The Trumpstad Report: Eminent Domain

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Trump hair: Lorie Shaull/Noun Project, mustache: Aldric Rodríguez Iborra/Noun Project

Part of a series on the ties that bind Iowa’s governor and the GOP presidential nominee.

Since Energy Transfer Partners first announced its plans for the Bakken pipeline in the summer of 2014, Terry Branstad has claimed to be neutral on the project, despite campaign contributions his lieutenant governor’s received from the company and his close political allegiance with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who sits on ETP’s corporate board of directors and in December 2013 hosted a fundraiser at which Branstad took thousands of dollars from executives in the oil pipeline industry.

But last November, months before the pipeline’s approval in Iowa, the governor indicated that he was okay with the use of eminent domain to seize landowners’ properties. And at the Farm Progress Show in Boone Sept. 1, after the Iowa Utilities Board greenlighted the project, Branstad reportedly said he wouldn’t have had any problems with turning over his farmland for pipeline construction, adding it would be beneficial to have “oil from North Dakota that’s going to be refined in America that can be helpful in keeping down the cost of energy and keeping us from relying on oil coming from the dangerous Middle East and other unfriendly parts of the world.”

Compared to Donald Trump – the presidential candidate Iowa’s governor and Perry both enthusiastically support – Branstad’s embrace of eminent domain laws is bush league. That said, he has not gone on the record to say whether he approves of Trump’s past actions.

In the mid-’90s, Trump nearly forced a widow out of the Atlantic City home she’d been living in for three decades near the Boardwalk, where the real estate mogul built his Trump Plaza hotel. After the woman refused a paltry $250,000 offer to hand over her property for the construction of a limousine parking lot, Trump took her to court requesting the right to take it through eminent domain. After years of legal wrangling, the woman eventually won the case.

Around the same time, Trump pitched Bridgeport, Connecticut, a proposal to turn the city into a national tourist attraction by developing a $350 million waterfront entertainment complex. Five businesses there stood in the way, and Trump’s efforts to condemn their properties through eminent domain eventually failed.

A decade later, the Institute for Justice – the organization that had successfully fought for the Atlantic City widow’s right to keep her home – took eminent domain to the US Supreme Court in an effort to prevent pharmaceutical giant Pfizer from using the practice to take another private company’s land and develop a research facility on it. The case, Kelo vs. City of New London, resulted in a 5-4 verdict in favor of Pfizer. “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her dissent. “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”

The controversial verdict was broadly unpopular among the general public but not to Trump, who told Fox News host Neil Cavuto, “I happen to agree with it 100 percent.”

When the Informer reached out to Branstad for comment, his office did not respond to questions about whether the governor supported Trump’s abuse of eminent domain laws. Nor did his office respond to a question asking whether Branstad believed the Bakken pipeline would serve a public use in Iowa, where landowners are continuing their court battle against ETP subsidiary Dakota Access LLC’s use of eminent domain because of stipulations in the Iowa Code requiring that private property only be taken for public use, which “does not include the authority to condemn agricultural land for private development purposes unless the owner of the agricultural land consents to the condemnation.”

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.