Government

148 years of Eastern Iowa legislative experience leaving

"You learn there are mountains you can move ... and those you can't"

The State Capitol dome is illuminated by the sunset in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The State Capitol dome is illuminated by the sunset in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Nearly a century-and-a-half of Eastern Iowa legislative experience will walk out of the Statehouse doors when the 2018 Iowa legislative session ends.

Two Corridor senators — Democrats Wally Horn of Cedar Rapids and Bob Dvorsky of Coralville — have served a total of 78 years in the House and Senate. Five Corridor representatives from districts stretching from Waukon to Mount Pleasant have tallied 68 years in the House. All told, the lawmakers are taking almost 150 years of institutional knowledge with them as they go. Their terms run through the end of the year.

 

WALLY HORN

The shadow that Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, cast on the Statehouse spans 46 years, making him the longest continuously serving legislator in state history.

Horn, 84, said he asked the Legislative Service Agency to calculate how many votes he cast on bills, amendments, minutes, rules, motions, quorum calls and adjournments during his service. The estimate was about 215,000.

A native of Bloomfield, Horn spent time in the U.S. Army and more than 30 years as a teacher, coach and facilitator in the Cedar Rapids school system. He was elected to the Iowa House in 1972, where he spent five two-year terms before moving to the Iowa Senate in 1982 — currently representing northwest and southwest portions of Cedar Rapids, which make up Senate District 35.

In the Senate, he served in numerous roles — most notably as majority leader from 1992 to 1995, telling his colleagues last week in a farewell speech that “I really didn’t even run for it. I had a group come to me and tell me we’d like you to have it. Well, I’m not going to turn that down.”

During his legislative career, he became known as the “vice” senator because he handled a number of issues dealing with alcohol and gambling issues, including casino-style gambling and the end of the state’s monopoly on liquor sales.

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But he also was a leader on public worker pensions and a trailblazer for teachers serving as part-time legislators when local school officials agreed to give him unpaid leave.

Horn opposed lowering the legal blood-alcohol standard to 0.08 percent, led the effort to repeal Iowa’s motorcycle helmet law and cast the deciding Senate vote to establish the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act.

He was known as a champion for K-12 and higher education.

“You learn there are mountains you can move and to go around those you can’t,” Horn said in an interview.

Horn and his wife, Phyllis Peterson, who serves as his legislative clerk, also were known in the Capitol for the candy dish they maintained at his Senate desk.

When he leaves public office at the end of his term, Horn plans to split time between his permanent home in Cedar Rapids and his grandchildren in Phoenix.

 

BOB DVORSKY

Another long-serving and retiring senator who, like Horn, once received the Hoover Uncommon Service Award and has represented parts of Linn, Johnson, Cedar and Muscatine counties is Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville.

A native of Burlington, Dvorsky, 69, spent time as a Coralville elected official before winning an Iowa House seat in 1987 and moving to the Iowa Senate in 1994 during his 32 years of service under the Capitol’s golden dome.

Most notably, he spent 12 years as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee as a key state budget architect and a leader of efforts to channel funds to deal with Iowa’s 2008 flooding disaster and the national recession that hit the state’s finances hard.

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An employment job developer and executive officer for the state Department of Corrections’ 6th Judicial District, Dvorsky was active on judiciary and public safety issues and was credited with helping the I-JOBS program, STEM education and Iowa’s housing trust fund take root, as well as adequately financing higher education while freezing resident undergraduate tuition for three years and helping get the Iowa Flood Center started.

In making farewell comments last week to his Senate colleagues, Dvorsky referred to his time in the Legislature as “this great, long journey” and said he tried every day that he was in the House and Senate to do at least one thing that made him proud to be a public servant in Iowa.

“I will miss that dearly,” he said.

Dvorsky said he lived by two principles during his legislative career: that you can accomplish a lot “as long as you don’t care who gets credit for it” and for the most part that lawmakers “deal in raging incrementalism.”

“I think the Iowa Senate is at its best when we set aside our personal agendas and we work at problem-solving. Now that’s really difficult because everyone has an agenda,” he said. “I think the Iowa Senate also does its best when we stand for those people who have no voice.”

Dvorsky credited his long-term success to “team Dvorsky,” which was made up of his two daughters, who served as Senate pages during his tenure, and his wife, Sue, a former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party whom he called “the force of nature” and his steadfast adviser.

 

KRISTI HAGER

Rep. Kristi Hager, R-Waukon, doesn’t think of her exit from the Iowa House as retirement.

She’s running for the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors.

Hager, 54, has served one term and clerked for her husband, Bob, for one term when he served in the House. Before that, she had little interest in politics, “and I never thought I would be called to serve in this capacity.”

When she came into the House as part of the Republican “trifecta” — control of the House, Senate and governor’s office — people said they thought they wouldn’t have a voice in state government.

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“But there are a lot of varying beliefs in the House Republican caucus and differences between the House and the Senate, so I don’t think that has happened the way people thought,” Hager said.

She’s happy to have been part of legislation on water quality, schools and tax reform that she said will benefit her Northeast Iowa district.

“I always ask, ‘Who’s it going to hurt?’ ” she said. “Of course, we’re going to pass legislation that benefits people, but I always wonder about the unintended consequences.”

She and her husband operate a campground on the Upper Iowa River. Hager plans to reopen a halfway house she operated to serve people coming out of prison and drug rehabilitation, and the homeless.

 

DAVE HEATON

Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, has been either the chairman or ranking member of the Health and Human Services Appropriations subcommittee for 20 of the 24 years he’s been in the Iowa House.

