The stories linked below weren’t the most popular pieces to appear on this site during 2018. Some of them weren’t as newsworthy as the work I’m proudest of from last year. But of the 355 posts I wrote for this website in 2018, these ones fueled the fondest memories.
18. Even in defeat, Peter Cownie’s better off than Iowans with bad shoulder injuries
Although the subject matter was tragic, I enjoyed writing this post for two reasons. First, if any Iowa legislator deserved to lose in 2018, it was State Representative Peter Cownie. He wasn’t responsive to constituents and has remarkably little to show for his ten years at the statehouse. His most significant “accomplishment” was the 2017 workers’ compensation overhaul, which has literally ruined lives. Not only that: the original draft Cownie introduced was even more cruel than the version Governor Terry Branstad signed into law. Cownie wouldn’t or couldn’t say who had pushed for proposals so potentially harmful that Republicans removed them before final passage.
Second, this piece allowed me to spread the word about an excellent study of the new worker’s comp law by the Iowa Policy Project’s Emily Schott, Matthew Glasson, and Colin Gordon. I had intended to share that report’s findings with Bleeding Heartland readers soon after its publication in September. That piece was one of several I never finished because I was overwhelmed by campaign-related news and depleted by the effort that went into proving Governor Kim Reynolds had violated the constitution.
Five Democrats and two Republicans won seats in the Iowa legislature in 2018 after losing elections in the recent past. They joined a club (including Tom Harkin and Kim Reynolds) of successful Iowa politicians who did not win on their first attempt running for a legislative office. I admired their persistence and wanted to highlight these victories to give hope to some good candidates who fell short.
This piece barely missed the cut for my list of most labor-intensive posts from 2018. I love digging into state legislative elections, and I was fascinated to see so many Iowa House Republicans run for the doors. Retirements are typically a much bigger problem for the minority party.
The only candidate to file for the GOP primary in this potentially competitive open seat was a Democratic activist and county convention delegate. His plan was to prevent Republicans from nominating a credible candidate later, and it could have worked if he had understood Iowa election law. A Democratic candidate for House district 56, Andy Kelleher, smelled something fishy and started investigating. Kelleher didn’t win the nomination, but he deserves a lot of respect for exposing the shady tactics.
While the GOP was able to get the trickster disqualified from the primary ballot, this story should serve as a cautionary tale: parties should not put off recruiting candidates for any winnable state House or Senate district.
Slipping new policy into appropriations bills with little discussion or debate is a time-honored tactic in the Iowa legislature. During the 2018 session, a budget bill became a vehicle for Republicans to ban “self-promotion with taxpayer funds.” Statewide elected officials and state lawmakers may not use public money for “any paid advertisement or promotion” bearing their “written name, likeness, or voice” on six kinds of platforms, including a “paid exhibit display at the Iowa state fair.” The language was mostly directed at State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald. Republicans had long complained that he was too prominent in state-funded promotions of popular programs run by his office.
Fitzgerald, Attorney General Tom Miller, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, and Secretary of State Paul Pate redesigned their state fair displays in order to comply with the law. But the governor’s office set up a booth plastered with photographs of Reynolds and acting Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg.
Incredibly, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board’s executive director determined the Reynolds display was not unlawful, because the booth was purchased before July 1, 2018. The governor’s office clearly spent state funds after July 1 to rent space in the Varied Industries Building.
Years ago, I decided not to attempt to write about every offensive comment by U.S. Representative Steve King. While I do cover some of his most outrageous statements and actions, chronicling his bigotry could be a full-time pursuit that kept me from other important topics.
This editorial policy has a downside: sometimes I’m late to the story when King’s racist antics make national news. So it was in June, when King re-tweeted a British neo-Nazi.
Rather than re-reporting what others had covered well, I conducted a thought experiment: how could Democratic challenger J.S. Scholten gain enough votes to send King packing? My path to a win number in Iowa’s most conservative area was a long-shot but not a far-fetched scenario. A Democrat had recently won a special election in a Pennsylvania Congressional district with the same partisan lean as IA-04.
I often stop to take wildflower pictures while riding my bike to and from the downtown Des Moines Farmers Market. On one Saturday in August, I was struck by how healthy a Windsor Heights prairie patch looked, just five weeks after floodwaters had covered the area. I eventually compiled images of more than dozen native plants thriving on ground that had been underwater less than two months before.
This piece is among my favorites from nearly 200 wildflower posts Bleeding Heartland has published over the past seven years.
