Two Iowans, two views of the world10/1/2014
In a race that has Iowans sharply divided — and could decide the partisan balance of the U.S. Senate for the next two years — Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley offered opposing worldviews on Sunday that rarely touched the other’s orbit, as they differed on abortion rights, immigration, health care, the minimum wage and federal tax policy.
They’d both call Sen. Charles Grassley, a veteran Iowa Republican with a moderate, workmanlike reputation, for advice, but any agreement ended there.
The two rural Iowa natives bitterly challenged the political friends their opponents keep and filled the ice-chest-cold Simpson College Kent Campus Center in Indianola with fiery zingers in a forum moderated by The Des Moines Register and KCCI-TV.
The first U.S. Senate debate between Ernst, a Republican state senator from Red Oak, and Braley, a Democratic congressman from Waterloo, came just hours after The Des Moines Register released an Iowa Poll showing Ernst with a 44 percent to 38 percent lead over Braley with about a month until Election Day.
The over-arching goals: Ernst sought to portray Braley, who according to the Iowa Poll, is trailing badly in rural parts of the state, as a small-town kid who grew up and forgot his roots, preferring the company and counsel of trial lawyers and bureaucrats. Meanwhile, Braley worked to paint Ernst as something of a Manchurian candidate for the billionaire Koch brothers, a vessel for the interests of oil companies and Wall Street who may look and sound the part of the girl next door in southwest Iowa but is doing the bidding of forces hostile to agriculture and the working class.
“President Obama’s name is not on the ballot, and I am not going to owe President Obama anything on Election Day,” Braley said. “You’re going to owe the Koch Brothers everything.”
Ernst charged that Braley — who described himself as a “bridge builder, not a bridge burner” — is a litigious neighbor who can’t deal with a few chickens without heading to court.
“Congressman, you threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto your property,” Ernst said. “You’re talking about bipartisanship. How do we expect as Iowans to believe that you will work across the aisle when you can’t walk across your yard?”
According to The Des Moines Register, Braley’s wife, Carolyn, approached a neighbor about some chickens causing what she believed was a nuisance at their property near Brooklyn, Braley’s hometown. Braley later contacted a homeowner’s association lawyer about the matter who said it appeared to be Braley’s intention to avoid any legal action — a point Braley reiterated Sunday night.
“I never threatened to sue anyone,” Braley said in the debate. “It’s not true.”
One of the more consistent charges from Braley is that Ernst would jeopardize Social Security by experimenting with some role for privatizing the federal entitlement for seniors. Ernst said she would fight to protect Social Security, and said there are many options to keep the system solvent.
“I haven’t endorsed one option over another,” Ernst said.
Braley said that answer reveals a fundamental difference.
“Privatizing Social Security is not an option for me, and Senator Ernst said it is an option for her,” Braley said.
Braley said he would support an increase of the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. An annual income of $15,000 with the current minimum wage does not sustain a family, Braley said.
“A lot of Iowans are missing out on this booming economy that Senator Ernst is talking about,” Braley said.
Ernst said she understands the minimum wage firsthand, as she once worked as the morning biscuit maker at Hardee’s in Red Oak. But she thinks the wage should be set by states. When pressed to provide a precise figure for a minimum wage she thinks best fits Iowa, Ernst declined to give a number.
On taxes, Braley tied Ernst to a proposal to eliminate the federal income tax and replace it with a 23 percent national sales tax. Ernst said she has not supported a specific flat-tax plan, but she said the federal-revenue-collection system should be “fairer, flatter and simpler.”
“This is where you will see a clear contrast between the congressman and myself,” Ernst said.
On the environment, Ernst said she recycles at home and drives a hybrid car. She believes in global warming, but isn’t certain of the cause, whether it’s the machinery of man or the forces of nature.
“I can’t say one way or another, whether it is manmade or not,” Ernst said.
She added, “I’m not sure what the impact of man is.”
Ernst, who has said she is philosophically opposed to the ethanol- and biofuels-lifting Renewable Fuel Standard, said she will nonetheless support the standard for Iowa farmers and the renewable-fuels industry “until we are on equal footing” with more traditional energy sources like petroleum.
“I’m not sure that’s what Senator Ernst told the Koch Brothers when she went to their secret meetings,” Braley shot back.
Americans for Prosperity, a leading agent of the oil-refinery-invested billionaire Koch Brothers Club, which plans to spend $125 million this year backing candidates of its liking, is supporting Ernst.
On abortion rights, Braley said the government shouldn’t get in between a woman and her physician. What’s more, he said, Ernst’s support in the Iowa Legislature of a so-called “personhood” amendment to the state’s Constitution would strip women of access not only to abortions, but contraception as well. Ernst has said doctors who provide abortions should be punished under such a law.
Ernst said she supports the ability of women to buy “affordable” contraception. But she didn’t walk away from the commitment to punish doctors if abortion is criminalized.
“That’s only if legislation would be passed,” she said when pressed on the subject.
Braley supports the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, but would seek to improve the sweeping reform. Ernst said it is killing jobs in Iowa and she would repeal the act.
Ernst said immigration reform should involve secure borders, but she would not support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a proposal she called amnesty. Braley said there should be comprehensive reform with a mechanism to methodically bring immigrants without papers into legal status. CV
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.