Sunday, September 24, 2023

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Political Mercury

The exclusion of rural Iowans in politics


“Step aside, hick,” the urban Democrats can tell us.

Talented rural Democratic candidates for the Iowa Statehouse with deep wells of connectivity in their communities — like Stuart’s Warren Varley, Manning’s Peter Leo and Rippey’s David Weaver — went down to defeat by muscular margins in their 2018 election bids to represent what collectively is a vast portion of rural Iowa.

All three candidates were enormously talented and rooted in their communities. They know local issues and have developed reputations outside of politics through successful careers and other community involvement. These are rural guys, people most folks like and respect and enjoy seeing in the grocery store or at a Rotary Club event or spaghetti feed or church fish fry.

They live rural, talk rural and bleed rural.

In short, they are just the sort of people rural Iowa should be thrilled to have representing us — and in the past, they could have been elected. But they are damned by the D’s behind their names, a self scarlet-lettering in the modern culture of our rural Iowa.

Here’s the 2018 scoreboard:

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Leo lost by 31 points to State Rep. Brian Best, R-Glidden.

Weaver lost by 7 points to State Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson.

And Varley by 24 points to State Rep. Bubba Sorensen, R-Greenfield.

I know all three Republicans, and they are decent, dedicated public servants and deserve their seats. The issue here is not with the Republican victories in rural Iowa but with the margins, which are posing increasingly challenging, if not prohibitive, odds for Democrats in rural areas.

What happens to rural Iowa when Democrats control the governor’s mansion and both chambers in the Iowa Legislature?

We’ll have no one from vast sections of rural Iowa in the majority caucuses.

The urban-suburban Democrats, when they have total control, and they will, will have the power to make that Des Moines Water Works lawsuit seem almost quaint by comparison with the unyielding, unsympathetic and gloriously ignorant mandates they can force on our farms with no rural Democrats in the caucus or on the committee to stop the foolishness before it starts.

Farm-to-market roads? “Step aside, hick,” the urban Democrats can tell us. “It’s build, baby, build! — on the Interstates.”

Small schools in rural Iowa? Start packing now for consolidation.

And when this full urban-suburban Democratic takeover happens, we rural Iowans have only ourselves to blame for the silly hotheadedness in our emotion-driven, right-wing politics, the forfeiting of political leverage that comes with balanced representation.

We are losing population and economic power in rural Iowa as suburbs stretch with what to my generation is an almost unimaginable reach into surrounding farmland. Will Ankeny someday consume Slater with a march of quick-build, non-descript Tokyo-row apartment buildings?

Will college-educated professionals, having spent four years in incubators of political correctness, in the halls of non-binary gender assignment, even be culturally capable of living in Steve King country? Not likely, but as uncomfortable as this is for many rural Iowans, we are going to have to be the ones to adapt or watch more businesses close and young people leave.

We should want both strong Republicans and Democrats representing us in rural Iowa. That way, regardless of the shift of the political winds, we have able legislators standing tall for us.

I thought about this on a recent Saturday sitting in New Hope in Carroll, one of our great Iowa organizations for people with disabilities, for a legislative forum with our two GOP legislators, elected officials who represent five Iowa counties.

If we put our communities first, our own interests at the top of voting considerations, rather than tribal affiliations and social media hysteria, we’d elect the best Democrat and Republican we could find, politicians like former State Rep. Rod Roberts, a conservative Republican now serving as Iowa’s labor commissioner, and State Rep. Mike Peterson, a Democrat who represented us for years in the Legislature before going on to a high-powered corporate career in Missouri and Texas.

Many Republicans reading this are no doubt cheering what they see as a simple clearing of the opposition. That’s the wrong way to view this.

In the demonization of Democrats, rural Iowa really just killed our options and shot down life-giving angels.

Some people are floating the idea of having Democrats stand down for certain seats to make way for independents; such is the toxicity of the Democratic brand in rural Iowa. Or just forfeit seats that Republicans won’t have to spend any money defending anyway in favor of bolstering Democratic candidates who can win the Des Moines suburbs or in Council Bluffs to collect the seats needed to flip the Iowa House.

For now, we have to take what the Republicans give us in rural Iowa. Tax incentives for Amazon to build fulfillment centers in the Des Moines metro area so they can deliver milk and diapers to rural towns in hours from an online order, further killing our small-town businesses. Managed care organizations running Medicaid. Longer distances to travel for mental-health services, driver’s licenses and urban-centered economic development — not to mention the real risk of soon having no place to return cans and bottles for recycling deposits.

What’s your recourse right now in rural Iowa if you don’t like what your Republican legislator is doing? Dial tone. Crickets. They really don’t even have to return phone calls. What are you going to do, Mr. Citizen With A Complaint, vote for the Libertarian, the Green Party guy?

Imagine when the shot-callers on all the key committees in the Legislature, on Terrace Hill, in the Department of Transportation, are from Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and spend more time cultivating their Minneapolis envy than lifting rural Iowa.

The intellectual breast-feeding social-media algorithms have talked us into a dangerous gamble with single-party rule here in rural Iowa.
Prepare to pay, my fellow rural Iowans — and soon. Doubt me? Drive around the state and see where future voters are coming of age in the new housing developments. ♦

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


  1. Rich Eychaner says:

    Doug, Your eventual point is well taken, but the hysterical straw person projection early on of terrible programs allegedly proposed by Democrats is what drives rural voters to vote against self interest and to knee jerk Republicans. I’ve had greater respect for your level headedness than this opinion piece shows. Certainly destroying farm markets with tariffs, and turning farmers into welfare recipients, is evidence of deep love for rural voters by Republicans.

  2. Burmeister Eric says:

    And we’ll do it with the same gusto as the current rubes are pushing preemption. Paybacks will be hell.

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