This primary challenger's big win should put Iowa lawmakers on notice

Running against a sitting office-holder from your own party is always an uphill battle. Many Iowa House or Senate members have faced primary challengers during the past decade, but only a handful have failed to win their party’s nomination.

Christina Bohannan beat the odds on June 2, taking 66 percent of the vote against 20-year State Representative Vicki Lensing in Iowa’s most Democratic House district.

No one can write off the outcome as a fluke of a low-turnout environment. Statewide turnout set a new record for an Iowa primary, and voter participation in Johnson County was sky-high as well. Unofficial results showed 6,687 residents of House district 85 cast ballots for either Bohannan or Lensing.

Bohannan’s win and in particular the margin of victory should put every Iowa legislator on notice: you have to keep earning your constituents’ support.

A CALL FOR CHANGE VS. EXPERIENCE AND RELATIONSHIPS

Bohannan’s central campaign message was that she would be “all in” and fight for progressive policies, working “actively with people in other parts of the state.” The quiet part: Lensing had not been showing up for those fights.

Over her many years of service, Lensing has been a solid vote in the House Democratic caucus. I can’t recall any time she voted for a bad Republican bill, nor am I aware of her trying to water down good bills (unlike some of her colleagues when Democrats controlled the state House from 2007 through 2010).

On the other hand, Lensing has not been a leader of the caucus. As ranking member of the Environmental Protection Committee, she has rarely made news, even though there were plenty of harmful GOP environmental policies to rail against.

Here’s what you might call Bohannan’s “elevator speech,” delivered as part of her closing statement in a virtual candidate forum the League of Women Voters hosted last month.

I think that we are in a new era, and it’s going to be crucial that we have very strong leadership. One thing that’s become clear to me as I’ve gone around talking to people throughout the district is that they believe that this office is about way more than just how you vote [in the legislature]. They believe that a representative should show up for all people in the community.

They believe that a representative of Iowa City, the bluest district in the state, should be a leader in the party, to raise money to support Democratic candidates all throughout the state. And make the case for progressive legislation. And they are ready to start now in building the future of the Democratic Party and state government in Iowa.

There’s a lot at stake in this election, and I think that we need change. We need strong leadership now more than ever.

Lensing’s closing remarks at the same event highlighted that legislators can’t be experts on everything. They rely on other individuals or organizations to help them understand issues.

So it’s important to understand how many sides there can be in an issue before you make a determination for your vote. You rely on relationships for some of these things. You rely on relationships with constituents, with colleagues, both [from your party and] from across the aisle as well as lobbyists, and the contacts that you’ve developed under the dome while you’ve worked in a legislature.

I think one of the most important skills that you can have as a legislator is listening. People want to be heard. They want to tell their story. They want to understand why something can or cannot happen, or what roadblocks are in the way. So I think it’s important for a legislator to be present and listen to what concerns are.

Listening is commendable. But as the campaign developed, it became clear that Lensing had not grasped what the Democratic base expected of their representative.

HIGH-PROFILE ENDORSERS LINE UP FOR THE CHALLENGER

In a reversal of the usual order of things, Bohannan received more high-powered endorsements during the primary campaign. The challenger’s public supporters included:

  • Johnson County Supervisors Lisa Green-Douglass, Rod Sullivan, Janelle Rettig, and Pat Heiden
  • Iowa City Mayor Pro Tem Mazahir Salih
  • Iowa City council member John Thomas
  • Iowa City school board members Lisa Williams, Charlie Eastham, Ruthina Malone, and J.P. Claussen
  • former Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton
  • former Iowa City council member Rockne Cole
  • former Iowa City council candidate Megan Early Alter
  • Center for Worker Justice Director Rafael Morataya
  • It’s extraordinarily rare for elected officials to endorse a challenger to an incumbent from their own party.

    This situation wasn’t comparable to Iowa’s fourth Congressional district, where Representative Steve King is so toxic that many establishment Republicans were eager to embrace a GOP alternative. Lensing is not offensive and hasn’t disgraced her office.

