Reporters’ Roundtable

Dec 23, 2016  | 29 min  | Ep 4415 | Podcast | Transcript


Government changes. A new year bringing new leaders in Iowa and Washington. We're discussing the changes, the causes and the effects with Iowa political journalists on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa PBS.


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, December 23 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: It's hard to top 2016 as a year for really new political news. It will soon be moving day at the White House and because of November election decisions, also changes at Iowa's Terrace Hill. Iowa's General Assembly begins a new session with republicans leading both the House and the Senate. And even with republicans scoring big election wins last November, the GOP and the democrats are both facing somewhat unity questions. We're seeking insight from Lee Newspaper's Capitol Bureau Chief Erin Murphy, James Lynch writing for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines Register Chief Political Reporter Jason Noble, and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.

Borg: Erin, I'm going to begin with you across the table and everyone else is going to chime in on this one I guess. But our democracy is based on a smooth transition of political power. Even though there's been a lot of acrimony in the campaign it's supposed to be smooth. But that doesn't mean there aren't political shockwaves that are being sent throughout the nation. What are those shockwaves that are being felt in Iowa?

Murphy: Well, the first thing off the top of my head we're going to have at least a couple of years moving forward here of lawmaking agenda being set by one political party both at the national level and at the state level, which is a change from what we've had in the past few years where we've had divided government. Now the Republican Party sets the legislative agenda both in Washington, D.C. and in Iowa so that's going to change what kind of legislation we'll see in the next few years. And with any election you have appointments and because of that, we'll get into that more here, we're going to have a new Governor in Iowa.

Henderson: When you say shockwaves, Dean, I think back to 2006 voters wanted a change, in 2008 they wanted change you can believe in, in 2012 they wanted a Congress that did something different, in 2012 was kind of a mixed bag in terms of change. 2014 we elected a new republican Senator in Joni Ernst, part of a change wave. I think voters expect change and they haven't gotten it dating back to 2006. Now, the kind of change they're seeking is maybe unclear to some of the policymakers. But I think voters want something seismic to happen and that's why Trump really lit a fire under a lot of voters because he was promising something that's totally different from what you've seen before.

Lynch: What's interesting and sort of ironic is that republicans always talk about how uncertainty is bad for the economy, it's bad for business, they want certainty in everything and uncertainty is Donald Trump's stock and trade. He's nothing but uncertain and so no one really knows what to expect from him. Sometimes the first inkling we get is his tweet about China or a fighter jet or something like that. So I think in terms of the shockwave they're yet to happen.

Noble: What's really interesting this year, to Kay's point about the succession of years and the demand for change, for the first time since 2009 in Iowa and nationally one party is in total control and they actually have the capacity to enact broad change.

Borg: But does that put the monkey, that was Erin's point, but does that put the monkey, and to what Kay said, on republicans' backs to do it quickly?

Noble: Absolutely. I think that yeah the first 100 days of the Trump administration there's going to be a huge expectation to see meaningful changes in the economy and the employment situation and that sort of thing. In Des Moines you've got the republican Senate in particular that has been waiting for years for this opportunity and they're going to want to go out and do some things right away to prove that they're doing something different.

Henderson: And talk about trickle down, you have this drain the swamp mantra that's going on in Washington, D.C. and that really resonated with voters, I'm wondering how that's going to manifest itself at the state level because I think there is an expectation that state government needs to be drained a little bit as well and you have pent up demand among many republican legislators to reduce, shrink the size of government, you haven't heard from politicians at the upper echelons of state government that we're going to get rid of state agencies, we're going to drastically reduce taxes, but I think there is pent up demand among voters, an expectation that those sorts of things will at least be considered and debated.

Lynch: And I think there is sort of an expectation that Trump is going to move quickly and the republican Congress will move quickly to accomplish at least a few show pieces whether that is repealing Obamacare or some other action. And the same at the state level. Brad Zaun is talking about banning traffic cameras in the first week of the session and you hear other legislators talking about things they're going to do right off the top of the session and I think there is an expectation, probably leaders need to move something quickly to show that there is a difference, that there has been a change and I think, as Kay said, that pent up demand that there's going to be a lot of people pushing to let's change this right now, we've talked about it long enough, let's do A, B, C.

