MARION, Iowa—Candidates vying to be Iowa’s next state Senator clashed repeatedly in a free-ranging, hour-long debate tonight at Linn-Mar High School in front of an audience of about 100.
Republican candidate Cindy Golding framed the special election as a referendum on Democratic leadership in the Iowa Senate, singling out Majority Leader Mike Gronstal several times for blocking votes on economic legislation. Democratic candidate Liz Mathis ducked the leadership issue several times, claiming that she planned to work across the aisle but declining to single out House-passed bills that Gronstal has blocked which she would support.
Gov. Terry Branstad appointed former state Sen. Swati Dandekar to the Iowa Utilities Board, necessitating the Nov. 8 special election. As long as Gronstal retains the gavel, he has sole discretion on which bills the Senate may consider. Golding pointed out that if she wins, a 25-to-25 tie would force the Senate to compromise.
“[The state house] has passed some remarkable legislation that has not been able to get through he Democrat-led senate,” Golding said. “The bills… that have been proposed have been stalled. When we change the dynamics in Des Moines, we can change the economic picture in Iowa.”
During the debate, which was sponsored by KCRG and The Gazette, Mathis leaned on her experience as a journalist and criticized Golding’s philosophy of limited government.
“You know me. I’ve told your stories throughout the years… I’ve listened to you,” Mathis said. “But there are differences that I want you to know about between Cindy Golding and myself… I look at the cup half full. Whereas, I think Cindy advocates limited government… And I think she looks at Iowa’s future as one of limited opportunities and short resources.”
Golding again brought the issue back to leadership, criticizing Mathis’ focus on platitudes over policy.
“Good intentions will not change the nature of the Senate,” Golding said. “The first vote… is to vote on leadership… If my opponent goes, she would be voting for the Democrat leadership. And that leadership has stood in front of any positive economic bills… and that’s unfortunate.”
Mathis countered with more lip service to bipartisanship.
“I would hope that we would reach across the aisle, rather than be a part of each one’s party,” Mathis said. “And that we would try to stop the gridlock and try to stop the name calling that we’ve seen in the past.”
Golding said that curbing the regulatory reach of state government is essential to job creation and retention, ticking off a list of regulations that she said harmed business. Mathis mocked Golding’s focus on specific regulations.
“Well, Cindy, this is a real drill down,” Mathis said. “When you’re talking about regulation, this is really minutiae.”
On property tax issues, Mathis said she would support a small business property tax cut, which is in line with a proposal by state Senate Democrats. Golding said she supports a House-backed plan that would shore up education funding as well as offer a broad base cut in property taxes for individual homeowners and businesses.
Mathis then accused Golding of supporting Branstad’s plan of offering corporate tax cuts.
“You obviously weren’t listening,” Golding said. “I am with the Governor on some bills that make sense to this district, and I have not been with the governor on others that did not… He was in favor of a gas tax hike… I am not in favor of a gas tax hike.”
“For those of you who are not aware, I wasn’t Gov. Branstad’s first choice,” she continued. “I am an independent thinker. I am a businessperson, and I will weigh each bill on its own merit, not on which party proposed it. But the problem is until we change the Senate, good legislation cannot pass.”
Several times during the debate, it was clear that Golding had mastered the substance of various issues while Mathis was coasting on style. For example, Mathis seemed unfamiliar with one of the most highly debated issues of the last legislative session: whether Iowans should continue to deduct their federal taxes on their state income tax forms (Golding is against removing federal deductibility).
“I think I’d need more specific information on what they’re talking about, what the instance is, is this a personal reason?” Mathis said.
Mathis also dodged a question about how to fix Iowa’s brain drain, shifting to partially blaming Facebook for atrophying students’ communications skills, which Mathis said makes them less likely to get good jobs.
Golding pointed to the overall economic climate in Iowa, including taxes and regulations.
“We have to understand that as we tax those big corporations, we are chasing jobs out of Iowa,” Golding said, whose kids work as engineers out of state.
Mathis then took a personal shot at Golding’s kids.
“I find it interesting that your kids couldn’t find jobs here, because [Rockwell Collins] were really, really looking for 1,500 qualified engineers…” she said.
The candidates will meet again at a League of Women Voters forum tomorrow in Marion.
UPDATE: Here’s video of the debate:
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