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Political Mercury

September 20, 2012
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War paint or church potluck civility? Your call

By Douglas Burns

Shelve for a moment partisan instincts, ideological positioning. Consider the race for the 4th District congressional seat in much the way an employer would the writing of a help-wanted advertisement for a newspaper.

Sharpen the pencil. Roll out a crisp, single sheet of white paper. And write the ad. What do you want from a member of Congress?

Christie Vilsack is seeking to make this question central in her campaign to represent 39 counties in western and central Iowa. She’s challenging the very job description U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has followed for a decade in the soon-to-be vanished old 5th District.

“I think Steve King has seen the job, first of all, as an opportunity to promote his own agenda over the last 10 years,” Vilsack, an Ames Democrat, said recently at a farm outside Jefferson. “And it’s been an opportunity to promote an ideology that I simply don’t think has very much to do with the economic well-being of the people who live in these 39 counties or the future we need to create.”

During a WHO Radio debate, King’s first one in a general election since 2002, King revealed canyon-sized differences in the way the two candidates see the role of a member of a Congress, the job description itself.

Vilsack, who says she views the position as “very local,” challenged King’s visibility, charging that he’s using the elected platform to behave as a publicity hound.

“He’s on television a lot, and he talks a lot,” Vilsack said.

And so often, Vilsack says, King has something of a reverse Midas Touch when it comes to brand-building, the image-making of Iowa.

“There are people in this state every day who say to me that they’re embarrassed when you go on national TV,” Vilsack told King in a debate at the Clay County Fair in Spencer. “It is not right to refer to other human beings as if they’re animals and to talk about them in terms of cattle prods and talk about them as stray cats and dogs. That’s not acceptable. That’s not how we act in Iowa.”

King, who says some illegal immigrants simply can’t take a compliment, makes the broader case that his responsibility isn’t just to represent Iowans but Americans, and that he seeks national media outlets and gets involved in politics in other states to promote an agenda he thinks benefits Iowa. That might mean being active in a congressional race in California to assist in the attempted ouster of a liberal Democrat he finds particularly nettlesome.

A recent profile in The Sioux City Journal points out that King is a frequent guest on major media television and radio programs espousing traditional conservative values and politics. Even those appearances are part of what King sees as “a calculated and concerted effort” to advance those values, The Journal reports.

“I need to take the message to their constituents. We need to move the political center in America to the right, and the most effective way I can do that is to do media — national media and media within the district — wherever I can, as often as I think I can carry a message,” King said, according to The Journal. “I could go there, and just take care of the district, and put my votes up and stay out of the spotlight. I might have time to go fishing if I did that. But that’s not doing everything I can do to move our agenda.”

That considered, it is clear King is no Charles Grassley. Grassley, our long-tenured U.S. senator (who just completed 32 straight years of visiting all 99 counties in Iowa) sees the big-picture value of the passage of a farm bill for Iowa’s grain and livestock producers who have stared down an awful drought.

“As I made my way across the state this summer from one county meeting to the next, the dried-up corn stalks were a harsh reminder of the historic drought squeezing the Corn Belt. There’s no doubt the drought has taken a toll,” Grassley said in a guest column sent to Iowa newspapers last week. “Some producers across the country sold off livestock and dairy herds when grazing lands dried up and they had difficulty finding enough hay. Some farmers have diverted withering corn acres into chopped silage before the harvest season even begins. The USDA estimates the corn harvest may reach its lowest average yield since 1995, at 123.4 bushels per acre.”

When farm issues emerged at the Clay County Fair, a setting that celebrates agriculture as much as any in Iowa, King raced for the ideological fringes to rustle up colorful charges about how some people abuse food stamps.

“We had a fella that bailed himself out of jail with his EBT card — his electronic benefits transfer card,” King said. “We have tattoo parlors advertising in neon lights saying they’ll tattoo you, and you can pay for it with your food stamp card. We have to do something about this.”

Fair enough. Fraud and abuse occur in federal programs. People cheat. We should be more aggressive in ferreting out scofflaws.

But Mission No. 1 right now on the ground in Iowa is protecting farmers from what Grassley called the “worst drought to hit the Corn Belt in 56 years” and “a wake-up call.”

“For 80 years, the U.S. has sought to protect U.S. food security with a safety net that helps the nation’s food producers fill America’s breadbasket,” Grassley said. “Washington needs to get the job done.”

But where is King? He seems most interested in the think-tank prescriptions of urban editors at conservative journals like the National Review than the pressing pleas Grassley clearly absorbed at town-hall meetings across Iowa. King, searching to cash an ideological ransom, is holding the farm bill hostage.

Meanwhile, Vilsack says she’s running for the 4th District seat for one reason: “I want to make sure people can continue to live in small towns,” said the former first lady of Iowa.

She’s been carrying around a toy football produced from soy — a prop to back her pledge to be an economic-development champion who uses her title to open doors and get phone calls returned from business prospects, primarily companies with ag-technology ties around the world — so she can partner in recruiting them to smaller towns and the vast unincorporated areas of the 4th District.

When pressed by Cityview about this pledge, about why a member of Congress should be involved in business development, Vilsack said she would use the position of congresswoman to open doors others can’t.

“People don’t necessarily know you’re here, or what your workforce is or what raw materials that you have available,” Vilsack said in the interview. “It seems to me that any time I’m anyplace else in the district, or anyplace else in the state of Iowa, or anyplace else in this country, including Washington, or if I’m traveling on behalf of my state, or if I’m ever on TV for any reason, that I should be talking about this district. I shouldn’t be talking about anything else. I shouldn’t be talking about dog-fighting. I shouldn’t be talking about the divisive social issues.”

One gets the distinct impression King would wear Indian war paint and a necklace of scalps to the U.S. House floor if it didn’t violate institutional rules and decorum.

By contrast, Vilsack — who has been aggressive in challenging King’s artistry with right-wing rhetoric — promises to bring something of a church potluck civility to the job and a hyper-local focus. You’ll more likely find her at an economic-development meeting in Ames or Templeton or Manning or Coon Rapids than on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

Vilsack is to dead straight right about one thing. The race is about temperament and job description.

And a crystal clear choice. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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