This story has been reprinted with permission from the Bloomfield Democrat.
I want to let you in on a little secret:
Don’t tell my relatives, but I voted for Chuck Grassley a couple of times during the 36 years he has represented Iowa in the U.S. Senate.
In his early years as a senator, I liked that Grassley was something of a maverick. Of course, that was long before he dug in his heels over Merrick Garland’s appointment to the Supreme Court and became a symbol of Congress’ obstructionism.
Grassley wasn’t afraid to take on the Pentagon over its wasteful contracts — deals exemplified by those $600 toilet seats. He worked to cap farm program payments to individual farmers.
The 82-year-old New Hartford farmer has held elective office for 56 years. When he was first elected to the Iowa House of Representatives, Dwight Eisenhower was president.
Part of Grassley’s appeal through the years, and it’s a factor in his political reputation, has been his practice of visiting all 99 counties annually. That’s why my eyes bugged out last week when an Iowa political group released new research about Grassley’s travels through the state.
Progress Iowa found that he has been cutting corners with his signature political strategy. He has boasted about holding public town meetings in each county every year, but the organization found that since Grassley began his current term in January 2011, less than half of the 99 annual meetings have been open to the public.
So far this year, only 25 of Grassley’s 72 county events have been open to any interested person, Progress Iowa said.
Grassley’s meeting practices have been especially egregious in Iowa’s most populous counties.
Since his latest term began five and a half years ago, he has not held any public meetings in 11 counties. Those include eight of the most populous counties, which are home to 45 percent of Iowa’s residents: Polk, Linn, Johnson, Black Hawk, Woodbury, Dubuque, Story and Dallas counties.
The research is an embarrassing bit of truth-squading of Grassley.
No one disputes that he visits every county every year. That certainly shows a commitment to meeting the people, and his commitment to these road trips surpasses that of some politicians. (Yes, I’m referring to you, Chet Culver.)
Grassley’s staff brushes away the significance of Progress Iowa’s findings. Beth Levine, his spokeswoman, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that Grassley uses various formats for his meetings, including public gatherings in large meeting rooms, private gatherings at businesses with their employees, service club meetings and school assemblies.
Every meeting, both public and private, includes a Q&A where Grassley fields questions and citizen comments on any topic an audience member chooses, Levine said.
But there’s an important difference between public gatherings and private meetings:
When Grassley appears at a business and meets with employees, those workers are less likely to ask tough questions while their bosses look on. Most employees are going to filter out any questions that might embarrass their guest or their boss.
A true town meeting is more likely to see people asking tough questions on a wider range of topics than Grassley gets during a session in a corporate auditorium.
It’s troubling that he has not found the time since 2011 to hold even one public town meeting in Polk County. The state’s largest county is home to 468,000 people. That’s 15 percent of Iowa’s population.
In contrast, he has held four public meetings in six years in Adams County, the state’s smallest county, where the population totals 3,800 people.
Since 2011, Grassley has held a total of 25 public town meetings in Audubon, Fremont, Lucas, Shelby and Taylor counties in southwest Iowa, where the combined population is 39,000 people. That’s five meetings in six years in each of these counties.
In contrast, he has not held any true town meetings in the past six years in Buena Vista County, where 20,500 people live. By avoiding that county with its significant immigrant population, Grassley also avoids having to deal with difficult questions about his opposition to the DREAM Act or a path to citizenship.
(For the record, Grassley has held four public meetings in Davis County since 2011.)
Progress Iowa accused Grassley of dodging hard questions in favor of private gatherings where the questions and comments are more polite than pointed. “Grassley is essentially hiding from the public input of nearly half of his constituents,” Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa, told reporters.
I don’t see how you can reach any other conclusion, especially when Congress is in recess far longer each year than it is in session. There is plenty of opportunity — if the senator is interested.