Monday, January 24, 2022

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Civic Skinny

Why Bill Knapp is backing Branstad. Lois Bright leaves a legacy — and cash.


Why would Bill Knapp back Terry Branstad for governor?

Bill Knapp — who spent what a less-rich man would call a fortune in trying to get Branstad out of office for a generation or two.

Bill Knapp — who is the first guy Democrats call on when they’re thinking of running for office. And the first guy they call on for money after they’ve decided to run.

Bill Knapp — who down to the marrow in his bones believes in all the social issues that Branstad and many Republicans have no use for. Planned Parenthood. Gay marriage. Help for the poor. “Helping people who can’t help themselves,” as he told WHO’s Dave Price the other day.

Bill Knapp — who was one of the first members of the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame.


So why?

First, he kind of likes the governor. It took him 40 or so years to figure that out, but he kind of likes him.

Second, he admires some of the things the governor is doing, especially in his efforts to create jobs. He particularly likes the Skilled Iowa program, which, in the words of Iowa Workforce Development, tries “to place the right workers in the right jobs.”

Third, he is human — and thus subject to flattery. And a couple of years ago, the Governor called Knapp and went out to see him. Knapp was surprised — and pleased. And during that first of several talks, Knapp told the Governor he had spent a lot of money trying to defeat him — but would work with him if there were issues in common. That took social issues off the table, but it left some economic ones. The bond grew.

Fourth, he likes being an insider. Like a lot of Democrats, he thinks Branstad is close to unbeatable, and he doesn’t want to wait five more years to get back his seat at the kitchen table at Terrace Hill. After all, he’ll remind you, he’s 87 years old.

And fifth, he didn’t have a Democratic candidate this cycle. He was close to Chet Culver, the one-term Democratic incumbent whom Branstad beat last time, and he had become friends with Tom Vilsack, the two-term Democrat who preceded Culver. But he has no one this time. He’s not particularly fond of Jack Hatch (though his nephew and associate, Bill Knapp II, is a co-host of a Hatch fundraiser this week) and he doesn’t know Tyler Olson.

So that’s why.

Knapp told Cityview he has given $20,000 to Branstad so far.

In the past, he has given money to Republicans, but those gifts have been few and far between. He gave Greg Ganske $1,000 in 1998 and another $1,000 in 2000. He gave Tom Latham $500 in 2010. He gave Chuck Grassley $1,000 in 2009. But those were by-and-large token gifts to incumbents, low-cost insurance policies, as it were.

The one major previous exception to his long, long support of Democrats: He has given Republican state legislator Pete Cownie more than $25,000 in the last few years. But that’s explainable: Knapp likes Cownie, and Cownie’s dad, Jim Cownie, is Knapp’s close friend and business partner.

Knapp’s decision is a double whammy to Democrats Hatch and Olson: It strengthens an already strong Branstad while weakening the Democratic candidates. It was one of two blows that hit Hatch last week. On Tuesday, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees endorsed Olson, saying “he will bring Iowans together and focus on making sure that all Iowans have the opportunity to achieve and maintain the American dream.” The press release made no mention of Hatch, whose voting record on labor issues pretty much matches Olson’s.

It’s not unusual for AFSCME to endorse in a primary, though the endorsements don’t always assure victory. Gov. Mike Blouin can attest to that. This year, AFSCME has endorsed Pat Murphy in the crowded field of Democrats who want to succeed Bruce Braley in Congress, and it endorsed Blouin over fellow Democrat Chet Culver in 2006. But this year, some legislators asked AFSCME to stay out of the primary. “I signed a letter urging ACSCME to not endorse,” state Sen. Matt McCoy told Cityview. “Tyler and Jack both established themselves as progressive and supportive of labor. The smart move would have been to sit it out.”

McCoy himself, however, is not sitting it out. He has endorsed Hatch, as have virtually all the other 15 or so legislators who signed the letter, says a guy who knows how it came about. This guy says the Hatch-backers saw the endorsement coming, and “one or two senators” came up with the idea to write AFSCME. But the union’s political committee ignored the plea.

An AFSCME endorsement usually comes with cash as well as votes. …

Lois Bright must have been one heck of a young woman, for she sure was a feisty old one. Mrs. Bright, who died in her sleep last week at 102, was as blunt as she was generous — and she was mighty generous. She grew up on a farm in southern Iowa and married Dale Bright, her high school sweetheart, when she was 19. The Brights then moved to Des Moines and eventually settled into life on the East Side. He went to work for Western Tool, she for Rollins Hosiery. For a while, he was ill, and life was not easy. But they were frugal and smart — frugal enough and smart enough to buy as an investment a 300-acre farm in Johnston in 1952 for $400 an acre — and they became rich. And then very rich.

When Dale Bright died in 1995, some of his estate went to fund the H. Dale and Lois Bright Foundation, which she used to fund projects for her beloved East Side — everything from Grandview Golf Course to Grand View University, from a hospice for the old to a ballfield for the young to a library for the old and the young. She was the patron saint — and boon companion — for the young women on the Drake rowing team. No detail escaped her attention — or her comment — even at age 102.

A couple of years ago, she decided the foundation would concentrate on providing full-ride scholarships for needy students to the University of Iowa, Iowa State, the University of Northern Iowa and three central and southern Iowa area colleges. When she died, the foundation had about $17 million. With her death, it will have more than $30 million to fund those scholarships.

Neither Dale nor Lois Bright went to college, and they had no children. But generations of Iowans will benefit from the education that neither of them could afford. What they’ll miss, though, is Lois Bright showing them how to live. …

Footnote of the month, from “The Men Who United the States,” by Simon Winchester:

“Drew County (Arkansas) is that kind of a place. The Historical Society lists among its most distinguished residents the first man to observe and prove that a squirrel can run down a tree faster than a bolt of lightning.” CV

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