Judging Iowa

I spent Election Night at the party for Alexi Giannoulias, the Democrat running for Illinois’s Senate seat. It was at the International Ballroom of a swanky hotel, in the shadow of Chicago’s ultra-chic Aqua Tower. The crowd, mostly suited and tied but occasionally volunteer-T-shirted, was abuzz — the big media narrative was all wrong, people said. We’ve been knocking on doors. Politics is still local. The big money and the national issues won’t trump Alexi’s smile and some good old-fashioned turnout.

Of course, it wasn’t much of a party. Giannoulias lost — it was close, but he lost. And all around the country, the narrative was pretty much right: massive outpourings of third-party cash and a general anti-progressive frustration cost the Democrats just about as much as everyone thought it would, if not a little more.

Nowhere was that clearer than just over the Mississippi from me, in the normally inoffensive judicial retention vote in Iowa. Since Iowa put its Supreme Court judges on the ballot, to be retained or recalled, in 1962, the electorate has sent home a total of zero judges. Until this year, of course, when it recalled all three names on the ballot: justices David Baker, Michael Streit, and Chief Justice Marsha Ternus.

There’s no doubt as to why. A well-financed, well-coordinated campaign — with out-of-state backing from the same folks who supported Prop 8 in California — pressed Iowans to vote the judges out for their ruling in Varnum v. Brien, the landmark case that legalized same-sex marriage.

It won by spending piles of cash on such charming ads as these:

The retention vote is a nice microcosm of the national scene. A lot of good public servants (and, admittedly, plenty of mediocre ones, in Congress anyway) lost their jobs for taking a potentially unpopular stand for fairness, for extending rights to the disenfranchised — be it marriage for gays and lesbians or healthcare for the poor and unemployed.

But the parallel goes one step further: the election results, while they might sting, don’t really matter. Fairness has already won.

William Saletan at Slate says it better than I could. On the many pundits who said the health care bill cost Democrats the election:

If health care did cost the party its majority, so what? The bill was more important than the election.

A party that loses a House seat can win it back two years later, as Republicans just proved. But a party that loses a legislative fight against a middle-class health care entitlement never restores the old order.

The same is true in Iowa, even if the analogy isn’t perfect: those judges, rightly or wrongly, are departing from the bench, but judges come and go. The entrenched legal precedent established in Varnum, and the plain soundness of the ruling, mean that marriage equality is likely to stick around in the Hawkeye State.

Yes, it stings to lose sixty seats, to watch three good justices get the boot. But it compares favorably to that other Election Night result, the one I learned on my laptop while waiting for Alexi’s results to come in. In spite of the tide, and the lost Congressional seats, Illinois Democrats retained their firm hold over the state legislature.

How’d they do that, in a year when 19 state legislatures flipped from blue to red? Some of it was old-fashioned machine politics, but a lot of it was done by strategically deferring any potentially unpopular vote on anything that really mattered until after the election. Chief among those votes was a tax increase to help close Illinois’s gaping budget deficit, which has left social services shuttering their doors and schools unable to pay their staff. That vote will come up in this winter’s veto session. One controversial vote that isn’t likely to make it through is on SB 1716, the bill that would allow gay couples the same rights as straight ones.

Our Democratic Speaker kept his job in Illinois, as did our Democratic governor. But when I try to cajole my brother — an openly gay Brooklynite — into moving to Chicago when he gets his Master’s this May, I still have to add a caveat: if you want to live in a state where your future spouse can visit you in the hospital, hey, it’s only a three-hour drive to Iowa.

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9 Responses to “Judging Iowa”
  1. Erin says:

    This is the sentiment I’ve tried to express to my stubbornly democratic loved ones. My mother in particular drank the liberal-flavored kool aid. She called in despair on election night as if this was some sort of marker of the apocalypse. I tried to remind her of the 94 “Republican Revolution” (I was 7 at the time), but she seems to have the same sort of “short attention span doomsday political lens” that we so often associate with more conservative party members.

    With my pinkie raised, I like to use these sort of political examples as an indicator of history’s imperative position in our education system. I think you’re definitely correct that the initiatives created with the democrats in power will last much longer than the names of the dethroned politicians and judges. Both the 2008 and 2010 elections indicate the irritating consequences of myopic political history in conservatives and liberals.

  2. Libby says:

    All good news for Rhode Island and Maryland on the state level, too. And nationally, we lost mainly Blue Dog Democrats. Progressives who stuck to their values survived.

    (With an obvious exception of Russ Feingold, who I hope continues to do incredible work in whatever capacity he serves. )

    • Will Guzzardi says:


      You’re not the first person I’ve heard make this claim about the elections — that it was actually a victory for progressives, who lost relatively few members from their caucus.

      I’m not so sure about it, though. I mean, I’d love to believe it. But I think progressives won because they come, by and large, from progressive districts, ones that supported the ambitious policies of the most recent Congress. Several liberal leaders from more moderate districts (I’m thinking of Alan Grayson here, of course, but Phil Hare from here in Illinois, and John Hall from New York’s R+3 19th also come to mind) got the boot this cycle along with the Blue Dogs.

      More importantly, though, I think Illinois Democrats won precisely because they *didn’t* take the progressive votes that could have put them in jeopardy in moderate districts — raising taxes to pay for human services, or enacting some kind of marriage equality. It feels like sort of a Pyrrhic victory, I guess is the point.

      But an emphatic hell yeah to the results in RI and MD. Tanzi for Speaker?!?!

      • SweetLou86 says:

        I think the devil’s in the details. It’s foolish for progressives to claim victory after last week.
        While it’s true we only lost 3 members we still lost 3 members, and damn good ones at that (Especially Phil Hare) and not to mention Russ Feingold, who I’d trade the majority to have back in that Chamber. But it also wasn’t the great rejection of progressive policies and ideas, either. For starters, the Blue Dog caucus was cut in half. Half of the democrats who voted against the Health Care bill lost their seats. The distinguished Congresswoman from Wall Street, Melissa Bean, who did more than any single person to weaken the house version of the Financial Reform bill is trailing in her house race in the northwest Chicago suburbs. And then there’s the most important number Turnout was less than a third of registered voters. How can conservatives claim a mandate when 75% of the country didn’t vote for you?

        I think (and really my opinion means shit cause who am I?) that overall the election was a wash. The democrats didn’t do enough to spur job growth and revitalize the economy and an angry and frightened electorate made them pay. I don’t think it was a rejection of Health Care reform, it wasn’t a rejection of the Financial Reform bill and it wasn’t a rejection of Obama because, if you look at the details, most of the dems that lost voted against his agenda and ran against him in their districts! and to the progressive argument that Republicans were obstructing, try explaining the intricacies of the filibuster rules in a 30 second tv spot. All voters saw was 59 senates seats, 231 House seats, the White House and almost 10% unemployment all belonging to the Democrats. And as James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

        We never did learn our lessons from the past.

      • Jonah Garson says:

        Guzz and I hail from NC, Libby. “Blue Dogs,” or conservative Democrats as they’re called here, didn’t exactly lose the day, and Mr. H. Shuler is waving his guns pretty big

  3. Libby says:

    Well, sir, maybe you could put your money where your mouth is and set up a control state for next cycle. New Illinois? We get single-payer, a state bank and voter-owned elections going on and I’ll see you there.

    But in seriousness, a lack of legislative courage is always going to be part of the game when you’re constantly up for re-election. We lost to the noise machine of the right, which is why I’ve started bringing my slide whistle to work.

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