Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mason's Masterplan

Today's excellent IowaWatch story by Lu Shen is more than just a good look at the struggles of international, particularly Chinese, students at the University of Iowa.

While it's very illustrative of cultural barriers and ill-informed nativism, It's revelatory in ways it doesn't try to be.  It's the clearest outline yet of the University's long range Masterplan, launched almost simultaneously with Sally Mason's arrival, to change the shape and nature of the student body.

As a state university, catering to the needs of in-state students will always be a big part of UI's role. But as a relatively small, and population stagnant, state, those in-state students are not enough bodies and dollars to keep Iowa as a national class or world class institution. We need to impost some students, and with them some revenue in the form of higher out of state tuition.

The traditional source of those out of state students has the metropolis to the east, Chicago, and more accurately the suburbs of Chicago. Iowa was long an academic bargain, with out of state tuition competitive with Illinois in-state tuition.

Something happened along the way. We got a reputation as a fun place to be, which is good. Some people got carried away, which is not. But the reputation for "fun" of a very specific young person variety grew, and became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Get tagged as "party school," and people who are looking for that will come here.

The civic establishment started wrestling with this about a decade ago. Some of them fixated on the bar admission age but after several hundred students packed a 2004 council meeting, they backed off a bit, raising the age from 18 only to 19 and not to 21.

The University stayed very hands-off on this one. It was an era of leadership transition. Mary Sue Coleman left on no notice, so they hired UI lifer David Skorton figuring he'd stick around...  and a couple years later, with President now on the resume, he left too.

Enter Sally Mason in the fall of 2007, just as self-appointed morals guardian Rick Dobyns, fresh off a city council defeat, was pushing the first 21 Bar vote. Everyone expected it would pass. No one expected students would get out to vote in a local election...

So Mason got a very fast civics education. And the bar owners who ran the winning anti-21 campaign, not getting that they'd dodged a bullet, continued on as they were, and Iowa started to show up on Top 10 Party School lists. My sense is that this immersion experience turned what had been a vague notion, as noted by the 2007 date that international recruiting stepped up, into a grand Masterplan.

It's never addressed openly as such. That's entirely against Mason's nature. She seems like the type of person who never wants to talk to anyone except a high-level administrator or five-figure donor. The first instinct is always to stonewall or no-comment.

But the Masterplan is clear.

Since Party School had become self-fulfilling, the UI higher ups decided that to change the reputation, they needed to change the students. Not persuade the students to change, though there were certainly efforts at that. No, the idea was to change the people who come here in the first place.

The idea: Change the "party" reputation into a "tough" reputation, so that big brother Bluto gets arrested, he goes back to Aurora or Schaumburg, and warns little brother Flounder not to go to Iowa City.

The plan began with downtown crackdowns in 2008 and 2009. Things really got moving after the 2009 city election when council turnover created a majority in favor of an admission age of 21. It was one of the first things the new council passed, they knew they'd have to defend it in an election, and they threw the whole weight of the university and the civic establishment into keeping it.

Sure, the parties moved elsewhere, away from the downtown core and into houses, but the Scene started to fizzle, and the scene was the draw for the Blutos and Flounders. The bar owner who knew how to win (in 2007) or almost win (in `10) got driven out of business and out of town. Just before the fall 2013 semester started, we finally hit Number One on a party school list, but that survey was a lagging indicator, probably never true and certainly not true any more.

The repeat attempt at repealing 21 in 2013 was half-assed and half-hearted. By that time, in year 5 or 6 of the Masterplan, a majority of the undergrads had never known The Scene as it had once been, and 21 successfully got framed as a feminist issue.

So where do the international students fit in? They're the ones who replace Bluto and Flounder. They're still paying the hefty out of state tuition, they're not drawn here by the social life, and they're spending their own money or their government's. And, it seems from the article, either insular or isolated and either way invisible, unlike Delta House. (It also explains the demolition of the admittedly slumlike but cheap old Hawkeye Court and its replacement with new Hawkeye Court that will charge market-rate rents. More international married students, bringing in revenue but never setting foot in Brothers or the Field House.)

I absolutely love living in a place that's both a small town and a globally diverse community. Don't get me wrong. And the Masterplan is working well - if that's what you're looking for. In a couple years the party school rankers will catch up to the reality of the new order and UI will drift down and out of the rankings. The academic underachievers of the Illinois suburbs will take their parties elsewhere (my bet is on Madison).

