By Craig Robinson
Governor Terry Branstad downplayed the significance of Steve Gray hosting a fundraiser for his campaign back in October of last year. Gray, a Cedar Rapids businessman, is the lead backer of a proposed $80 million casino development in the heart of the city. At the time, Branstad told reporters, “I believe that is an issue to be resolved by the Racing and Gaming Commission.”
Now that the “Vote Yes Linn County” group has disclosed a list of the casino’s other investors, we know that the 26-person host committee for the Branstad fundraiser also included twelve other casino backers. When asked if the proposed casino would come up in discussion at the fundraiser, Branstad told Radio Iowa’s Kay Henderson, “I don’t expect that it will.” That seems a little naïve considering 46 percent of the host committee for the event were investors in the proposed casino.
While donors may have wanted to bend the Governor’s ear on their proposed casino, it appears that major components of Branstad’s political machine are also pushing for the Linn County casino. Recent financial disclosures filed with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure board shows that Branstad’s current pollster, current fundraiser, and his former media vendor are all doing work on behalf of Vote Yes Linn County.
Branstad’s current fundraiser, Campaign HQ out of Brooklyn, Iowa, has been paid $119,437.08 for advertising from the end of January through the end of the reporting period, which concluded on February 28th. Campaign HQ is owned and operated by Nicole Schlinger, and her company also handles all the compliance work for the Branstad committee. Her firm also handled all of the arrangements for the October 16th fundraiser at Gray’s home.
Branstad’s current pollster, Hill Research Consultants out of Auburn, Alabama, was also paid $37,188.63 by casino backers for a poll on February 11th. The Branstad committee paid Hill Research Consultants for a poll of their own in July of last year. Branstad’s media vendor from his 2010 campaign, Kim Alfano, is also involved in the campaign for the Linn County casino. Vote Yes Linn County owed Alfano Communications $45,000 for the production of a TV ad.
Perhaps the reason why so many pieces of the Branstad political apparatus are engaged in the fight to bring a casino to Linn County is because of the involvement of Doug Gross and Richard Schwarm. Both are longtime confidants of the Governor, and Gross is one of Branstad’s former Chiefs of Staff. G&S Resources LLC, the “G” standing for Gross, and the “S” standing for Schwarm, have been paid $19,631.47 in the last month and a half, and are owed an additional $5,000 by the Vote Yes Linn County group for consulting services. The law firm that Gross works for, BrownWinick out of Des Moines, is also owed $10,000 for legal expenses.
TheIowaRepublican.com asked the Governor’s office to comment on the involvement of Branstad campaign consultants in the Linn County gambling referendum.
Tim Albrecht, the spokesman for the Branstad Administration said, “These firms are acting in their own accord and are not affiliated with the governor for the purposes of any casino campaign. The governor will not weigh in on this, or any, casino project in Iowa, as that is the responsibility of the Racing and Gaming Commission. It would be inappropriate for any Iowa governor to express his or her opinion ahead of a casino vote.”
While Branstad and members of his administration have been emphatic about staying out of casino referendums, perception is everything in politics. That’s why hosting a fundraiser at the home of a business leader who is behind a proposed casino raises eyebrows. Likewise, having every one of your major campaign consultants working on behalf of the pro-casino group also looks bad.
While the position of the administration, that their consultants are involved with the gambling referendum on their own accord, is accurate, one has to question whether those consultants, especially Gross who is a lead consultant on the pro-gambling campaign, thought about the damage they could be doing to Branstad when they signed on to this effort and recruited other Branstad members to participate. It just looks bad.
Linn County voters go to the polls today to vote on whether or not to allow a casino to be built in their community. The area is also expecting six to eight inches of snow, which could really make an impact in a campaign that many believe is too close to call.
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