Lesson learned in 2017: I still love writing about Iowa politics, even during the worst year I’ve ever observed. But some days are far more enjoyable than others. Follow me after the jump for some high points.
17. City of Windsor Heights: Right on sidewalks, wrong on censorship
There’s something odd about the political culture in my home town: hundreds of people become outraged every time the city proposes installing new sidewalks. On one affected street, some homeowners prominently displayed anti-sidewalk messages this summer. City officials used an absurd pretext to seize a banner from one house while the owners were out of town. Neighboring homeowners protested that action with a yard sign reading “CITY HALL RUN AMOK.” They soon received a warning to “remove the sign from their property within twenty-four hours or face fines of up to $1000 per day that the sign remained in place.”
You don’t have to be a constitutional lawyer to spot the First Amendment problem. Windsor Heights leaders should have cut their losses quickly after the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa got involved. Instead, the city attorney tried to find a new legal justification for sending “Notices of Violation” to the homeowners. The city backed down a few weeks later.
I wrote this piece in one sitting the day Governor Kim Reynolds’ campaign announced that U.S. Representative Steve King would be one of its statewide co-chairs. Less than 24 hours earlier, the governor had complained to reporters, “There is no civil discourse left and it is really sad.” Now she was “humbled” by King’s backing: “He’s independent, principled, and is fighting the good fight in Washington, D.C. You never have to question where he stands.”
The post covered how King and Reynolds had promoted each other’s careers, as well as the tactical reasons for the governor to highlight this endorsement. But the bottom line for me was simple: “You can posture as a consensus-seeker, or you can brag about support from a walking highlight reel of mean-spirited and dehumanizing rhetoric. Not both.”
Ryan Foley of the Associated Press broke the news: “An Iowa police supervisor with a history of misconduct has been demoted after an off-duty road rage incident in which he grabbed a motorist by the neck.” I requested a copy of Waterloo Police Chief Dan Trelka’s disciplinary decision and could hardly believe what I read.
Over thirteen pages, the chief exhaustively catalogued Lieutenant Corbin Payne’s “poor judgement, unprofessionalism,” “lack of competency,” “lack of knowledge,” “failure to conform to work standards,” and “failure to take appropriate action.” He expressed “grave concern” about Payne’s “wholly inappropriate, unauthorized” use of police department equipment and databases to obtain information about the other driver. He noted that Payne “takes no responsibility for his actions in this matter whatsoever and feels that he engaged in no wrongdoing.” In light of the many violations and previously documented misconduct, “the threshold for termination of employment from the Waterloo Police Department has been met,” the chief concluded.
Why would Trelka demote rather than fire this man, who “has put the city in a position of negligent retention”? I had a theory.
In August, I learned from a Sierra Club press release that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources was seeking to change the criteria for measuring E. coli contamination of waterways. I started to write up the story but got sidetracked with other projects and a short trip to Kansas City to view the total solar eclipse. The unfinished piece languished for months.
Seeing the Sierra Club’s Pam Mackey Taylor in early December jogged my memory. What ever happened with the E. coli standards? Pam said that just a few days earlier, the DNR had taken that language out of its revised rule. Happy endings for the environment have been few and far between lately, so I was eager to share this news with my readers. The DNR’s proposal and reversal received very little media coverage elsewhere.
The link popped up in a Facebook group a few days after Governor Terry Branstad signed a bill making it easier for Iowans to acquire, carry, and use firearms. Otherwise I would not have seen KWWL’s segment purporting to explain the new “Stand Your Ground” provisions. Reporter Taylor Bailey cited only one source: an employee at a Cedar Falls gun shop. He repeatedly mischaracterized Iowa law on the “duty to retreat.” I counted ten demonstrably false assertions, transmitted uncritically by KWWL to viewers.
Bailey did not respond to my e-mail and blocked me immediately on Twitter after I pointed out the errors. KWWL’s news director Shane Moreland stood by his reporter, refusing to acknowledge any problem or correct the story, which remains online. A few weeks later, I noticed that KWWL had blocked me–the only Iowa news organization to do so, though I have written other tough media critiques. Moreland left the station in the fall for a new job in Virginia. I’m still blocked from KWWL’s Twitter feed.
Iowa’s new workers’ compensation bill was one of the most awful acts from last year’s legislative horror show. I wrote several detailed posts about the proposal, which tilted the field dramatically toward employers. House Republicans agreed to amend a few particularly harmful sections before passing the bill along party lines in mid-March. I wondered: who had inserted language so unfair to injured workers that even GOP lawmakers recognized it needed to go?
House Commerce Committee Chair Peter Cownie had introduced the legislation, so after a weekend forum in West Des Moines, I tried to pin him down on who lobbied for including the three worst provisions:
• shifting the burden of proof by forcing employees filing a claim to show workplace activity was the “predominant” factor in an injury;
• Cutting off benefits for most injuries at age 67, which would discriminate against older workers;
• Reclassifying shoulder injuries in what was widely seen as a gift to meatpacking companies.