Murphy: We all heard from voters who were frustrated with Senate, the U.S. Senate republicans when they switched that chamber in 2014 from what voters perceived as a lack of enaction just from that change. So now that republicans have full control of the White House and the Congress you can be sure that there's going to be a demand for action.

Borg: But how does that play out, Jason, in the Iowa legislature? I was intrigued by what Kay was saying here is that voters in Iowa are expecting change too, to a certain extent. So what change do you think that republicans have to act quickly on, if you agree with that premise, here in Iowa?

Noble: Well, they certainly have a long wish list and I think what's going to happen is they're going to find out that the economic or the state budget reality may not accommodate that. They've been talking about pretty meaningful changes to the tax structure here including potentially changes to the state income tax, they've been talking about funding water quality programs that have been a front burner issue for a long time here, talking about changing the collective bargaining structure for state employees, education reforms. A lot of those things have a dollar figure attached to them and we're already talking about going and one of the first things the legislative session, the legislators will need to do is cut $100 million out of the current year budget. So there's going to be some limitations in terms of money on what they can actually accomplish.

Lynch: One of the biggest challenges I think for republican leaders, especially in the Statehouse, is staying ahead of their caucuses so they don't get run over by the rank and file members in the rush that Jason is talking about to accomplish some things.

Borg: You mean that leaders are going to have to be careful that the rank and file within, as you call it the caucuses in the House and the Senate, don't get unruly and have a mutiny.

Lynch: Exactly.

Murphy: This is one of those be careful what you wish for scenarios for leadership in the Statehouse because they've been wanting this opportunity for years and years and years, now they have it and as James alluded to there is a risk of biting off too much of the apple, you cause budget problems, and if things don't go well voters respond to that and you're out of power in two years.

Henderson: Building off of Jason's I guess analysis of the fiscal reality these people face I think you should look for action on things that don't cost money, things like voter ID, things like expanding gun rights which republican legislators in the House have tried to do for the past several years and I think that they will allow fireworks to be exploded in Iowa, if you will, in a greater way than they have in the past. None of those things cost money and so I think --

Borg: But they divert attention.

Henderson: Well, they don't divert attention but there has been pent up demand for action on those particular things and traffic cameras.

Lynch: One of the things that I think will be interesting to watch for is for years in the House they have passed, been very aggressive on what they have passed on both fiscal measures and kind of the social agenda. Now those things could actually end up on the Governor's desk if the Senate goes along so it's going to be interesting to watch some of those more moderate republicans if they vote for restricting abortion access, defunding Planned Parenthood, expanding gun rights. In the past they could vote for it knowing it wasn't going to go anywhere in the Senate. Now if they vote for it and it goes over to the Senate it's going to the Governor’s desk.

Borg: Well, what I see here too as in Kim Reynolds we expect will move into the Governor's chair, might that become, Jason, a hot seat for some of that legislation coming her way?

Noble: Absolutely. And this is the other really big change, big storyline of the upcoming political year in Iowa is this gubernatorial succession. We don't have a good timeframe on when Governor Branstad will be confirmed as Ambassador of China and when he would leave office, when Kim Reynolds would succeed him. It's very possible that could happen during the legislative session and that she's going to walk into a situation where she immediately has to show political leadership and show that she can manage a legislature.

Borg: Erin, we're already seeing Kim Reynolds taking, let me say it this way, stepping away from the shadow that she has been in as Lieutenant Governor and taking, just this past week she was out with an outline of the administration, the Branstad administration's energy goals.

Murphy: It's not uncommon for her to attend events like that, news conferences, with the Governor for announcements. What was a little more unique about this is the Governor was not there as well, she was the only one there representing the administration along with Economic Development and the Department of Transportation, but as far as the Governor's Office. So she has been a pretty active partner in this, obviously always the buck stops with Governor Branstad, he's the one who is responsible for making decisions. But she has been a pretty active working partner with Governor Branstad since 2010 but now, like you said, they're starting to push that even a little more and get her out there for the public.

