An indie in the middle at the Statehouse
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24 Hour Dorman
State Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, is a caucus of one, with no regrets and a lot to say.
“I feel very comfortable with my decision. I wouldn’t have changed anything,” said Johnson, who left the Republican Party last year over his disgust with President Donald Trump’s candidacy.
He’s now the lone independent in the Legislature, occupying a one-man’s land between minority Democrats and majority Republicans pursuing a very aggressive partisan agenda.
“In fact, if Trump hadn’t really pushed me to make a break, it would have been this agenda,” Johnson said this past week. “There’s just no way I can support this agenda. The major things they’re going after is Iowa’s version of Steve Bannon and his philosophy of deconstruction.
“They’re just running roughshod over a lot of things,” he said.
The northwest Iowa lawmaker had time to talk even in the hectic hours ahead of the Legislature’s funnel deadline. That’s because he has a seat on just one committee. Democrats gave him one of their spots on the Natural Resources and Environment Committee. Republican leaders refused to make room for the independent on any other committees.
So he’s missed out on participating in some of the nuts and bolts of lawmaking. And as an independent, he doesn’t spend hours in closed-door party caucuses plotting strategy.
“I caucus 24/7. I do. I caucus with the people who are here. I’m busy all the time,” Johnson said.
“I’m letting people know, here’s the story,” said the former newspaperman.
For instance, there’re the story of Republicans’ swift push last month to vastly curtail collective bargaining rights for Iowa’s public sector workers.
“What is this 87th General Assembly going to be known for? Union busting, so far,” Johnson said.
“That means fewer people, lower incomes in the rural areas, a drop in services. I don’t understand that about Republicans, how they want to kill rural areas. But that’s exactly what they’re doing,” said Johnson, whose district includes five largely rural counties.
“I’d just like somebody to tell me, what is ‘smaller government?’ What does that mean? To me it means we’re going to have tumbleweeds blowing down our main streets in rural areas,” he said.
There’s the story of legislative efforts on water quality, perhaps his signature issue.
“It’s really a do-nothing, know-nothing bill,” Johnson said of a measure approved by a House committee this past week. “There’s little if any accountability built into the legislation. Where do we do monitoring? You can’t just establish conservation practices without measuring whether they’re achieving the goals you want to achieve. You can’t just hand out cost-share dollars thinking this is going to help.”
Johnson has been a vocal supporter of a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase to fill the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The fund was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2010, but efforts to fill it have hit a legislative brick wall.
“The people of Iowa are having their 2010 election stolen away,” Johnson said.
He’s pushed for lawmakers to revise livestock confinement rules he helped write in 2002, hoping to stop construction in environmentally sensitive areas. But he’s had no success convincing Republicans to do so.
“This is absolute heaven for Farm Bureau,” he said.
He opposes a bill moving through the General Assembly that would dismantle the Des Moines Water Works in favor of a regional water authority. The water works is pursuing a lawsuit against three rural counties over polluted farm runoff. The bill could end the lawsuit, and take pressure off lawmakers to act on water quality.
“It’s, pure and simple, revenge for the lawsuit,” Johnson said.
Johnson asked the attorney general to weigh in on the constitutional question of whether Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will be governor or acting governor when Gov. Terry Branstad departs to become U.S. ambassador to China. Reynolds’ ability to pick her own lieutenant governor could hinge on the issue.
And what about legal fireworks?
“Freedom is blowing off your thumb on the Fourth of July,” Johnson said.
“The establishment is not very happy with me.” Johnson said, referring to county GOP chairs and central committee members in his district.
“I’m really not a born follower. I was doing a lot of following before in the caucus. And now I’ve broken out of that,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he’s also getting support from back home, and beyond his district.
“I just got a note from somebody back home who wants me to run for governor. Well, I’m not going to run for governor,” Johnson said. “But that’s the reaction from some people, more than I ever expected, who are willing to reach out.
“As the Republicans go so far to the right, people are looking for something in the middle,” he said.
So Johnson’s not going back to the GOP. And he said he won’t become a Democrat. He’s sticking with his caucus of one, where he exercises a freedom most lawmakers beholden to parties can’t risk.
“I’m calling it like I see it,” Johnson said.
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