The 18 Bleeding Heartland posts I worked hardest on in 2018

While traffic numbers are easy to measure, picking out my most labor-intensive posts from last year is a subjective call.

Many of the 355 pieces I wrote during 2018 required a strong focus, but only for a day or so. They include transcribed interviews or speeches by potential presidential candidates such as Representative John Delaney, former Governor Martin O’ Malley, Jason Kander, Andrew Yang, Senator Jeff Merkley, Senator Cory Booker, and Senator Kamala Harris.

Some of those pieces might have made my compilations of posts I worked hardest on in 2015 or 2016. But lately I’ve shifted toward pursuing more projects that require original research. Like last year, every piece listed below was a work in progress for at least several days, sometimes weeks.

Since I don’t track hours spent on each post, I can’t say for sure that these eighteen were the most time-consuming of the year. Other contenders:

  • Get ready for a wave of Iowa House Republican retirements
  • Rod Blum’s internet business, other firms tout identical “success stories”
  • Iowa legislative recap: Constitutional amendments
  • Seven Iowa incumbents who raised surprisingly little money since May
  • Democrats will get outspent in Iowa House races again. Here’s why
  • What to do if you get push-polled or message-tested (2018 edition)
  • Moving to the countdown:

    18. How Branstad, other governors were lobbied to weaken 9/11 victims law

    “Throwback Thursday” posts are among my favorites, and I regret not writing more of them in 2018. I was inspired to investigate this topic after researching Kim and Connie Schmett, a Republican couple who registered as foreign agents for Saudi Arabia while serving on state boards. Had they urged Governor Terry Branstad to help undermine the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act?

    Branstad administration e-mails and other records I obtained revealed no attempt by the Schmetts to influence the governor on this issue. Washington-based lobbyists for the kingdom tried to persuade Branstad to sign a draft letter warning U.S. senators of a “dangerous precedent” set by the law allowing survivors of the 9/11 attacks and family members of victims to sue Saudi Arabia. Neither Branstad nor any other governor took the bait.

    17. Eleven Iowa Senate races to watch in 2018

    I had planned to publish this piece soon after Josh Hughes surveyed the Iowa House landscape in July. A vacation and other projects got in the way. The analysis held up reasonably well, but I could have limited the scope to nine competitive state Senate elections. Once the October campaign finance reports were out, it became clear Democrats were not seriously contesting two of the districts.

    16. Three Iowa Supreme Court finalists, in their own words

    Twenty-one candidates sought to replace retiring Justice Bruce Zager this summer. The State Judicial Nominating Commission recommended three candidates to Governor Kim Reynolds: District Court Judge Susan Christensen of Harlan, private attorney Terri Combs of West Des Moines, and District Court Chief Judge Kellyann Lekar of Waterloo. This post included highlights from each finalist’s written application and partial transcripts from their interviews with the commission.

    You didn’t need strong detective skills to deduce that Reynolds was going to appoint Christensen, even before the governor admitted speaking to one candidate before her official interviews.

    I plan to write a similar post in early 2019 after the commission selects three candidates to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Daryl Hecht.

    15. Seven ways Mary Mosiman helped bury ISU’s airplane scandal

    The day after the Board of Regents hired Windy Wintersteen as Iowa State University president in October 2017, State Auditor Mary Mosiman quietly released an absolute joke of a review of ISU’s spending on former President Steven Leath’s air travel. I’d spent a significant amount of time digging into the airplane scandal and knew the matter warranted a thorough audit. After several failed attempts to pull a post together during November 2017, I set this project aside. The unfinished business haunted me.

    As the anniversary of the whitewash approached, I returned to this draft. Although I tried to avoid pulling all-nighters in 2018 (having gotten too little sleep the previous year), I made an exception for this piece. Once I had momentum, I was at the computer all night and for most of the morning, finally publishing a year to the day after I started the draft.

    14. Interview: Ann Selzer stands by sampling method for primary polls

    Selzer is not only Iowa’s leading political pollster, but also one of the most highly-regarded people in her field nationwide. She agreed to an interview after Democratic candidates Fred Hubbell and Cindy Axne won their respective primaries by surprisingly large margins. A Selzer poll for the Des Moines Register several weeks before the primary had indicated tight races among Democrats running for governor and Congress in the third district.

