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Civic Skinny

Huh? Roxanne Conlin hires Doug Gross in lawsuit


Politics makes strange bedfellows.Or bedfellows make strange politics.

Roxanne Conlin, high-profile lawyer and onetime Democratic candidate for governor and, later, for senator, and her husband, developer James Conlin, have sued the city of Des Moines, and last week the suit was moved to federal district court.

It’s all about windows. The issue is whether the Conlins can use vinyl windows to replace 10 deteriorated wooden windows in an allegedly historically insignificant rental property they own in the Sherman Hill historic district; the city’s historic preservation commission is insisting the replacement windows be wood. The suit doesn’t involve much money — wooden windows would cost about $6,000 more than the vinyl windows — and it isn’t very interesting.


The 21-page suit says the commission is biased against the Conlins, presumably because of their “identity, stature, and financial means.”

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The suit points out that the terms of six members of the commission have expired — some as long as 10 years ago — but the commissioners continue to serve.

And the very-Democratic Conlins are represented by Doug Gross, a very-Republican power broker and, himself, onetime candidate for governor.

So what does it all mean? Skinny asked its favorite lawyer, who said:

Term limits for the historic preservation commission don’t seem to matter much.

You can fight city hall.

You can make a federal case out of anything.

The Chief Judge of the Southern District of Iowa will wade into the political quagmire of vinyl v. wood.

Losing candidates for political office in Iowa can put differences aside and unify behind important issues of public policy.                

Indeed. …              

With the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye, the likely nomination of Sen. John Kerry to be Secretary of State, the defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar and the retirement of Sen. Jeff Bingaman, when the next United States Senate convenes Chuck Grassley will be the sixth most senior senator and Tom Harkin the seventh. Grassley will be the third-ranking Republican and Harkin the fourth-ranking Democrat.                

No other state comes close to Iowa in terms of joint seniority. With the death of Inouye and with the Democrats in control, Harkin could have been chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the most powerful committee, but chose instead to remain chair of the also-powerful Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee while maintaining his key subcommittee chairmanship on the Appropriations panel. Between the two assignments, he’ll have a huge say in the disbursal of gazillions of dollars, particularly in education. Given the recent unpleasantness, you have to wonder if the people at Iowa State University are aware of that — or if they even know he’s a United States Senator. …                

In days gone by, Des Moines Register editors were instructed never to put cigarette ads on the obituary page and always to make sure that any airline ads were pulled from the paper if there was a story on an airplane crash. But those sensitivities are long gone. On Tuesday, the day the paper was filled with stories about the horror of Newtown, Conn., including a story with pictures of the weapons used, there, right in the midst of it — on page 5A, right below a story about the gunman — was a two-column ad for a gun show coming up last weekend at “Adventure Land Park.”                

“Christmas Specials. Dealer Blowouts before the end of the year,” it noted alongside a picture of a bullet speeding out of a handgun.              

You’d think they’d at least know how to spell Adventureland. …              

Elizabeth Warren, the newly elected Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, “raised $42 million in the 2012 cycle,” according to the Washington Post, “making her the most prolific fundraiser not named President Obama or Mitt Romney.” Her money operation, it noted, “was led by finance director Michael Pratt.”                

That’s Michael Pratt of Des Moines, the son of Federal Judge Bob Pratt and Rose Mary Pratt. Michael Pratt is a graduate of the law school at the University of Iowa. The Hill, a political newspaper, said “Warren has been the standout fundraising juggernaut of the 2012 cycle.”…                

Art Cullen, the populist and talented Storm Lake newspaper editor, was writing about Iowa the other day. Here’s an excerpt:              

“We have a governor who said he never took up smoking because he burned a huge hole in his nylon sweater while trying out a collegiate cigar. ‘I’m too cheap to smoke. That sweater cost money,’ Gov. Terry Branstad told me a few months ago.                

“He still quotes his civics teacher from Forest City, Lura Sewick.                

“This is the sort of state where you can actually get to know the governor and he knows you even if you never gave him a dime or can’t agree about much.                

“It’s a state that has more community newspapers — over 300 of them — than any other state. It has the highest literacy rate and the lowest abortion rate. We have the least amount of public land of any state and among the filthiest surface water, but at least we feel bad about it and really do intend to do something about it someday.” …                

Job watch: When Branstad was elected two years ago, he promised his policies would bring 200,000 jobs to Iowa in five years. When he said that, nonfarm employment in Iowa was 1,488,100. The most recent figure, according to the Legislative Services Agency, is 1,515,000. Just 173,100 to go. …                

Back to the Pratts: After that bizarre mistrial in Judge Pratt’s courtroom last week — after the foreman reported a unanimous verdict in a contentious and high-profile case, the judge routinely polled each juror and, stunningly, three said they disagreed — the judge addressed the jurors, and then famed lawyer Gerry Spence addressed the judge.                

“Do not take this [mistrial] as some failure on your part, and I know that you will, but you worked hard,” the judge told the jurors. “All the lawyers and I know you worked hard. You gave the case its all. That’s all any of us are entitled to. Sometimes a mistrial, lawyers don’t like to hear this, and judges don’t, but sometimes a mistrial is the best work the jury can do. So I don’t want you to leave here somehow hanging your head or think that some of you did right or some of you did wrong.                

“I can tell by looking at you you’re exhausted, and you’ve given everything that any reasonable country could require of its citizens….” The jurors then left the courtroom, and Spence addressed Pratt.               

The 83-year-old Spence, perhaps the most famous trial lawyer in America, was arguing his last case, he had said, and lawyers had flown in from all over the nation to watch his closing arguments. He put on a mesmerizing show for the standing-room-only crowd, and many expected him easily to continue his victory streak, which began in 1969.                

“We are utterly baffled,” Spence told the court, “particularly in view of the fact that I thought we had a very careful jury.” Then Spence turned to Pratt — probably the last judge he ever will face in a courtroom — and said:                

“I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my life here, I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time here. I feel like I have been gifted by your presence and your patience and your wisdom. And I’m honored that this has been my last trial with you. I’ve wanted to say that all along, but it hasn’t been appropriate for me to do so, so I’d like to do so now.              

“I’ve been told as long as I can remember that it’s improper to thank a judge, that he does only what he is required to do, and that thanks is not appropriate. But I thank you, Your Honor, from the depths of my heart for decency and what you’ve done.”              

A new trial date has not been set. CV

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