Iowa GOP door-kicking can be tough on the hinges

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Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds harvested some hearty Republican applause for a line she delivered at her festive Harvest Festival fundraiser last weekend.

“As we all know, as we travel the state, the liberals are unhinged. And they are out for us,” Reynolds said. “And we need to double down and do all we can. And if you keep fighting, I’ll keep fighting. “

As red meat goes, this was hardly rare by today’s bloody standards. The civility bar is now 20,000 leagues under the sea. In that context, this is a beanbag.

But it immediately reminded me of another quote that also got a lot of attention.

“The message that I am taking from voters is that they expect us — for lack of a better term — to kick the door in,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, back in December, as Republicans prepared to take over the Legislature. “We don’t expect government to continue to do business the way that we have.”

When you kick in doors, it’s tough to complain later about missing hinges. Republicans basically are harvesting what they’ve sowed, or maybe more accurately, what they’ve kicked.

And what our Statehouse GOP actually booted wasn’t just business as usual. They smashed up a governing tradition in Iowa that has largely rejected partisan extremism. Insisting only angry liberals now have a problem with that is category 5 political spin.

Just consider the push to gut collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Dix talks about a message from voters, but Republican candidates didn’t run in 2016 on a promise to drop a Wisconsin-style bargaining bombshell. GOP leaders and candidates talked of tweaks, insisting Iowa wouldn’t be like Wisconsin.

Once they took over, a Badger of a bargaining bill was crafted behind closed doors, with no input from public sector unions. It was filed and passed by the House and Senate in a matter of days. Republicans took the unusual step of cutting off floor debate in both chambers. In the midst of all this, lawmakers who once insisted we’re no Wisconsin got a pep talk via Skype from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The bill was signed in private by then-Gov. Terry Branstad. But a representative of Americans for Prosperity, funded by undisclosed dark money donations, was invited.

Instead of pushing for measured changes to the law, Republicans slashed and burned. They insisted a new law would save money while making public services better. How could stagnant pay and lousy benefits enhance public services? Good question. They answered in anecdotes.

Local government officials of all political stripes say they didn’t ask for the changes, and have argued the GOP went too far.

“Personally, I think they went overboard,” said Brad Hart, a candidate for mayor of Fort Dodge and a Republican. Scott Olson, another Republican seeking the nonpartisan mayor’s seat, said he was “appalled” by the GOP’s bargaining bill.

The real objective was and is to hobble unions politically. Consider provisions requiring bargaining unit recertification votes with every contract. And anyone in a unit who fails to vote counts as a no.

This week, numbers from the first round of recertification votes came in. A total of 436 bargaining units stuck with their unions, on an overall vote of 28,448 yes and 624 no. Just 32 units face decertification, with “no” votes exceeding “yes” votes in only five units. So much for the notion of public employees eager to toss off the union yoke. I doubt all those yes voters are unhinged liberals.

I’m not saying there were no partisan excesses under the golden dome before 2017. And yes, divided legislative and gubernatorial control often provided checks and balances.

Still, the last time Republicans controlled the Statehouse trifecta, cooler, moderate heads discouraged a massive bargaining rewrite. The last time Democrats controlled the Legislature and governor’s office, centrists and a wary chief executive put the brakes on bargaining changes that would have tipped the scales toward unions. Legislatures always have steered to the right and left, but the centerline was, at least, still visible through the windshield. Not anymore.

Reynolds’ main GOP primary rival, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, was Iowa House speaker back in the day, from 1995 to 1999. He talks a lot about building broad support as governor for clean water, tax reforms, education improvements and other major initiatives. He argues such achievements would be built to last. Extreme partisan lurches, on the other hand, are built on sand.

It’s a throwback campaign, to a time when policy success hinged on the ability to build some consensus, or at least invite opponents to the table. Now, the party belongs to the door-kickers, and they’re doubling down.

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