The 85th General Assembly, which convenes on Jan. 14, 2013, looks a lot like the 84th General Assembly that convened two years ago. Yes, there are new faces: 11 new senators and 26 new representatives, with a 27th new representative to be picked when a Jan. 22 special election takes place to replace Rep. Brian Quirk, D-New Hampton, who resigned his House seat in November. But Democrats still control the Senate and Republicans still control the House. That makes Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, the two most important people in the Legislature.
Still, there are a handful of other lawmakers who by dint of their spots on key committees, by the force of their personalities, the relationships they’ve maintained and/or their political pedigree, deserve attention. This list was compiled after conversations with more than a dozen current and former lawmakers, political and nonpartisan staff, Statehouse journalists and lobbyists who make it their business to follow the people elected to conduct the peoples’ business.
Here are six from the House and four from the Senate to watch in the 85th General Assembly.
BILL DIX, Republican from Shell Rock
Why him? The new Republican Minority Leader brings in a new leadership team and a promise of a more organized and aggressive opposition to the majority Democrats. Dix, a farmer, has a reputation as an effective campaigner and fundraiser with an eye toward gaining a Republican majority in the Senate in 2014. One of his first moves was to bring former Iowans for Tax Relief President Ed Failor Jr. onto his staff.
Why him? Arguably the Legislature’s leading expert on health care reform, Hatch continues to push for a more robust embrace of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and criticizes Gov. Terry Branstad for his opposition to the law. A successful real estate developer, the 62-year-old Hatch also is considering a run for governor in 2014.
Why her? Jochum, 58, takes over as Senate President this year. Her predecessor, Sen. Jack Kibbie, used the seat to help move legislation to help the state’s community college system. Jochum’s been an advocate for campaign finance reform and open government in the past. She was one of the few senators to vote against the so-called “ag-gag” bill to prevent secret recording on farms and was one of the critics of a nuclear power expansion bill.
Why him? Gov. Terry Branstad’s 2012 education reform package could just as well be considered the Sen. Herman Quirmbach reform package. An economics professor at Iowa State University, Quirmbach essentially tossed out Branstad’s proposal last year and drew up his own plan, then hammered out the details with House Republicans. Branstad plans another run at education reform in 2013, and Quirmbach, again, is chair of the Senate Education committee.
Why him? As one former legislator put it, the 46-year-old Baltimore “doesn’t act like the smartest guy in the room, but he usually is.” Baltimore helped smooth over opposition from municipal groups last year to expand the audit powers of the state over small cities. As head of the House Judiciary Committee, Baltimore — a vice president and in-house counsel for Boone Bank & Trust Co. — can expect to get first stab at bills ranging from the reintroduction of the death penalty to the legalization of marijuana. Any new anti-bullying bills or firearm legislation have a chance of ending up here, too. He’s sometimes mentioned as a possible candidate for attorney general in 2014.
Why him? Byrnes, 38, enters his sophomore term with an appointment as chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He’ll take on the politically touchy task of moving fuel tax hike legislation through the committee and the Republican-controlled House. He’s been in favor of a tax hike as a way to pay for the state’s road repair backlog. As an administrator at North Iowa Area Community College, Byrnes also has a keen interest in education issues and joined with Democrats on some key committee votes on the House version of the 2012 education reform bill.
Why him? The 32-year-old Republican moved this year from the state government chairmanship to head the commerce committee. This could be a key spot if, as expected, the state health care exchange legislation runs through here. Well-liked by his colleagues, Cownie gave endorsement speeches for two of them in closed-door caucus meetings during leadership elections this year and two years ago. The Cownie family name also graces Des Moines area soccer fields and baseball diamonds, plus the cultural center at the Iowa State Fairgrounds thanks to well-connected media and real estate multimillionaire Jim Cownie, Peter’s father.
Why him? He has one of the best political names in the state and triumphed in a brutal primary fight against fellow Republican Annette Sweeney in June, then coasted, unchallenged, to victory in the general election in November. Grassley, a farmer from New Hartford, also got Sweeney’s old spot as chair on the House Agriculture Committee; it’s a plum assignment which puts him in close contact with the Farm Bureau, arguably the state’s most powerful interest group. Grassley turns 30 this year, the minimum age someone needs to be to sit as a United States senator. His grandfather, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, turns 80 this year and his term is set to expire in 2016.
Why him? A rising star in the Iowa Democratic Party, Olson is being talked about as the next chair of the Iowa Democratic Party and as a potential 2014 candidate for governor. The 36-year-old attorney and vice president at Paulson Electric says he won’t make a decision on the latter until the 2013 legislative session adjourns. He goes into this session as ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, which lost last year’s Republican chair and vice chair to retirement and electoral defeat, respectively. As a member of the minority party, Olson’s opportunity to push a legislative agenda is limited. But he’s an articulate speaker and a seasoned legislator who frequently carries the Democrats’ position during floor debates.
Why him? Rogers, 51, a counselor from Black Hawk County, has the reputation of being able to bridge the gap that sometimes exists between the Republican Party’s religious conservatives and its more secular members. He made a name for himself last session with his dogged pursuit of a red-light traffic camera ban, which ultimately failed, and worked behind the scenes to save legislation that created an independent open records board. He also serves as one of the House’s four assistant majority leaders.