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In Iowa: High stakes, low blows in Senate District 34

Rene Gadelha and Liz Mathis duke it out in key legislative race

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So I’m interviewing state Sen. Liz Mathis over coffee at Wit’s End in Marion recently when a guy stops for a few minutes to make some morning small talk.

“Hey, Nick Glew,” Mathis, D-Robins, says, greeting the development leader and former City Council member.

Soon, talk turns to campaign mailers targeting Mathis, who faces a tough re-election challenge in Senate District 34 from Republican Rene Gadelha, a Linn-Mar school board member.

“I tell you what, the mailings I’ve been getting are a clear indication how the party takes over some of these races. I’m like, ‘What the hell does this have to do with anything?’” Glew said.

“The one that showed up in the mailbox yesterday ... Something about sex offenders on food trucks or something. I’m just like. ‘What?’”

The mailer accuses Mathis of voting against an amendment to what’s known as the standings bill, a catchall budget vehicle that moves late in the legislative session and is a well-known destination for pet projects and proposals that couldn’t pass otherwise. The amendment would have required background checks for food truck vendors, including ice cream trucks.

“We’re like, what is this? We knew it was a trap,” Mathis said of the amendment, offered in 2013 by several Republican senators. “We caucused and (Majority Leader) Mike (Gronstal) says ‘This is going to be in all of your campaign stuff right here.”

Democrats, insisting such background checks already are available and common, voted it down. Sure enough, Mathis is now being accused of allowing sex offenders to sell ice cream.

“That’s the party taking over,” said Mathis, pointing to the fact that most of the mailers, TV and online ads are paid for by the Republican Party of Iowa. “I wonder what she thinks.”

In another interview this past week, at Aurora Coffee Co. in Marion, I asked Gadelha.

“I think that I stand by them. Liz took those votes. I think the fact-checkers have been unfair,” Gadelha said, referring to F grade she received from The Gazette and KCRG-TV9 fact checks for other mailers accusing Mathis of voting to fund various projects in Des Moines, including a “glitzy” golf tournament, and for opposing a state university tuition freeze. They were dubbed misleading.

“You’re going to see more mailers where I’m talking about those votes because she took them,” Gadelha said. “I think to give me an F on votes that she took … It’s a continuum. Her intention when she took those votes was that money was allocated toward those projects.”

But do you think Mathis wants sex offenders working in ice cream trucks?

“Again, I’m just going to say it was a vote she took. And, you know, I’m going to stand by the mailer,” said Gadelha, who concedes her opponent has yet to attack her in mailers or on TV. But she said she expects it.

So this is how the battle will be fought to win one critical state Senate seat among a handful that will decide control of the chamber, and the Legislature’s agenda.

The candidates combined to raise nearly $240,000 through mid-July. So far, more than 3,400 Democrats have requested absentee ballots compared with just more than 2,000 Republicans.

Gadelha, who said she’s the “underdog,” has knocked on more than 16,000 doors. Mathis’ campaign’s door-knocking has gone digital, using a smartphone app that tracks data on voters who have been contacted in the past by candidates and the party.

So it’s small issues and microtargeting. But this could have been a campaign about the big stuff.

Mathis chairs the Senate Human Resources Committee and has been a leading critic of Gov. Terry Branstad’s rocky drive to privatize the state’s $5 billion Medicaid program.

That might help explain why Gadelha’s campaign disclosures are peppered with donations from Branstad allies and why Mathis is being targeted by Priorities for Iowa, headed by the governor’s former spokesman, Jimmy Centers.

Iowa Health PAC, which represents long-term elder care providers affected by the Medicaid change, donated $10,000 to Mathis through July, among her largest contributors.

Gadelha, a school board member, curriculum-writer and former English teacher, has a deep background in education issues. It was the Legislature’s frustrating. annual inability to agree on K-12 school funding, and follow the state’s forward funding law, that drove Gadelha to run.

“We all get frustrated. We feel like Des Moines doesn’t get it. And it’s gotten too political in my mind,” said Gadelha, who told me she opposed Branstad’s veto of school funding in 2015 and his push to deprive local districts the ability to set school start dates.

“It’s truly my hope to go and educate Des Moines about why we need to depoliticize school funding.”

Gadelha said she’d like to see a school funding formula that provides automatic funding levels without legislative squabbling. Mathis also mentioned “depoliticizing” funding. Another concept is a two-part system where an automatic funding level is triggered if lawmakers can’t agree.

“If we can’t come to a conclusion, we’ve got to take politics out of this. This just is not fair,” Mathis said.

Lawmakers should give local districts more control over “buckets” of money now restricted for certain purposes, Gadelha said. Mathis said the state should address growing class sizes. Gadelha said districts should have more flexibility to pay good teachers more. “I’d like to have more freedom locally so we don’t have this one-size-fits-all mentality where Des Moines thinks it knows everything,” Gadelha said.

It’s an important debate. But it’s not coming to a stage near you. Gadelha declined to participate in the campaign’s lone forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Gadelha contends she attends lots of other public meetings and answers questions while door-knocking. “I’m out there quite a bit,” she said.

So mailers and ads it is. A high-stakes election, defined by small talk and low, misleading blows.

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