During the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Governing sat down with Mike Gronstal, an Iowa legislator since 1982 who serves as majority leader of the Iowa Senate and as chairman of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, and Michael Sargeant, the DLCC’s executive director since 2007. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Why does control of the state legislatures matter?
Sargeant: The party should care because Democrats in the state legislature are making critical policy decisions. These decisions and the leadership from legislators affects real people’s lives, whether its health care, education, job creation or environmental protection.
Gronstal: Legislatures have a more direct impact on peoples’ lives than what goes on in Washington. Many federal programs are state-federal partnerships, like Medicaid. The other thing state governments do more than the federal government is fashion economic development policy according to the unique circumstances of their state. Michigan may be more focused on manufacturing and Iowa more on agricultural policy.
And the legislature is the place where the next generation of national leaders may come from. It’s a farm system.
Q: Did the big losses in legislative contests in 2010 hobble the Democrats?
Gronstal: Obviously we’ve been frustrated in those states where we lost power, but I don’t know that we’re hobbled. Voters have seen the other side pick extreme issues. The Republicans said, “Elect us and we’ll get you back to work and focus on building and strengthening the economy.” Instead, they proceeded on things like outlawing contraception or attacking workers’ rights to organize. To some degree, the fact that the Republicans took over has shown what their real agenda is. In a lot of ways, it’s a war on the middle class. We’ve tried to make our focus in states where we still hold power.
Q: What achievements have you been able to make, despite the reduced number of legislatures?
Gronstal: In Iowa, we have continued to work on issues affecting the economy, trying to build renewable fuel – ethanol, soy diesel – and encourage solar energy. Iowa is a state that imports mo more than 99 percent of its energy from out-of-state. None of the coal burned in Iowa comes from Iowa, and we have no oil or natural gas. So in a state like Iowa, focusing on that issue has a double benefit.
We also focus on education. Studies show there will be 525,000 jobs created in Iowa over the next six years. Sixty percent will need more than a high school diploma but not a four-year degree. So a skilled-worker shortage is a significant challenge in our state. We have focused on that, investing in community colleges, and we got the Republican governor to go along.I think you see that in states where we’ve kept or share power.
Q: How well were you able to get along with the Republicans?
Gronstal: We were able to fashion a budget both sides could agree on. I think to some degree on the state legislative level we’ve played a little less chicken than at the federal level. We’re more willing to work together. In divided states, I think the state legislatures are still a little freer to work in bipartisan ways. It’s not as bitterly partisan as it is at the federal level.
We went pretty late until we passed budget in 2011. In 2012, we figured out how to work through our differences better. I can get all worked up by real or perceived slights, but I think our example shows that’s wasted effort, not especially productive.
Q: How optimistic are you about getting back some of the chambers you lost in 2012.
Sargeant: It will be a process. We’re excited about our prospects in 2012 – we’ll grab back a handful.
Gronstal: We’ll be narrowing the margins. I think we have a decent chance of holding onto the Iowa Senate, even though it’s been targeted. In Minnesota, I think we’ve got a decent shot at both chambers.
Sargeant: We have a strong opportunity to win both chambers back in Maine. I think we have a strong opportunity for full control in Colorado. We should see gains in places like the Ohio House, the Pennsylvania House, the Pennsylvania Senate, the Michigan House. And there are places where we can pick up a good amount of seats and start to knock on the door, like Arizona.
Gronstal: It’s a matter of making steady progress, holding as many Democratic chambers as we hold now and picking a couple up, then building the infrastructure to give us the opportunity to take back even more in 2014. This is process.
Sargeant: There’s some advantage for us in terms of turnout in a presidential year, though there’s also probably a certain level of falloff for down-ballot races. So there are advantages and disadvantages for us. For people voting in non-presidential years, there’s less fallout than during presidential years.
Gronstal: The patterns are not always so simple. When Bill Clinton was cruising to an easy reelection in 1996, we went into the minority in the Iowa Senate. But in 2004, when Bush won reelection in 2004, we got back five seats and tied the chamber.
Turnout has some impact, but presidential elections don’t necessarily dramatically increase turnout. It’s base against base and the middle may stay home. See the calluses on my knuckles? That’s from knocking on doors. At the legislative level, it gets beyond what happens at the national level. Democrats in a lot of states won new majorities in 2004 even as John Kerry was losing because they ran a good program and won targeted races.