ALTOONA, Iowa — Democrats running for governor of Iowa told union leaders and rank-and-file members Thursday that restoring public employee bargaining rights would be a priority for them if elected.
Some of those seeking the endorsement of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO promised to take executive action to roll back changes made by the GOP-controlled Legislature earlier this year.
Former Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Andy McGuire and former Des Moines school board member Jon Neiderbach promise to take whatever executive action they could to restore public employees bargaining rights.
John Norris warned that it likely will take a change in control of the Legislature to roll bargaining rights back to where they were before the 2017 session.
“This is not a 16-month campaign for governor (but) a three-year campaign to get back control of our state,” he told about 170 delegates at the Iowa Fed’s annual convention in Altoona.
Others among the candidates, who included one Republican and a Libertarian, said they would work with the GOP majority to soften the blow of losing many matters previously subject to bargaining.
And some, like Sen. Nate Boulton of Des Moines and former Iowa City Mayor Ross Wilburn of Ames, called for expanding union rights. Wilburn called for fair share legislation to allow unions to collect a service fee from non-members covered by union contracts.
Overall, the 10-candidate beauty show was civil, with no one launching personal attacks on another candidate. Other than Coralville nurse and union president Cathy Glasson calling former Gov. Terry Branstad and current Gov. Kim Reynolds “goofballs,” attacks on the current administration were focused on the announcement of $20 million in state tax incentives for Apple earlier Thursday.
Iowa Fed President Ken Sagar thought none of the candidates hurt their standing among the union leaders and most helped themselves, perhaps just by getting in front of people who will be involved in the organization’s endorsement in April.
“We know some of you have favorites, and some of you are curious,” he said. “It’s a long way to go until the election.”
All of the candidates for governor were invited. However, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, likely contenders for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, had scheduling conflicts.
Here are highlights of the candidates’ remarks:
• Boulton, 37, a state senator from Des Moines, has sold himself as the labor candidate in the Democratic field, received a standing ovation upon entering the ballroom, the only candidate to receive such a welcome. He noted he has been endorsed by 23 labor organizations in the state. He said that while there is a difference between having a Democrat and Republican as governor, there also is a difference between having “any Democrat and a labor Democrat.”
• Glasson, 58, a longtime nurse and union president from Coralville, called for Iowans to “rise up for a big, bold progressive” agenda that included raising Iowa’s minimum wage to $15 an hour now and making it easier for workers to join labor unions and improve workplace standards. In traveling the state, Glasson said she has encountered many Iowans who feel left behind by a rigged economy, are tired of a health care system that “cares too little and costs too much” and are hungry for a candidate for governor offering a bold vision for the state.
“Nobody’s better off than 30 or 40 years ago and that’s a problem,” she said. “Working people in our state are tired of getting beaten up and that’s a fact.” They also are tired of elections where they feel they have to choose among candidates who represent “the lesser of two evils.”
• Retired businessman and state agency director Fred Hubbell, 66, emphasized his experience in both the private sector and state government. Hubbell, who noted he was a union member for a couple of years when he worked construction in Des Moines, explained that he led Younkers and then Equitable Life Insurance — “large businesses, large budgets, lot of employees all across the state” — and then was director of the Department of Economic Development overseeing investment in job creation and new technology. “Iowa needs a governor with experience making decision, providing leadership around job creation, job development, economic development, raising incomes,” Hubbell said.
He would not give any state money to jobs that don’t pay more than the prevailing wage in the county where they are created. He also proposed moving state government jobs out of Des Moines to communities around the state where jobs are needed. “Why not? Government doesn’t all need to be in Des Moines,” he said.
People are investing in his campaign because they believe he has the leadership to do the job, Hubbell said, “and that I can win because I can put more resource and more people on the ground.”
• McGuire, the former Democratic state party chairwoman and lieutenant governor candidate, discussed reversing the changes made to the state’s public employee collective bargaining laws, but also focused on changes to the state’s workers’ compensation law, saying the government should not come between a worker and his or her doctor.
Like other candidates, McGuire, 61, said Democrats’ economic message must include rural Iowa and criticized the current administration’s approval of tax incentives for large corporations and businesses like the fertilizer plant in southeast Iowa and a new Apple data center in suburban Des Moines. She said in traveling the state while state party chairwoman she realized many Iowans are hurting financially.
“We have to make sure we remember all of Iowa, and all Iowans. ... Sometimes the economy looks like it favors only some Iowan,” McGuire said. “We have to make sure everyone is benefiting from a good economy. ... You don’t do that by putting a lot of money into a few jobs.”
