Laura Belin

How Iowa Democrats could have saved the caucuses

Anyone who was paying attention has seen this day coming for years.

The Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee voted on December 2 for a new presidential nominating calendar, leaving Iowa out of the coveted early group. Though the Iowa Democratic Party will hold precinct caucuses in early 2024, as state law requires, we will no longer have presidential candidates campaigning around the state.

Some activists are already focused on adapting to life without being first-in-the-nation. I applaud their pragmatic mindset and welcome guest commentaries about how to rebuild the party without the money and national media spotlight we have enjoyed during presidential campaigns for decades.

But first, let’s acknowledge what some Democrats gloss over as they fondly recall the good times or grouse about President Joe Biden’s “complete kick in the teeth.”

Iowa Democratic leaders might have avoided this outcome if they had addressed problems with the caucus system a long time ago.

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Iowans join Congress, Biden in forcing bad contract on rail workers

Every member of Congress from Iowa voted this week to force a five-year contract on the freight rail industry, as President Joe Biden had requested to avert a possible strike on December 9. It was the first time since the 1990s that Congress exercised its power to intervene in national rail disputes.

Four unions representing tens of thousands of rail workers had rejected the tentative agreement, which U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh helped negotiate in September. The main sticking point was the lack of paid sick leave. Instead,

The deal gave workers a 24% raise over five years, an additional personal day and caps on health care costs. It also includes some modifications to the railroads’ strict attendance policies, allowing workers to attend to medical needs without facing penalties for missing work.

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Joni Ernst chooses right side of history

Iowa’s U.S. Senator Joni Ernst was among twelve Republicans who helped Democrats pass the Respect for Marriage Act on November 29. Her vote reflected both a personal evolution and a smart political calculation.

The bill would repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex marriages when it was enacted in 1996. It would also “require the federal government to recognize a marriage between two individuals if the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed.” Finally, although the bill would not require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, it would require states to give marriages performed elsewhere “full faith and credit, regardless of the couple’s sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.”

Senate rules require at least 60 votes to overcome a filibuster by the minority party, and the vote on final passage was 61-36 (roll call). Iowa’s Senator Chuck Grassley was one of the 36 Republicans who opposed the bill.

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Iowa governor still ducking public questions

Three weeks after her re-election victory, Governor Kim Reynolds continues to avoid unscripted interactions with journalists. She has not held a news conference for 20 weeks, and her public appearances since the November election have not even built in “gaggles” where reporters could informally ask a few questions.

Reynolds cut off press conferences about four months before the 2018 midterm election as well, but during that year’s campaign, she participated in three televised debates and pledged to hold weekly news conferences if elected. Though she didn’t keep that promise, she provided several opportunities for reporters to ask about her plans soon after winning the 2018 race.

This year, Reynolds agreed to only one debate with her Democratic challenger and made no commitment regarding future news conferences. The governor’s spokesperson Alex Murphy has not replied to Bleeding Heartland’s questions about plans for media availabilities.

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On gratitude and Sylvan Runkel

This post was supposed to be a book review.

I bought a copy of Sylvan T. Runkel: Citizen of the Natural World at the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat in September, thinking it would be perfect to review for my Iowa wildflowers series. Runkel co-authored some of the best Iowa wildflower guides, and I’ve used Wildflowers of Iowa Woodlands and Wildflowers of the Tall Grass Prairie countless times.

Co-authors Larry Stone and Jon Stravers both knew Runkel and interviewed many of his friends, relatives, and former colleagues while researching their biography. As expected, I learned a lot about how the famous conservationist grew to love the outdoors and became passionate about native plants and natural landscapes.

The book also struck a chord with me as I’ve been coping with the most physically challenging year of my life.

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Did low turnout sink Iowa Democratic candidates?

Fourth in a series interpreting the results of Iowa’s 2022 state and federal elections.

Many people have asked why Iowa experienced the red wave that didn’t materialize across most of the country. While no one factor can account for the result, early signs point to turnout problems among groups that favor Democratic candidates.

Although this year’s turnout was the second-highest in absolute numbers for an Iowa midterm, participation was down about 8 percent compared to the 2018 general election. The number of Iowans who cast ballots this year (1,230,416) was closer to the 2014 level (1,142,311) than to the high-water mark of 1,334,279, reached four years ago.

My impression is that the decline in turnout was not evenly distributed, but was more pronounced among registered Democrats than among Republicans, who have long been more reliable midterm voters in Iowa.

That alone could account for the narrow defeats of U.S. Representative Cindy Axne (who lost to Zach Nunn in the third Congressional district by 2,145 votes, a margin of 50.3 percent to 49.6 percent), Attorney General Tom Miller (lost to Brenna Bird by 20,542 votes, 50.8 percent to 49.1 percent), and State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald (lost to Roby Smith by 30,922 votes, or 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent).

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