on January 11 that they proposed to pay for the new family planning program by redirecting $3 million in Social Services Block Grant funds.

Although I lost my scoop, I was still happy with how the post turned out. It provided a lot of background and context on the up-front and hidden costs of defunding Iowa’s leading reproductive health care provider. And while it wasn’t my most popular work about Planned Parenthood, it was among Bleeding Heartland’s 40 most-viewed posts of 2017.

8. What you need to know to fight the next four terrible Iowa Republican bills

The collective bargaining bill went from unpublished to the governor’s desk in ten days flat. Soon after, I started working on this review of four other proposals that appeared to be on a fast track:
• dismantling the Des Moines Water Works board;
• pre-empting local government authority to raise the minimum wage and adopt certain other regulations;
• enacting voter ID requirements and other new obstacles to voting;
• tilting the workers’ compensation system dramatically toward employers, reducing benefits for many injured workers.

For each bill, I provided background information and points citizens could mention in public comments or messages to state lawmakers. Enough readers shared this post to put it among the 25 most-viewed for the site this year.

The Water Works legislation never came up for a floor vote in the Iowa House or Senate. Branstad signed versions of the other three proposals into law.

7. Rod Blum, David Young lie to cover for reversal on health care bill

I spent more time researching this piece than any other Bleeding Heartland post about health care reform in 2017. In March, U.S. Representatives Blum (IA-01) and Young (IA-03) had made a big show of opposing a GOP plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Yet in May, they fell in line to support a bill that had not been improved in any meaningful way. The post highlighted several levels of deception in official statements from Blum and Young:
• promising that the American Health Care Act would lower premiums and protect people with pre-existing conditions;
• failing to acknowledge coverage losses likely to ensue because of Medicaid cuts and rising premiums for individual policy-holders;
• glossing over the bill’s huge tax cuts for the wealthy;
• citing the implosion of Iowa’s individual health insurance market as a justification for a bill that would do nothing to stabilize our market.

Within days, Young made my head explode by claiming in a message to constituents that the Republican bill “Modernizes and strengthens Medicaid so the state can better serve our Iowa neighbors and patients who are most in need.”

6. Will ISU’s president ever fully cover the cost of his personal medical travel?

The scandal surrounding Iowa State University President Steven Leath’s use of university aircraft was fodder for some of my favorite and most labor-intensive work last year. While analyzing the shoddy internal audit of ISU’s flight service in December 2016, I had realized that a university airplane made four round-trip flights to Rochester, Minnesota related to medical appointments during July 2015. Leath had covered the cost of only three trips.

I expected the president to take care of that oversight quickly once I brought it to his staff’s attention. To my surprise, ISU personnel dodged my queries about the unreimbursed $1,250.60 trip for more than a month. This piece explained why a seemingly trivial amount of money raised important legal questions and speculated about why ISU was stonewalling me.

I worked on the post off and on for weeks, frustrated that it wasn’t coming together. Finally, I figured out a better organizing structure and stayed up all night, rewriting from scratch. I was exhausted by the time I published a little before 7 am, but the effort was worth it. Within hours, ISU changed the official line about which trips to Rochester had been purely personal and which combined medical appointments with donor relations. The university’s public records officer eventually sent me a key document related to a July 20, 2015 trip, mysteriously missing from flight records ISU had released months earlier. That document supported neither the initial nor the revised explanation about Leath’s medical travel.

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

The tip came soon after Bloomberg White House correspondent Jennifer Jacobs spoke at the annual “Celebrating a Free Press and Open Government Banquet” in Des Moines on October 5. My tipster knew I wasn’t a fan of Jacobs’ approach to her previous job as chief politics reporter for the Des Moines Register.

I hadn’t planned to write any more about her journalistic style, but once I watched a video of her speech, I knew it needed to reach a wider audience. We were through the looking glass, where President Donald Trump’s mini-press conferences were “one of the best ways to get information out of this White House,” even though the president’s answers “don’t always make sense.” Tagging along with Vice President Mike Pence for a photo op was another “great way for us to get information.” Serial liar Sean Spicer “was a good comms guy behind the scenes.” And much more.

Transcribing the key portions of Jacobs’ prepared remarks and Q&A didn’t take long. There were so many outrageous statements, I figured this post would practically write itself. However, I struggled for days to find a coherent way to present the material. Once I got on a roll, I pulled another all-nighter to keep the momentum going. The piece ended up among Bleeding Heartland’s 20 most-read posts of the year.

4. How Iowa could have lost three Supreme Court justices in 2016

My father used to say, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. After looking closely at the top of the ticket and judicial retention results from 2010, 2012, and 2016, I became convinced the Iowa Supreme Court justices who were on the ballot last year got lucky. Though Chief Justice Mark Cady, Justice Brent Appel, and Justice Daryl Hecht deserved to keep their jobs, they remain on the bench in large part because social conservative groups didn’t invest in a real campaign to unseat them.

I started working on this piece a couple of weeks after the 2016 general election, and my inability to complete it before the end of last year haunted me for months. I had hoped to return to the topic, but I could barely keep my head above water with so much other Iowa politics news happening. On a disappointing day in early November, I pulled this draft out and promised myself I would publish by the end of the week, around the one year anniversary of what could have been a disaster for the high court.

The finished piece got comically little traction–that’s what you get for being almost a year late to a story. Still, I was proud to connect these dots.

3. Five stories: How Iowa’s new abortion law will torment and endanger women

I had intended to publish this post in April, around the time Iowa House and Senate Republicans approved a near-total ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. As the bill worked its way through the legislature, I put out a call through social media for women who were willing to talk about terminating a pregnancy because of an unsurvivable fetal condition. The final version of Iowa’s 20-week abortion ban made no exception for those circumstances.

