BROOKLYN, Iowa—Is Bruce Braley chicken?
That question is on the minds of many residents of Brooklyn and Holiday Lake, a 755-acre community of 300 families just north of town. From the Classic Deli and Ice Cream Shoppe to the Casey’s General Store, folks are talking about the hometown boy-turned liberal trial lawyer-turned congressman and his bizarre legal battle with a neighbor over her chickens.
In the close-knit community, Holiday Lakers drive around gravel roads in golf carts and ATVs, waving at each other as they cross paths. Children play at the idyllic Powell Playground, and disputes are generally settled in an “Iowa Nice” fashion.
In contrast, Rep. Braley, D-Waterloo, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, has ruffled feathers by launching a contentious legal battle involving a neighbor and her four therapeutic hens. After comparing his Republican opponent, state Sen. Joni Ernst, to a chick in his first attack ad, Braley looks like C Grade poultry after this fracas. His ad, “Peep,” featured a clip of a baby chick along with audio of a chick peeping (several media outlets noted the sexist nature of the ad, especially in a state that has never sent a woman to Congress).
Braley’s legal problem started this spring when a chicken crossed his property line. Braley’s wife Carolyn attended a May 8 meeting of the Holiday Lake Owner’s Association to complain about the fowl. The dispute escalated, causing the association to incur nearly $1,700 in legal fees after Braley called the association’s attorney with an implied threat of legal action.
“It’s stupid that it went this far. Any reasonable person would have talked to their neighbor in a reasonable fashion instead,” said Bill Nagle, an association board member. “For being brought up on a farm, he sure has lost his rural, farm values.”
After the Braleys’ initial complaint, the board determined that Braley’s neighbor, Pauline M. Hampton, a licensed therapist and U.S. Air Force veteran, should contain her chickens within a month. Hampton, a graduate of Iowa State University, is the Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, which is based at her Holiday Lake home.
“It was determined that at this time chickens are not a restricted animal, [and a] letter will be sent requiring chickens to be contained on owner’s property,” according to the minutes of the May board meeting. Under the association’s by-laws, a property owner has 30 days to comply with such a notice.
That didn’t satisfy Braley, a litigator since 1983, a former president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association from 2002-2003, and a former Board of Governors member of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (since rebranded as the American Association for Justice).
Before the 30 day window closed for Hampton to rectify the problem, Braley called Grinnell attorney Thomas A. Lacina, a partner at Charnetski, Lacina & Clower, LLP, and issued a veiled threat to litigate the matter. To resolve the dispute, Lacina billed the association $1,692, according to budget documents reviewed by board members at their July 10 meeting.
“You really can’t publish what my opinion is,” said Terry Maxfield, the board’s secretary. “I think it was petty. For someone with a higher education like that, it was petty. It was a waste of resources and money.”
Hampton, a registered Democrat, emailed the board of directors May 27 asking if Mrs. Braley withdrew the complaint. She stressed that Braley might want to withdraw the complaint for political considerations.
“Seems it would be better to withdraw it since her husband is running for office in a farming state as well as he has now signed on to support the Court Appointed Special Advocate program to which I am a volunteer and have several special needs children assigned to my case,” Hampton wrote, according to internal lake association board e-mails obtained by TheIowaRepublican.com.
Hampton is still saddened by Braley’s behavior.
“It [is] very important the citizens of Iowa know who they would be supporting and voting for to represent their best interests and the interests of farmers, and in [this] particular case, the support of children with mental illness and disabilities. It’s sad this situation is based on something as simple as a chicken at large situation,” Hampton told TheIowaRepublican.com.
She’s also upset about the way the Braleys blindsided her with the complaint instead of trying to work it out neighbor-to-neighbor.
“I only found out about the complaint being filed when I went over and offered [the Braleys] a dozen fresh, organic eggs from the chickens,” Hampton said. “[Carolyn Braley] refused to take them, stating she had filed a complaint against me. I offer all of my eggs to my neighbors, they are the only ones who have refused.”
Lacina, the association’s corporate attorney, emailed the board May 29 to inform them that Bruce Braley called him to complain about the matter and subtly threatened to sue the association over the issue.
“Last week I received a phone call from Bruce Braley,” Lacina wrote. “He was complaining about the lack of action by the Holiday Lake Board as to chickens at Holiday Lake. The implication from Mr. Braley was that he wants to ‘avoid a litigious situation’ and believes strongly that chickens are not pets and should not be permitted at Holiday Lake.”
