Bleeding Heartland Year in Review: Iowa politics in 2008

Last year at this time I was scrambling to make as many phone calls and knock on as many doors as I could before the Iowa caucuses on January 3.

This week I had a little more time to reflect on the year that just ended.

After the jump I’ve linked to Bleeding Heartland highlights in 2008. Most of the links relate to Iowa politics, but some also covered issues or strategy of national importance.

I only linked to a few posts about the presidential race. I’ll do a review of Bleeding Heartland’s 2008 presidential election coverage later this month.

You can use the search engine on the left side of the screen to look for past Bleeding Heartland diaries about any person or issue.

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Will any Iowa Democrat stand up for repealing the English-only law?

The Des Moines Register editorial board must have been reading my mind when they published another editorial calling on legislators to repeal Iowa’s English-only law.

As I’ve written, Democrats who cut the deal to approve that law in 2002 assured us that it was a symbolic measure, and that plenty of exceptions were written into the law.

Last month a judge in Polk County ordered the Secretary of State’s office to stop providing voter information in languages other than English. Secretary of State Mike Mauro has decided not to appeal that ruling.

Now Republicans are bent out of shape because the Iowa Department of Transportation published a public notice in Spanish as well as English:

Iowa Senate Minority Leader Ron Wieck, a Sioux City Republican, objected Thursday after he read a DOT public meeting notice in the Sioux City Journal printed in Spanish and English. It advised residents of a public hearing to discuss proposed improvements on Interstate Highway 29.

“We have spent an entire legislative session listening to the Department of Transportation state that they do not have the money they need for Iowa’s infrastructure,” Wieck said. “While I believe that a strong infrastructure is important, I am concerned with this type of frivolous spending. …

“Instead of clamoring for more money from the taxpayers of this state, maybe we should look at our bloated bureaucracy and trim the fat.”

What a joke. Who is harmed by a DOT public meeting notice in multiple languages? How much money would they save by printing all public meeting notices in English only–a few thousand dollars?

A representative of the DOT said they have printed public meeting notices in other languages as well as English for years. The Iowa Attorney General’s office is currently reviewing whether this practice can continue despite the law making English the official state language.

Will any Democrat have the courage to introduce a bill to repeal this law? It’s not as if adopting the law has prevented Republicans from scoring political points on this issue. As long as the law stands, Republicans will keep scouring public documents for any sign of Spanish or other languages so they can demagogue.

This is not about illegal immigration. This is about preventing government from effectively serving Iowa residents whose native language is not English. It’s mean-spirited and unwelcoming, and I would like to see more leadership on this issue from our elected Democrats during the 2009 legislative session.

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Surprise! English-only law is more than symbolic

Back in 2002, Steve King hadn’t yet become an embarrassment on the national stage; he was merely a crusader for intolerance in the Republican-controlled Iowa legislature. Tom Vilsack was a first-term governor nervously eyeing a midterm re-election campaign under the very popular President George W. Bush.

Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

Anyway, King was obsessed with passing a law declaring English the official language of Iowa. Didn’t you know how difficult it had become for Iowans to express themselves without official acknowledgment of English’s status?

Vilsack vetoed one version of the bill, then signed the rewritten bill that came to his desk. Disappointed liberals were assured that Vilsack had made the smart play by taking the issue off the table for the November election. Besides, the new bill contained all kinds of exceptions, so it would be little more than a symbolic measure.

Well, this week a judge in Polk County “ordered Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro to stop using languages other than English in the state’s official voter registration forms”, the Des Moines Register’s William Petroski reported. (If you want to read the ruling, click here.)

In 2006 King, by then a U.S. Representative in Iowa’s fifth district, complained that then-Secretary of State Chet Culver had put voting information in Spanish, Laotian, Bosnian and Vietnamese as well as English on the secretary of state’s website.

Attorney General Tom Miller had determined such action was acceptable because the official English law allowed for “any language usage required by or necessary to secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America, or the Constitution of the state of Iowa.”

King filed suit last year against Culver and Mike Mauro, who was elected secretary of state in 2006.  District Judge Douglas Staskal concluded that voter registration forms in languages other than English are against the law, and voided the “improper exercise of agency power.”

Miller, like Culver and Mauro a Democrat, may appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court:

“Our view is that although the Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act requires all official forms to be in English, it does not prohibit government officials from providing materials in other languages as well,” Miller said. “We argued that position to the District Court. This principle can be particularly important in the area of voting rights of citizens.”

If this ruling is upheld, it will hamper efforts to register voters whose native language is not English.

I’m with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board, which wrote on Saturday that “it’s time for Iowa lawmakers to repeal this embarrassing law.”

They should do so because the law is mean-spirited and sends an anti-immigrant message. They should do so because it makes Iowa seem xenophobic. They should do so because it’s unnecessary when studies show today’s immigrants are learning English as quickly as their predecessors.

And to lawmakers who may have thought the law was toothless because it included exemptions, Judge Staskal’s ruling tells them otherwise. The law applies to “official action” from government, which is broadly defined. It could have a “chilling effect on speech by causing government employees to refrain from non-English communication all together,” he wrote.

There is still time for legislators to repeal the official English law this session.

Don’t let the ghost of Steve King constrain voting rights in the upcoming presidential election.

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