Staff Columnist

Independent Iowa legislator exposed flaws in two-party system

Sen. David Johnson is leaving Statehouse, but issues he highlighted remain

Iowa State Senator David Johnson asks a question, after clarifying his party affiliation, during an out-of-session Human Resources Committee meeting on the Medicaid transition at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Tuesday, July 26, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa State Senator David Johnson asks a question, after clarifying his party affiliation, during an out-of-session Human Resources Committee meeting on the Medicaid transition at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Tuesday, July 26, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

State Sen. David Johnson had a lonely job in Des Moines the past two years.

The northwest Iowa lawmaker left the Republican Party in 2016 in protest of Donald Trump’s presidential nomination, making him the only no-party Iowa senator since the 1920s. He got an icy response from the Republican leadership at the Statehouse, leaving him out of the legislative committee process and making it impossible to find co-sponsors for his bills.

“I just caucused by myself. I didn’t have any budget. I had no staff,” Johnson told me last week.

Two years of that was enough for Johnson, who announced last month he will not seek re-election to the seat in this November’s general election.

An independent campaign would have faced long odds. Johnson represents one of the most conservative legislative districts in the state, with about 50 percent Republicans, 32 percent third-party or no-party, and only 18 percent Democrats. Even with local Democrats supporting Johnson, the smart bet would have been on Zach Whiting, who won the GOP primary in the district last week.

While Johnson’s brief independent experiment in the Legislature is ending, the issues he raised over the last two years remain.

Republicans and Democrats frequently dismiss no-party and third-party campaigns by saying voters simply aren’t demanding other options with their ballots. In reality though, the establishment parties have erected huge hurdles for alternative candidates. And as Johnson’s experience the past two years demonstrates, the legislative process is designed to exclusively serve the two major parties.

In short, the system is rigged to benefit Republicans and Democrats.

During the 2017 legislative session, after Johnson changed his voter registration, Republicans removed him from the committees he served on. Democrats gave him one of their seats on the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, a nod to Johnson’s advocacy on water quality and corporate agriculture issues.

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“People apparently thought that I was a traitor. I had abandoned them. There was all kinds of ugly stuff,” Johnson said.

As Johnson pointed out last year, the Senate rules were unequipped to accommodate a no-party legislator. The rules only refer to “majority” and “minority” caucuses, not to Republicans and Democrats. That should have made Johnson his own minority caucus, consisting of one member, but legislative leaders disagreed.

The controversy remains unresolved. If and when another no-party or third-party candidate wins a place in the Legislature, the issue will need to be revisited.

Even though Johnson believed his own chances of re-election were poor, he predicts independent candidates soon will start winning races at the state and local level in Iowa and elsewhere. He said he’s open to running for county office in the future, but hasn’t made any firm decisions.

For now, Johnson is uninhibited by the political and practical realities of holding partisan office. He’s free to openly criticize the type of Republicans who drove him away from the party, like Trump and U.S. Rep. Steve King, who Johnson said he stopped voting for years ago.

Johnson also now is working with the national organization Unite America, which offers campaign resources to independent politicians. In addition to the systematic barriers imposed by Republicans and Democrats, candidates outside the partisan duopoly also lack access to campaign infrastructure like software, voter lists and fundraising opportunities.

“It could be that I’m just a little bit ahead of my time, but I do believe there’s going to be a growing number of independents getting elected because of the polarization that’s going on right now and the ineffectiveness of this government,” he said.

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

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