He served on the Transportation and Agriculture committees until then-Speaker Ron Corbett asked him to chair the HHS budget subcommittee.

“I didn’t realize that nobody else would take the job,” Heaton joked.

Since then, overseeing the budget for the Department of Human Services has been his passion.

“We’ve made great strides in mental health and dealing with people with disabilities” by moving from institutional care to community-based services, Heaton said.

He admits to concerns about turning the management of Medicaid over to private companies, “but we had to do something about the 9 percent annual increase in Medicaid costs.” He said he continued to work this session to “take the bumps out.”

Heaton also thinks the state has made progress in helping children and preserving families with what social services providers call “wraparound” services.

Heaton, 77, who with his wife, Carmen, ran the Iris Restaurant for 42 years, says he will miss “the ability to have your hands on the levers that can make positive changes in people’s lives.”

He hopes to continue to make a difference through community organizations and board work.

 

TODD TAYLOR

Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, was elected to the Iowa House in a 1995 special election after having clerked for then-Rep. Bob Dvorsky.

Taylor is leaving the House, but not retiring. He’s running for the Senate seat now held by his former Jefferson High School teacher, Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids.

His goals as a lawmaker have been to write good legislation “and unwrite stupid legislation,” Taylor said. “There’s plenty of both.”

He realized early in his House tenure, which included only four years in the majority, that “you have to keep running, you do what you can in your area.”

During his time in the House that included about 9,000 votes, nine House speakers and four governors, Taylor said one of the landmarks was the election of Gov. Tom Vilsack, the first Democratic governor in 40 years.

There were plenty of partisan fights over the years, but Taylor, 51, recalled the bipartisanship that prevailed as the Legislature coped with the 2008 floods in Eastern Iowa and, before then, in preparing for Jan. 1, 2000 — popularly known at the time as Y2K.

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“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “We didn’t know if all the state computers would crash and the communications systems go down. We did a lot of system upgrades. It was very bipartisan.”

The same was true in 2008 when Cedar Rapids, Coralville, Iowa City and other Eastern Iowa communities were flooded.

“We chose to work together,” he said, adding his gratitude for the support the state gave his community. “I guess we come together around disaster.”

Happier landmarks were the births of a daughter and son to Taylor and his wife, Kim, in 2001 and 2003.

A piece of legislation he will never forget is the “exotic wild animals as pets” bill because he worked on it from the beginning until it was signed by the governor.

“Everything that could happen, happened,” he said. In addition to crafting the legislation to avoid restrictions on Iowa’s livestock industry, the bill had to be refined to create a number of exemptions — an alligator farmer in Grinnell and a snake milker in the Quad Cities, for example.

In the end, the bill was approved by the House on the very last night of the session after spirited debate.

“That’s the sausage-making that I really like,” Taylor said.

 

DAWN PETTENGILL

Rep. Dawn Pettengill, R-Mount Auburn, jokes that she’s been the “pension person” since coming to the Iowa House in 2005. She was a pension adviser for Principal Financial and also trained other pension advisers.

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So it’s not a surprise that one of her proudest achievements is getting Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signature on a bill this year that requires financial literacy education to graduate high school.

“It only took 14 years,” she said.

Pettengill, whose time in the House may be unique in that she came in as a Democrat and is leaving as a Republican, is a champion of the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System. While some would like to change it from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, Pettengill argues that the current plan is an asset to the state because it helps retain valuable public employees whose institutional knowledge is helpful for the operation of state government.

Many of her efforts in the House have been on issues related to insurance, pension and protecting Iowans’ privacy. Pettengill also has chaired the Administrative Rules Committee that she describes as the Legislature’s “check on the executive and legislative branch to make sure it doesn’t exceed the legislative mandate.”

Pettengill, 62, will miss the people she’s worked with as well as being a part of the process.

“I love using my brain and getting to talk about everything from nuclear medicine to electronic benefit cards — all in five minutes,” Pettengill said.

The former mayor of Mount Auburn, Pettengill said she didn’t aspire to be a legislator.

“I just like helping people,” she said. “I tried to work in a way to include everyone, to address issues as issues, not by who wanted it.”

In preparation for her retirement, Pettengill has bought a home in Alabama on the Tennessee River to be closer to her parents and her children.

 

KEN RIZER

Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Marion, will go from running committee meetings to flying corporate jets when he finishes his legislative work.

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Rizer, 53, served 25 years in the Air Force as a fighter pilot and wing commander including tours in Iraq before serving as base commander at Joint Base Andrews, home of Air Force One.

So he was well-prepared for the missiles his opponents fired at him during debate on what he called the Voter Integrity Act and detractors labeled the “voter suppression bill.” Rizer calls the 2017 legislation the “most consequential” bill he managed as chairman of the State Government Committee.

He also counts changes in the state laws to make it easier to prosecute anyone manufacturing, distributing or selling synthetic drugs as an accomplishment.

Rizer still is working on a bill to increase fines on felons to provide funding for the state crime lab and the victims’ compensation fund.

“Call it a user fee on criminals,” he said, which would provide sustainable funding to help the lab reduce the backlog of rape kit tests from 250 days to 90.

Rizer will miss the “human chess of policy-making,” but not the partisanship and politics of the Legislature.

However, he said, that may provide fodder for “books in my head” on leadership that also would draw on his military experience. He’s also considering a book of flying stories.

“I might have a political book,” Rizer said, “but it would have to be fiction to protect the innocent.”

He’ll become a pilot for FlexJet, a charter service.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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