116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There are some intriguing primary races coming up in June around these parts. One of them is in the new Senate District 39.
The redrawn district covers much of Cedar Rapids, including the southwest side, the downtown area and portions of the southeast and northeast quadrants. It’s good territory for Democrats. The winner of the Democratic primary is likely to be heavily favored over Republican Edward Bernie Hayes, who challenged Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, and lost big in 2018.
Hogg lives in the new district but announced last year he would not seek re-election. That set off a scramble by multiple Democrats interested in running for the seat.
Now that the dust has settled, the primary race pits state Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, against Joe Zahorik, political director for Ironworkers Local 89. Bennett has served in the House for eight years while Zahorik has been a union organizer for several years and also worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The scuttlebutt locally among the politically inclined is that this matchup was sparked by a missed vote.
On Feb. 24, the House took up a bill, Senate File 183, which would allow public entities to use what’s called the construction manager at-risk bidding process while also banning the design-build bidding system. Design build is currently allowed for Regent’s universities. Anti-union provisions would have affected collective bargaining agreements unions have with contractors.
So it was a bad bill for organized labor. But opponents of the measure managed to gain the support of 11 Republican House members for an amendment that would have stripped out the anti-union language. It would be close, but organized labor had the votes to kill the bill.
The bill was debated in the House just after 10:30 a.m., according to the House Journal. When the labor-backed amendment came up for a vote, it was defeated on a 49-49 tie vote. Bennett missed the crucial vote. Another Democrat, Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, also was absent.
“So here’s the deal. I’m a human being. I was late,” Bennett told me this past week. She was present to vote for other Democratic amendments, which failed, and to vote against the final bill.
“I deeply regret that I missed that vote. I think that my voting record on labor shows that I have been a fighter for working people. I have a 97 percent lifetime AFL-CIO voting record,” Bennett said.
Is this why Bennett drew a primary challenge?
“I don’t want to read into people’s intentions or speculate,” Bennett said.
Zahorik told me the missed vote is not the reason he decided to run.
“It’s just not true,” said Zahorik, who began collecting signatures for run in February before the missed vote, according to the Iowa secretary of state’s office. The majority of his signatures were collected in early March.
“I don’t want to go negative on my opponent in any way. I think I can be a better representative for the district,” Zahorik said.
Zahorik said Senate District 39 is the third most “labor dense” district in the state. He contends his years as a union organizer make him uniquely qualified to represent it. He’s spent his career working to turn out working class voters to cast ballots for Democrats. Now he wants to represent them in the Senate.
“I think that makes me feel most qualified for uphill battles against stacked odds,” Zahorik said, pointing to efforts by the Legislature’s Republican majority to undermine workers’ rights, such as a recent vote to slash unemployment benefits and the GOP’s refusal to take up bills addressing wage theft. He’s been endorsed by the Iowa Federation of Labor and the Hawkeye Labor Council.
But Bennett, too, has a track record of opposing anti-labor legislation. Bennett also has had some success in the Republican House making progress on legislation supporting youth mental health and banning the use of gay and transgender panic as a legal defense. Being in the minority for her entire time in the House has made getting much passed difficult.
“I am an experienced and proven leader who has built a big coalition and stands up for a lot of people. And that’s what we need in the Senate,” Bennett said, noting that Hogg has endorsed her candidacy.
Bennett, a singer, is a member of the American Federation of Musicians Local 137 and has its endorsement.
Maybe you’re wondering whether it’s smart for Democrats who face daunting challenges all over Iowa’s red-trending legislative map to spend time and resources fighting each other. It’s a valid question.
But I’ve always believed competitive primaries are good for a party, candidates and voters. That’s especially true in a race for an open seat and one that that’s likely to be held by Democrats. The primary is the real contest. The winner could be in office for a long time. It’s good to have choices.
So it’s the organizer vs. the coalition builder. The primary is June 7.
(319) 398-8262; firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinion content represents the viewpoint of the author or The Gazette editorial board. You can join the conversation by submitting a letter to the editor or guest column or by suggesting a topic for an editorial to email@example.com