    Transcribing our conversation didn’t take long, but for some reason I had a lot of trouble organizing the material. I was happy with the way the piece turned out, though, and several pollsters told me they enjoyed the discussion.

    13. Twenty Iowa House races to watch, with ratings

    Thanks to Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting system, we are blessed with a large number of state legislative seats in play every cycle. I had hoped to publish my final review of the House landscape a few days before the election, but I barely managed to finish this piece by the morning of election day.

    12. How important were TV ads for Fred Hubbell?

    Hubbell won the Democratic nomination for governor by a commanding margin in a crowded field. His campaign had spent an unprecedented amount of money before an Iowa statewide primary. This piece looked closely at Hubbell’s spending on television commercials and direct mail, comparing his performance in counties reached by his ads to those outside the media markets where he bought air time. I also did some content analysis of his advertising, with thoughts about how key themes might play during the general election campaign.

    11. Democratic declines in key counties: A turnout or persuasion problem?

    The November election provided fodder for many posts, including several focused on the governor’s race. Hubbell did extremely well in a few counties but underperformed in others that used to provide solid vote margins for Democratic candidates. I wondered if there was a correlation between his performance and turnout. The most time-consuming part of this piece was making the maps and tables, a task outside my comfort zone.

    10. Lessons of 2018: Mid-sized cities bigger problem for Democrats than rural areas

    Declining Democratic fortunes in rural areas have been a major theme of election analysis in recent years. But the more I looked at the numbers from the governor’s race, the more convinced I became that the “micropolitan” counties contributed more than rural areas to Hubbell’s narrow loss.

    For this piece, I made tables showing this year’s vote for governor in seventeen counties, and comparing Hubbell’s margins in the mid-sized counties to the showings of the only successful Democratic campaigns for governor in the past 50 years (Tom Vilsack 1998, Vilsack 2002, and Chet Culver 2006).

    After the election, I heard many Iowans assert that a wealthy businessman from Des Moines was simply the wrong candidate to appeal to largely working-class residents of mid-size cities. That explanation strikes me as too simplistic, so I added a section to this post showing how Democratic candidates who were deeply rooted in these same communities have lost many state legislative elections during the past decade.

    9. If Rod Blum tanks, how many Iowa House Republicans will he take with him?

    The concept took root in my mind in early August, when Congress-watchers began to speculate that national Republicans would let Iowa’s first district go. By September, it became clear that key GOP-aligned groups were doing little to salvage Blum’s political career. This piece reviewed eight Republican-held Iowa House seats that could be in play if the two-term GOP incumbent lost badly to Democratic challenger Abby Finkenauer.

    During the closing weeks of the campaign, the House Freedom Fund and Congressional Leadership Fund came in and spent more than $1 million against Finkenauer or for Blum. The challenger won by a 5-point margin, which was impressive given Iowans’ tendency to re-elect incumbents, but not a blowout. Republicans held five of the eight state House seats I’d identified by comfortable margins. GOP State Representative Michael Bergan leads by nine votes in House district 55, where the Democratic candidate Kayla Koether is contesting the result.

    Democrats did flip two legislative seats in Blum’s territory. Dave Williams defeated State Representative Walt Rogers in House district 60, and Molly Donahue won the open House district 68, which Republicans gave up without a fight.

    8. Jim Mowrer may have violated state, federal election law

    Several readers told me about an anonymous mailing some Democrats had received, which accused secretary of state candidate Jim Mowrer of “conduct unbecoming.” Some wondered if the mailing was illegal (it wasn’t), while others wanted to know whether the allegations were credible. The anonymous critics highlighted the federal political action committee Mowrer created in 2016, which paid him consulting fees and later contributed to his secretary of state campaign.

    My research indicated that the PAC’s work and payments were all legal. However, I discovered that Mowrer might not have properly disclosed in-kind contributions from his 2016 Congressional campaign to his 2018 state campaign.

    When I started working on this post in late April, I had no idea a well-connected Republican was going to file an ethics complaint against Mowrer two weeks before the primary. William Gustoff zeroed in on a little-known provision in Iowa law: “A candidate for statewide or legislative office shall not establish, direct, or maintain a political committee.” While his complaint became the peg for my post, I also explored a half-dozen other questions related to campaign finance and disclosure rules.