My problem here is in the WAY all this has come about in the Mason era: the lack of openness, the interference in local politics, the seemingly contemptuous attitude toward their own students. Maybe I'm just a product of a bygone era, when "Animal House" was a COOL thing and not a cultural pathology. (Oh, the horrible influence that movie had on my life...)

But I'm still hung up on that apparently quaint notion that 18 year olds are adults and should have full adult rights. And anymore I seem to be the only one.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

O'Malley Campaigns for Hatch and Maybe For O'Malley

It was overshadowed a bit on an extremely busy weekend for Iowa politics, but Iowa Democrats may finally have seen the first rumblings of 2016 caucus activity. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden send video tributes to Tom Harkin... but Martin O'Malley showed up.

The official reason for the Maryland governor's visit to Iowa was to campaign for Jack Hatch. But as the saying goes, no politician ever accidentally goes to Iowa, and while an aide noted that the term-limited O'Malley was also campaigning for gubernatorial candidates in other states, no one's denying that the man has other ambitions.

"Our government is affected by too much ideology and anger. We need to decide whether ideas move us forward, not left or right," said O'Malley, describing Hatch but also describing himself. "Mayors and governors get things done by building a common platform and being collaborative."

In Maryland, O'Malley said, "we've held down tuition not by wishing and hoping but by acting." He also cited marriage equality and gun safety legislation as accomplishments in his two terms.

Hatch said outreach to local government would be a big goal of his administration. "We'll ask you what you need, you tell us, and we will help you," he said, directing the remark to Iowa City mayor Matt Hayek in the crowd. "We're going to be problem solvers."

Also on hand was former governor Chet Culver, who introduced O'Malley. Hatch described Terry Branstad's 2010 campaign against Culver as "myths, close to being lies. The Democratic legislature and Democratic governor made the hard choices" in the tough economy and flood recovery of 2009 and 2010.

Flood recovery was central to the remarks of Monica Vernon, Hatch's newly chosen running mate, who first met Hatch when he helped develop post-flood affordable housing in Cedar Rapids after the 2008 flood.

Hatch referenced Vernon's just finished congressional campaign, where she fell short of Pat Murphy in the primary. He said he'd privately hoped Vernon would finish second, "because I needed her." (Unrelated post-primary note: The 1st CD's last-place finisher, Dave O'Brien, looks likely to land on his feet, with Tom Harkin slating him for a federal judgeship.)

Vernon described the nomination following a year long congressional bid as "lean in, then lean in again." She said her goal as lieutenant governor would be to "use my business background to get diverse groups to the table to solve problems."

So those were the speakers, in an unusual order of big out of town guest first followed by nominee followed by running mate, but it seemed to work for the crowd of 50-ish, mostly  donors (but they let me in anyway). Jim Hayes' home is a frequent and beautiful setting for fundraisers, and it has history, too. Grant Wood lived in the house during the last years of his life.

In addition to all the governors past present and future, others on hand included legislators Mary Mascher, Joe Bolkcom, and Bob Dvorsky (along with former Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky, who was also mentioned for lieutenant governor before Vernon got the nod). County attorney Janet Lyness and supervisor candidate Mike Carberry also attended.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Clinton Conversation

My morning Twitter war re: Hillary Clinton's troubled relationship with Iowa and the caucuses was good enough to compile into blog post format. For the record, I didn't start it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Cantor's Loss and Weimar America

Last night's defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor, the biggest primary upset since... well, look at this list and the answer is pretty much EVER - is finally enough to shake me out of my writer's block.

More than BLOCK, really. More of a paralysis, as I've stared at blank screens and tried to formulate a thought longer than 140 characters. Lots of thoughts, mostly about the personal cost and impact of the just-past primary, but none I've felt like sharing in public.

My pet theory has long been and remains: The chunk of the Republican base that uses "Rule Of Law" as a codeword, like "State's Rights" used to be a codeword, wants nothing less than mass deportation. They seek a monocultural America that never was, a de-Hispanicized nation where no one is allowed to habla Espanol in front of them in the Wal-Mart line.

In an alternate, non- winner take all political culture, we'd have a nationalist party. Look to the recent elections to the European Union parliament, where the UK Independence Party and its equivalents in other countries scored big gains. (Also note that UKIP is un-represented in the UK Parliament, which is winner take all single member district as opposed to the proportional system used for the EU Parliament.)

Of course, the most important Parliament story of the week: the Mothership at the Smithsonian.

