Staff Columnist

Few policy disagreements in state's hottest primary

Four Democrats mostly agree in Johnson County, Cedar County race

(from left) Democratic candidates for the Iowa Senate District 37 seat Eric Dirth, Imad Youssif, Zach Wahls listen as Janice Weiner speaks during a forum hosted by the  Johnson County Task Force on Aging at the Coralville Library on Monday, April 9, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
(from left) Democratic candidates for the Iowa Senate District 37 seat Eric Dirth, Imad Youssif, Zach Wahls listen as Janice Weiner speaks during a forum hosted by the Johnson County Task Force on Aging at the Coralville Library on Monday, April 9, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

The Democratic race in Senate District 37 is one of the biggest primary showdowns in Iowa.

It’s the only one of 25 Iowa Senate primaries this June with four candidates. No Republicans and one Libertarian have filed to run there in November.

The slate of Democrats already has reported around $60,000 in fundraising, fueled by one candidate’s national celebrity status among progressives.

And the stakes are high — whoever wins the primary and general election will have a strong shot at re-election as long as she or he chooses. Outgoing Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, has served in the Senate for more than 20 years.

That’s why it’s so unfortunate the candidates have few policy issues to differ on. One of them may become legislator-for-life without ever having to debate someone they disagree with.

Democrats are the largest group of voters in Senate District 37, which includes all of Cedar County, a small sliver of Muscatine County, eastern portions of rural Johnson County and Coralville. That territory is 38 percent Democrats, compared to about 26 percent Republicans.

It is not the most lopsided district in the state, but Republicans haven’t filed a candidate and Democrats count it as a safe seat.

All things considered, the Democrats’ primary field is strong and exhibits plenty of diversity of background, if not ideology. I expect any one of them would serve to local Democrats’ satisfaction.

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Wahls earned national recognition in 2011 after video of his impassioned defense of same-sex marriage at the Iowa Legislature garnered millions of views on the internet and television. His book, “My Two Moms,” and his activism in opening the Boy Scouts to gay Americans cemented his place as a promising young leader among Democrats.

Weiner boasts the longest public service resume of the bunch, including more than two decades as a U.S. diplomat in Germany, Poland, Turkey, Mexico and Canada. Weiner, born and raised in Coralville, also has local experience as a nonprofit board member. She also is the only woman running in district, one of nearly 100 women in legislative races statewide.

Youssif has had a long career in business consulting with international companies. He holds several business degrees, including a PhD. Youssif is the only person of color and only immigrant running in the district, and could become the only non-white in the Iowa Senate.

And Dirth highlights an array of legal experience during his short career so far, including work with the Iowa Court of Appeals, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office and a Des Moines-based law firm. He comes from a family of educators in southeast Iowa, later moving to Johnson County to attend law school at the University of Iowa.

There’s no doubt the candidates have strong and diverse resumes, but a candidate forum hosted last week at the Coralville Public Library made clear their policy platforms seldom diverge.

Candidates didn’t have much to point to when moderators asked them to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Youssif mentioned public school funding, Wahls criticized GOP property tax reform, Weiner emphasized economic development, and Dirth called for criminal justice reform. However, it’s not clear the other candidates substantially disagreed with those positions.

All the candidates harshly criticized Republican-sponsored legislation from recent years, but Wahls was the only candidate explicitly pushing partisan division during last week’s forum, accusing the GOP of pursuing a “radical agenda.”

“Republicans have a very different idea for the future of our state … They take this view that government doesn’t have any role,” he said.

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Weiner took a more cooperative tone, saying “I think there are other issues on which we can find common cause.”

One other candidate in Senate District 37 offers a stark contrast with the four Democrats, though he wasn’t included in last week’s forum.

Carl Krambeck is the Libertarian Party candidate running. He too says he sees little difference among the Democrat candidates.

“There’s a lot of Democratic policies that are not really swaying anyone. It’s kind of just a room full of nodding heads at the moment. There are some pretty good ideas that don’t involve more government,” Krambeck told me after the Democrats’ forum last week.

Krambeck also is the only candidate from outside the Iowa City-Coralville area, residing in Clarence, population 1,000, in Cedar County. Wahls, Youssif and Dirth all list Coralville addresses on their candidate filings, while Weiner lives on the west side of Iowa City.

Dvorsky faced a Libertarian challenger in 2010, in the former Senate District 15, before the most recent legislative redistricting. He bested then-Libertarian Christopher Peters by more than 10,000 votes. In full disclosure, I worked for Peters’ Republican U.S. House campaign in 2016.

Krambeck recognizes Libertarian Party candidates face long odds, especially in a district with a plurality of Democrats.

In 2010, “people didn’t know what a Libertarian was and [Peters] got 25 or 26 percent of the vote. I think we’re going to do significantly better now that we’re a little more well known,” he said.

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So far, Krambeck hasn’t been invited to any candidate forums or debates, but he hopes that will change once the Democrats’ primary is over in June.

I agree. While Democrats may be destined to carry Senate District 37, candidates and voters alike would benefit from a true exchange of ideas. That’s what elections are supposed to be about.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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