After a decade, still a privilege to columnize

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Ten years ago this past week, I walked into The Gazette to begin work as a columnist. I was hired for my unparalleled skills as a writer. It was a dark and stormy morning.

I know, 10 years is not a long time in the great scheme of vocational longevity, but it’s the longest I’ve ever held a single job. And this is the newspaper business, so survival is nothing to shrug at these days.

So I felt obligated to somehow mark the occasion. Actually, I felt obligated to meet another column deadline. And that’s pretty much been my life since Oct. 10, 2007.

That’s the day I wrote my first Gazette column, which appeared on the cover of the Iowa Today section. It was penned by a considerably thinner, younger man with a questionable goatee and no idea what he was getting himself into.

“I consider it a privilege,” I wrote of my new gig. “If I play my cards right, you won’t consider it a punishment.”

I’ve played a lot of cards since then, and probably dealt out a fair amount of punishment, I’m afraid. But certainly any punishment has been outweighed by my keen sense of humor.

“You used to be funny,” a reader told me at a recent Pints and Politics.

Stick around too long and you’re bound to detect wear on your welcome, I suppose. But I never expected to last this long. I figured they’d let me do this for a few years, tops. Instead, I’ve been around for eight desks, two bosses, three governors, two Cedar Rapids mayors and multiple bartenders.

My wife, who edits most of my columns, still tolerates me. My kids haven’t slapped me with a cease-and-desist order after reading what I’ve written about them. Scuttle, his head — like the country — dented by an Election Day concussion, still gets excited when I come home. But he thinks I leave the house to hunt, returning with my prey neatly packed in grocery sacks.

It doesn’t really seem like 10 years. Maybe that’s because so many storylines from the last decade continue. We’re still talking about flood protection nine years after the epic Flood of 2008, with a watery wake-up call in September 2016. The first column I wrote on the need to control runoff in the interest of water quality and flood mitigation ran back in April 2009.

And can you believe the first time I wrote about casino “cannibalization” was in July 2009? It’s true.

Politics, however, has changed. In that first column, I tried to steer a middle path. In part because I was loathe to alienate a bunch of readers on day one. But I also truly believed, as I wrote, that neither side of the spectrum had cornered the market on solutions. Heck, on the same 2007 page as my first column there’s a story about Tom Vilsack and Terry Branstad, no less, joining forces to call for requiring every Iowan to buy health insurance. Whatever happened to that individual mandate idea?

“I believe there’s value to steering a middle path toward compromise. But I also believe there are times when you have to pick a side and stop trying to please everyone,” I wrote in a column that, arguably, tried to please everyone.

Little did I know back then the middle path would collapse, replaced by deep trenches on our left and right. Picking sides would become an imperative on all sorts of critical issues, and especially in our Trumpian times. Many would not be pleased, not at all.

I’ll concede our broken politics and partisan warfare have yielded endless column fodder and pulled lots of eyes toward our work product. Pints and Politics, an event I thoroughly enjoy, was spawned in no small part by this strong interest in our astounding political moment.

But our politics, on some days, also sucks a lot of the joy out of my vocation.

Where once there were readers who disagreed and sought to persuade me, there are now folks who want me to either print what they agree with or hit the bricks. Engagement has devolved into confrontation. Changing minds has gone the way of flip phones.

Writing about local issues or real, smart policy ideas, which is what I enjoy most, doesn’t draw nearly the online clicks as a good old partisan plate of red meat. That’s never been made a metric for measuring my success or failure, but I assume we track all those numbers for a reason.

I still believe our path forward will run through the middle, across common ground, if we can find it and regain some semblance of unity. But I honestly don’t know how that happens at this point. It may take another 10 years to escape the extremism nipping at our heels.

Maybe I’ll still be around when it happens. It would be a privilege.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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