    As far as I saw, none of public figures backing Bohannan directly criticized Lensing. But their praise for the challenger conveyed an deep-seated feeling that the incumbent had grown too comfortable and entitled. To cite just a few examples:

    Sullivan said of his choice, “I support Christina because I know that she will fight for people in need. She is a hard worker, and we deserve that.”

    Salih wrote,

    Christina shows up for people all over the community and is an advocate for people of color, immigrants, and others from disadvantaged or marginalized backgrounds. She is a strong voice for labor, collective bargaining rights and a living wage. She will stand up against wage theft and other unfair practices.

    In the state legislature, Christina will be a fearless and energetic advocate for each and every member of her district. She will also be a dedicated and collaborative partner with local government. This is why so many local officials are endorsing her.

    Jim Larew, who has worked on many Iowa Democratic campaigns and served as chief of staff to Governor Chet Culver, was another active supporter of Bohannan’s campaign. He commented on Facebook, “She is enormously talented, hardworking, energetic and focused on moving Iowa forward. […] She is working to earn the support of Iowa City area voters.”

    Dennis Doderer, whose mother Minnette Doderer was a legendary Iowa lawmaker, argued in a letter to the editor,

    Some may view primary challenges as disruptive, but we live in disruptive times, and the regular order is not “working for the working.” Times like these call for change.

    Christina reminds me of Iowa’s most famous legislative disruptor, my mother, the late Sen. Minnette Doderer. Like my mom, Christina grew up in rural poverty and gained an education through the “kindness of strangers.” Mom never forgot her blessings, and she empowered others to do the same. I believe this is one of the reasons why she is widely regarded as one of Iowa’s most influential legislators.

    Christina possesses the same kind of “political athleticism” and passion that I believe is so rare. I believe Christina will be just as strong and effective, and that she has the potential to build the same kind of enduring legacy that my mother did.

    Lensing had prominent surrogates as well. Fellow Iowa House Democrat Dave Jacoby wrote that she is a champion for the city she represents.

    Her investment in issues affecting women, her staunch defense of voting rights and her unqualified support for our University of Iowa put her in the forefront of effective leaders in Des Moines. House District 85 is well served by Vicki and her fierce protection of local government (home rule) for Iowa City, Johnson County and our local K-12 schools. A true champion of environmental issues, she has fought for clean water and trails, and full funding of the REAP program. Always willing to meet with her constituents, Vicki frequently refers to all Iowa Citians as friends and neighbors.

    The fact that so many local officials endorsed a primary challenger speaks for itself.

    Another Lensing advocate, Anne Marie Kraus, wrote a startling letter suggesting that Bohannan simply did not know her place.

    there are two fundamental things Bohannan does not understand about how it works in the State House: 1) In today’s political climate, the only way to achieve effective change is to be in the majority, and 2) You don’t cannibalize one of your own by running against a person of integrity and experience in your same Democratic Party.

    Does Bohannan really think that it serves the state to pluck off and discard someone who understands and has experienced 19 years of intense committee work and debate? Does Bohannan think that her goals will magically be successful because she is there instead of Lensing? Does Bohannan think that Lensing has not worked in-depth on all the goals of the Iowa Democrats? […]

    Therefore, I call upon Christina Bohannan, if she really has a commitment to achieving Democratic goals, to get her own district: Move to a district held by a Republican, and flip it. That’s how to get things done. […] That’s what a dedicated public servant, who understands how it works, would do. Bohannan obviously does not demonstrate an understanding of this basic fact. It’s about the welfare of Iowans, not about her.

    Seniority and institutional knowledge can be valuable, so I understand why many are reluctant to replace an experienced legislator. My own bias is to support Democratic incumbents unless a primary challenger can make a compelling case that s/he can do the job better.

    That said, no elected official should get a free pass to be renominated forever. If someone hasn’t assumed a leadership role in ten terms, it’s probably never going to happen. Newly-elected lawmakers can learn quickly and have an impact even during their first term.

    And if we’re talking about flipping red districts, Lensing’s record left a lot to be desired.

