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Civic Skinny

Miller rules against Chiodo, then backs Blake. Is that a conflict of interests? Who, Me?


What is the “appearance of a conflict” of interests?

Attorney General Tom Miller is campaigning for Nathan Blake, the assistant attorney general running for the Iowa Senate seat being vacated by gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch.

Blake is “ethical, very bright and able, committed to serving the interests of ordinary Iowans,” Miller said in a robocall to voters in the district, which includes the South Side as well as Sherman Hills. “I hope you’ll take a good look at Nathan Blake.”

In a letter to The Des Moines Register on May 10, the attorney general flat-out endorsed Blake. “The best candidate for working families is Assistant Attorney General Nathan Blake,” Miller wrote. Then, last week, residents received a flyer. “Please vote for Nathan on June 3,” it said, and it was signed “Tom Miller, Attorney General of Iowa.” All of this has raised an eyebrow. Blake — by all accounts smart and talented — is one of three candidates in the June 3 Democratic primary. The others are Ned Chiodo and Tony Bisignano, south-siders with strong followings and a deep dislike for one another. Blake, neither a south-sider nor an Italian — two things that help if you’re running in that district — can win only if Chiodo and Bisignano split the south-side vote.

In other words, if it were a two-candidate primary — Blake against Chiodo or Blake against Bisignano — Blake’s prospects would be dimmer.

Prep Iowa

But there are three candidates, and that’s in part because of Tom Miller. Chiodo has been arguing that Bisignano is ineligible to run because of a recent guilty plea to second-offense drunk-driving. To make his case, Chiodo first had to go to a state panel composed of Auditor Mary Mosiman, Secretary of State Matt Schultz — and Tom Miller.

Chiodo’s lawyer, Gary Dickey, argued that Miller should recuse himself because, first, he already had made up his mind — as evidenced in some formal and informal opinions — and, second, his employee was also a candidate. Miller rejected that argument. “Whatever interest Mr. Blake may have in the outcome of Mr. Chiodo’s objection, that interest is personal to Mr. Blake and would not be imputed to me,” Miller wrote in exonerating himself.

(The case ultimately went to the Iowa Supreme Court, where a split court — there were three opinions from the six participating justices — allowed Bisignano to stay on the ballot but otherwise muddied the waters on the central issue of which convicted persons can vote. The court didn’t deal with the issue of Miller and recusal, an issue on which a lower court had ruled against Chiodo.)

An unattributed memo to his staff followed the wording of Miller’s opinion in favor of himself. But it had one additional sentence: “We have concluded there is no actual conflict or appearance of conflict that compels General Miller’s disqualification,” it noted.

Asked last week — following the robocalls and the letter to the editor — whether Miller still believes he has no appearance of conflict, spokesman Geoff Greenwood said: “Yes.”

Meantime, folks obsessed by south-side politics and the primary — including Civic Skinny — say it’s a hard race to call. It probably will be decided by absentee voters. As of Friday, there were 2,157 requests for absentee ballots among registered Democrats, and 1,209 of those had been returned. No one knows what’s in those, of course, but it’s generally believed that the Blake campaign did not have much of an absentee-operation while Chiodo and Bisignano worked on getting ballot requests to their supporters. It’s also believed Chiodo has a slight leg up in absentees.

As of May 1, there were 16,115 registered Democrats in the district, and a turnout of 20 percent — that’s 3,223 — would be huge. Put another way, about a third of the likely voters already have voted. If those are split mostly between Chiodo and Bisignano, Blake has an almost impossible task on June 3. There are only 6,462 registered Republicans in the district, so the Democratic primary winner is all but assured victory in November.

Footnote: The American Federation of State, Local and Municipal Employees early on came out for Bisignano, and this month came in with a $10,000 check. …

From last Wednesday’s Register:

“Scenes for the HBO show ‘Girls’ that the network wanted to film on the University of Iowa campus involved a lot of bad luck with bicycles for character Hannah Horvath, according to email records released by the university.”