I'm nervous about going too far down this road because of Godwin's Law and all that. I'll just quote David Brat himself, the patron saint of Some Dudes everywhere, the David who knocked off the Goliath last night:
"Capitalism is here to stay, and we need a church model that corresponds to that reality. Read Nietzsche. Nietzsche's diagnosis of the weak modern Christian democratic man was spot on. Jesus was a great man. Jesus said he was the Son of God. Jesus made things happen. Jesus had faith. Jesus actually made people better. Then came the Christians. What happened? What went wrong? We appear to be a bit passive. Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance. I have the sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily."
This... doesn't sound entirely disapproving. And a little ominous from the guy who beat the last Jewish Republican in Congress. Especially when you throw in some of Brat's writings on the "Protestant ethic."

Granted, virtually none of the Virginia 7th CD voters had read any of these obscure academic papers.  But as I look at the American political system today I'm more than a little reminded of late-era Weimar Germany.

Back up a minute, we don't have the armed Stormtroopers and their Communist counterparts the Rotfront warring in the streets. But we're verging on the "negative majority" that the Reichstag saw in the final free elections, when a polarized majority of Nazis and Communists opposed the system itself, and a coalition of the pro-democracy parties of the middle was numerically impossible.

In February, Politico's Raymond Smith wrote that the "Tea Party" - I've never liked that term, especially capitalized, as it implies more structure and organization than actually exists - the "tea party" contains the seeds of its own destruction. There's no end game. And he offers, or borrows, an excellent analysis.
This kind of counter-establishment movement is common enough that comparative politics has a term for it: the “anti-system party”—a group that seeks to obstruct and delegitimize the entire political system in which the government functions. As explained by Giovanni Sartori, the Italian political scientist who coined the term in 1976, an anti-system is driven not by “an opposition on issues” but “an opposition of principle.”

“An anti-system party would not change—if it could—the government but the very system of government,” Sartori wrote. “[A]n anti-system opposition abides by a belief system that does not share the values of the political order within which it operates.”

Sartori had foremost in mind the various communist parties active in Western Europe during the Cold War, but the concept has been applied to movements as varied as right-wing nationalists, radical libertarians and ethnic separatists all across the world.

Without adopting the phrase itself, the Tea Party in both words and deeds has positioned itself as America’s newest anti-system party. Claiming the mantle of patriotism, Tea Partiers say they love the United States while hating the U.S. government—its practices, its rules and especially its procedures for achieving compromise and consensus.
Anti-system. I'll just note that None Of The Above won the Democratic primary for governor of Nevada last night.

The successes of the near end of the far right are a rejection of American pluralism. Given the demographic shifts that are too far along to change, it's a long run losing game. But based on last night's Virginia result and based on our pendulum electoral cycle - to the left in leap years, to the right in off years - we have several rough elections ahead.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Random Late Election Night Thoughts: Local Edition

First off, congratulations to the candidates I backed, Janelle Rettig and Janet Lyness. Congrats also to Mike Carberry who I'm glad to support this fall. Thanks also to Lisa Green-Douglass who fell just 126 votes short, a strong showing that leaves her in good shape for a future effort. That's our closest primary since 2004 when Rod Sullivan narrowly led Mike O'Donnell for the third supervisor seat.

The Johnson County Democrats have a "unity picnic" coming up at our monthly central committee meeting Thursday, and that'll be a critical start to the fall campaign. Tempers were hot, accusations were many and tensions were high. But it sounds like the concession and congratulation calls are happening.

The Democratic ticket of Rettig and Carberry may seem uneasy for now but they start with a several thousand vote edge over Republican incumbent John Etheredge just on straight tickets and general party leaning. A general election with a top tier US Senate race is a VERY different climate than the low turnout special that Etheredge won in an upset in March of 2013.

Rettig led the field by more than 1000 votes, much of that lead coming from Iowa City and absentees. She also led Coralville and was second in North Liberty.

Green-Douglass led her base in North Liberty, but turnout was low and a lot of voters chose GOP ballots rather than Democratic ones.  She finished second behind Rettig in Coralville and just 78 votes behind Carberry in Iowa City.

Newport Township turnout was down dramatically from 2006, when over 500 Newport Democratic voters put Larry Meyers over the top. This year turnout was less than half of that, at 204. Carberry carried Newport with 69% but Rettig, the supposed "enemy," was second at 42%.

The decisive factor in Carberry's win? Early votes. Green-Douglass led Carberry on Election Day by 54 votes but lost the early vote by 180. Carberry's higher profile early in the race, and the shift toward earlier early voting (a month out instead of a week out) may have been the difference. My initial read on this race - that it was Vote Against Carberry or Vote Against Rettig and that Green-Douglass would get votes from both, proved wrong. As I realized when the finance reports came out, there were a lot of Rettig-Carberry supporters.