“Throwback Thursday” posts were some of my most fun projects in 2015, 2016, and 2017. This year was no exception, as I dug into correspondence that turned up in my research for a major post the previous year.
Less than a week before Attorney General Miller announced that the Iowa Constitution didn’t allow soon-to-be-Governor Reynolds to appoint a new lieutenant governor, some “really good source” tried to get the Des Moines Register’s William Petroski to report a false story. The tipster indicated that Miller had decided not to issue a formal legal opinion on the matter.
This post explored the evidence suggesting that someone close to Branstad and Reynolds had tried to use Petroski to box Miller in. The veteran Register reporter didn’t fall for the trap.
State Senator Dennis Guth is one of the most “out there” conservatives in the Iowa legislature. So it was fitting that he took the lead in promoting a bill that would legalize discrimination by creating a sweeping religious exemption to state laws for private businesses. Guth’s ill-informed comments about the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” inspired this post. That bill cleared the Senate Local Government Committee, but leaders never brought it up for a vote on the Senate floor.
The governor’s hypocrisy inspired more than one post in 2018. This one focused on Reynolds’ feeble attempt to distance herself from King’s headline-making racism in June. What a contrast from the high praise she’d heaped on King when endorsing him over a Republican challenger in 2016 and welcoming him as one of her statewide campaign co-chairs the following year.
Reynolds reprised this routine in November. Days after appearing with King at the last big rally before the general election, she told WHO-TV’s Dave Price she’s been “very clear” about telling King that some of his comments about immigration and diversity are “not helpful, I don’t agree.”
Thanks to a tipster, I learned the Des Moines Register had published two guest columns by Doug Gross criticizing a planned Polk County program. The new risk assessment tool was designed to reduce racial and other disparities in decisions on bail. Gross had no expertise on criminal law. Nor did the heavy-hitter attorney and longtime Republican insider tell the newspaper’s editors that his law firm’s lobbying team was representing Iowa’s largest bail bonding company.
I later learned of another undisclosed conflict of interest involving Gross. He had been on the legal team of Connie Schmett when she and her husband faced an ethics investigation related to their lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Schmett serves on the state Health Facilities Council. Gross and his law partners regularly bring business before that board. After I drew public attention to that matter, Schmett began recusing herself from votes involving clients of the BrownWinick law firm. Her term on the state council is due to end in April 2019.
During the unexpected controversy surrounding Theresa Greenfield’s failure to collect enough signatures to run for Congress this year, a reader told me about a mishap involving a strong contender for an open Congressional seat in 1986. That candidate, Don Redfern, did not respond to my many interview requests. But I was able to interview Dave Nagle, the Democrat who won that 1986 race and faced Redfern in 1988, when the GOP candidate filed all of his paperwork without incident.
Of the posts I worked hardest on in 2018, this was the most satisfying to write.
I was outraged when the “taxpayer’s watchdog” Mosiman went along with the official whitewash of former Iowa State University President Steven Leath’s misuse of university-owned aircraft. Having spent a lot of time investigating the airplane scandal, I knew the public didn’t have the full picture of Leath’s misconduct. Then, while working on a post about fundraising for the state auditor’s race, I realized that Mosiman’s campaign treasurer is married to the guy who gave Leath free flying lessons (probably in violation of Iowa’s gift law) and later landed a well-paid ISU job.
This piece should have been published way back in November 2017, but I didn’t manage to pull it together. Returning to my notes in October 2018, I found a link to a state audit thoroughly documenting “$1,800.00 of popcorn sales which were not properly deposited” at the Iowa Veterans Home over a 20-month period. The absurdity of Mosiman’s staff digging deep on such small-scale theft while devoting only a page to a state university president’s far greater abuse of public resources gave me the jolt I needed to finish this post.
I couldn’t believe that Dan Nieland had sought the Democratic nomination for a crucial Iowa Senate seat, knowing his wife was facing possible federal indictment for Social Security fraud. It wasn’t as if the party had no other options. They had a credible alternative in Southeast Polk school board member Lori Slings. Yet for the second time in two months, local insiders passed over a qualified woman to nominate a man who had never won an election and quickly turned out to be non-viable.
This piece poured out in less than two hours. I was in a hurry, needing to publish before going offline for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. When I logged in the following evening, I saw the post had struck a chord with many readers, especially women.