What it should have said: “according to email records released by the university following a freedom-of-information request from Cityview.”

Oh, well. CV


Comment: Cherry Sisters

You know it’s going to be a great day for free speech when the Iowa Supreme Court mentions the Cherry Sisters.

And so it was last week.

The court ruled that Rick Mullin and the Iowa Democratic Party didn’t defame Rick Bertrand in a nasty political ad a couple of years ago. Mullin and Bertrand were running against one another for the Legislature, and the race got unpleasant.

Mullin then ran an ad implying — at least to some people — that in his role as a salesman for a drug company Bertrand sold a dangerous drug to children.

“Bertrand was a sales agent for a big drug company that was rated the most unethical company in the world,” the ad said. “The FDA singled out Bertrand’s company for marketing a dangerous sleep drug to children.”

The ad was true, but a possible inference —that Bertrand himself sold such a drug — was not.

So Bertrand sued, and he won in state district court.

But the Iowa Supreme Court overturned that ruling and dismissed the case. That was a good thing for this state.

Political speech must be robust and free-wheeling, and therefore it must be harder to sue political figures for the careless remark, the inaccurate accusation or the nasty aside, courts have ruled. To win, a plaintiff must show that the speaker knew the remark was false or made it with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.

Bertrand — who ultimately won the election — did not show Mullin violated either of those standards, the court said.

“More than a century ago — and more than half a century before the Supreme Court [of the United States] decided [New York Times v. Sullivan, the case that established the “reckless disregard” rule] — we recognized persons who place themselves in the public sphere are subject to a vastly greater degree of comment, criticism and even ridicule,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote for a unanimous court. And he cited Cherry v. Des Moines Leader.

The Cherry Sisters — Effie, Addie, Jessie, Lizzie, and Ellie — were from Cedar Rapids, and they were in show business. They couldn’t dance, and they couldn’t sing. In fact, they couldn’t do much of anything. Their act exerted a ghastly fascination over its audiences.

And that was what the great Oscar Hammerstein was looking for. The year was 1896, and he was going broke. He was desperate. “I’ve tried the best,” he said. “Now I’ll try the worst.” So he sent for the Cherry Sisters.

They opened at the New Olympia Theater in New York on Nov. 16, 1896. “Never before did New Yorkers see anything like the Cherry Sisters from Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” the New York Times reported. “It is sincerely to be hoped that nothing like them will ever be seen again.”

But the audiences loved them. Night after night, young men crowded the theater. Often, they brought vegetables: sidewalk vendors were said to do a brisk business every evening selling onions and rutabagas and melons. “There was scarcely a young blade in the late nineties,” the Des Moines Register recalled in 1929, “but boasted he had heaved a cabbage or two at the Cherry Sisters.”

Eventually, they went on the road, and they made some stops in Iowa. In 1901, the Des Moines Leader wrote:

Billy Hamilton of the Odebolt Chronicle, gives the Cherry Sisters the following graphic write-up on the late appearance in his town: ‘Effie is an old jade of 50 summers, Jessie a frisky filly of 40, and Addie, the flower of the family, a capering monstrosity of 35. Their long, skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and anon waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage, strange creatures with painted faces and hideous mien. Effie is spavined, Addie is stringhalt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs with calves as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.”

The ladies sued, and a lower court — after watching them perform and after noting that the act was so bad the piano player left at intermission — threw out the case.

They appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled that ridicule is often a writer’s best weapon. The case is considered a landmark of First Amendment law, for it upholds the notion that fair comment — even intemperate comment — is a valid defense of libel charges. It said, in effect, that anyone is entitled to his or her opinion without the threat of being sued.

As Justice Cady noted last week, that was more than 50 years before the Supreme Court of the United States came to the same conclusion.

And last week, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed that principle. 

Good for them. And good for Iowa. CV

— Michael Gartner

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