Avenson, Corning left their marks

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We admire leaders who get things done, especially big, visionary stuff. We also admire leaders who stick to their principles, even into a headwind.

We lost two admirable leaders over the weekend.

Former Iowa House Speaker Don Avenson, 72, an Oelwein Democrat, died on his way home from a vacation. Former Lt. Gov. Joy Corning, 84, a Cedar Falls Republican, died with her daughters at her side, according to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Avenson, to be honest, scared the stuffing out of me as a young House page back in 1989. He was a towering, imposing figure. On my very first day of work, I overheard Avenson speaking to a lobbyist in a corner just outside the House chamber. The words I heard were not found in any of my government text books. Had “Schoolhouse Rock” left something out?

Former House Speaker Ron Corbett, in his book “Beyond Promises” refers to stories of Avenson cleaning his fingernails with a “bow knife” and pounding a table to make a point. Others who knew the lawmaker and lobbyist far better remember a “gentle giant,” a lover of books and someone whose word could be trusted.

Whether gentle or imposing, it’s tough to argue with his results. As I wrote just a couple of months ago, the 1989 session was among the most consequential in Iowa history. Lawmakers rewrote the funding formula for both K-12 schools and the Road Use Tax Fund. They passed clean water legislation, created open enrollment, raised the minimum wage, approved the Resource Enhancement and Protection, REAP, program and christened riverboat gambling.

The House also passed a bill adding sexual orientation to the Iowa Civil Rights Code, although it would die in the Senate. Iowa had to wait another 18 years before the change became law.

Corning got her start on the local school board and in the state Senate before Gov. Terry Branstad picked her to be his running mate in 1990. Her new office was converted storage space.

She worked hard to make her mark on the issues she cared about. “I am most passionate about issues related to children and families, women’s health & rights, equality and justice, education and the arts,” Corning wrote in her own obituary.

In 2010, when religious conservatives campaigned to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who joined a unanimous ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, Corning co-chaired Justice Not Politics. The organization pushed back against efforts to subject the court to “political retribution.”

“There is much work to be done to fight extremists who want to insert their narrow special interests into the one branch of government that should be free from politics,” Corning said at the time, according to Radio Iowa.

Her work frequently earned Corning a “RINO” label, for “Republican in Name Only.” But as we’ve watched so many politicians we once considered moderate veer toward partisan warfare, Corning clung to the lonely middle ground. “We could use a lot more Joy Cornings in politics these days,” Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, told the Courier.

Step up, would-be leaders. Sadly, we’ve got two big pairs of shoes to fill.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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