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April 1st, 2011


By Nathan Tucker

Three Democratic state senators voted against the Iowa Marriage Amendment (IMA), before they voted for it, before they voted against it.  Though it had passed the Iowa House, the amendment failed to make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week in order to survive Thursday’s  funnel deadline.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal has consistently blocked any attempt to move the IMA out of committee and onto the senate floor.  Several Democrats, including Senate President Jack Kibbie, have said that they would vote for the amendment if it ever made it to the floor, but that they are powerless against the whims of their leader.

According to senate rules, however, twenty-six senators can override Senator Gronstal by filing a petition which discharges the amendment out of committee.  All eighteen Republican senators signed a discharge petition in 2009 to force a vote on the IMA, but came up eight votes short when they failed to gain even a single Democratic vote.

Republicans did pick up five Democratic votes in the 2010 legislative session when Democratic Senators Hancock, Black, Seng, Kreiman, and Olive signed onto the discharge petition, still leaving them three votes short.  What changed between 2009 and 2010?  Election year politics.

Reading the political tealeaves, Senator Joe Seng told the Quad City Times on November 6, 2009, that the recent rejection of gay marriage by Maine voters might have an effect on how he would vote on a discharge petition during the 2010 legislative session.

Bryan English, former communications director of the Iowa Family Policy Center, related in the Iowa Republican of a conversation he had with Senator Dennis Black in October of 2009.  Black told English that, “I’m probably stronger in my support of marriage than you! I believe that marriage ought to be one man and one woman, one time.”

In response to Black’s hesitation at signing onto a discharge petition, English told him:  “I will tell you that there are options available to you as a Senator that would help to defend marriage in this state, and you are evidently unwilling to exercise them. You sir are not really a supporter of marriage.”

Both Seng and Black got the message and voted for a discharge petition in 2010, as did Senator Thomas Hancock.  Though he did not stand for reelection in 2010, Hancock told the Des Moines Register that he voted for the measure because “I live in a highly Catholic area and I think that’s what the folks wanted me to do.”

After Election Day 2010, these three Democrats appear to have had yet another change of heart (Senators Kreiman and Olive lost their reelection bids).  By the time the initial 2011 discharge effort failed on February 2nd, Black had completely reversed himself, telling the Des Moines Register that he “definitely won’t sign [a discharge petition] again this year.  Under no circumstances would he aid Senate Republicans to force a vote.”

Similarly, while Senator Hancock told The Iowa Independent on November 24, 2010, that he would probably still sign another petition, the Register reported on February 2nd that Hancock stated that he is “leaning against signing the petition, but remains uncertain.”

Though several close to Senator Seng told The Iowa Republican that the senator had personally told them he would support the measure, funnel week ended without his vote.

The reversal of their positions can be explained not only by election year politics, but also by simple arithmetic.  Knowing that last year, even with their votes, the discharge petition would fall short of the twenty-six votes need, these senators were free to tell their constituents they voted for it without incurring the wrath of their party leadership.

This year, however, because Republicans only needed the votes of two of the three senators, no one was brave enough to cross party lines.  In the end, fear of party leadership was greater than that of voters.

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About the Author

Nathan W. Tucker
Nathan W. Tucker is a Davenport attorney and author of We The People: The Only Cure to Judicial Activism. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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