Staff Editorial

Candidates skipping editorial board sessions is part of a disturbing trend

Notes hang on the wall in an empty conference room. (Liz Martin/Gazette Archives)
Notes hang on the wall in an empty conference room. (Liz Martin/Gazette Archives)
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In 1863, Iowa Gov. Samuel Kirkwood traveled to Vicksburg, Miss., to visit Iowa troops laying siege to the strategic city along the Mississippi River.

According to multiple accounts, Kirkwood’s visiting party came under Confederate fire. At one point a bullet whizzed over Kirkwood’s head, prompting him to duck for cover.

“He turned and crawled back from whence he came to escape any further deadly missiles. The soldiers laughed heartily and wondered what kind of wonderful spin Kirkwood would put on his experience,” Michael Ballard wrote in his book “Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege.”

But Kirkwood deserves credit for bravely showing up at Vicksburg, among his frequent visits to Iowa troops in the field.

One-hundred and fifty-five years later, less courageous Iowa politicians still are ducking for cover, but it’s not whizzing missiles or cannon fire they’re fearing. It’s meeting with newspaper editorial boards such as ours. We don’t convene in the trenches of political warfare, but usually in conference rooms with long tables and reasonably comfy chairs. The questions occasionally are pointed, but generally polite. Bottles of water are on the house. Coffee, too.

And yet, showing up has become too much to ask for some of our leaders and would-be leaders. And the spin has been less than wonderful.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds declined to schedule a meeting with our board as we weigh candidate endorsements this fall, even after we endorsed her mentor, Gov. Terry Branstad, in 2014 and 2010. Three Republican Iowa House incumbents, state Reps. Ashley Hinson of Marion, Bobby Kaufmann of Wilton, and Louie Zumbach of Monticello, also declined our invitations. So did Heather Hora of Washington, who is challenging state Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford.

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Hinson, in an email, argued she “won’t receive a fair shot,” citing columns and editorials we’ve written critical of Republicans who’ve been running the Statehouse for the past two years. She pointed to an editorial explaining our endorsement process, which mentioned our previous editorial positions on issues would be a factor in endorsements.

But we also get a sense all this skipping has statewide dimensions.

“We’ll take a pass on the opinion pages & continue talking with reporters and voters across Iowa, thank you very much,” Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann tweeted recently in response to a Des Moines Register editorial lamenting ducking candidates. He’s gone on to call that paper’s editorial board a “partisan clown show” and an “unprofessional joke.”

First District Republican U.S. Rep. Rod Blum declined to schedule a meeting with us. So did 2nd District Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack.

Loebsack’s campaign objected to columnist and editorial board member Adam Sullivan taking part in our endorsement process. Sullivan worked for Loebsack’s GOP opponent, Chris Peters, during the 2016 campaign, a fact he openly discloses, but does not work for him in any capacity in 2018. Loebsack’s campaign pointed to Sullivan columns critical of Loebsack and even a 69-cent reimbursement from Peters’ campaign to Sullivan for a Facebook ad inadvertently charged to Sullivan’s credit card, which remained briefly on the account.

Troy Hageman, the Libertarian candidate challenging Blum, also declined our invitation, and there’s little sign he’s running an active campaign. If members of Iowa’s newest official party want to be taken seriously, they must nominate candidates who are willing to engage with the public and the press.

So we’ve got candidates who want to dictate the membership of our editorial board, and some who want us to forget our past editorial positions on issues. That seems like a lot to ask. And because we’ve disagreed with them in the past, there’s apparently no value in meeting with us now.

Too many campaigns this fall seem to be all about personalities and the past. Our editorial board sessions attempt to look to the future, with plenty of “What are you going to do?” questions. Knowing what comes after all the campaigning is critical.

Being unwilling to meet with Iowans with whom you disagree and take questions you may not want to answer is a weak, thin-skinned brand of leadership. Instead of seeking to persuade or find common ground, these candidates chose to avoid the conversation entirely.

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Statehouse incumbents, in particular, pursued an aggressive partisan agenda over the past two years that dramatically changed Iowa in many ways. Now, they don’t want to answer questions about it.

Candidates who talk often on the trail of their ability to craft consensus and foster bipartisan cooperation can’t bring themselves to sit down for 45 minutes with our editorial board. Politicians who lament a loss of civility are dodging a setting where they actually must walk the walk.

It’s part of a disturbing trend. More and more, candidates are skipping forums, dodging town halls, ignoring candidate surveys and declining to meet with editorial boards. Instead, especially in legislative races, they’re relying on party-driven campaigns aimed mainly at tarring and distorting their opponents’ stands and records.

They’re avoiding having to answer questions in settings campaigns can’t control, such as our endorsement process. It’s a place where party bosses, political operatives and strategists have no influence. So, naturally, they’re eager to pull the plug, with hopes we’ll stop asking those questions.

That’s bad news for voters trying to figure out what candidates really stand for amid the charges and countercharges fired off by campaigns. It’s also bad news for those of us hoping to elevate the substance and tone of public discourse. Preaching only to the choir leaves wide swathes of the electorate feeling ignored and unheard, feeding anger.

We understand the political calculations. Republicans, in particular, score points with their core voters by bashing the media. Dodging us is a badge of honor. Why engage with Iowa opinion journalists when it’s far easier to simply call them names on Twitter?

Despite all this criticism, we’ve stuck with our endorsement process, not because we’re eager to pick winners and losers, but because we see great value in sitting down for conversations with candidates of all stripes. We’ve held nearly 50 meetings with candidates this fall, including some who held positions we disagree with, strongly.

We learned about the candidates and how they would lead our communities. Every one got a “fair shot,” including the many Libertarian and no-party hopefuls who were willing to meet with us. We’re posting videos of our interviews for all to see, in the interest of transparency. Candidates who declined to meet with us, however, have no shot at an endorsement this cycle.

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The candidates who did meet with us seemed to understand they’re running to represent all of the residents of their state and their districts, not just the Iowans with whom they agree or who support them.

It’s a lesson our governor, congressmen and legislators should take to heart. Stop ducking for cover. Start engaging, even your critics. It’s what real leaders do.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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