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Iowa's flood politics are still cresting after all these years

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So it’s been almost exactly one year since I wrote about how, after seven years, more than a few people were sick and tired of hearing or reading about the “f” word.

And if you still feel that way, I have some bad news. As the eighth anniversary of Muckfest 2008 approaches (or was it Moldapalooza?) the “f” word is back. And you can blame election-year politics. Heck, what can’t we blame on election-year politics?

Maybe you’ve seen the TV ad launched this past week by Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Patty Judge. Judge is one of four Democrats seeking to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.

The ad’s title? “Flood.” Yep.

“Two things got us through those floods, courage and cooperation. Our recovery began by working together. Nobody had time for pointing fingers,” Judge says in the ad.

She’s standing in some sort of dimly lit command center, clutching a clearly important red folder. Its contents? Top secret, I bet. People with headsets are sitting in front of computer screens. There are maps and flood videos playing. A white board in the background says “8:00 FEMA CALL,” “10:00 MORNING CALL.” At one point Judge takes a phone call, clearly important.

Where is Judge? Maybe the Rebuild Iowa Office still is operating, secretly, in some bureaucratic basement. Maybe Judge has her own command center, like a Bond villain. Who knows?

The ad reminds us that Judge was Gov. Chet Culver’s “Homeland Security Advisor” in 2008, who, according to the ad, “coordinated the local response to rebuild our communities.”

“Partnerships and problem-solving. That’s how we get things done around here,” Judge says in the ad. “And that’s exactly why I approved this message, because Washington sure could learn a thing or two from Iowa.” And how.

As political ads go, its pretty standard. It portrays Judge as a leader in action, with a touch of “coordinated” historic embellishment. Heck, in these Trumpian times, Judge could have claimed she plunged into the swollen Cedar to save a busload of kids and puppies.

Clearly, this ad takes careful aim at Judge’s most formidable opponent in the June 7 primary, state Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, who touts his own key role in responding to the flood. Hogg steered legislation that is funding much of the city’s flood protection system.

“Lt. Gov. Judge’s role in flood recovery is one of the reasons I admire her,” Hogg said when I asked him about the ad.

But he doesn’t admire her strategy.

“The flood recovery response was the best argument Culver-Judge had in 2010,” Hogg said, pointing to the 2010 gubernatorial race, which the Democratic duo lost by more than 100,000 votes. “It wasn’t enough to win then.”

Good point. But our politics are defiantly all wet.

Take the 1st District Democratic congressional primary, where former Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon is running on the work she did helping the city bounce back. Her opponent, former Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy of Dubuque, strongly vying for tone deaf politician of the year, downplayed Vernon’s work as “squat,” while touting all the Legislature did to help disaster areas.

If I had a sandbag for every politician and elected official who I’ve heard wax on about how they rolled up their sleeves, slipped on their waders, looked watery destruction in the eye and saved the city, I’d be standing on very high ground.

On the bright side, so many want to take buckets of credit because the recovery largely has been a success. But be warned, heroic claims you hear may be farther from reality than they appear.

Truth is it was a cast of thousands, of all parties and stripes. Heck, Grassley could credibly tape his own flood ad, pointing to his role in obtaining billions of dollars in federal assistance.

It might also be appropriate to stop for a minute and recall the thousands of local people who spent weeks, months and years mucking their homes, navigating vast bureaucracies and piecing together their lives. Just a thought.

And speaking of smelly muck, there’s the Republican response to Judge’s ad.

You can appreciate the complexities, complications and pitfalls of a massive response to the state’s worst ever disaster, in the middle of a global recession. Or you can take cheap political potshots.

State Republicans swiftly hit Judge with an old saw about how the Rebuild Iowa Office, established by Culver and Judge, spent $19,000 on new carpeting for its office. Heroic GOP lawmakers demanded to know why this carpet money wasn’t going to flooded communities. Shifting answers made Culver’s folks look pretty bad.

It played well in 2009, admittedly. But after RIO then helped administer more than $4 billion in disaster assistance, rehashing the carpet bill only proves Republicans think we’re stupid. It could become the heated sidewalks of the 2016 campaign.

Those same heroic lawmakers voted against Culver’s I-JOBS bonding program, which used gambling taxes to provide $45 million to several flood recovery projects in Cedar Rapids. Without it, the city’s bounce back would have been far slower or stunted, with an increased price tag paid by local governments and property taxpayers. But thank goodness they held the line on that carpet.

Jimmy Centers, a former spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad who now leads Priorities for Iowa, took to Twitter to trot out a 2010 federal audit claiming $10.5 million in flood assistance had been “misspent” during the Culver years.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development did accuse officials of misspending assistance handed out to hundreds of flooded businesses. The dispute boiled down to a disagreement over rules and procedures. Local officials provided Community Development Block Grant-funded Jumpstart help to businesses that also had been approved for other disaster loans, an indication of viability. The feds insisted money go only to businesses that had not just been approved but actually received those loans. There also was some back and forth over the dreaded “duplication of benefits,” a term we all came to know and love.

According to Cedar Rapids Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt, businesses were forced to redo a bunch of paperwork. It was a big hassle. But in the end, she said, not one dime had to be paid back to the federal government.

“These programs had never existed,” said Pratt, adding that several efforts created in Iowa in 2008 now serve as models used in other disasters. “That’s what we’ve been told by HUD.”

Federal red tape that slows efforts to help flooded businesses on the brink of failure, during a recession, would seem to be the sort of thing we’d all be against. But it’s an election year. A flood of reason and candor is not in the forecast. “F” words? Likely.

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

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