Our endorsements for the Iowa Legislature

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SENATE 34: Mathis earns another term

In the race for Iowa Senate District 34, incumbent Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Robins, is being challenged by Marion Republican Rene Gadelha. Mathis works for Four Oaks, a child and family assistance organization, while Gadelha is a Linn-Mar School Board member with experience in teaching and writing curriculum The district includes Marion, Robins, much of Hiawatha, Bertram and Ely.

It’s one of the state’s most-watched Senate races, featuring two quality candidates. We think Mathis’ experience on complex issues gives her the edge, so the incumbent earns our endorsement.

In particular, we want Mathis to continue her close oversight of the state’s massive Medicaid program, which was transferred to private management by the Branstad administration earlier this year. Mathis, who chairs the Senate Human Resources Committee, has been a leading voice holding the administration accountable for myriad issues cropping up since the changeover.

It’s among the most significant changes ever in the way Iowa delivers human services, and critical issues remain and serious questions about privatization have yet to be answered. We want Mathis to continue pressing those questions. She’s called correctly for expanded oversight, especially for 57,000 or so Medicaid clients who are most vulnerable and receive the most care.

Gadelha and Mathis each say public school funding is a priority, and both candidates expressed support for efforts to end the annual political tug-of-war between the parties over state aid. On the issue of water quality, neither candidate took a clear stand on which direction the Legislature should go.

But Gadelha’s issue stances have been overshadowed by mailers and TV ads leveling largely misleading charges against Mathis. Last month, The Gazette’s Fact Checker gave Gadelha an F grade for claims that Mathis voted to waste taxpayer dollars on a “ritzy golf tournament” and opposed a tuition freeze for Iowa students. Another mailer from an outside group assailing Mathis claimed she favored the closing of state mental health institutes, a move she clearly opposed.

The Republican Party of Iowa paid for most of the mailers and ads, but Gadelha is responsible for claims made on her campaign’s behalf. The high-stakes battle to control the Senate should not overshadow real, important issues facing the state and this Senate district. And when given a chance to explain her stands at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Gadelha declined the invitation.

It’s frustrating to see yet another important legislative race derailed by obscure votes on massive budget bills and gotcha amendments plucked out of context from the legislative record for purely political purposes. The voters in District 34 deserved a more substantive campaign.


SENATE 38: Zumbach is a voice for ag

Voters in Senate District 48 are fortunate to have two strong candidates vying to represent them. Incumbent Sen. Dan Zumbach, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger Scott Peterson both are ready to serve.

But Zumbach, a farmer, farm equipment dealer and former school board member from the Ryan area, is uniquely positioned to bring a rural perspective to critical discussions of water quality and education funding. For this, he earns our endorsement in this race.

Our support comes with one caveat: Zumbach must make himself more available to constituents.

We were sharply disappointed by his refusal to participate in an Oct. 17 League of Women Voters forum, citing a busy farm season as his excuse. His absence robs voters of an important opportunity to learn more about him and his positions. If re-elected, Zumbach must remember that he doesn’t only represent agricultural interests, but his entire district — which includes northern Linn County, northwest Jones County, all of Delaware County and southeastern Buchanan County — and act accordingly.

Zumbach has been a staunch advocate of reducing tax and regulatory burdens on Iowans, and favors giving local school districts more discretion over their budgets and spending. We agree with him that legislators must find a way to “depoliticize” education funding discussions and create more flexibility for districts with different expenses, including transportation.

In our interview, Zumbach described a centrist approach to water quality improvement, saying he would encourage universal education efforts and would consider increased spending if it was directed toward cleaning up the state’s dirtiest watersheds. As ranking member of the agriculture committee, and member of the natural resources and environment committee, Zumbach would be well-positioned to advocate for practical, achievable water quality improvement goals.

We also encourage Scott Peterson to stay involved in political discussions. As a former city council member and mayor of Mount Vernon, and as attorney for the cities of Palo and North Liberty, Peterson is deeply familiar with the challenges Iowa’s smaller communities are facing, and focused on making sure legislation, including economic development incentives, don’t leave those smaller communities behind. His views on tax fairness were moderate and considered. For a challenger, he was very well versed in the legislative process and current issues. His assertion that he would make an effective coalition and consensus builder at the Statehouse was well-founded and believable.

House 65: Bennett brings passion for equity

Incumbent state Rep. Liz Bennett is the clear choice in the race for Iowa House District 65.

The southeast Cedar Rapids Democrat, a member of the economic growth, natural resources and environmental protection committees, is committed to helping solve the problems of water quality and education funding. She is well-versed in the challenges faced as well as the wealth of possible solutions. She is being challenged by Republican Harry Foster.