Lacina wrote that Hampton has four hens, which she uses to “work with children who have mental health and communication issues,” according to Lacina’s e-mail, seemingly based on communication from the board, as Hampton said she did not speak directly with him. “They have not been a problem and I use them for therapy and have them certified, as well as they will hopefully be entered into the Iowa State Fair competition this year by my grandson and we WILL be identifying them by where we live and that they are Holiday Lake chickens.”
As to the potential nuisance legal problem, “… the only thing mentioned by Ms. Braley is, ‘Saturday evening as I sat on my deck, I could smell the chickens.’ Without more information, I don’t see that being enough to find that the 4 chickens are causing a nuisance,” wrote Lacina, who did not respond to a request for comment.
His analysis—a six-page parsing of who might prevail in a potential lawsuit given the board’s by-laws and out-of-state case law—weighed similar issues such as the livestock vs. pet distinction for chickens, dwarf Nigerian goats and African grey parrots.
Lacina followed up with a June 3 letter to the Braleys informing them that under his analysis the four chickens at issue can be construed as household pets under the association’s by-laws. He suggested that the Braleys would lose a lawsuit if they pressed the matter.
“It appears the owner of the four hens treats them in the nature of pets for pleasure or companionship, and given the ambiguity of the restrictive covenant and applying the law of strict construction in favor of the owner being able to keep the hens, the board’s decision that the hens do not violate the restrictive covenants seems reasonable,” Lacina wrote. “Indeed, the opposite decision might be highly contestable in court.”
This silly saga is a microcosm for understanding how elitist and out-of-touch Braley has become, and it illustrates how he reflexively behaves like an entitled trial lawyer instead of an average Iowan. If Rep. Braley almost sued his community because his Democratic neighbor kept four chickens, how would he operate as a U.S. Senator—a powerful position that he could hold for decades?
More than 25 residents showed up at the Holiday Lake Owner’s Association meeting July 10. They witnessed how Braley’s power play damaged their budget.
The lake netted a $1,748 profit from hosting a triathlon. Braley’s legal fees nearly wiped that out. Two employees received raises from $8 to $9-an-hour. Braley’s legal fees could have put an extra $70.50 in those employees’ pockets each month over the next year. The association needed to purchase new tires for a tractor that cost $1,100. Again, Braley’s litigation caused the association to waste its resources battling a sitting U.S. Representative over a few birds instead of other priorities.
“How do I say this without putting barnyard talk in? I have no love for Bruce Braley, because he should have been a big enough man to address it in a more civil manner,” Nagel said. “That’s the thing right here: common sense just does not happen to exist in this case.”
A spokesperson from the Braley campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. Ernst, a battalion commander in the Iowa Army National Guard, was unable to comment for this story because she is on duty at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin for annual training.
Braley’s chronic foot-in-mouth disease
Chickengate is only the latest in a series of farming- or rural-related gaffes that have plagued the Braley campaign. After enjoying a double-digit lead against GOP nominee state Sen. Joni Ernst, Braley’s poll numbers have plummeted. The race is now rated as a toss-up by Real Clear Politics. Ernst enjoyed a boost after her convincing primary win June 3, but Braley’s foot-in-mouth disease has been a contributing factor to his sagging favorability among Iowa voters.
In late March, America Rising PAC, a Republican research and rapid response committee, posted a video of Braley bashing Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at a January fundraiser with the Texas Trial Lawyers Association in Corpus Christi. Braley committed the classic Kinsley gaffe: “when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
“To put this in stark contrast, if you help me win this race you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice, someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for thirty years, in a visible or public way, on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Braley said, according to the video filmed by an attendee. “Or, you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Because, if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
The elitist comments were viewed nationally and in Iowa as an unforced error that damaged Braley’s campaign. Iowa has more than 90,000 farms, 1 in 6 jobs are agriculture-related and the industry pumps $72 billion annually into the state’s economy, according to the Iowa Farm Bureau. Braley simultaneously sniped at one of Iowa’s most revered lawmakers and offended Iowans—non-farmers and farmers alike—by suggesting to out-of-state special interests that many of his constituents are hayseeds unable to understand legislation unless they have a law degree.
After the video surfaced, Braley apologized and tried to spin his slam on Grassley, but the unforced error damaged his campaign’s momentum and favorability ratings. Doubling down on their support, trial lawyers earmarked $100,000 to defend Braley through the Senate Majority PAC, which is controlled by allies of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
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