As for also ran Diane Dunlap, she trailed nearly everywhere save for a couple low turnout rural precincts that trended Republican this year. The rationale for her candidacy - if you can call it that - is still unclear.

Bullet voting - voting for just one candidate instead of two - is harder to track here. The average voter cast 1.67 votes for supervisor, meaning roughly a third of the supervisor ovals were blank. But it seems likely - anecdotally and statistically - that many voters drawn by the county attorney race skipped the supervisors entirely.

And county attorney was definitely the big draw. John Zimmerman's one real victory was that he defined the terms of the debate. Unfortunately those terms did not favor him and also gave Janet Lyness a chance to talk about the actual work she is doing on diversion and alternatives.

The biggest lesson here, as we move forward to a courthouse expansion vote this fall and as we look back at the failed justice center votes, is a number. We has 2280 Democratic primary voters, just under a third, willing to reject a highly qualified and experienced attorney with strong feminist and party credentials in favor of a legal novice simply over the drug war issue. (Because as often as Zimmerman tried to pivot to race issues, his supporters invariably pivoted back to pot.) And many voters heard "just passed the bar" and crossed him off the list when they might have considered, say, someone like Rockne Cole.

So they needed a stronger candidate - and a weaker opponent. Janet Lyness was the all-time record vote getter in a contested Johnson County primary in 2006, and she has now won her second two to one primary margin.

A smarter Zimmerman campaign strategy - targeting actual likely voters rather than random Facebook readers and downtown denizens - may have also done better with the same message. From the beginning, Team Zimmerman seemed ideologically committed to an Expand The Electorate strategy that has only ever worked for Barack Obama and the Iowa City tavern league.

As I noted yesterday, student early voting was better than most primaries but FAR below the 21 Bar levels that actually won elections in 2007 and came close in 2010.  And today student turnout was, as usual on June 3, non-existent. Southeast side turnout was low as well. Zimmerman won a couple student precincts, but lost a couple too. But in an electorate of 7580 Democrats, do scores like 13-2 or 8-4 even matter? Yes, every vote matters. But before that last 1 vote or 10 votes win it, you have to get within the next 100 or 1000.

So the Zimmerman camp knew, or should have, from Day One of voting that the massive student numbers weren't there. Yet they didn't adapt. For weeks after the students left, they kept with the same day-long Ped Mall music events which sounded fun but reached the same few dozen people over and over, not the 3791 he needed to win.

In contrast, Janet Lyness was winning high turnout east side precincts with percentages in the high 60s to low 80s and vote totals in the hundreds. She won 75% in North Liberty and 78 in Coralville. Zimmerman's only strong precinct with significant turnout was lefty bastion Iowa City 18 (Longfellow) where he trailed 56-43%.

The legislative surprise for Democrats was David Johnson's narrow win over Dennis Boedeker in House 73. Like Green-Douglass, Boedeker led election day but lost on the early vote. Boedeker was a highly touted recruit but his campaign effort seemed lacking. Johnson, however, has some serious fence mending to do with House leaders and needs to significantly step up his fund raising if he wants his challenge to Bobby Kaufmann to become a targeted race.

That's not a problem for Kevin Kinney, a three to one winner over Richard Gilmore in the Democratic Senate 39 primary. The open swing seat is a must-win for both parties.

On the Republican side of that race, Bob Anderson had a big lead in Johnson County, but was swamped when Mike Moore's vote came in from Washington and Keokuk counties. Moore was a poor third here in Johnson. Royce Phillips had scattered spots of success.

Random Late Election Night Thoughts: Top of Ballot

You could just feel the ground shifting to Joni Ernst the last couple weeks. Convention? The swine snipper wins with a clear majority in a 5 way - well, four way plus Schaben - field. Epic contrast in an epic race this fall.

I'm sorry but I can't get excited about the idea of Congressman Another Old White Guy. Waiting to see how Pat Murphy reaches out to people who backed other candidates. Will he call and seek support, or like Chet Culver will he keep score on who was with him or not in the primary?

Murphy barely cleared the 35% bar despite a months-long head start and calling in all his chips from a quarter century in the legislature. 57% of 1st CD voters backed women candidates. But Monica Vernon and Swati Dandekar split a Linn county base and kept Anesa Kajtazovic from making any inroads there. Vernon seemed to be getting momentum but too little too late. Still no idea why Dave O'Brien ran.

