In the race for one of three contested Iowa House districts in the Quad-Cities, Republican Rep. Gary Mohr and Democratic challenger Joan Marttila offer voters a number of contrasts.
On one hand is Mohr, a one-term state officeholder and former Bettendorf alderman who has supported partisan Republican efforts to cut state taxes, install tougher abortion restrictions, and remove collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers. As he seeks re-election, he counts a new law allowing children of Rock Island Arsenal military personnel to attend Scott County schools among his proudest legislative achievements, saying he wants to do more for the Arsenal, a regional economic driver, over the next two years.
On the other is Marttila, a political newcomer and retired public-sector employee who views one-party control over the state as bad for the everyday Iowan. Collective bargaining rights, abortion rights, and a revamp of the state’s privately managed Medicaid program are central points of her campaign.
The candidates recently met with the Quad-City Times editorial board seeking the newspaper’s endorsement to represent Iowa’s 94th House District. The district, which includes eastern Bettendorf, Riverdale, and northern Davenport, has remained comfortably in Republican hands since the boundary lines were drawn after the last U.S. Census.
Despite its reputation as a Republican stronghold, Marttila says she sees herself as a good fit to represent the people of the district.
“It was never on my bucket list to do this,” Marttila said of her decision to run. “I felt like it was really important for people to have a choice. If there is no opponent to the Republican, then the people really do have no choice.”
For his part, Mohr says he has been a good spokesman for the region, saying he continues to work toward getting “the people in Des Moines to better understand the needs of eastern Iowa.”
“I think I understand the needs and the wants of my district,” Mohr said. “They don’t mind government but they don’t want to overpay for government … I’m not looking to raise taxes, I’m looking to direct the resources that we have in the state of Iowa more efficiently, more effectively.”
Marttila’s bid comes as Iowa Democrats have assembled a broader effort to take the House from Republicans’ 59-41 majority control, an objective that would require shifting 10 seats from red to blue. For this cycle, the Democratic Party has candidates running for office in 95 of the lower chamber’s 100 districts across the state. Locally, representatives in Democratic-leaning House districts face no Republican challenger while each incumbent House Republican is involved in a general election contest.
As candidates for local state offices -- and statewide ones -- hit the campaign trail, the emerging themes of the November election include health care, the state tax cuts, collective bargaining, and abortion rights. Here's a glance at where each candidate stands on the issues:
The state's privately managed Medicaid program, which provides health care for low-income and disabled residents, has faced criticisms of being inefficient, more expensive and of poor quality for the Iowans it is meant to serve.
When asked if the privatization of Medicaid has been a success for Iowa, Mohr offered a one-word answer: "No."
But while he says the changes may not have been ideal, Mohr contends “taxpayers couldn’t afford” to be on the old system, noting the program had become an increasingly large portion of the state's budget over time as costs grew.
“Is it better? No. Did we have to do something to make it more sustainable? Yes. Is it the right thing to have done? I don’t know yet, but we’ve got to continue down this road of trying to figure out ways to improve health care but reduce the cost,” Mohr said.
Meanwhile, Marttila points to rising administrative costs, detailed in a state report earlier this year, as evidence of the program's failure. She says Medicaid was "very efficiently run" under state control, and thinks Iowa should go back to that setup.
"I think the way forward is to gradually unwind it back to the system that we had in place before," Marttila said.
Republicans this year pushed through what's thought to be one of the most expansive tax cuts in the state's history, a move that Democrats warned would bankrupt the state.
Marttila contends the cuts mainly benefited corporations, do “very little for the average family” and says she would support its repeal. She added that she does not think "there is any fat left” from the state spending to cut, and “if we don’t want to have any services, we’re on our way to that goal.”
“I think that we need to re-look at (the tax cut) and think about how we can put more money back in the pockets of people who are actually working every day as opposed to a corporation,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mohr voted in favor of those cuts and stands by his decision to do so. He says they were necessary to address changes in the tax code at the federal level.
"We can always raise more taxes," Mohr said. "But you know, in the two years I have been (in the Statehouse), I’ve never had a person come to me and say, ‘Please raise my taxes to spend more on this or that.’”
One of the major reforms Iowa Republicans have championed is the elimination of collective bargaining power for public-sector unions, a change that took root last year. The law was crafted in part to remove the ability of labor unions to negotiate certain employment terms or allow them to automatically deduct union dues from employee paychecks.
As she watched that legislation advance, Marttila said, it became one of the reasons she ran for office in the first place.
“I have experience on both sides of the table with collective bargaining, and I watched that program that had been carefully developed 40 years ago by Gov. Robert Ray just go up in flames," she said, referring to earlier state rules that were gone after the new law passed.
For his part, Mohr says those changes were necessary to rein in government spending. He also said the changes have allowed local school districts, for example, to have more flexibility with managing teachers, who he says have disproportionately high salaries in some rural communities.
"As we’re talking about economic development, I don’t oppose labor unions, but I also don’t think taxpayers should be the ones supporting them," Mohr added.
Among the most divisive policy changes to pass through the Statehouse this session is the so-called fetal heartbeat law, which makes it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion for a woman who is more than six weeks pregnant. The law currently faces a legal challenge brought by abortion rights advocacy groups.
Mohr voted in favor of the law. He called that decision a moral one, saying he couldn't "in good conscience say if there’s a detectable heartbeat that it’s not life."
"The reason I voted for it is, a lot of advancements have been made in the last 30 years, and I thought, the day I meet my Maker, if he says to me, 'Gary, is a heartbeat life?' I’d have to say, 'Yes, it is,'" Mohr said.
On the other side of that coin is Marttila, who notes that reproductive rights have been a frequent concern she's heard when knocking on doors around her district. She is backed by Planned Parenthood, which supports political candidates likely to favor abortion access and expansion.