Fewer last-minute retirements from Iowa legislature in 2018

Fewer Iowa legislators kept their retirement plans secret until the closing days of this year’s filing period. As a result, constituents had several weeks or months to consider running for most of the open Iowa House or Senate seats.

It’s a welcome change from past practice, when only select insiders were aware of some coming vacancies.

The “smooth handover” is one of my political pet peeves, and I’m not alone. My critical look at three Iowa House Democrats who announced their retirements near the end of the 2016 filing period became one of Bleeding Heartland’s most-viewed posts that year.

Democratic State Representative Art Staed sought to address the issue by introducing a bill that would create an earlier deadline for incumbents to file their nominating papers, compared to other candidates. Democrats Chuck Isenhart, Amy Nielsen, Mary Wolfe, Monica Kurth, Vicki Lensing, Cindy Winckler, and Ruth Ann Gaines co-sponsored Staed’s proposal, as did Republican Andy McKean. (Ironically, Gaines was the beneficiary of a “smooth handover” when Wayne Ford retired in 2010.)

Although Staed’s idea died in a House State Government subcommittee, many lawmakers decided on their own to make clear well in advance that they would step down at the end of this year.

IOWA HOUSE

Twelve of the 59 Iowa House Republicans and four of the chamber’s 41 Democrats are not seeking another term in the lower chamber. Most of the Republicans had announced their plans by the middle of February, giving constituents at least a month to consider a candidacy before the March 16 deadline. Greg Heartsill and Larry Sheets made their retirements official on March 7 and 10, respectively, though word was out in Sheets’ territory well before then. Two other Republicans had already submitted their nominating papers in House district 80.

Two weeks remained before the filing deadline when House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow confirmed the worst-kept secret in Iowa politics: he would seek a sixth term from a Dallas County district, rather than running for re-election in his suburban Polk County seat. Minutes later, Hagenow’s chosen successor Michael Boal launched his House district 43 campaign. Still, there was plenty of time for some other Republican to take a crack at the seat. (None did.)

Only State Representative Chip Baltimore waited until the very last day to confirm his retirement. That outcome was not hard to foresee, though. In January, Baltimore lost his House committee chairmanship following a drunk driving arrest. A few days later, he ripped into Republican colleagues who abandoned his hard work on a bipartisan water quality bill. Another tell: his close ally Guy Vander Linden revealed in early February he wasn’t running again. Three Republicans managed to submit nominating papers for House district 47 within hours of Baltimore’s announcement, a sign the decision was widely anticipated.

Two of the retiring House Democrats launched campaigns for other offices in 2017. Abby Finkenauer is running for Congress in Iowa’s first district, while Todd Taylor will be on the ballot in the open Senate district 35. Helen Miller and Jerry Kearns announced their plans in late January.

IOWA SENATE

In the upper chamber, three Republican and three Democratic senators are not seeking re-election in 2018.

Bill Dix’s resignation in Senate district 25 is a special case; even he was surprised by the abrupt end to his career. The Senate Majority leader stepped down a few hours after Iowa Starting Line published a video and photographs of the married lawmaker having an intimate conversation with a lobbyist in a Des Moines bar.

Mark Chelgren left it a bit late by announcing his plans to retire at the Wapello County GOP convention on March 10. Mariannette Miller-Meeks launched her campaign for Senate district 41 at the same event. But with six days to go before the filing deadline, there was plenty of time for someone–in this case, former third-party candidate Dan Cesar–to collect 100 signatures and submit nominating papers.

Rick Bertrand revealed his plan to retire in a March 13 interview with the Sioux City Journal. Though the filing deadline was just three months away, Republicans had reportedly been sounding out possible successors in Senate district 7 for months. Bertrand had been on the outs with Senate leaders since at least the spring of 2017.

On the Democratic side, Senators Bob Dvorsky and Wally Horn (the longest-serving Iowa lawmaker of all time) let the public know last year they would not seek another term in Senate districts 37 and 35, respectively. Matt McCoy made his campaign for Polk County supervisor official in late January, leaving constituents more than six weeks to consider running for Senate district 21.

Early warning doesn’t automatically produce a competitive primary. Only one Democrat (Megan Srinivas) is running for Miller’s open seat in House district 9, and one Democrat (Tracy Ehlert) is running for House district 70, now held by Taylor. In contrast, three Democrats each are seeking the nomination in House districts 83 and 99, now held by Kearns and Finkenauer.

Four Democrats filed for Dvorsky’s Senate seat and two are running for McCoy’s seat, while only Todd Taylor filed in the district Horn is vacating.

Though I believe contested primaries are more good than bad for parties, my strong feelings about last-minute retirements don’t stem from a belief that multiple contenders need to be on the ballot in every open seat. As long as every politically-engaged resident had fair warning about an opportunity to run for public office, it’s all good.

Any comments about this year’s state legislative races are welcome in this thread.

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