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Civic Skinny

Chet Culver moves closer to a Congressional run.


Former Governor Chet Culver is getting closer to deciding to run for Congress in the Third Congressional District.

He is looking at the numbers — the money numbers and the registration numbers — and lining up a staff. He is studying the issues and talking to longtime supporters. He is looking at the problems of running — and, he hopes, serving — while still being a good father to two teenagers and a supportive husband to a wife who works part-time as a lawyer in Des Moines.

If he wants to unseat first-term Republican David Young, Culver must first beat Jim Mowrer and a couple of long-shots in a Democratic primary that will chew up some money. That probably wouldn’t be hard, with his name recognition and zest for campaigning, but beating Young would be tough. Young will have money and help. The national Republicans passionately want to keep the seat, figuring it will be Young’s for a long time if he can win re-election to a second term.

The Third District includes 16 counties, basically the southwest quarter of the state. As of Nov. 2, it had 165,850 registered independents, 163,549 Republicans and 150,549 Democrats. To win the seat, a Democrat has to build a 25,000-vote margin in Polk County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 19,000 votes and independents by 14,000. Each of the other 15 counties has a Republican majority.

Culver says he is getting in shape physically for a run and just got a good report from his doctor. He still looks like a lineman on the Green Pay Packers, but he says his weight “is going in the right direction.” …

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The LaMarca Law Group submitted another bill the other day for its work defending the state, Gov. Terry Branstad and five other state officials in the discrimination and defamation and retaliation and extortion lawsuit filed by Chris Godfrey, the former head of the state’s Workers Compensation Board.

The latest bill is for $22,230.71. That brings the total to date to $872,084.46. The suit, which has yet to come to trial, basically is about a $150,000 dispute. The taxpayers are paying the LaMarca bills — and could end up paying another $1 million or so to Roxanne Conlin, Godfrey’s lawyer, if she wins the case. …

The print edition of The Des Moines Register’s young reader publication, Juice, is being killed. Launched 10 years ago with great fanfare and a million or so orange street boxes, it will be only online as of Dec. 16. Today’s Juice readers “are digital natives who are used to consuming news via smartphone and social media,” says Amalie Nash, the newspaper’s executive editor. Print “is not the right vehicle for this product.” …

So the Register’s Dan Finney wrote 800 words or so about how awful it is that we don’t vote in municipal elections, about how all we care about is playing “bit parts on the big productions made by rich men and women seeking the nation’s highest office.”

“For the stuff that really matters — the stuff that we say we care about more than anything else — our schools and our communities, we can’t be bothered,” he wrote. He noted the low turnout in the Nov. 5 election.

“Pathetic,” he said.

According to Polk County election records, Dan Finney did not vote in the 2015 school election, the 2013 city and school elections and the 2011 city and school elections.

He does not miss voting in those big productions made by rich men and women. CV

Comment: Our town

It was news in the newspapers from New York to London and places in between, news in Us Magazine and on TMZ, but no newspaper or television station in Des Moines seems to have noticed that Johnny Lew Fratto died the other day of lung cancer in California. Johnny Lew Fratto was a character — a regular with Howard Stern, sort of a Hollywood wise guy. Funny guy. Good story-teller. Most everyone in Hollywood liked him.

Johnny Lew Fratto was raised in Des Moines, though he was known as Johnny Farrell when he attended Dowling High School. His father was Lew Farrell, who came from Chicago to Des Moines in the 1930s and may or may not have been a mob boss in the state. If he wasn’t, everyone in town in the 1940s and ‘50s thought he was.

Wikipedia says that “in 1939 [Farrell] replaced Charles ‘Cherry Nose’ Gioe as the Mob Boss of Iowa, making his headquarters in Des Moines. He was later implicated in the murder of Gioe, who went back to Chicago, but who later tried to reclaim his control over the rackets in Iowa. Among other things, [Farrell] became the Iowa distributor of Canadian Ace Beer, which was a Capone Family enterprise.”

Farrell was picked up for questioning in several big robberies in Chicago in the early 1930s. At the time, he was secretary and treasurer of the Wardrobe Check Washroom Attendant and Doorman’s Union, which, given the city and the time, doesn’t sound like a particularly up-and-up job.

In Des Moines, everyone knew Farrell, and most everyone liked him. He was entertaining and generous. At Christmastime, he’d head to the newsroom of The Des Moines Register and Tribune and pass out bottles of liquor to favored reporters and editors — including my father, a droll man who once told me that Farrell was a nice guy, if you could set aside the fact that he might have been a murderer.

Lew Farrell’s real name was Luigi Tomaso Giuseppi Fratto — he took the name Lew Farrell when he was a young boxer — and after he got to Des Moines he married Carmella Randa. When you married a Randa in those days, you instantly had a zillion cousins on the south side and nieces and nephews and uncles and aunts. One sister-in-law, Margaret Randa, married a Mauro, so Lew Farrell became the uncle of, among others, current Polk County Supervisor John Mauro and state labor commissioner Michael Mauro.

(The Randas and Rendas and Rands are all related. The name was Renda when three brothers came to Des Moines from Italy, says Pat Civatotte, of the Italian Cultural Center — she’s a Rand — and the brothers all went to work for the railroad. But, she says, that confused the paymaster, so one brother became a Randa and another a Rand while the third remained a Renda. Complicating things further, they married sisters.)

Farrell had several children. One son, Frank, died in that 1969 plane crash in a farm field near Newton that killed Rocky Marciano, the retired and undefeated heavyweight boxing champion. The two were in a single-engine Cessna plane flying from Chicago to Des Moines, where Marciano was to attend a surprise 46th birthday party at the Charcoal Room restaurant, which was just across the Seventh Street viaduct on what was then called Clifton but is now Indianola Road. The restaurant was owned by Lew Farrell’s brother-in-law. Young Farrell was 23. (The inexperienced pilot, Glenn Belz, also died.) Another son, Willie, became a pretty well-known comedian in the Midwest.

John Farrell sort of wore out his welcome in Des Moines, some of his friends say, and he moved to California and reinvented himself as Johnny Lew Fratto, sort of a caricature of a 1940s mobster. The picture on his Twitter account shows him with the wavy gray hair, the open shirt, sunglasses, a cigar and a big gold ring. He describes himself as “Mafia Guru, Goodfather.” On Facebook, he listed his favorite movie as “The Godfather,” his favorite books “Uncle Al Capone” and “The Way of the Wiseguy.”

But somehow he got hooked up with some famous people — notably Merv Griffin and Paris Hilton and Howard Stern, and became a regular of sorts on Stern’s show. He was always good for a laugh or a story. He had a company that sold motorcycle-like scooters, and he marketed those and clothing and perfume based on that line, called Beverly Hills Choppers — when he wasn’t marketing himself.

Johnny Lew Fratto, also known as John Farrell, was 61 when he died of lung cancer on Nov. 5.

“On a personal note,” the celebrity news and gossip site TMZ reported, “we worked with Fratto for years — and he was a good dude…caring, genuine honest. R.I.P.” CV

— Michael Gartner

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