By James Q. Lynch
Rep. Andy McKean, the longest-serving Republican in the Iowa Legislature, is now the newest member of the House Democratic caucus.
McKean's departure from the GOP was announced Tuesday, shaving Republicans' margin in the chamber to 53-47. He is now listed on the legislative website as "no party specified," but plans to change his registration when he is back home in Jones County.
McKean, 69, an Anamosa lawyer who was elected to the Iowa House in 1978, said there was no single issue that precipitated his move, but cited the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 and a Republican Party he found "very changed" when he returned to the Legislature in 2017.
"I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the stance of my party," he said. "Quite frankly, in listening to the discussion on the critical issues of the day since I've been back in Des Moines, I've felt in great sympathy with the Democratic Party on most of those major issues.
His announcement came as Republicans, who control the House and Senate, are pushing to wrap up the 2019 session yet this week, ahead of the May 3 scheduled adjournment when lawmakers' daily expense money runs out.
Depending on how the rest of this current term goes, McKean said he plans to run for re-election as a Democrat in 2020.
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann wished him luck running in a district Trump carried by 20 points, Gov. Kim Reynolds carried by 15 and Sen. Joni Ernst won by 8.
"When he was running for office a mere five months ago, he made a commitment to the voters of District 58, running on the Republican platform. Today, he has violated the trust of the voters in his district," Kaufmann said.
Although he believes the party "has veered very sharply to the right," McKean, who has voted with Democrats several times this year and has stated his opposition to Republican bills yet to be called up for debate, allowed that his decision wasn't solely a reaction to changes in the Republican Party.
"Perhaps we both changed. I guess we all evolve over the years," he said. "I certainly don't want to put it all at the feet of the party. Probably it's some changes in me, too, as I've grown older."
House leaders "weren't happy" when he told them of his decision Monday, he said, "but couldn't have been nicer than they were."
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, told Radio Iowa that his departure from the GOP "will not distract us from moving forward with the conservative agenda that Iowans have tasked us with. As a majority of 53 strong Republicans, we are committed to completing our work."
Across the aisle, House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, was "thrilled" to have McKean join the caucus.
"McKean has a long history of bipartisanship and understands the value of working together to get things done," Prichard said. He expects McKean to "continue to be a strong, pragmatic voice" for his district.
Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price also welcomed McKean's decision to "put people over politics."
One factor in his decision to change parties, McKean said, was election of Trump.
"It is just a matter of time before our country pays a heavy price for President Trump's reckless spending and shortsighted financial policies, his erratic, destabilizing foreign policy, and his disregard for environmental concerns," McKean said. The president's "crude and juvenile" insults and bullying set a bad example for children, he added.
"If this is the new normal, I want no part of it," McKean said.
He considered following the example of former state Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan, who responded to Trump's GOP nomination by leaving the party and finishing his term as "no party."
"But it was clear to me he was marginalized in the Senate and I want to continue to be an active member of the House, and thought there was much more likelihood of that in the Democratic Party," McKean said.
Party switches have been unusual in the Iowa Legislature. In 2004, Rep. Doug Struyk of Council Bluffs left the Democrats to join the Republican majority. In 2007, Democrat Rep. Dawn Pettengill of Mount Auburn left the Democratic majority to become a Republican. Pettengill retired in 2016 and Struyk is a lobbyist.
Ironically, McKean succeeded Rep. Brian Moore of Bellevue, who first ran as a Democrat, but joined the Republican Party before being elected to the House.
McKean served 24 years in the House and Senate. He was Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and president pro tempore when he left in 2002. He then was elected to the Jones County Board of Supervisors. In 2015, after retiring from a 35-year law practice, he ran for the House in 2016.
(c)2019 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)