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Political Mercury

King: look to Milwaukee

5/20/2015

America, it would seem, owes Congressman Steve King a collective apology.

Yes, yes, the Kiron conservative made those comments comparing undocumented Latino immigrants to stray pets. And there’s the infamous “cantaloupe” thighs ding, the pinnacle in his career of provocations of the Mexican and Central American immigrant community King suggests brings more desert-crossing teen drug mules to America than would-be high school valedictorians.

As it turns out, King is merely seeking to be his brother’s keeper. He’s a misunderstood evangelist for what would be a dramatic integration of rural Iowa’s workplaces.

Not enough people to fill those jobs in your Iowa town? Would it make sense, Mr. King, to look to the burgeoning populations of immigrant-rich cities like Denison and Storm Lake and Perry and Marshalltown, perhaps change some policies to bring potential labor out of shadow living and into full commercial engagement?

King says no. But to be fair, he offers an alternative, one that involves more minorities moving to Iowa.

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He says rural Iowa should look to the unemployed urban areas of the nation — specifically Milwaukee — to fill open jobs in the Hawkeye State.

“There was an analysis of Milwaukee, a residential area in Milwaukee of 36 square blocks, six blocks by six blocks, and in that area they surveyed every household, interviewed every household, there wasn’t a single male employed head of household in any of those houses in 36 square blocks in Milwaukee, and the lament was that we couldn’t bring jobs to that neighborhood,” King said during a recent meeting of the Carroll Area Development Corporation.

King said the people in that area of Milwaukee are descendants of family members who moved from the Gulf Coast to take brewery jobs at the end of Prohibition.

“They moved for the jobs, and people that were analyzing this couldn’t even mention that if people were mobile and went to the jobs three generations ago in the ’30s, then why can’t they go somewhere where jobs are today?” King said. “People are more mobile than jobs.”

King’s point: People who are on government subsidies in places like Milwaukee — “multiple generations stacked on top of each other,” King says — could move to fill jobs right here in Iowa.

In rural economic development circles, it is our most vexing, central problem: available and qualified labor.

Go most anywhere in western and central Iowa — the counties where I work as a journalist and serve on county and regional economic boards — and you’ll hear about plants that could expand today by hundreds of people. You’ll hear pleas from companies, good companies with manufacturing and fabricating jobs, desperate for people.

It’s not just serious business. It’s business. It’s life, the very future of it, in rural Iowa.

When asked a wide-open question with no leading language about what challenges she sees for the rural Iowa so tied to her very brilliantly crafted political identity as perhaps the most Iowan of Iowans this side of Chuck Grassley, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, went right to workforce during a conference call with this newspaper and other media.

“We are not seeing the youth staying, maybe, in some of those rural areas,” Ernst said. “So it is a real challenge to find those labor pools in the rural areas.”

A few weeks ago, King heard Scranton Manufacturing brass tell him they want to expand in coming years from 300 to 600 people. He talked with the Carroll Area Development Corporation that is now working aggressively on a housing study it hopes to use as policy ballast for a population boost.

Is this issue of supply-and-demand with labor just a local matter of free enterprise, or does King see anything he can do through the federal government?

“People follow money, and if the wages are there, you should be able to attract the people out of your community,” King said.

King has some historical support for his Big Milwaukee Plan.

“Mississippi was the most common state of origin for Milwaukee blacks during the height of the Great Migration,” Barbara Miner writes in her book, “The Promised Land.” “As late as 1960, roughly half of all African Americans in Milwaukee had been born in the South, and only about a third had been born in Wisconsin.”

Now comes the real question: Is King serious or is he blending slices of American industrial and racial history with bombast to spool out a cynical shot aimed at his true enemy: immigration reform?

Perhaps King can enlist his fellow Republicans Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, always eager for a trip to sell Iowa to potential new businesses and workers, into the heart of urban Milwaukee for a job fair.

The state can save money on promotional pamphlets. Just have King himself make the pitch in a booth. Until we see that, chalk up King’s comments as a smirking dismissal of the most crucial issue facing the hundreds of small Iowa towns he serves. CV

 

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

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