• Norris said his campaign is about contesting for power and investing in people and the infrastructure needed to improve economic opportunity.
That happens only if Democrats win, the former aide to Sen. Tom Harkin and Gov. Tom Vilsack said. Unless they win, Democrats won’t have the opportunity to reverse some of the bad legislation the GOP majority passed this year — collective bargaining restrictions and weakening workers’ compensation, for example.
“This is not a 16-month campaign for governor (but) a three-year campaign to get back control of our state,” he said.
Given what is at stake, Norris, 58, said that electing a Democratic governor in 2018 is essential because “if we don’t win, we don’t have a firewall, and we can’t start building a better Iowa.”
Democrats can’t get there “if we can’t win back votes from rural Iowa,” Norris said. “We have to provide economic hope and opportunity in rural Iowa as well as the urban centers.”
• Jon Neiderbach, a former state employee, Des Moines school board member and 2014 candidate for state auditor, parted ways with Roske on the Apple incentives, calling tax breaks for huge corporations as “very wrong” when other needs are going unfunded by the state.
“We need to stop all the tax breaks, deductions and exclusions and focus on our workforce,” Neiderbach, 60, said in encouraging more local involvement in economic development efforts rather than a top-down approach.
He called for modernizing K-12 curriculum and delivery methods for education, adopting a seamless integration of services and providing more resources for schools. He also opposed tuition hikes proposed at state universities.
Neiderbach acknowledged the Democratic field is strong but said he is a unique candidate who could offer “a complete package” that would attract independent Iowans and Republicans with his plans to overhaul government to give a voice to the powerless. He said he would fight to restore collective bargaining rights for public employees by using executive powers where possible and by refusing to sign bills or let lawmakers go home until they fix the problems that will cause people to flee to other states.
• Wilburn, 52, said he’s “been fortunate to live in Iowa and to serve the people of Iowa. Now I want to help us become the state we know we can be with opportunities to succeed economically, for better health and education,”
Wilburn, who is a diversity officer and an associate director of community economic development program at Iowa State University, also called for livable wages and benefits for workers, safe workplaces, equal pay for equal work and improving water quality.
“The message is simple: Let’s be Iowa,” he said. “Give me a Legislature that will work to reinstate those rights to bargain.”
He warned that giving tax breaks to corporations, such as Apple, without requiring immediate investment in Iowa reduces the state’s ability to support education and other public services.
• Jake Porter, 29, said he was probably the Libertarian to speak to the group, “so I’m very excited about that.”
The problems he sees with state government is that the GOP is using the state budget as weapon and to pay for corporate welfare.
“And what do members of Legislature and the Governor’s Office go after?” he asked. “Domestic violence shelters, mental health facilities and they cost local government when they do this. That is unacceptable.”
“We need to have a government that works for all Iowans,” he said.
Porter, a business consultant, called for phasing out the state sales tax, which he said would help Iowa businesses attract more customers, especially in border communities.
It’s time for a change in the way state government is done, Porter said.
“Do we want state government that continues to do these backroom deals that don’t involve you, that gives your money to rich corporations and give you the tax bill?” he asked. “Do we want to Legislature that doesn’t actually legislate, but kicks these problems down the road whether it be education, whether it be cannabis oil for children, whether it be restoring voting rights for those who have paid for their crimes?”
• Steven Ray, 46, of Boone, the only one of three Republican candidates to accept an invitation to the event, broke with his party and said he does not support the action taken by the GOP to remove collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Ray, who has worked for nearly three decades in public safety, said he thinks the changes were politically motivated and will fall on the back of public workers, and that he would have vetoed the bill had he been governor.
“I’ve seen how it has affected our public employees since that (new law) came through,” Ray said. “They felt like their state government let them down.”
Ray said while he supports businesses and capitalism, he also offered some criticism of the current Republican administration’s approval of tax incentives for large businesses. Ray said the lost revenue could possibly be used to address other areas of need, such as education or mental health care.
• Brent Roske, an independent candidate for governor who was born in Minnesota, touted his family’s labor credentials and noted other Democrats like Tom Vilsack and Jack Hatch were not native Iowans.
“I believe right now government doesn’t work as well as it should,” he said, telling the group the quickest way to get back on track would be to put policy over process and put an independent in the governor’s office.
Roske, 42, said he would work to reinstate Iowa’s collective bargaining law and encourage workers who were not in a labor union to join one. “Those not yet in a union should be,” he said.
He advocated increased funding for education — “it has to be done” — and he spoke in favor of the state’s effort to bring Apple Inc.’s data center to Iowa as “a step in the right direction.”
“We have to start looking at new sectors,” he said.