Lynch: And as active and visible as she has been over the past six years she is really a big unknown. We don't know if she's going to be Branstad in heels or if she has her own ideas about legislation and how she's going to conduct business as Governor and I think a lot of lawmakers are just kind of waiting to get some indication. And the big question mark is when this happens, if it happens in the middle of a session or it could really cause a problem in terms of negotiation between the legislature and the Governor if there's a switch in Governor.

Henderson: There's also two schools of thought here, one school is that Terry Branstad wants to stay as long as he can and sign a bunch of bills that he's wanted to sign for years. The other school of thought is that he wants to take the brunt of action on some of the things that may come his way from a republican dominated legislature and give her sort of a clean slate for the 2018 legislative session so that she could lay out her agenda because it's going to be a little mixed bag there, people will be trying to figure out if she's signing something because it was a Branstad priority or it was a priority of her own.

Murphy: That also gives her a clean slate for the 2018 election as well.

Borg: And that brings up the 2018, we already have seen Ron Corbett of Cedar Rapids taking himself out of the running for Mayor of Cedar Rapids, but also more than a strong hint that he's interested in taking that Governor's chair, Jim.

Lynch: Right, and Mayor Corbett has been looking at that for some time, he's been traveling the state talking about water quality and other issues trying to bridge the rural-urban divide and it's no surprise that he's looking at this race. He's a former Speaker of the House, he's had his eye on it. It makes it more difficult for him if Kim Reynolds is the sitting Governor. He has indicated that he looks at it as an open race, an open seat race whether she's there or not. But yeah, it's certainly going to make it harder for him to win support among the party regulars and to raise money from the party regulars.

Borg: Does it also, Jason, though make it harder for Kim Reynolds knowing she has people out there nipping at her heels?

Noble: Maybe so but primaries often are good for candidates and if she's going to run for Governor in her own right and sort of step out there on that stage it may help her maybe to her benefit early on in that process to have an inter-party competitor.

Henderson: Here's the other thing to consider, what if she chooses a Lieutenant Governor who takes a competitor out of the mix? What if she chooses Ron Corbett as her Lieutenant Governor? What if the whole reason he made this announcement this past month is because he wants to be the Lieutenant Governor, the Governor in waiting, if you will? So there's all sorts of internal calculations that you can make in terms of that. That was one of the interesting things we saw on this program earlier this month when Bill Northey who literally took himself out of the mix within hours of Terry Branstad confirming that he would be Governor, Bill Northey said hey, I'm not going to run for Governor, I'm going to support this Kim Reynolds, and then on this program he said, yeah, I'd love to be, he didn't say it that way, but he said he would love to be Lieutenant Governor.

Borg: Kay, because of the holiday we may have some people watching this program who aren't familiar with Iowa politics. Bill Northey is Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture and has indicated that he may be interested in the future in running for Governor, he has already taken himself out and said, but I am interested in Lieutenant Governor. Go ahead, Jim.

Lynch: Well, it also sets up this really interesting situation for the Republican Party. Jeff Kaufmann, the State Party Chair, was asked about this and he said we're 100% behind Kim Reynolds as Governor but we're 100% neutral in a primary. I'm not sure how you do that. But that's what he's pledging and I think it's going to be very difficult for the party as well as for republican regular party members if there is a primary.

Borg: Speaking about the parties, Kay I'm going to go back to you, that is we've got some changes in the Democratic Party leadership, Jeff Kaufmann is not leaving the republicans, but Andy McGuire is leaving there. What are the pulls and pushes in that decision?

