Friday, April 11, 2008

Nagle's Legacy, Nagle's Loss

Nagle's Legacy, Nagle's Loss

Every driver along the Avenue of the Saints should pause while passing through Waterloo and think about the man who shepherded that highway through Congress during an all-too-short six-year tenure.

Waterloo was the last city of its size connected to the Interstate. In large part that was because the area’s 26-year congressman (1949-74) H.R. Gross was a Republican so conservative that he voted against virtually every bill that spent money. To heck with you, then, said his colleagues, and the pork did not flow to Waterloo.

Dave Nagle, who today is in the headlines for sadder reasons, was the first Democrat to represent Waterloo’s congressional district, then numbered the 3rd, since the New Deal when he won in 1986.

Nagle had already made his mark on the national scene as Iowa Democratic Party chair during the 1984 caucuses. It was really the first time the Democratic campaign in Iowa had been front and center in the national press; Jimmy Carter flew under the radar in 1976, and ran a phantom Rose Garden campaign against Ted Kennedy in 1980. But in 1984 the full media circus came to town, and Nagle was the state party’s face to the nation.

Nagle got really lucky with the map; Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting system had placed heavily Democratic Johnson County in with Waterloo. And that’s how I got mixed up with Dave Nagle in the first place, in my first journalism career in public radio in the early 1990s. Nagle was a great source, who sometimes called me up, himself, out of the blue, leaving me scrambling for tape.

But that map which helped Dave Nagle so much in 1986, and had him running unopposed by 1990, was his undoing in 1992. Iowa hemorrhaged population in the 1980s and lost a seat in the House. The cold calculations of the map put Nagle together with cartoonish freshman Jim Nussle, who was best known at the time for wearing a paper bag on his head on the House floor.

Despite the retrospective memory that 1992 was a banner Democratic year, it really wasn’t in Iowa, except for Bill Clinton. A fair share of the Ross Perot vote went Republican the rest of the way down the ballot, there were several losses both big and close, and Nagle lost to Nussle by one percent.

Jim Nussle went on to chair the House Budget Committee and help build a record deficit, work he is now continuing in the Bush Administration. Dave Nagle came home to Waterloo. In his post-Congressional career, Nagle has been the very definition of an éminence grise, a key player in the behind the scenes ball game of politics.

But I don’t think he ever got over the defeat. Nagle was on the cusp of great things in Congress, had worked hard to do good for his constituents, yet he’d been beaten by a grandstander with a grocery sack.

I don’t know him well enough to have any idea how that loss has affected him. Years later, long after his defeat, Dave and I had another conversation, this one very personal. I won’t share the details, but I will say that by that time he was publicly discussing his problems with alcohol, and we talked about some things we had in common. I’m only lucky that I’ve managed two decades of sobriety so far, and that I wasn’t humiliated on Page One every time I did something wrong. While I may be contributing to the problem with this piece, I understand a little of how he’s feeling today.

Nagle’s first attempt to head back to Washington began the moment he left, as he launched into a 1994 rematch with Nussle. But 1994 was the biggest Republican year in half a century, and Nussle beat him by a wider, but still narrow, margin.

The next campaign died on the launch pad. In 1998 Nagle was looking at a run against Chuck Grassley. But before officially announcing there was an incident, and an arrest. That race never happened, and Nagle returned to his practice.

In 2002, the district lines shifted again, and Nagle liked his chances in a Waterloo-Dubuque-Davenport district. But he’d been out of DC for a decade, and the bad headlines were fairly fresh. Even though the state of Harold Hughes had a track record of forgiving alcoholism, Nagle’s old congressional colleagues at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee were discouraging. They openly and strongly backed another contender, Bettendorf mayor Ann Hutchinson, who had been a Republican until not long before the race. She has a better chance of beating Nussle, they said, in thinly veiled code for Dave’s “problem.”

Nagle still had a deep wellspring of love among Democratic and labor activists, but it wasn’t enough as Hutchinson won handily. This time Nagle even lost his own Black Hawk County by a couple dozen votes. He went back to what he was doing, but the snubs from Washingtonians and from Iowans had to have hurt.

The Des Moines Register gave him blog space, and his guest columns still echoed through the political world. A sharply worded piece last August probably played a big role in John Edwards’ decision to sign the early state pledge and take his name off the Michigan primary ballot.

But now, sadly, this latest brush with the law.

As an attorney, Dave Nagle knows our laws well, and if he endangered others he should accept the consequences. But as Iowans, we should remember what he has given us, what he has done to build his party and our highways and our national reputation as gatekeepers of the presidency. And as compassionate humans we should temper any condemnation with a good dose of empathy.

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