Bennett understands that education begins well before K-12, and supports a greater investment in early learning, as well as supporting families so they can better care for and prepare their children. Her experience with One Iowa has helped shape her view on how lack of services can hurt at-risk kids.

District 65, which encompasses the southeast side of downtown as well as small portions of the northeast quadrant near I-380 and the southwest quadrant by Jones Park, has long benefitted from representation by younger lawmakers. As an Iowa native who worked her way through Cornell College and then chose to make her home in Cedar Rapids, Bennett holds a unique perspective on what it takes to entice and keep young Iowans.

As a member of the House, Bennett has forced fellow lawmakers to consider the practical result of long-standing traditions, and provided opportunities for underrepresented residents to have a voice at the statehouse.

If elected to serve again, we hope to see Bennett further define herself as a lawmaker and state leader. It’s time for Bennett to select a long-term goal on behalf of her district and work toward it.

HOUSE 67: Seidl has experience, ideas

In Iowa House District 67, Republican newcomer Ashley Hinson takes on Democrat Mark Seidl, who is seeking a legislative seat for a third time. Seidl, a local attorney, and Hinson, a media consultant and former TV journalist, are running to represent a district including Robins, Hiawatha, northwest Marion and a portion of Cedar Rapids.

We found Hinson to be an enthusiastic, approachable candidate who clearly is working to get up to speed on many issues facing the next Legislature. But we believe Seidl’s experience, ideas and grasp of important issues makes him the best choice.

This was especially clear in discussion of water quality, an issue we have emphasized throughout this year.

Seidl recognizes the considerable need for new funding to help clean up and protect Iowa’s waterways. He supports a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase to fill the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund created by voters in 2010. Much of the $180 million raised annually by the tax could be used to address water quality problems.

Seidl contends some of those funds should be matched by a tax on farm chemicals that are, according to the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, responsible for much of the pollution in Iowa waterways. It’s a concept worth exploring. Seidl also agrees that the state should reconsider local regulation of large livestock confinement facilities, particularly in light of regulatory thresholds that allow some producers to skirt the state permit process. That’s what happened in Allamakee County where a confinement operation is planned for environmentally sensitive land near two trout streams.

Hinson signaled support for a water quality approach advanced last session by House Republicans, which spends $460 million over 13 years using gambling taxes and a tax on metered water. But the funding ramps up slowly and, unlike the trust fund, it would not be constitutionally protected. Hinson does not favor reconsidering local livestock confinement ordinances.

We also appreciate Seidl’s contention that investments in education and the state’s environment are important to its future economic growth and the ability of businesses to attract and retain a workforce.

HOUSE 68: Rizer is a creative problem solver

In Iowa House District 68, Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Cedar Rapids, is being challenged by Democrat Molly Donahue. Rizer has an extensive military background, having commanded fighter squadron, group and Andrews Air Force Base. Donahue has spent more than 25 years in education, working with special needs students and dropout prevention. The district includes much of Marion, Ely, Bertram and small portions of Cedar Rapids.

Since he was elected in 2014, we see Rizer as a lawmaker who has made a mark, even as a freshman, thanks to his willingness to think outside the dome and work across the aisle. Although Donahue’s strong commitment to education is a compelling attribute, our endorsement goes to Rizer.

We like Rizer’s practical approach to issues and his ability to fund routes around gridlock. For example, faced with opposition among House Republicans to the expansion of access to medical cannabis, Rizer is working with the University of Iowa’s Institute on Genetics to create a study on a cannabis derivative that could expand access for sick Iowans. It’s an innovative response to legislative inaction.

Rizer wants comprehensive tax reform, and we appreciate his recognition that tax breaks, credits and loopholes carved out for business interests are part of the problem. He also sees the tax reform drive as a way to make efforts to provide new funding for water quality initiatives more politically palatable. He’s open to approving a sales tax increase to fill the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund if the increase can be offset by other tax changes.

There are areas where we disagree with Rizer. He’s tried to convince us, more than once, that Iowa schools are adequately funded in terms of inflationary growth. His arguments don’t match up to what we’re seeing in local schools struggling to cover basic expenses. Funding should be approved well in advance as prescribed by Iowa law — a law the Legislature has failed to follow.

We’re more pleased that Rizer chose not to follow the lead of Iowa Republicans who say they will vote for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. After the release of a video of Trump making lewd, indefensible comments about women, Rizer told supporters he will not vote for the nominee, but instead will write in the name of vice presidential candidate Mike Pence.