    FUNDRAISING SHOWED LITTLE SENSE OF URGENCY

    As Bleeding Heartland observed during the 2018 election cycle, too many long-serving Iowa House Democrats raise little money to support candidates in targeted districts. Consequently, the GOP continually outspends Democratic challengers in most of the battlegrounds that determine control of the chamber.

    Lensing donated $17,200 from her campaign funds for use on other 2018 races. She had transferred $11,800 to the state party during the 2016 campaign. That’s a small fraction of what it takes to compete in even one targeted House district.

    From the moment Bohannan launched her campaign last October, it was clear she was a serious contender. Nevertheless, Lensing’s latest disclosures showed $16,825.12 in total fundraising for 2019, of which $5,000 came from political action committees that donate to numerous lawmakers from both parties. (Incumbents typically don’t need to work for those funds.) During the first four and a half months of this year, Lensing raised $1,525.97, about two-thirds of that coming from PACs.

    First-time candidate Bohannan raised nearly as much with no help from PACs: $10,424.83 during the last three months of 2019 (about $1,000 was self-funding) and $6,956.45 from January 1 through mid-May, solely from individual donors.

    The Iowa City area is among the state’s most prosperous communities. An energetic fundraiser could bring in a lot of money to help House Democrats running in more difficult terrain.

    FINAL NOTE: DEMOCRATS SHOULD PROVIDE A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

    Although it didn’t affect the outcome, one unfortunate development of this race deserves mention. The Iowa Democratic Party did not allow Bohannan’s campaign to buy access to its voter database, apparently at the behest of House Democratic leaders.

    In a telephone interview with Bleeding Heartland in late April, Bohannan confirmed that the party rejected her campaign’s request to buy the voter file. Email correspondence provided by the Bohannan campaign shows that a few weeks after the challenger announced her candidacy last fall, Emily Waggoner informed a campaign representative, “The House Truman Fund does not make NGP Van access available to primary challengers running against sitting Iowa House incumbents.”

    At least three Democratic State Central Committee members from the Iowa City area–Janice Weiner, Shawn Harmsen, and Kyla Paterson–opposed the policy and were working to secure access for Bohannan. That effort fell by the wayside in the tumult following the Iowa caucuses and subsequent resignation of the state party chair and executive director.

    Bohannan told me she “fundamentally” disagrees with the policy. “We cannot say that we are the party of protecting voting rights and then simultaneously try to ensure that there’s one name on the ballot.”

    Furthermore, she said, she’s donated to the Iowa Democratic Party “for years and years,” providing resources that helped many candidates. “And then when I decide to run, it’s like I’m a total outsider, like I have nothing to do with this.” The practice is divisive and for her, highlights “the reason why we need primaries, because not all Democrats are the same. I would never do this, ever. I don’t care how long I was an incumbent or whether I lost every election I ever ran in.”

    Current state party chair Mark Smith, who was chosen for that role in February, is a longtime legislator and former leader of the House Democratic caucus, so may not be inclined to support this policy change.

    The State Central Committee should address the problem and get the Iowa Democratic Party out of the incumbency protection racket before the next election cycle.

    UPDATE: James Q. Lynch reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Lensing’s retirement speech.

    The resumption of the legislative session that was scheduled to be adjourned in April provided Lensing with the rare opportunity for a lawmaker who was defeated in a primary election to give a “retirement” speech. Lensing briefly referenced that loss when she spoke of the “honor and privilege” of serving 20 years.

    “That’s a long time,” she said. “Not that serving another term would not have been welcome. It’s just not meant to be.”

    Just as when she entered the House, Lensing, 62, leaves after serving 16 years in the minority.

    “But there were four years that I served in the majority, and those were golden years,” she said. “To be able to propose legislation and see it pass on the House floor, to serve as a chairperson of a committee, to see bills through your committee and know that there may be tough votes you have to take for a good result in the end, to meet with constituents and be able to take action upon their concerns — those are sweet memories for me.”

    Bohannan has promised to put more effort into helping Democrats win back the majority than her predecessor did. I’ll be keeping an eye on the next round of fundraising disclosures, which are due on July 19.

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