Government

Iowa House Democrats look for new leader

Democrats gained seats in House, but not control

The Iowa State House chamber on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House chamber on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Senate Democrats are sticking with their leaders but House Democrats will have a new representative in charge when the 88th General Assembly opens its two-year run in January with Republicans again controlling both chambers and the governor’s office.

Iowa House Democrats will meet Saturday afternoon to choose a replacement for House Minority Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown, who told colleagues he was stepping down as their leader.

Senate Democrats, who return to the Capitol Jan. 14 with an 18-member caucus, re-elected Des Moines Sen. Janet Petersen to serve as their leader and kept Mason City Sen. Amanda Ragan as minority whip.

Democrats also named Sens. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City, Bill Dotzler of Waterloo, Pam Jochum of Dubuque, Liz Mathis of Hiawatha, Herman Quirmbach of Ames and Rich Taylor of Mount Pleasant as their assistant leaders in a Statehouse meeting Sunday.

Republicans who emerged from last week’s midterm balloting with a 32-18 edge in the Senate and 54-46 majority in the House already decided to retain Senate President Jack Whitver of Ankeny and Majority Leader Charles Schneider of West Des Moines and House Speaker Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake and House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow of Urbandale as their leaders.

“We’ve doubled down on our resolve. When there’s less of you, you’ve really got to ramp your game up and work hard,” said Waterloo’s Dotzler, who attributed the GOP successes in picking up three seats in the Senate in the Nov. 6 election to having more money to spend and better messaging — though he took exception to the truthfulness of some campaign ads he viewed.

Smith cited a combination of age, family responsibilities and issues related to tornado recovery in his Marshalltown district as reasons for giving up his House leadership post.

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“I’ll still be there and I’ll still be a voice” in January when the Legislature convenes,” Smith said Monday.

Democrats expect a race to succeed Smith. A number of possible candidates have been mentioned, however none of them confirmed they were running. Some say it is best the discussion stays within the caucus.

“That’s something sort of sacred and its best kept that way,” said Rep. Chris Hall of Sioux City.

Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, however, acknowledged he’s considering the post.

“It’s a big-time commitment,” he said, adding that as a self-employed lawyer he isn’t sure if he has the time for what Smith called “more than a full-time job.”

The first priority of the minority leader is to make sure rules are followed and accurate information about legislative proposals is available to lawmakers and the public, Smith said.

Beyond that, it’s the minority leader’s responsibility to try to become majority leader.

“We did not take majority, but made significant gains,” Smith said about Democrats narrowing the GOP advantage in the House from 59-41 to 54-46 or, perhaps, 53-47. A Republican incumbent is leading by eight votes in House 55 in northeast Iowa and a recount is likely.

The defeat of the Republican chairmen of the House Education and Ways and Means committees “sent a clear message that education and job creation, health care are Democrats’ priorities,” Smith said.

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While there were gains, it may take some time for Democrats to heal from their failure to win control of the House, Rep. Amy Nielsen, D-North Liberty, said.

“We all hoped to come back as the majority, but we didn’t. That’s most definitely not (Smith’s) fault,” Nielsen said.

Whitver described legislative Republicans as “very energetic and very excited” to continue with a pro-growth agenda that included being fiscally conservative with the state budget, looking at ways to make Iowa’s tax system more competitive, developing a skilled workforce to fill vacant jobs, expanding health care options where possible at the state level, improving mental health services for children and adults and improving education.

“They get to do whatever they want. They’ve got the votes, they’ve got the governor and so in those areas I would not expect a lot of progressive, forward-thinking policies,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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