UPDATED: Marion's Swati Dandekar resigns from State Senate

Her departure could change balance of Iowa Senate

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April 3, 2014 | 12:10 am

MARION – Sen. Swati Dandekar, D-Marion, has resigned her seat to accept a $137,000-a-year appointment to the Iowa Utility Board.

Dandekar’s resignation could change the balance of power in the Senate where Democrats hold a 26-24 majority. If a Republican would win an as yet-to-be scheduled special election, the Senate would be evenly divided again.

Gov. Terry Branstad announced the appointment Friday, calling Dandekar “uniquely qualified … (having) demonstrated a deep understanding of the utility industry and of the energy issues facing our state.”

“As a scientist with a degree in chemistry, Swati Dandekar will bring both an educational and professional background that will benefit our state’s utility customers as she helps craft a regulatory environment that protects consumers while promoting energy production in Iowa,” Branstad said. She will begin her service immediately.

Dandekar, who received a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Nagpur University and a post-graduate diploma in dietetics from Bombay University in India, said the position appealed to the scientist in her.

She believes the state has a “great opportunity to be No. 1 in affordable energy and do it in a way that companies will want to come to Iowa and create jobs.”

Neither party has announced candidates for the special election, which likely will be in November. However, the contest could feature candidates with ties to the late Sen. Mary Lundby, a Marion Republican, who Dandekar succeeded.

Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson, who staffed Lundby, who represented Senate 18 before retiring, is considering making a run for his former boss’ seat.

Lundby’s son, Daniel, said Friday he is focused on his challenge to Rep. Nick Wagner, R-Marion, who represents the House district his mother held before being elected to the Senate. However, he offered a “no comment” when asked about running in the special election.

The impact of a Republican victory in a special election would be far-reaching as it would make it harder for Senate Democrats to block legislation sent over from the Republican-controlled House. That would include social issues such as a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and abortion restrictions.

After a 25-25 tie after the 2004 election, the Senate operated with co-presidents, co-majority leaders and co-committee chairs, one Democrat, one Republican.

Ironically, GOP control could turn the tide in a legislative battler Dandekar was unable to win earlier this year. Dandekar, considered a pro-business Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, was a leader of an effort to pass legislation to let MidAmerican Energy begin billing customers for development of a nuclear power plant without any assurance it would be built or brought online. The effort failed despite a consensus there were more than enough votes to approve the measure. Opposition came from her Democratic colleagues and the bill never was brought to the floor.

Even before the governor’s announcement, the Iowa Democratic Party launched a website, KeepTheMajority.com, as a source for information about the special election.

Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky of Coralville issued this statement:

“Maintaining our Democratic majority in the Iowa Senate is essential to protecting middle class Iowans and keeping our state moving forward. This election will be a clear choice between what voters in the district want: someone who will stand up and support them in the Iowa Senate, or someone who will pursue a divisive agenda like Iowa Republicans chose during the last session. We’re confident that Iowans will vote for real leadership and choose to maintain Democratic control of this seat.”

Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, made clear the GOP will aggressively pursue the seat.

“This seat has a Republican registration advantage, is currently represented by two Republican representatives and we believe that a strong Republican candidate with a focus on more private sector jobs, less spending and lower taxes will prevail,” McKinley said.

“It will be quite a battle, according to one Senate staffer who spoke on background. “It’s a competitive district.”

Dandekar’s district, which includes Marion, Hiawatha, Fairfax, Robins, Palo, Alburnett, Center Point and Central City, is one the GOP could win. Voter registration data shows Republicans outnumber Democrats 15,945 to 15,752. “No party” voters outnumber either party.

Its two House seats are held by Wagner and House Speaker House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. However, Linn County is friendly to Democrats. They hold a majority of legislative seats and former Gov. Chet Culver carried the county, which was his parents’ home. President Obama carried the county, too.

The active campaigns of Republican presidential hopefuls could help the GOP win a special election. The candidate could lend their resources and organizations as well as their presence to the effort as a way to curry favor with local party members.

Branstad has five days to set the date for a special election, which can be no sooner than 40 days from the date on which he sets the election. Given the stakes -- Republicans already believe they have an opportunity flip control of the Senate in 2012, both parties and their respective interest groups are likely to pull out all stops.

Dandekar was up for re-election in 2012, so the winner of the special election will face another campaign in the fall of 2012 in a new Senate district drawn as part of the 2011 redistricting process.

Dandekar, 60, served three terms in the Iowa House before winning a seat in the Senate in 2008. Prior to being elected to the Legislature, Dandekar was a member of the original Vision Iowa Board.

Prior to that, the India native was a stay-at-home mother, school volunteer and Linn-Mar school board member.

Dandekar was a member of the original Vision Iowa Board in 2000.

Swati and her husband, Arvind, reside in Marion, Iowa. They have two adult sons.

Dandekar would replace Rob Berntsen, who grew up in Marion and was chairman of the IUB. He resigned effective Sept. 9 to take a position as vice president of Government and Regulatory Affairs, Midwest Region, for MISO, which ensures reliable operation of and equal access to high-voltage power lines in 12 U.S. states and Manitoba, Canada.

Dandekar’s appointment to the $137,000-a-year position would put two Eastern Iowans on the board. Darrell Hanson, a former Republican legislator, is from Manchester, who was appointed by Gov. Chet Culver to a term that expires in 2013. Former Republican Rep. Libby Jacobs is the third member.

The IUB is a fact-finding body. It is neither an advocate of the public nor the utilities. It hears evidence in cases filed before it and makes decisions based on the evidence presented in those cases. It is required by state law to make decisions that balance the interests of all parties to ensure the utilities provide adequate and reliable service at reasonable prices.

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