Gronstal Announces Bid for Iowa Democratic Party Chair, May Face Resistance from Progressives

Iowa Legislature

In an email Thursday to members of the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee, ousted state Senate majority leader Mike Gronstal announced his intentions to join the crowded field of contenders to take over as chairperson of the state party after a brutal election loss that ceded complete control of state government to Republicans.

“I believe our Party has a tremendous opportunity to build and I believe I have the experience and background — with your help — to lead that effort,” he wrote, touting his party-building efforts in the Senate.

Gronstal also touted “some awesome progressive legislation” passed by Iowa Democrats when they were in the position Republicans soon will be in January, before Terry Branstad returned to the governor’s mansion in 2011: “We raised the minimum wage, passed anti-bullying, civil rights, and alternative energy legislation. We passed the clean indoor air act, same-day voter registration, and many other pieces of progressive legislation that I am proud of. I believe that when we have majorities in our party, we have an obligation to use them to make our state a better place — not just to hang onto our majority.”

But Gronstal, who endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, will likely face pushback from Iowa Democrats who backed Bernie Sanders in the caucuses and now, after Clinton’s shocking loss to Donald Trump last month, believe the state and national party need new leadership to reach out to neglected working class constituencies.

Since 2000, Gronstal has received strong financial support from unions. However, he’s also taken cash from groups viewed unfavorably by progressives, including $47,500 from Wells Fargo; $31,000 from Walmart; $13,562 from the Iowa Farm Bureau; $13,000 from Richard Stark, a major backer of Branstad’s gubernatorial comeback; $11,900 from Monsanto; $11,200 from the Iowa Association of Business and Industry; $8,900 from Advance America, a payday lender; and $2,500 from Energy Transfer Partners, whose subsidiary Dakota Access LLC is constructing the Bakken crude oil pipeline.

A resident of Council Bluffs, Gronstal’s 34 years in the Iowa Legislature came to an end last month when the outgoing Senate majority leader was defeated by GOP rival Dan Dawson.

Rebuilding from loss was the central theme of Gronstal’s email to the State Central Committee’s members. He traced his political roots back to 1972, around the time he finished college and when he canvassed for George McGovern for president and Tom Harkin for Congress. Both men lost, but Harkin went on to win election to the US House two years later. “We’ve had our ups and downs over the last 42 years, but most of our successes have been built on great grassroots organizing and building a stronger Democratic Party,” he wrote.

For the past 20 years, Gronstal has served as the state Senate’s Democratic floor leader, earning a reputation as a dealmaking partisan that has led to both respect from political foes and frustration from the left. In 2013, for example, he cut a deal with Republicans who’d been resisting a Medicaid expansion by offering up a massive corporate property tax cut in exchange that critics said would gut basic state services (PDF) and force communities to choose between covering shortfalls by raising property taxes or slashing services.

In recent years, on the other hand, when Democrats still managed to hold onto their slim majority in the state Senate, Gronstal served as a crucial roadblock to the GOP-controlled House’s efforts to pass along to Branstad’s desk regressive legislation including efforts to repeal same-sex marriage rights and dismantle collective bargaining rights.

At least six other Democrats have said they plan to run to succeed Andy McGuire as the next chairperson of the Iowa Democratic Party. They include Kim Weaver, the latest longshot challenger of Congressman Steve King; and Blair Lawton, who previously served as a state political director for Bernie Sanders and later as a field director for Democrat Jim Mowrer’s failed 3rd District congressional bid.

Gavin Aronsen
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.