Saturday, November 6, 2010

Who remains the powerbroker? Gronstal

KATHIE OBRADOVICH • • November 4, 2010
There's been a huge party shift in the Iowa Statehouse, but the power center may not have moved very far at all.

There are still a few races left undecided. But if Democrats still hold the Senate majority after the dust settles, Sen. Mike Gronstal, a Council Bluffs Democrat, will remain the most powerful leader in the Legislature.

There are a lot of reasons why he's often been called the de facto governor over the past four years. That comes to an end with the return of Republican former Gov. Terry Branstad. But Gronstal will still have more juice than the victory-flush Republican House leadership. The reason comes down to one little word: no.

Two Senate races were still in doubt as of Wednesday, and it was still possible Republicans could tie up the Senate. But if the races go his way, Gronstal as Senate majority leader will be the backstop for all the partisan pitches coming over from the House.

Gronstal doesn't want the labels. He scoffs at the Wizard of Oz references to the man behind the curtain. But he can't help being in the spotlight.

He has held the line on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, merely by refusing to bring it up. He knows the legislative process and rules better than just about anyone else, and he won't be outmaneuvered. Even if he loses the majority, his caucus will decide which of Branstad's appointees are confirmed.
It will be with Gronstal, not the new GOP House speaker, that Gov. Terry Branstad will have to negotiate. Even if Gronstal has to split control with Republicans, he'll still be a force to reckon with.

Rep. Kraig Paulsen, likely the next House speaker, is going to have his hands full.

Republicans may have won as many as 60 seats in the Iowa House, including electing some unconventional candidates. Some of the tea party-backed candidates have expressed disdain for GOP legislative leaders, finding them far too meek and accommodating. The mild-mannered Paulsen is in for a wild ride.
Paulsen says he will meet with the new caucus on Monday, hold leadership elections and find out where they agree on issues. Dealing with the Senate will come later.

The scenario will suit Branstad just fine. He's used to dealing with Democrats in the Legislature, he says, and lists several he can work with - including Gronstal. He predicts Gronstal will not be able to stop the marriage amendment.

Even if Branstad is wrong, there's some advantage to having the Senate block the sharpest ideological daggers. It allows Branstad to keep his focus where he's most comfortable, on state budget issues and economic development. It also gives him someone to blame when controversial, partisan legislation falls short of his desk.

Senate Democrats will also see their initiatives fall into a black hole once they cross the rotunda. They'll have a hard time protecting priorities like state-run preschool and expanded health care for kids. But if they're smart, they won't settle for being the party of no.

I think they'll be smart. Senate Democrats should be able to find ways to work with Branstad on property tax relief, as long as he's willing to cushion the blow for local governments. They've already cooperated with Republicans in looking for ways to streamline services and cut waste from the budget, and there's no reason that wouldn't continue. Branstad actually worked better with Democrats on his education agenda when he was governor before than he did when Republicans controlled both chambers. Both parties have called for initiatives to help small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Gronstal has considered running for governor before. If he finds the right way to ride the Republican wave, he might try to make his own splash in 2014.