Associated Press reporter Ryan Foley broke a huge story in February: “A congressman from Iowa violated House ethics rules by failing to disclose his ownership role in a new company, a mysterious outfit that featured his top federal staffer in a false testimonial promoting its services […].” There were a lot of angles to pursue regarding Rod Blum’s obscure internet company Tin Moon. I was intrigued by one contradiction: Blum claimed critics were “making a mountain out of a molehill for political gain,” because this company “was worth basically nothing in value and not functioning” in 2016. Yet Tin Moon’s website claimed to have 11,000 satisfied clients and posted several testimonials to their “success stories.”
I soon discovered that other companies around the country were touting identical testimonials. Just like Tin Moon, they boasted, “11,000 Website Clients Can’t Be Wrong.” I wasn’t able to reach Todd McCally for comment; he was listed on Tin Moon’s website as “Chief Technology Officer and Director of SEO Activity and Research.” However, I did interview a couple of people whose firms had signed similar contracts with McCally’s company. Like the personnel at small airports in the northeast, who were perplexed when I called in 2016 seeking information about Jet A fuel prices, these men were surprised some woman in Iowa wanted to know how their firms worked. But they helped me understand Tin Moon’s business model.
I went to the legislative forum in Clive with one goal in mind: getting House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow to answer a simple yes-or-no question. Would he run for the legislature in Iowa House district 19, instead of House district 43? He smiled: “I will have an announcement on my future plans very soon.”
Not wanting to get scooped or wait for an official press release, I used his comment as a peg to explain why Hagenow was widely rumored to be leaving his suburban district. Less than a week later, he confirmed his plans to move to Dallas County and run in House district 19, where Representative Ralph Watts was retiring. It was a wise decision; given political trends in Windsor Heights, Clive, and West Des Moines, Hagenow probably would have lost a rematch against Jennifer Konfrst, the challenger he defeated in 2016. She easily beat replacement Republican candidate Michael Boal, as five GOP-held state House districts in the Des Moines suburbs fell to Democrats in November.
Michael Tackett’s feature for the New York Times on “a wave of young women running campaigns” gave me the idea. An unprecedented number of Iowa candidates for Congress, governor, or other statewide offices had hired women to run their 2018 campaigns. I set out to compile a list of all the women who had managed campaigns for high-level offices in Iowa. Many readers helped me with this post, and I was happy to share what I’d learned about a little-known aspect of our state’s history.
When Reynolds hired Sara Craig Gongol to be her chief of staff shortly after the November election, I wrote about women who had served as top staffers for past Iowa governors or members of Congress. That project was a lot of fun too. Surprisingly, Terry Branstad put many more women in influential jobs than did his predecessor Bob Ray, a moderate Republican who supported women’s rights as a matter of public policy.
In early December, I started thinking about which posts to include in this compilation. Going through my archives, I found a lot of contenders, but nothing jumped out at me as the obvious top spot.
That changed on December 17, when the Office of Congressional Ethics released its report on Rod Blum’s financial disclosures and business practices. Investigators found “substantial reason to believe” he failed to accurately report all of his business interests on his disclosure forms, and also “substantial reason to believe” Tin Moon misused his official photo and “utilized deceptive, false, or unsubstantiated endorsements.” The non-partisan office recommended that the U.S. House Ethics Committee further investigate possible violations of “federal law, House rules, and standards of conduct,” since Blum and most of his close associates had refused to cooperate with the investigation.
The supporting exhibits for the Office of Congressional Ethics report contained a wealth of information. Todd McCally, whose business had a licensing agreement with Tin Moon, did cooperate with investigators. He gave them a recording of his phone call with Blum’s longtime business partner Ed Graham, which took place a few days after I published my post about the company’s fake “success stories.” Some of McCally’s comments about me were hilarious:
Meanwhile, one district staffer in Blum’s office also cooperated with the ethics investigation. He was out of the country and not working for Blum when the story broke. Asked how he’d learned about Tin Moon, he replied,
I think back in February or January someone sent me a bunch of articles saying, “hahaha, look at this.” […] So I was like, “Oh, that’s bad.” So I looked at and then there was a ‘Bleeding Heartland’ article that I thought actually was the most thorough but they’re a very biased source against us. But I was like, “Oh, that’s pretty thorough.” So yeah, that’s where I got most of my information on Tin Moon.
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard while trying to write, with the possible exception of the time a sitting state senator called me a traitor for a ridiculous reason.
With Republicans retaining near-total control of state government, 2019 will no doubt bring many depressing days. But I look forward to some good times as well and am grateful to all readers who joined me for any part of last year’s journey.