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Civic Skinny

With no foes, Democrats will control county till 2019. Register sets bizarre process for keeping news jobs.

9/3/2014

Democrats will continue to control Polk County for the next four years.

That was assured at 5 p.m. on Wednesday of last week, the deadline to file for county offices. No one chose to run against John Mauro, Angela Connolly or Tom Hockensmith, the three Democrats who control the Board of Supervisors. The two Republicans, Bob Brownell and Steve Van Oort, are not up until 2016. They, too, have safe seats.

The Democrats have run the county since 1954, so virtually every department is peopled by folks — sometimes second- or third-generation county workers — beholden to and loyal to the Democrats. That’s not a bad thing, just a thing. Although all five supervisors work well together — Polk County is probably one of the best-run governments in the state — the Democrats control the hiring and the budgeting. That’s enormous power, and the Democrats know how to use it and how to share enough of it with the Republicans to keep them happy.

Still, if you’re down on your luck and need a government job, it’s much better to be a down-on-your-luck Democrat in Polk County than a down-on-your-luck Republican. And it will be for the next four years. (For that matter, it’s even better if you’re an up-on-your-luck Democrat.)

The Democrats also will keep their hold on other county offices. No Republicans came forth to challenge John Sarcone, the county attorney since 1991; Mary Maloney, the treasurer since 1989; or Julie Haggerty, the recorder since 2007. The other two elective offices, held by Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald and Sheriff Bill McCarthy, aren’t up until 2016. Fitzgerald and McCarthy also are Democrats.

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One Democrat who has followed county politics for decades says he can’t remember the last time there were no challengers for any county office.

But the news isn’t good for all Democrats. With no contested elections, Mauro and Connolly and Hockensmith won’t have to work to get out the vote in November. That will cut Democratic turnout, which will hurt Democratic congressional candidate Staci Appel and Senate candidate Bruce Braley. Both are in close races and will need big victories in Polk County if they hope to win.

It could also hurt the chances of Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Jack Hatch, though most folks think he’s beyond help in his effort to oust Terry Branstad. …

The people who run The Des Moines Register haven’t put anything in writing — those memos tend to leak to Cityview — but here’s what’s going on in the newsroom:

First, everyone in the news department except Amilie Nash, the young new “vice president for reader engagement,” must re-apply for a job, probably in early October. Each person will get two choices.

Second, if the person is offered neither choice, that person is out of a job and will get a limited form of severance.

Third, if the person is offered either of his choices but decides to turn down the offer, that person is out of a job with no severance.

Fourth, if the person is not offered either of her choices but is offered something else, and if that person turns down the something else, that person also is out of a job, but with the limited severance.

The keep-or-fire decisions will be made by Nash, who is new to Iowa and the Register and thus knows little of who’s who there, by an undisclosed editor from another Gannett newspaper, who could know less about the place than Nash knows, and by a human-resources worker at the Register. That line-up doesn’t thrill old-timers whose jobs are on the line.

Apparently, the job list hasn’t been finalized, but it contains jobs such as “content strategist” and “content mentor.” No one seems to know what those mean. The general belief is that copy editors are the most endangered. Some big names with relatively big salaries also are imperiled, Cityview is told. And it’s almost certain that the newsroom will have fewer workers once this bizarre exercise is over.

Put it this way, says a newsroom worker who is watching with amazement and amusement, those who survive “will have plenty of desks to choose from.”

Meantime, the resume-mailing is hitting a frenzied pace. …

Two years ago, Cityview wrote: “Kent Sorenson dropped out of high school at age 17, has filed for bankruptcy, has been convicted of delivery of marijuana and been sentenced to jail, has been convicted of defaulting on car loan payments, had unpaid federal income taxes for three different years, has dealt with a serious illness of one of his six children — and last week said his decision to leave the Bachmann campaign to sign on with Ron Paul was ‘one of the most difficult I have had to make in my life.’ ”

It turns out the decision was made easier by cash.

The former legislator from Warren County pleaded guilty last week to two federal charges: willfully filing false reports of federal campaign expenditures and “falsifying records…intending to obstruct” a federal investigation. (He earlier had “vehemently” denied the allegations.)

Sorenson, who had a following on the far right, was supporting fellow Republican Michele Bachmann for the party’s presidential nomination two years ago when he suddenly shifted to backing Paul. The shift was prompted by a secret $73,000 payment, which he added to the money the Bachmann campaign was paying him. He then lied about it to investigators.

He could be sentenced to up to 25 years in prison. Sorenson and the federal prosecutors have entered a plea agreement that would reduce his sentence, but a judge may ignore that. The presentence investigation is due Oct. 13. Senior federal district judge Robert Pratt will determine the sentence. No date has been set, but the deadline for objections to the pre-sentence report is Monday, Nov. 3.

So Sorenson could again be on the front pages on Election Day. But the photo might be different this year. CV

Comment: The Supreme Court

Is there anyplace in Iowa that is more civil, more open, more inclusive — more human — than the Iowa Supreme Court?

Probably not.

Last Wednesday, the court held a full day of hearings on an Iowa Bar Association committee’s loopy idea to eliminate the bar exam for graduates of the law schools at Drake and the University of Iowa.

Visitors were welcomed, and the whole proceeding was streamed live on the Court’s web-site. Well before the hearing, the Court had posted on the web-site the bar association’s 21-page proposal and reasoning, a 14-page analysis and history by the Court’s staff, and 418 pages of comments from lawyers and non-lawyers alike. (Give credit to Iowans: About 70 percent of the commenters were against the proposal.)

More than a score of lawyers and law-school professors, and a student or two, testified on the plan to establish a two-tier system of lawyers in the state — lawyers who graduated from Iowa or Drake and thus wouldn’t have to take the bar exam and lawyers from elsewhere (Yale, for Justice Ed Mansfield; Harvard, for Attorney General Tom Miller; University of Chicago, for Branstad lawyer Brenna Findley; Berkeley, for Justice Brent Appel) who would have to take the bar.

Feelings ran strong, but civility ran stronger.

Iowa academics favor the proposal — it would, of course, help them recruit students with the promise of not having to take the bar upon graduation and would make their admissions officers mini-lords with the power of determining who could practice law in the state — but no one accused them of being selfish or of putting the interests of their universities above the interests of the people who think they are hiring competence when they retain a lawyer. At least, not directly. (Though, of course, that’s exactly what the academics are doing.)

There were no histrionics — except it’s clear Roxanne Conlin is still traumatized from taking the bar 50 years ago — and the seven justices were unfailingly courteous as they probed a lot and prodded a bit. They seemed to agree it’s a complex issue that can be stated simply: How can you ensure Iowans that the lawyers they hire are at least minimally competent? Who should be the gatekeeper to ensure that foggy-headed law students seek another line of work?

Drake law dean (and Drake law graduate) Ben Ullem conceded the proposal would “not be appropriate for every jurisdiction” — just, apparently, any jurisdiction where Drake happened to be located — while Paul Morf, Cedar Rapids lawyer and Yale Law graduate, called the idea “an extreme step for which the case hasn’t been made.” That pretty much summed it up: there is no middle ground.

The hearing lasted more than 7 hours. At the end, Chief Justice Mark Cady promised the court would act quickly, and then he asked everyone to stick around for a few minutes. The justices, he said, wanted to come down off the bench and thank those who came to speak. And that’s what they did. They shook hands, they thanked, they mingled, they chatted.

Judiciously, they gave no hint of where they stood. Courteously, no one asked. CV

— Michael Gartner

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