Although I did my best impression of Jeremy Paxman, the BBC’s notoriously relentless interviewer of evasive politicians, I failed to get answers out of Cownie. Still, I enjoyed writing this post.
Sources later indicated I’d been wasting my time. Though the draft came out under Cownie’s name, he was likely not an active participant in hashing out its contents. In other words, he may not have been dodging my questions so much as genuinely unable to answer them–which is arguably worse.
Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert announced in March that he was exploring a bid for Iowa secretary of state. I like to add value, rather than just running a press release, so I wanted to include passages from Weipert’s recent testimony against the Republican voter ID bill at an Iowa House public hearing. Strangely, I couldn’t find him on the video posted to YouTube and the state legislature’s website. When I looked more closely, I realized nearly half of that 90-minute hearing had been left out of the official record. Yet the House of Representatives had posted unedited videos of all three other public hearings held the same week.
Thanks to Iowa House Democrats communications staff, who streamed the full voter ID hearing on Facebook, I was able to compare the videos and transcribe key remarks by more than a dozen people whose testimony had been cut off or removed. After I published, someone pulled the truncated video off the legislative website and eventually put up a complete version. The House assistant chief clerk later told me “a portion of the public hearing proceedings was unintentionally omitted” due to a technical problem during the process of “stitching together several files” downloaded from the camera. I didn’t find that explanation convincing.
How many Iowa candidates could have been elected to the state legislature or statewide office in 2014 and 2016 if they had to clear the same bar Republican lawmakers set for public employee bargaining units to recertify their union representation? One of my most labor-intensive posts for the year was a lot of fun to pull together.
I published this piece on the anniversary of the January 12, 1999 special election to fill an Iowa Senate seat Patty Judge left open after being elected secretary of agriculture. With Branstad’s help, Reynolds had sought the GOP nomination for that race. However, another Republican beat her at a district convention. Although staff for Reynolds did not respond to repeated requests for a short phone interview or narrowly-focused questions submitted by e-mail, I learned a lot from other key players who talked to me about the campaign.
A tipster let me know that Kim Schmett and Connie Schmett had submitted new paperwork to the federal government reporting political donations made while they were doing consulting work on behalf of Saudi Arabia. I had previously raised questions about Kim Schmett’s compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
While digging into the new disclosures, I discovered that Connie Schmett has made most of her campaign contributions over the years under the name Connie Russell, even though she has used her current married name for all other professional and political activities. Staff for the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board told me last month they are checking on Connie Schmett’s legal name and will require campaigns helped by “Connie Russell” to amend reports as needed.
There were a few more oddities. I later confirmed that Connie Schmett remained a registered foreign agent through September, six months longer than previously reported. I still haven’t figured out why other records don’t show donations she apparently made to Reynolds’ gubernatorial campaign and to U.S. Senator Joni Ernst.
This bit of legislative news became one of my 30 most-viewed posts of the year. The tip came on the afternoon of May 24, when nearly every Iowa politics watcher was focused on the speech Reynolds had given after being sworn in as governor that morning. Majority Leader Bill Dix had just replaced Republican Senators Bill Anderson and Rick Bertrand as chairs of the Commerce Committee and Transportation, Infrastructure, and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee, respectively. It didn’t take long to verify they’d lost their most influential positions, but I couldn’t determine why.
My best guess was that Anderson and Bertrand paid a price for missing too many votes. To test my hypothesis, I checked attendance records from every Senate Journal published during the 2017 legislative session. My tipster later commented, “Can’t believe you looked through all those journals.” To be honest, neither can I.
The power struggle in this Mississippi River town was the focus of ten Bleeding Heartland posts during 2017. Tracy Leone wrote five times in the winter and spring about the Muscatine City Council’s crusade against Mayor Diana Broderson. In July, Daniel G. Clark covered part of the mayor’s legal battle to overturn her ouster. This fall, I had the pleasure of reporting that a District Court judge vacated Broderson’s “fundamentally unfair” removal. Vindication came two weeks before the mayor was up for re-election. Would Muscatine residents vote her out of office, validating the actions of her political enemies on the city council and city staff? Or would they send a message by rejecting council members who approved an unknown but likely vast amount of money for legal expenses related to the impeachment?
On an election night with plenty of good news around Iowa, I left the other results for Wednesday morning so I could write about Muscatine right away. Not only did Broderson win a second term by a decisive margin, three reformist candidates won city council seats. The best part was Oz Malcolm receiving more than 70 percent of the votes in Ward 2, where incumbent Michael Rehwaldt had paid to print a racist dog whistle ad about “OZ MALCOM’S [sic] CHICAGO POLITICS.”
Three posts about the Iowa State University airplane scandal made my list of favorites from 2016. Before President Steven Leath left Ames for a better-paying job in Alabama, I managed one more investigative piece about “planegate.”
I may not be able to prove why Leath didn’t reimburse the university for the $1,250.60 trip he and his wife took to Rochester, Minnesota on July 20, 2015. But I am sure I was on to something, because this post prompted ISU to change their narrative about the president’s medical travel.