Henderson: Well, both Jason Noble and I spent a good Saturday in December listening to the candidates who would like to be the next Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. There are eight of them. They come from both sides, they come from Clintonville and they come from the Sanders coalition. They are articulating messages that you would expect after a drubbing like democrats took, they're talking about reaching out to rural voters, they're talking about refashioning the message, they're talking about fundraising, they're talking about rebuilding the party from the nuts and bolts level. The other thing that happened at that meeting was Congressman Dave Loebsack, the democrat from Iowa City who, by the way, is the only democrat left in Iowa's congressional delegation, sort of unveiled a deep dive, if you will, a post-mortem to examine why they lost. They haven't done this in the past few election cycles and they're intending to hire people, consultants, do focus groups and try to figure things out.

Noble: This chair race though we're watching here with eight candidates from kind of across the entire spectrum of the Democratic Party tells us a lot about where Iowa democrats are right now. They are a party essentially without a leader, they are a party whose message has clearly not been resonating.

Borg: They're without a leader because they know Andy McGuire is lame duck?

Noble: Well, look back over the last 30 years of Iowa democratic politics, you had a leader in Tom Harkin and Tom Vilsack for much of that time, with Chet Culver when he was Governor, there is no one, there is no sort of statewide obvious leader to set the message and set the tone of the party. And so the chair in the absence of that right now has the chance to sort of be that face for the party and deliver that message at least until they have a Governor candidate for 2018.

Murphy: And I was just going to say that also gets the importance of the 2018 gubernatorial election for Iowa democrats a chance to win that seat back, break up the GOP trifecta in the Statehouse, but have someone else who can be that leader of the party moving it forward out of these last few elections.

Lynch: One of the things that I found interesting about watching the maneuvering for the chair is this group called The Political Party, which is sort of the millennial democrats have endorsed Kurt Meyer who is from rural northeast Iowa. He's not a millennial, I'm not sure how old Kurt is, but he's certainly not a millennial, but they have backed him for the chairmanship, which I found that interesting. It just seems like they would not be the same wavelength.

Borg: I don't want to leave this, Kay, and I know you have something to say too, without including that Tom Vilsack's role, because Jason was mentioning he has been the titular head when he was Governor of Iowa and then moved onto Washington to be U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. But now what is Tom Vilsack's role?

Henderson: He has expressed an interest in playing a leadership role but he's also out there looking for a new role for himself somewhere, maybe in academia, maybe elsewhere. And so I think it is up to Dave Vilsack to be the person who sort of spearheads this until they elect a new party chairman at the end of January.

Borg: Do they need Tom Vilsack to run for something?

Henderson: He has said that he owes a lot to the state of Iowa because it gave him a chance as Mayor, as a State Senator, as Governor. I'm sure there are people talking to him and saying, please oh please oh please run again.

Noble: Tom Vilsack met with the Des Moines Register's Editorial Board this week and addressed some of those and he pretty strongly ruled out the possibility of returning to elective office and seemed to sort of define his role as someone who could give advice and be a help in more informal ways.

Borg: An elder in the party.

Noble: An elder in the party to a new generation yeah.

Henderson: But I covered what used to be called the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner, an annual fall fundraiser, it's now called the Fall Gala for Iowa democrats and among all of the speakers, including the candidates that democrats had on the ballot, Tom Vilsack got the loudest and strongest positive reception from that crowd. So you have democrats, despite what the Governor is saying, you have democrats who desperately want him to step forward and run again.

Murphy: Yeah both of these things are true. Governor Vilsack has said over and over again I'm not going to be on a ballot. Kay's absolutely right, if he were to -- he is the Iowa democrat's dream candidate right now. So if they can convince him.

Noble: I think the Iowa democrats right now find themselves where Iowa republicans found themselves in 2009, out of power, badly beaten in a presidential race, and what do the Iowa republicans do, they looked backward to their past Governor Terry Branstad, brought him back, there's sort of a model for that, that democrats might be looking at here.

Borg: Jim, Iowa republicans, they may be gloating but they can't gloat too much because they aren't completely unified either within that party. There's some strains there. Am I right?