Still proud to have backed Anesa. She's been through far worse in her life than losing an election, and at 27 years old she. will. be. back.

Steve Rathje's losing streak in GOP primaries continues, with his third or is it fourth loss. Officially graduates to Perennial Candidate.

Miller-Meeks wins with less than 50% as the weak-seeming Mark Lofgren overperforms. With two open seats and fundraising star Jim Mowrer taking on Steve King, MMM's third challenge to Dave Loebsack is likely to be the afterthought race.

3rd CD frontrunner Brad Zaun goes into a convention with a far weaker hand than Steve King held in 2002, the last such convention. Only 9 points separating 1st place Zaun from 5th place Young. Nomination goes to whoever can be everyone's second choice.

One of six GOP voters flip a middle finger at Terry Branstad with vote for Some Dude. Means pretty much nothing.

Look for more drama in Senate 17. Tony Bisignano has a 13 vote lead over Nathan Blake. Ned Chiodo played the bad guy, challenging Bisignano's right to be on the ballot, and paid for it by finishing third.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Johnson County Early Voting: Strong Opinions, Normal Voters

All the early votes are in the box waiting to get counted and Johnson County saw high early turnout - but not as high as it looked early on.  What do the numbers tell us?

The Dems were the draw.  2875 Democrats cast early ballots, ahead of the 2467 from 2006, the party's record turnout year here. In contrast, Republicans saw 584 early voters, down from the 955 in the 2010 governor primary, their second biggest primary here trailing only the epic 1994 "Gopher" primary between Terry Branstad and Fred Grandy. Mark Jacobs did an absentee mailing but the response paled compared to Terry Branstad's 2010 effort.

The Democratic courthouse primaries for supervisor and especially county attorney were a bigger crossover temptation than the GOP's top ticket races. 327 no party voters crossed over to the Democrats vs. just 55 voting Republican ballots.

Strong Opinions = Early Voting Earlier. Early on in the 40 day absentee window, Democratic early turnout was running at more than double the 2006 pace, even if you exclude the first-day satellite site (more on that below.) But by the end, the pace had dropped off to just above the 2006 level.

Opinions were strong, especially in the county attorney race, and my pet theory is that voters who used to vote, say, the week before the election were voting three and four weeks early.

Republican turnout started extremely slow; voters kept their powder dry till a couple weeks ago when the Senate race started to take shape with Joni Ernst as the likely frontrunner. (I saw my first Ernst sign in Johnson County only this weekend).

Normal Demographics. The other precincts showing high turnout were mainly in the usual places on Iowa City's east side: precincts 6, 16, 17, and 23. Progressive mothership precinct 18 (Longfellow) also voted heavily, as did the near west side areas of precinct 2 (includes Oaknoll) and University Heights. There was also a spike in Union Township, likely driven by Kevin Kinney in the State Senate 39 race. (That district is more likely to vote Election Day than early.)

County attorney challenger John Zimmerman heavily targeted students and other non-traditional voters, If he pulls off an unlikely upset over Janet Lyness, it won't be because of that strategy.

The Zimmerman campaign focused a weeks long effort on a first-day early voting site at the Old Capitol Mall. They drew 200 Democratic voters (padded by a specific effort to vote all their core supporters at that one site that one day.)  Not bad numbers for a campus oriented site 40 days before election day, compared to 32 voters at a 2006 primary site at the pre-flood IMU.

But not winning numbers. The only local election that's ever been won on the student vote was the 2007 21 Bar vote (2010 came close). That election saw 444 at the UI Library (instead of the 35 who showed up this year), 524 at Hillcrest, and 945 voters at Burge. That's what winning numbers look like, and the opportunity to catch those votes is past. Granted, June 3 is an awful election date for students, but the state sets that.

The southeast side didn't show up either, with just 10 voters at a Broadway Neighborhood Center site. Early voting turnout was 7 percent on the southeast side precinct 15, compared to 12 to 15 percent in the east side precincts. Both in the normal range for those areas.

Newport spike smaller. That 2006 record Democratic primary was, like this year, driven by county attorney and supervisor races (and boosted a little by the less significant post of governor). Development in the Newport Road area, then as now, was an issue in the 2006 supervisor race, where Larry Meyers defeated incumbent Mike Lehman.  Newport Township had 153 Democratic early voters that year.

This year, that dropped to 95. In terms of percentage turnout, Newport is still on the top tier, but not leading the pack by a wide margin like in 2006. And the absolute numbers aren't big. The bigger question is: how many urban allies do they have, and how important is that one issue in the big picture?