Several women responded, and I communicated with them either by phone or through Facebook. They were so gracious as we discussed some of the worst days of their lives. (My hat is off to the crime reporters who regularly must ask people about traumatic events.) Instead of transcribing the interviews right away, I kept busy with other legislative news. I procrastinated on reaching out to a friend whose first pregnancy ended due to a severe genetic anomaly, discovered late.

Iowa lawmakers went home for the year. I continued to put off writing this piece, thinking I would get back to it by the time Branstad signed the 20-week abortion ban. That day came and went in early May. I still hadn’t finished the transcripts or contacted my friend. Weeks later, I gave myself a deadline to honor these women who were willing to share their personal tragedies. I didn’t want to put my friend on the spot with a phone call, but when I messaged her about this project, she immediately agreed to discuss what happened with her son. A law like Iowa’s would have made her horrific experience even worse.

2. Waterloo Police leaders left most reform ideas undone

Lawsuits settled in August 2016 raised my awareness of a big problem in Iowa’s sixth-largest city: excessive use of force by police officers against African Americans. Investigating further, I was unable to find evidence that police leaders had acted on any recommendations from experts who had conducted a Waterloo site visit in 2015. Around the time I published this post in September 2016, Mayor Quentin Hart came close to firing Police Chief Dan Trelka. The chief promised to work on improving relations with the African-American community and said he would revise the use-of-force policy.

I requested records to see what kind of progress the Waterloo Police Department had made since the mayor assigned Trelka to focus on “a community-wide policing plan that will work toward regaining public trust.” Spoiler alert: not much.

Obtaining the documents took weeks. Going through them took weeks more. The use-of-force policy, unchanged since 2011, contained a shocking number of loopholes. Other departmental policies remained intact two years after leading experts had suggested improvements.

As my target date for publication slipped past, I wondered whether some other news organization might beat me to this story. But to my knowledge, no one in the Cedar Valley reported on the status of Waterloo police reforms a year after the chief almost lost his job. Nor am I aware of any local media outlet picking up on my reporting in late September.

I don’t regret a minute spent on this post, or the previous one, which was also a lot of work. That said, the lack of interest from local media was discouraging. The payments to settle lawsuits over police misconduct, Trelka’s near-dismissal, and the chief’s promises to improve community relations all received substantial news coverage in 2016. If some future act of police brutality leads to litigation, the city will be liable, and the plaintiff may point to the department’s failure to strengthen its use-of-force policy. I can take a story only so far if newsmakers know they can hunker down, because no other journalist will hold them accountable. The police department’s spokesperson ignored my follow-up questions, and the mayor did not respond to repeated requests for an interview this fall.

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

Chief Deputy Attorney General Eric Tabor called me on a Friday in June to say the file was ready. Since we were due to leave town in a week, I opted to pick it up rather than have it mailed. I had low expectations for finding newsworthy material about the controversy surrounding Reynolds’ constitutional authority following Branstad’s resignation. I assumed the Attorney General’s office would decline to release the juiciest records, citing exemptions in Iowa’s open records law for drafts and attorney work product.

Wrong. Scattered throughout more than 3,000 pages of documents were internal memos, full drafts, and dozens of e-mails about the formal opinion Attorney General Tom Miller had released on May 1. Branstad, Reynolds, and others had accused Miller of suddenly reversing his position in a partisan and “political” move. The records showed his key conclusion–that Reynolds lacked the authority to appoint a new lieutenant governor–was grounded in exhaustive legal research and came with fair warning. Documents revealed no effort by Democrats to influence Miller’s views on succession questions. On the contrary: if anyone leaned on the attorney general to change his stance, the nudge likely came from the governor’s office.

The four days I spent writing this post were some of my most intense in ten years of covering Iowa politics. I felt tremendous pressure not to miss anything salient in the huge file and to get the story out before someone else scooped me.

I needn’t have worried. As far as I can tell, no other journalist had asked to see the documents–not even the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble, who had written a full-length story on the Iowa GOP’s attention-seeking records request in early May. While every news organization in this state covered Miller’s opinion, most giving big play to Republicans bashing his motives and integrity, not a single one corrected the record when documents proved those allegations were unfounded.

To those who say no one cares about this dispute over constitutional interpretation, I counter: Branstad, Reynolds, and their top aides cared. They slammed Senator David Johnson for raising the question. They sought to discredit Miller with unwarranted attacks. Reynolds seriously considered defying Miller’s conclusion; in her view, the attorney general should have refused to release an opinion, so he could defend her against a lawsuit if she named a new lieutenant governor. (I suspect a last-minute request for a “gubernatorial transition” appropriation–money never spent–was intended to bolster the administration’s position if such a case came before the Iowa Supreme Court.) To this day, communications from Reynolds’ office refer to “Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg,” a title he does not rightfully hold.

I’m grateful to the readers who helped this post become one of Bleeding Heartland’s 25 most-viewed for 2017.

Happy new year and many thanks to all who joined me for any part of this journey.

  • Fighting for Truth

    Your list is a reminder of just how much our state has been through in 2017, and how often Iowans were lied to about these critical topics. Thank you for thinking of your readers as people who want to know and should know the truth. The time you spend is immense, but so us it’s impact as it enables us to be well informed when speaking out. You are a treasure for democracy.

  • sjudkins is right

    You indeed are a treasure for democracy. Thank you.

    I would never claim that #6, the post about Steven Leath, was the most important post. But it does have a special place in my heart (and funnybone).

  • THANK YOU, Laura, for all of the work you do.

    Some of your projects have displayed the most focused ferocity of digging I’ve seen since I was a kid and watched what our two rat terriers would do when they got a whiff of a varmint. Them dogs couldn’t write worth a damn, though.

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