Lynch: Yeah, there always are and part of it we've talked about looking ahead to 2018 if there is a primary contest and I think, I feel pretty certain there will be. Whether Ron Corbett runs or not I think there will be a primary contest. I think there will be somebody from the right, right wing of the party would challenge Kim Reynolds. We're assuming that Kim is going to run. She made sort of an indecisive comment the other day about she wanted to serve the party in one capacity or another. I would have thought she would have been more forthright in saying I want to be Governor. So we'll see some strains.

Borg: Will she say, oh beg me?

Lynch: I don't think she wants to say that. But yeah I think we'll see some of these divisions as we move closer to 2018.

Henderson: Right now I think winning heals a lot of wounds and so the fact that Trump won and won so decisively, 93 of Iowa's 99 counties, has really put the kibosh on a lot of the kibitzing that things aren't going right within the Republican Party.

Noble: If you do see some divisions come up within the Republican Party that very well may be in the legislature between the republican Senate, the republican House. The republican House has had a majority for several years now, this is a brand new thing for the Senate majority, they may be looking to be a little more activist and want to get more done than the House is comfortable with and there could be some tension there.

Borg: Erin, let's go to that, to the legislature as Jason has brought us. What is the tenor that you expect in this session? Democrats for the first time in many years have lost control now of the Senate, the legislature is all republican and I heard Senator, democratic Senator from Ames, Herman Quirmbach this past week issued a paper warning Iowa citizens what the republicans are likely to do with K-12 education. That sounds to me like a shout over the bough and it predicts acrimony when we usually open a session with pledges of oh we're going to sing Kumbaya.

Murphy: Well, when you need the other party to approve legislation that you ultimately want to see get done you're a little more likely to make those Kumbaya pledges. Here we go into a session where there's one party that needs no help from the other side, they can pass legislation whatever they want so long as everyone on their side of the political aisle can agree to it. So there is a good chance that we'll see a little more of that adversarial attitude in the Statehouse because you have a minority party that is completely out of power and all they can do is shout from the top of the hills as loud as they can and raise awareness. They can do nothing procedurally to stop the agenda.

Lynch: Typically it's the leaders who are pledging cooperation and fair play, it's not the rank and file. They know better, they have no intention of being cooperative. So I'm not sure this is really any different than any other year. I think the big question mark around the session is how far will republicans go? Will they go as far as Wisconsin did on collective bargaining issues? Will they go as far as Kansas did on taxation? And that's just a huge question mark is how far will they go?

Borg: You're shaking your head yes, Jason, and you are up at the legislature every day. Is that the way that you see it, that we're going into maybe not a session with gridlock because the republicans control everything as has been said here already, so it's just going to be acrimony and not gridlock.

Noble: Well, the incoming Senate minority leader Rob Hogg sort of answered this head on at some forums leading up to the session where he said, look, we don’t have any power. If you have a complaint about how the legislature goes it's on republicans and so that is going to be the democratic approach to this is they're going to be there to point out the shortcomings and the failures as they see them from the republicans because they don't have any governing power at all.

Henderson: And this is the case for democrats not just in Iowa but nationwide. They only have a few more election cycles until the census is released and district lines are redrawn. So they need to start recruiting candidates now, they need to think about 2018, they need to think about 2020. They need to be making those plans as quickly as possible because if they don't draft those lines in Iowa and elsewhere it's going to be an interesting decade ahead.

Borg: We're already looking ahead to redistricting.

Lynch: Yeah and coming back to the 2018 gubernatorial race, that makes that even more important, that democrats need to win that if they want to have any role to play in redistricting in, what 2021?

Henderson: 2022, yeah, for the 2022 election.

Borg: And keep a long distance line open to Beijing.

Henderson: Yes.

Borg: Alright. Thanks so much for your insights. Next week on Iowa Press as we wrap up this momentous 2016 and begin a New Year we'll have two economists here talking about how Iowa's and the nation's economies are in trouble and how to fix it. That will be next Friday at 7:30 and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. And from all of us producing Iowa Press, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and much joy as you celebrate the holidays.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa PBS.

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