Forty-some years ago, Chuck Grassley overheard a diner in a restaurant remarking that it must be election year because the politicians were in town.
“I don’t remember exactly where it was or who said it, but it impressed me that people think we only care about them when we’re up for election,” Grassley said Thursday after completing the 96th of 99 county meetings of 2020.
“So I started out in January of 1981 saying that I was going to get around so people couldn’t say that about me.”
The rest is history.
“It’s turned out to be the ‘Full Grassley,’ a way of actually keeping in touch with people,” the New Hartford Republican said about his record of holding at least one hourlong question-and-answer session in each of Iowa’s 99 counties for 40 consecutive years.
“You can’t have representative government without such dialogue between me and my constituents,” Grassley said. “The common sense and pragmatism of Iowans has endured and helped me do a better job of representing Iowa in Washington, D.C.”
His critics, however, say Grassley isn’t hearing from all Iowans.
His annual itinerary is heavy on meetings with county Farm Bureaus and local chambers of commerce, said Adam Mason of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, which has a decidedly more progressive agenda than Grassley’s.
“After 40 years, it’s great that he’s still getting out, committed to meeting with folks,” said Mason, who calls Grassley “passionate ... a fiery debater.”
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“But the ‘Full Grassley’ feels a little disingenuous,” he said, arguing that Grassley is selective in choosing where to go and accepts invitations that limit input from those who disagree with him.
“What we’ve seen over the last several years is that these meetings have really been set up and geared toward a select audience,” he said. “Oftentimes, it feels like they’re closed-door meetings.”
Rather than getting “a full representation of all of the issues impacting our communities,” Mason said, it seems Grassley is hearing from “just the ones who have chosen to set up the meeting — the view from the Chamber of Congress or the Farm Bureau, but not the full range of community concerns.”
Going to the people
Grassley counters that he varies where he goes in order to meet with a cross-section of Iowans.
His meeting with the Delaware County Farm Bureau on Thursday was relatively low-key. The dozen or so people in Manchester mostly had questions about farm-related issues — dairy prices, protections for livestock producers and limits on meatpackers, help for young farmers and the problem with ethanol waivers.
Later he met with the Dubuque Chamber of Commerce, Jackson and Clinton County Farm Bureaus and closed out his 99-county tour with the Clinton Regional Development Corporation.
Grassley recalled raucous meeting in Manchester that drew about 200 people a few days after the 2018 Parkland school shooting when he was peppered with questions about gun purchase restrictions and gun ownership as well as his 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association.
He could do that in very county, “but I never have (because) I’ve always gone to a few high schools, a few factories, a few businesses, a few hospitals, a few service clubs because I think that there’s a lot of people who can’t come to me like the 200 people did who came to the courthouse two years ago. So I go to the people that can’t come to me.”
Grassley is “straight-up fibbing” about his annual tour, according to Matt Sinovic of Progress Iowa, another progressive organization.
“Over the years, each little mistruth and exaggeration has added up to build his phony legacy of transparency,” Sinovic said. “The nice way to put it is he’s spinning, but more accurately he’s gaslighting us all to keep up this myth.”
Sinovic and Mason criticize Grassley for limiting his public appearances in “blue” counties like Linn and Polk.
“Grassley claims his goal is to hear from all Iowans, but it’s been at least a decade since he’s held a public town hall in Polk or Linn County, and he avoids a number of other large counties for public meetings,” which would provide a “tougher crowd for Grassley,” Sinovic said.
But attendees are not prescreened, said Michael Zona, Grassley’s communications director.
“Democrats, Republicans and independents attend and have the opportunity to ask any question or voice any opinion they may have,” Zona said. “In Black Hawk or Polk counties, for example, Sen. Grassley accepts multiple invitations every year and holds several meetings, often dozens annually in each county.”
Whether he’s in Johnson County or Jones County, people who want to give Grassley advice find him. In recent years, groups have traveled to his meetings to ask questions and make statements, and to demonstrate outside the venues to convey their thoughts on health care and immigration detention centers, for example,
What’s changed this year is COVID-19.
Unlike previous years, Grassley could not host open-invitation meetings for the general public because of the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions limiting gatherings to 10 and, more recently 50, his staff said.
Still, many organizations opened their doors to the public when they hosted the senator.
“We all know that the pandemic doesn’t stop representative government, so it didn’t stop me from having my 99 county meetings because they’re necessary,” Grassley said. “Whether you have a big town meeting of 100 or 200 or whether you have a town meeting of 10, I still say the same thing.”
But when no one shows up, there’s not much he can say. Out of 3,960 county meetings since he started in 1981, that’s happened just once.
“I’m not sure that I stayed the full hour and 15 minutes, but I must have stayed a long time to come to the conclusion nobody was coming,” Grassley said, laughing as he recalled that meeting.
Over time, the “full Grassley” has become a part of the Iowa political landscape and lore.
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“I didn’t set out to set a standard,” Grassley said, “but I think I have a responsibility to set an example that I’m one-half of the process of representative government.”
Mason appreciates Grassley’s willingness to meet with and hear from Iowans but faults his actions when back in Washington.
“You know, I can recount dozens of meetings over the last 20 years that I’ve been a part of, arguing about the future solvency of Social Security or even on points where we might agree that there’s a problem, such as drug prices for Medicare, or the plight of the family farmer in Iowa,” Mason said.
“I think the frustrating part is that Sen, Grassley portrays himself as someone (with) common sense, but at the end of the day, when he’s back in Washington, all too often he’s kind of falling into that partisan political mold,” Mason said. “He leaves us wanting a lot more.”
The problem with the full Grassley is that it ignores so many Iowans, Sinovic said.
“Instead of doing what he claims he’s doing and hearing from all Iowans, Grassley cherry-picks his favorites, as if his constituents were toppings for his Dairy Queen ice cream,” he said.
Zona, Grassley’s spokesman, understands there are differences in opinion and not everyone is going to agree with Grassley’s views and actions, but that doesn’t diminish the importance and impact of the Full Grassley.
“No matter which way the critics try and twist it,” Zona said, “Sen. Grassley’s annual 99 county meetings are the gold standard of representative government, not only in Iowa, but the country.”
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Erin Murphy of the Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed to this story.