    The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board later fined Mowrer for directing a PAC while he was a candidate for statewide office. Their action received almost no media coverage, because Mowrer had already lost the Democratic primary to Deidre DeJear.

    7. Exclusive: Two health giants block Iowans from medical cannabis program

    Iowa has one of the country’s worst medical cannabis laws. Among its many flaws: patients applying for the state program need a doctor’s signature confirming that they have a “qualifying debilitating medical condition.” However, health care practitioners have “no duty to provide” that signature, even if they have been treating the person for a qualifying condition for years. Consequently, large numbers of Iowans who would like to try alternative treatment are unable to apply for a medical cannabis card.

    I communicated with many patients while working on this post. Most didn’t want to go on the record. A consistent theme was that physicians affiliated with Mercy Cedar Rapids and The Iowa Clinic had told patients no doctors in their groups were allowed to sign paperwork for the medical cannabis program. That’s also a widespread problem in other large groups, such as UnityPoint. But in a few communities, Iowa patients have found UnityPoint physicians willing to confirm their diagnosis. I have yet to hear of anyone doing so in the two medical groups that were the focus of this post.

    State legislators should amend the law, allowing patients to submit insurance billing records or other documents to demonstrate they have undergone treatment for a qualifying condition.

    6. The case for each Democrat running for Congress in IA-03

    A record number of Iowa Democrats stepped up to run for Congress in 2018, with multiple credible candidates in all three Republican-held U.S. House districts. I spent far more time writing about the wild race in IA-03 than about the other primary contests. In January, I published an in-depth look at who had endorsed the seven Democrats in the field at that time. In March, I transcribed the six remaining candidates’s answers when asked how they could beat two-term Representative David Young. The field shrank to four when two candidates did not file for the primary. Then Theresa Greenfield did not qualify for the primary ballot after trying an unusual maneuver.

    That left three candidates, all of whom had the resources to run strong district-wide campaigns. For this post, I transcribed stump speeches by Cindy Axne, Pete D’Alessandro, and Eddie Mauro, analyzed direct mail and television commercials for each candidate, and compiled an updated list of key endorsers.

    5. Sleeper Iowa Supreme Court ruling undermines constitutional protections

    I reached out to some contacts in the legal community in early July, seeking feedback on notable opinions authored by Iowa Supreme Court Justice Edward Mansfield. Although he wasn’t on President Donald Trump’s short list of candidates to replace U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, he could plausibly be a contender for a future high court vacancy. One of my sources mentioned a recent majority opinion in a significant case: Baldwin v. City of Estherville. Writing for five justices, Mansfield established qualified immunity for state constitutional law claims in Iowa.

    I’d never heard of the Baldwin case, which wasn’t surprising. No Iowa media reported on the ruling, which came out the same day as a landmark abortion rights decision and a controversial 4-3 ruling in a sexual harassment case.

    This piece required some background reading, since I knew virtually nothing about the legal concept of qualified immunity. But I was interested in the issues raised by Mansfield and Justice Brent Appel, who wrote the dissenting opinion. Despite my best intentions, it took a full month for me to finish this post. Fortune favored me with a patient tipster who didn’t shop this newsworthy story to other reporters.

    Overwhelmed by campaign-related news after Labor Day, I never completed a follow-up post about qualified immunity, but I hope to return to that topic in 2019.

    4. Ethics board auditing Iowa House Republican’s campaign

    I got the tip in early March: State Representative Mike Sexton was spending $400 in campaign funds every month on “headquarters expenses.” The Sextons own the building containing the headquarters, and the rent checks were made out to a property company managed by Sexton’s wife. It’s unusual for an Iowa legislative candidate to spend money on rent, even in an election year. Sexton had paid for the campaign headquarters every month, including the off-year of 2017. My tipster wondered if this was an ethics violation.

    I held off on investigating until after candidates had filed their May financial disclosures. Sure enough, Sexton was still paying $400 a month to rent space in his own building. Moreover, he had never used campaign funds that way in 2014 or 2015. He only started paying for a headquarters after he and his wife had purchased the commercial building.

    With so much news coming out of the June primary elections, I wasn’t able to dig further into this project until July. After more reading about the relevant statutes, I drove up to Manson (Calhoun County) to get a look at this “headquarters” and interviewed Sexton by phone.

