A story of hope and the Leopold Center's first leader


Paul W. Johnson passed away in February 2021. His family and Dennis Keeney gave permission to share the text of the forward he wrote for Keeney’s 2015 book The Keeney Place: Life in the Heartland.

In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act. It offered states 30,000 acres of land for each of their Senators and Representatives. The land was to be sold and its proceeds used to establish colleges in each state to provide higher education for the “industrial classes.” These institutions became known as “land-grant colleges,” and today every state in the Union has at least one land-grant university. In 1887 the Hatch Act added research, and in 1914 the Smith-Lever Act added an extension component. Today, land-grant universities, with their education, extension, and research components can be credited with one of the most revolutionary changes in the status of humanity that our world has ever witnessed.

What does this have to do with The Keeney Place: A Life in the Heartland? Everything.

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Joni Ernst learned the wrong lesson from Chuck Grassley

Senator Joni Ernst shouldn’t be in this position.

Given Iowans’ tendency to re-elect incumbents and the state’s rightward drift this past decade, she should be running ten points ahead.

Instead, Iowa’s Senate race is universally seen as a toss-up. Ernst has led in only two polls released since the June primary. Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield has led in fourteen polls during the same period.

Not all of Ernst’s political problems are her own creation. The COVID-19 pandemic and President Donald Trump’s disastrous leadership have put at risk several GOP-held seats that once seemed safe.

But Ernst could have set herself up better to survive a tough environment for her party. Her most important strategic error was not following the example Chuck Grassley set as a 40-something first-term senator.

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Iowa agriculture, climate change, and "SWAPA"

Paul W. Johnson is a preacher’s kid, former Iowa state legislator, former chief of the USDA Soil Conservation Service/Natural Resources Conservation Service, former director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and a retired farmer. -promoted by Laura Belin

In the early 1980s there was a serious farm crisis in Iowa. Land and commodity prices were falling, so banks were calling in farm loans and foreclosing on farmers who couldn’t pay up. Maurice Dingman was bishop of the Des Moines area during those years, and he was speaking up strongly for farmers who were suffering during this time. I was impressed by his defense of family farmers.

In 1987 David Osterberg and I were serving in the Iowa legislature–he representing Mount Vernon, I representing Decorah–and working on groundwater protection. Industrial agriculture sent their lobbyists to weaken our legislation, and newspapers were carrying stories about their fierce opposition to our work.

During this time, Bishop Dingman phoned us and suggested we have lunch together. 

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When Chuck Grassley was "pwned" by the televangelists

Richard Lindgren reviews Senator Chuck Grassley’s probe of self-dealing by tax-exempt televangelists, which fizzled out with little to show for years of work. -promoted by Laura Belin

In a recent Bleeding Heartland piece, Laura Belin contrasted U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley’s aggressive attack on then-Vice President Al Gore’s use of a government telephone in 1997 to make fundraising calls to his silence after repeated and blatant Trump administration violations of the Hatch Act. This flouting of laws and norms culminated in President Trump pulling out all stops to use the White House grounds and hundreds of federal employees to publicly accept the 2020 Republican nomination for President.

In the internet gaming language of “leetspeak,” the notoriously frugal and “by the book” Grassley has repeatedly been “pwned,” (intentionally misspelled, but pronounced “owned”) which means to be embarrassingly dominated and defeated by another “gamer.”

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An Iowa angle on Trump's clash with military leaders

Herb Strentz: Today’s reality show from the Oval Office may be following plotlines imagined by 1960s authors with ties to the leading newspapers of Iowa and Minnesota. -promoted by Laura Belin

A provocative “Iowa angle” links fiction of the 1960s to fact in the 2020 dispute between President Donald Trump and several of the nation’s current or former military leaders. Trump advocated using military force to quell national unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

In its June 8 newsletter for subscribers, the well-respected international magazine The Economist characterized Trump’s call to arms as America’s “worst civil-military crisis for a generation, one that threatens to do enduring harm to democratic norms and the standing and cohesion of its armed forces.”

The Iowa angle goes back to the John F. Kennedy era and best-selling novels by former writers at The Des Moines Register and the Minneapolis Tribune, who wrote about scenarios of presidential instability and misuse of the military on American soil.

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Republicans have underfunded Iowa's State Hygienic Lab for years

Staff at Iowa’s State Hygienic Laboratory have been working around the clock to process tests that reveal the scope of the novel coronavirus epidemic. Governor Kim Reynolds has often lauded their “yeoman’s work” at her daily news conferences.

But as former Vice President Joe Biden famously said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” In real terms, state support for a facility critical to Iowa’s COVID-19 response dropped considerably over the last decade.

The Iowa legislature hasn’t increased dollars allocated to the State Hygienic Lab since 2013, when Senate Democrats insisted on doing so. Not only has state funding failed to keep up with inflation since then, the laboratory’s annual appropriation has yet to recover from a mid-year budget cut in 2018.

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