Hogg hunts for votes out west

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COUNCIL BLUFFS — With time slipping away before Tuesday’s primary, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rob Hogg is starting his closing argument about as far west as you can go without wading into the Missouri River. By the time the weekend’s over, Hogg will be just as close to the Mississippi.

Nineteen people showed up this past Thursday to see the state senator from Cedar Rapids who hopes to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. That’s not counting one campaign staffer, Hogg’s son, who just graduated from Harvard, a tracker from the conservative America Rising PAC, hoping Hogg says something that will someday make a good attack ad, and a columnist who just spent four hours in a car.

Hardly a throng, but respectable for a weekday morning.

We’ve gathered at Dixie Quicks, a joint that used to peddle its eclectic menu from a spot in Omaha. That was until same-sex marriage became legal in Iowa. Its owners, Rob Glimer and Rene Orduna, hoping both to expand and get married, moved it to Council Bluffs. Its Omaha customers figured surely Dixie Quick’s would be back. But if Nebraskans want Sunday brunch, they still need to cross that river.

Maybe this is the “gay mecca” U.S. Rep. Steve King warned us about. Hard to say.

One of the first to arrive to greet Hogg is Sue Senden, who confides she grew up in a solidly Republican family.

“My brother and I were both embarrassments,” she says.

Senden has followed the campaign closely and watched the debates. Hogg got her vote, which is already in the bank.

“I like his experience, the way he explains and understands the issues. I think he’s well-informed,” Senden says. “Rob’s the guy who answered the questions best.”

What about Grassley’s experience, earned serving in the Senate since 1980?

“Here’s my line. He’s gone to seed,” Senden says. “It’s time for replanting. He’s been there too long.”

While the audience munches quesadillas, Hogg jumps into his stump speech. It’s like a commercial for a very earnest handyman. With so much broken — Congress, the deficit, the debt, infrastructure, the climate, campaign finance and the courts — Hogg insists he’s got the tools needed to fix stuff.

“I don’t think someone who has been there for 42 years is in a position to fix the problem,” Hogg says, knocking Grassley’s combined tenure in the U.S. House and Senate.

Last summer, when Hogg announced his candidacy, the events were even smaller. But, ironically, his chances of capturing the Democratic nomination were far better. I figured he could beat former state lawmakers Tom Fiegen and Bob Krause, who both lost the Senate primary six years ago.

I also figured the nomination wasn’t worth much. Grassley has millions of dollars to spend, vast experience, seniority, clout and a carefully cultivated home state image as a down-to-earth, independent-minded lawmaker who never went all Washington. Throw in his lawn mower, and surely Iowans would again say, loudly, “You’ve got yourself a deal, Chuck.”

Then Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February. Within hours, Grassley declared the Judiciary Committee he chairs would not consider any nominee offered by President Barack Obama to fill the slot. The seat would be filled by the next president. Case closed.

Grassley swiftly became the face of unpopular Congressional obstruction. D.C. Democrats strategizing a Senate takeover sensed a glimmer of hope in Iowa. Throw in the tumult of Trump, and who knows? But instead of turning to some guy named Hogg, they recruited former Iowa lieutenant governor and state agriculture secretary Patty Judge.

She jumped in, throwing Hogg’s prospects into doubt. In a single quarter, she raised more money than Hogg had during his entire campaign. She launched TV ads and received the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Judge is regarded as the “establishment” pick, even though Hogg has endorsements from more than 60 state lawmakers, the Iowa Federation of Labor, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and other established Democratic allies.

“The reason he got those endorsements is because, in the Legislature, he has a stellar reputation for working with everybody, both sides, and coming up with common sense solutions to problems,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, a Hogg backer also at Dixie Quicks.

She’s got more resources and better name ID, having been on a statewide ballot four times. He’s campaigned in 90 counties, all while, he says, not missing a vote during the 2016 legislative session. Her appearances have been fewer and far between.

“When Rob is our nominee, he will have the resources, too,” said Linda Nelson, a former lawmaker and teachers’ union president who chairs the Pottawattamie County Democrats. She said Hogg has made several stops in the county, but Judge has yet to visit. “He’s working hard.”

Maybe it’s paying off. The lone poll so far in the race, released Thursday by KBUR radio, showed Judge with a 37-31 percent lead over Hogg, with Fiegen and Krause combining for 9 percent. Hardly a Judge juggernaut, although the poll showed most undecided voters lean her way.

She’s hit snags. In two recent debates, Judge has been called to account for the Culver-Judge administration’s decision to veto a 2008 bill that would have expanded collective bargaining rights for public employees. Judge said she wished she and Culver could have worked “more closely” with organized labor but regrets “that didn’t happen.”

Not true, says Gronstal, who led the Senate at the time. Senators, he said, used a procedural maneuver to delay sending the bill to Gov. Chet Culver’s desk while lawmakers and labor worked to address Culver’s concerns.

“There was a ton of work done on the bill,” Gronstal says. “And then there were multiple meetings, probably in the neighborhood of dozens of meetings, with the executive branch. And every time we’d come to some place where we thought we had a compromise, they would split hairs and wordsmith until the language meant nothing.

“Suggesting that there wasn’t time to work on it is really disingenuous,” Gronstal says.

When I bring up the quick, questionable process lawmakers used to jam the bill through to passage, Gronstal scoffs. “There’s a saying in the Legislature that process is the last refuge for scoundrels,” he says.

Will it matter? Well, once upon a time, AFSCME, the state’s largest public employee union, was a very big help for a state senator with a funny name in a tight primary. It was 1998. Some guy named Tom Vilsack.

Judge also has faced questions about her close ties to agricultural interests that environmental advocates blame for slow progress on water quality and other issues.

At a stop later in the day at Pierce Street Coffee Works in Sioux City, Sierra Club member Jim Redmond recalls Gov. Vilsack’s pledge to clean up Iowa’s impaired waterways by 2010.

“I think the Culver-Judge team did not get out and help keep the issue going,” Redmond says, contrasting her record with Hogg’s on climate change.

“Look at what he’s done. He wrote a book to try to convince his colleagues. America needs to lead on this issue,” Redmond says.

Standing next to Pierce Street in the midafternoon sun, Hogg is simply trying to convince a young TV reporter that this primary is worth some coverage.

“This is a big deal,” Hogg says. “Iowa voters deserve a choice.

“Think about the garbage that young Americans have seen out of our political process in the last 10 years or so, 20 years or so. We really need to uplift our democracy, get people engaged,” he says.

A good message, if you can hear it over all the traffic. A car with some kids rolls by and one of them screams something unintelligible. Does that count as engagement?

Doubtful, but the votes will be counted very soon. Hogg ducks inside to implore a few more people to give him a chance.

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

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