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Civic Skinny

Brownell sends blistering memo — and wishes he hadn’t.


Bob Brownell, the usually mild-mannered Republican Polk County supervisor, sent an intemperate email six weeks ago blistering Democratic legislator Tony Bisignano (“Senator Boozehound”) and plotting how to use a Bisignano-backed bill to embarrass Democrats and take over the state Senate in the 2016 election.

He sent it to seven Republican House members from Polk County.

From a political standpoint, that was one too many. Someone leaked it to the Democrats.

From a personal standpoint, it was seven too many. Brownell quickly regretted it, sent an apology to the seven recipients, termed his memo “intemperate and very coarse,” and told Cityview that “I let [Bisignano] get into my head.”

Meantime, the memo still is being passed around — gleefully by some Democrats, not so gleefully by some Republicans. It’s so incendiary (“the odious personality that is Tony Bisignano”) that it has Republicans who see it wiping their fingerprints off it.

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The email, sent on Friday the 13th of March, was addressed to legislators Chris Hagenow, Pete Cownie, Kevin Koester, Jake Highfill, Zach Nunn, John Landon and Rob Taylor. It’s unclear how it got to Democrats.

Bisignano was head of human resources for Polk County until last year, and Brownell and at least a couple of the Democratic supervisors were less than charmed by him, particularly after he was picked up for drunk driving twice in a 12-year period. In a special election in June, he won by 18 votes the Democratic primary for the Iowa Senate seat vacated by gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch — winning the primary assured victory in the general election in November — and then he took a rich retirement package from the county. There was bad blood all around. Bad blood might be understating it.

Once in the Senate, Bisignano this spring proposed a bill to open up the procedures for setting the pay of supervisors, which he apparently thought would embarrass or incense his former bosses at the Polk County courthouse. In fact, it was a harmless bill, but two Republicans added an amendment that would eliminate the boards that set the compensation for elected county officials. Brownell saw the amended bill as a potential political tool.

Here’s a portion of his memo:

“SF167 was passed earlier this week in the Senate and it may be coming to the House. The bill was written by Tony Bisignano, the… drunk elected by what has to be world’s most embarrassed constituency. The content of the bill isn’t all that terrible, in my view, but the motivation for it is not good government; it’s all about getting even. And [Bisignano’s] target is a fellow Democrat: John Mauro, a Polk County Supervisor. One individual in one county in Iowa. That’s the motivation behind this legislation.”

Still, Brownell then advised the letter’s recipients to embrace the amendment eliminating the compensation boards, forcing elected officials “to stand up, front and center, and vote directly on their compensation….I have no problem with that. I’m not ashamed of what I make” — Polk County supervisors make about $105,000 a year — “and I work hard to earn every cent of it.” He thinks Democrats favor the boards, and “why we’d cooperate with the local Democrats to give them this cover would be beyond my comprehension…..” He urged the legislators to pass the bill with the amendment that eliminates the boards.

“The other beautiful part of all this is the acrimony being generated between the Polk County Democrats and the Senate Democratic caucus,” he wrote. “It’s a wonderful thing to watch.” He then goes on to say that if Democratic state senator Matt McCoy runs for Congress — as he might — the local Democrats will be so irked at the Iowa Senate Democrats that they won’t help whoever runs for McCoy’s seat. “All we have to do is put forth a credible candidate and we can rid ourselves of a democrat majority in the Iowa Senate,” he told his colleagues.

Some Democrats were more irritated by that plotting than by the trashing of Bisignano.

The House, however, stripped out the amendment, which had been backed by senators Brad Zaun and David Johnson. They’ll try again next session, Johnson says. “It’s the closest we’ve been in my 17 years to getting rid of this clubhouse for the courthouse,” Johnson told Cityview. (Lobbyists for Polk County took no position on the bill.)

Brownell last week told Cityview he really felt bad about sending the memo and apologized to the recipients “for my tone, my characterizations, and my approach.” That memo, he said, “didn’t reflect on me very well at all….I cannot feel worse than I do about writing it….I should be more forgiving and more sympathetic, and I fell way short.” …

Last November, Cityview published a story about the Des Moines Social Club and, specifically, its executive director, Zach Mannheimer. The story touted, among other things, Mannheimer’s outstanding fundraising abilities. When interviewed then about salaries of the staff, Mannheimer said, “It’s DMSC’s policy not to comment on employees’ personal information.”

At the time, the latest public information was from 2012, which listed Mannheimer with total compensation of $50,075 and Matthew McIver, artistic director, at $41,071. The 2013 tax return is now public and shows Mannheimer with a reportable compensation of $70,965, a 41.7 percent increase. Presumably, he’s gotten at least one, and perhaps two, raises since then. McIver now works for Invision and is no longer with the Social Club.

No other individual salaries are listed for 2013, though salaries as a whole declined to $158,422 from $198,339 a year earlier. The form 990 also shows that the $47,698 loan from the Social Club to The Sideshow Lounge has been paid down slightly to $42,820. Julie Betts, the spouse of McIver, received wages of $28,214 from The Sideshow Lounge, of which McIver and Mannheimer are each 50 percent shareholders.

Overall, revenue at the Social Club declined to $1,194,530 in 2013 from $2,484,943 a year earlier. The group’s surplus — revenue minus expenses — was $830,416 in 2013, compared with $2,102,933 a year before. …

Bob Donley, executive director of the Board of Regents (and, in his view, “chief executive officer” of the entire Regents “enterprise),” last week made the cut in the search for a chancellor of the North Dakota University System. He’s one of three finalists. The three finalists will visit the main campus in Bismarck next week for meetings and interviews. CV

Excerpt: Axelrod, Vilsack and Gross

From “Believer,” a new book by political adviser David Axelrod:

My central focus [in 2002] was Tom Vilsack’s re-election campaign in Iowa.

Vilsack had been a fine governor. He had followed through on his commitments to expand early childhood education and to strengthen the state’s community colleges. He had expanded health care for children and promoted the production of wind energy and biofuels, which meant jobs for Iowans and new opportunities for Iowa farmers.

Yet like every governor elected in 1998, when the economy was booming, Vilsack was facing a serious challenge now that the country was mired in recession. So, five months before the election, Vilsack trailed the most likely Republican nominee, Doug Gross,…by nine points in our polls. Gross had hired Mike Murphy, an incisive and creative Republican media consultant with whom I had tangled before, and lost. It was going to be a war.

I knew we couldn’t play defense….We had to shine a bright light on the alternative, and Gross was an inviting target….He had become a leading lawyer-lobbyist in Des Moines. Among his clients were the widely reviled corporate hog confinements that were springing up, polluting local communities and putting family hog farmers out of business….We were hammering Gross with testimonials from Iowans who had been victimized by the hog confinements and Gross’ heavy-handed advocacy for them. By August, we had begun to seize control of the race, but when I visited Vilsack at the governor’s mansion…he seemed not to have gotten that news.

“You don’t have to sugarcoat it,” said the governor, who was given to bouts of gloominess, and was more apt to believe erroneous public polling that showed him behind than his own. “I’ve already told Christie and the boys that we’re probably going to lose.”

“Lose?” I said in disbelief. “Tom, we’re kicking this guy’s ass. We’re not going to lose!”

On Election Day, Vilsack beat Gross by eight points….As the Iowa votes were being cast, I got an e-mail of surrender from my counterpart Murphy, who had become both a fierce competitor and a close friend.

“Well, old buddy, it looks like you’re going to win the Iowa Cup this year,” read Murphy’s gracious note. “It turns out that hog shit sticks to my guy like Velcro.” CV

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