    For several weeks, I wavered on whether to write up the story. State law allows the use of campaign funds for office rent, so I had a feeling the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board would determine the payments were legal. On the other hand, the law prohibits paying more than fair market value for goods or services, as well as using campaign funds for “personal benefit.” I questioned whether $400 per month exceeded the going rate for commercial space in Manson. I also thought the payments could be construed as supplementing the Sextons’ household income or covering part of a mortgage on the couple’s real estate investment.

    When ethics board executive director Megan Tooker confirmed staff would investigate Sexton’s campaign spending, I decided it was time to publish. I followed up with a short post in the fall, after Tooker informed Sexton, “I am satisfied that the amount your LLC is charging your campaign for rent and utilities appears reasonable and is not ‘clearly in excess of fair market value.'”

    3. Exclusive: A review of the new, improved Waterloo Police use-of-force policy

    I’d spent a lot of time in 2017 writing about the Waterloo Police Department’s failure to implement several important reforms. Despite several excessive force incidents leading to costly lawsuits against the city of Waterloo, Chief Dan Trelka hadn’t followed through on repeated promises to revise his department’s use-of-force policy. A team of national experts had recommended in 2015 that a “complete review” of that policy “could be extremely beneficial.”

    Having published this review of police reforms in September 2017, I wanted to circle back six months later to see if the department had made any further progress. After submitting a new records request, I was surprised to learn Waterloo police leaders had adopted a new use-of-force policy in December 2017. The department hadn’t announced the change. As far as I could tell, no one had reported the story.

    Plans to write this post as soon as possible were derailed by a crush of time-sensitive news related to the Iowa legislature’s session and the March filing deadline for federal and statewide candidates. In addition, I wanted to figure out how well the new Waterloo policy matched model use-of-force guidelines. I published this scoop in late April.

    2. Fourteen Iowa House Democrats who seem content to stay in minority forever

    You’d think Iowa House Democrats would be highly motivated to get back into power. Most have experienced eight years of helplessness in the minority, the last two watching the GOP trifecta enact one terrible bill after another. Many Republican lawmakers were planning to retire, creating open seats in some winnable state House districts. Yet the January set of campaign finance reports showed little fundraising activity by some long-serving incumbents representing well-off constituents.

    This post took some time to put together, because I wanted to explain how most state legislative campaigns are funded, and why it’s important for incumbents to help leadership raise money. I shared highlights from the latest set of campaign filings and spending numbers from the most competitive Iowa House races of 2016, to show how Democratic challengers in winnable districts need support from the party. Some of the lawmakers I discussed in this piece raised significantly more money for the House Truman Fund later in the year.

    1. How Kim Reynolds got away with violating Iowa’s constitution

    “There’s a pretty big question” whether the recent appointment of a judge in Cedar Rapids is valid, a source e-mailed on June 28. “[Y]ou might want to check in on it.”

    Before receiving that message, I hadn’t read the strange press release from Monday, June 25, stating that Governor Kim Reynolds “appointed Jason Besler Thursday” (June 21). The governor’s office had always issued such announcements on the day of the judicial appointment, including that very same Thursday, June 21, when Reynolds named a different district court judge. Why the delay? The official explanation was not convincing.

    I spent a few days crafting a records request, and the governor’s office took five weeks to compile and redact hundreds of pages of responsive documents. During that time, I declined two offers by a staffer to narrow my request in order to get the records faster. Reading through the electronic and hard-copy files only took a few days, but figuring out the best way to present the material took several more weeks.

    Working on last year’s most labor-intensive post, I felt tremendous time pressure, fearing someone else who had requested the same records would publish first. In contrast, I was confident no one else was chasing this Besler appointment story. Nevertheless, I felt a lot of pressure. I was accusing people of serious wrongdoing–violating the constitution, lying to the chief justice’s counsel, signing a backdated document–and I didn’t want to leave any holes in my case. The last night before publishing, I got no sleep at all.

    During the writing process, I had a sinking feeling few people would care about this abuse of power. I was pleasantly surprised when the post attracted a lot of interest, especially in the legal community.

    I’m grateful to all who took the time to read any of the above posts, and especially to the tipsters who made them possible.

    About the Author(s)

    Laura Belin

    • Supreme Court - Reynolds being incompetent

      All of these articles are important to Iowa. I thought your work on the supreme court selection and Reynolds ignoring Iowa law and precedent was such an important work. Thanks for what you do!