Already vice chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, Rizer has the makings of an effective, influential legislator. We’ll be watching to see how he uses his skills and influence if voters take our recommendation and return him to the House.


HOUSE 70: Taylor a good match for district

State Rep. Todd Taylor is an effective public servant. In a decade of service as a state lawmaker (first elected in a 1995 summer special election, followed Richard Running), the Cedar Rapids west-side native and Democrat has remained a champion for the middle class and the state’s youngest students.

Taylor’s left-of-center political leanings and union affiliation match this district, and are tempered by a mature pragmatism that makes him an effective advocate of bipartisan solutions.

He is challenged by Libertarian Dave Cork, an information technology analyst, and Republican Steven Van Fleet, who has not been actively campaigning. While we empathize with some of Cork’s frustrations in relation to eminent domain, medical cannabis and civil asset forfeiture, he has neither the background or experience to effect change in Des Moines on these issues.

Having served for nearly 25 years as a union representative, Taylor has brought his personal experience to bear in the House Labor and State Government committees. But we’d like to see expansion of his influence as the ranking member of the Justice System Appropriations Committee beyond staffing levels and the nuances of collective bargaining.

We encourage him to get in front of more issues, develop rapport with other lawmakers and play off Corridor strengths such as diversion programs and alternative courts. Taylor’s advocacy on synthetic marijuana laws, for instance, struck the right chord. Rather than sending more people to prison or saddling more state residents with criminal histories, Taylor pushed for more investment in substance abuse programming.

Court and law enforcement officials in the Corridor can attest to the financial and moral value of diversion programs, but they need a champion in the statehouse. With a relatively safe district standing behind him and tenure on the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy Council, Taylor is well positioned to advocate for much-needed change.

House 77: Nielsen is well versed in issues

Two strong candidates have stepped up to serve after the retirement of Rep. Sally Stutsman in Iowa House District 77. Vying for the seat are Royce Phillips, R-Tiffin, and Amy Nielsen, D-North Liberty.

Phillips is pastor of a diverse church congregation, and a former city council member and mayor of Tiffin. Nielsen is the mayor of North Liberty, where she has long served as a community advocate.

The growing district they hope to represent includes North Liberty, Tiffin, Swisher, Shueyville and Lone Tree as well as largely rural sections of western and southern Johnson County.

Both candidates bring good and innovative ideas to the table, have led communities challenged by growth and demographic change, and are strong leaders. After much deliberation, we believe Nielsen would be the better representative.

In particular, we were impressed with her understanding of Iowa’s K-12 funding and her proposal of tying a guaranteed percentage to inflation rates. New educational mandates, she said, need to be made alongside money for local districts.

Nielsen is in favor of local control of concentrated animal feeding operations, would like lawmakers to review voting rights policies for former felons, and supports better oversight of the Iowa Board of Regents and Medicaid modernization.

As a former city official, she understands the challenge of operating emergency services and maintaining infrastructure with fewer state revenues. As a school district volunteer, she’s seen firsthand how funding uncertainties has hindered opportunities and created barriers to achievement.

Nielsen will bring an underserved and under-heard voice to the legislature, one that meshes nicely with a majority of the constituents in this district.

House 95: Whitehead brings educator’s perspective

In the open race for House District 95, voters have the chance to choose another educator to replace Rep. Quentin Stanerson, R-Center Point, the father and high school teacher who decided not to seek re-election this fall.

We think they should take it.

Although we thank Republican candidate Louie Zumbach for stepping forward to serve, Dick Whitehead, a Center Point Democrat with more than four decades of experience in education, earns our endorsement in this race.

Whitehead is a former teacher, coach and superintendent of both Center Point-Urbana and College Community school districts. As such, he gained significant experience bringing diverse constituencies together to solve problems. He has a deep understanding of how the legislature can support schools in their quest to provide excellent educations to all of Iowa’s students, and where legislators should get out of the way. He has a clear understanding of the consequences of unfunded mandates, such as summer school requirements and new educational assessments, and opposes imposing such additional burdens on schools.

As someone who has worked with public budgets before, Whitehead understands the importance of fiscal responsibility and efficiency. He is a staunch advocate of “timely, predictable and adequate” school funding. His experience in building consensus and finding solutions gives us confidence that he would be effective in pursuing that goal at the Statehouse.

We appreciated Whitehead’s repeated insistence that matters of education and water quality should not be partisan issues, and his skills and commitment to working with all the constituents in his district.


A number of local legislators did not face opponents in this election, including House District 66 Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, House District 69 Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids, House District 73 Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, House District 74 Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, House District 85 Rep. Vicki Kensing, D-Iowa City, and House District 85 Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City.

l Comments: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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