On a related note, I was disgusted by how Leath hung his communications assistant Megan Landolt out to dry. His use of ISU’s airplanes for personal trips created the mess. Whose fault was it that the facts Leath must have approved for Landolt to relay to journalists in December 2016 couldn’t withstand scrutiny? Nevertheless, a few hours after I published this piece, Landolt took the fall in an e-mail to me and the AP’s Ryan Foley: “There has been quite a bit of confusion regarding the Rochester trips [….] I now realize I was incorrect regarding the dates of those flights.”
Landolt didn’t follow Leath to Auburn. Here’s hoping she never has to work for another boss who makes her cover for his lies.
Aides and allies enlisted influential Iowa journalists to craft an image of then Lieutenant Governor Reynolds as a diligent fact-finder: “As for her style of governing, several described her as happy to dig into the weeds and perform her own research en route to making a decision.” Or: “Kim’s a studier and a worrier.”
Reynolds didn’t live up to that reputation as various Republican health care proposals worked their way through Congress. Whereas some GOP governors lobbied against provisions that would harm their state’s constituents, hospitals, and nursing homes, Iowa’s leader revealed no grasp of the policy details as she robotically repeated talking points like, “Obamacare is unaffordable, unworkable and unsustainable.”
A tipster shared a detailed analysis of what appeared to be a budget-busting, regressive Iowa Senate Republican tax cut proposal. After confirming with the Iowa Department of Revenue that the document was genuine, I sought comment from Ways and Means Committee Chair Randy Feenstra. He told me, “Not sure who the author is on this one; small reductions, not sure who put this one together. However, thanks for sharing! Very grateful as I need to find out if this member is running rogue over the Senate plan.”
A week earlier, Feenstra had been the last person to modify that document before sending what he called “my idea of a tax plan” to the entire Senate GOP caucus.
Though I enjoyed exposing Feenstra’s deception and his clumsy attempt to intimidate me (“I have my attorney looking at what you wrote”), I’m most proud of sounding the alarm about Republican intentions to use dubious methodology to lowball the cost of their tax cuts. If I hadn’t obtained Feenstra’s December 8 e-mail to Senate colleagues, I wouldn’t have noticed the dynamic scoring buried in the last table of the draft plan.
This story idea came to me on October 2, 2013. On that day, State Senator Kent Sorenson resigned in disgrace, and I noticed the Iowa Senate Republican website had hardly been updated since communications director Kirsten Anderson had been fired in May. In media interviews and a civil rights complaint, Anderson had claimed she faced discrimination and lost her job because she had documented a persistent hostile work environment. The official line was that Senate GOP leaders let her go because of substandard writing skills. If that was true, why didn’t they have a decent communications shop up and running?
I kept the concept in my back pocket, not wanting to undercut Anderson’s case or give Republicans free advice on improving their public relations.
More than three and a half years later, Anderson’s lawsuit went to trial. A Polk County jury found in her favor on every count and awarded her larger damages than she requested. Senate Majority Leader Dix and other top Republicans still maintained they hadn’t retaliated against Anderson. As a heavy consumer of Iowa political press releases, websites, and social media feeds, I was well positioned to demonstrate that Senate GOP leaders had tolerated lazy and incompetent communications work for years.
Anderson’s attorney later attached a copy of this post to a post-trial motion, saying it provided “additional reasons to disbelieve” Dix’s continued insistence that she “was terminated only for her poor work product and absolutely no other reason.”
For six months, I’d closely followed the controversy over whether Reynolds would have the power to appoint a new lieutenant governor after Branstad resigned. A once-obscure issue became the top Iowa politics story on May 1, when Attorney General Tom Miller released a formal opinion arguing she lacked that authority. Reynolds and Branstad led a coordinated Republican effort to trash Miller as “partisan.”
The following weekend, my family went to Iowa City for the bat mitzvah of a close friend’s daughter. Before going out on Saturday evening, I checked Twitter and saw a new Des Moines Register column by Kathie Obradovich. During an exclusive interview, Reynolds had whined like a petulant child about her possibly “strained” relationship with Miller (whom she inaccurately described as “my legal counsel”). Yet when Obradovich asked, “Who tells you things you may not want to hear?” Reynolds replied, “You never do yourself justice if you surround yourself with ‘yes’ people. […] I want an honest evaluation of how I’ve done.”
Hello: the whole world just saw how Reynolds reacted to a guy who told her something she didn’t want to hear.
I would have started typing immediately, but we had a party to attend. Afterwards, I didn’t want to keep my husband or kids awake by staying up to write in the hotel room.
Sunday was a full day: wildflower-spotting in Cedar County in the morning, a Beatles exhibit at the Putnam Museum in the afternoon. During the drive home, my mind kept wandering to the post I wanted to write. But first, unpacking and laundry. It was late by the time I was able to sit down at the computer and focus. The words flowed, and next thing I knew, it was 5 am. No point going to bed, since the kids would be getting ready for school in a couple of hours. I did some fine-tuning and published around 7 am. The post struck a chord and became one of the site’s most popular in 2017.
Thank you so much to the readers and tipsters who encourage me to keep doing what I love.