Political Baptism

Naivety has always been one of my strong traits. Almost forty years ago, I was elected as the Secretary-Treasurer of the Iowa Branch for the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW). I was also the recently elected Secretary-Treasurer of UFCW Local 440 in Denison, Iowa. I had very little idea of what my responsibilities, duties, or expectations were in either position. I soon found out.

The UFCW Iowa Branch was the Political Action Committee for UFCW unions in Iowa. At one time, there must have been close to twenty different locals in Iowa. Today, there are about eight.

I had the checkbook for the PAC, but that’s about it. I couldn’t write a check unless a meeting was held, and the member locals voted on it. I presumed that much. That didn’t stop State Senator Leonard Boswell from calling me and inviting me to breakfast at Cronk’s Café in Denison before Iowa’s Fifth Congressional District primary in 1986. He was a candidate for that seat in Congress and he had a primary opponent. It was a pleasure to meet the senator and his wife, Doty. As we were finishing breakfast, Leonard asked if I was the secretary-treasurer of the Iowa Branch. I told him I was. “And how much money do you have in the account?” He asked. I told him that we may have had close to two thousand dollars. “I want it.” That’s all he said. I looked up at him from my plate and said “NO!”

I didn’t like the way he ‘asked’ me for the money, but I had to be truthful. I told him that I didn’t think the Branch members were capable of handing money over to a candidate until the candidate was endorsed. I knew nothing about policy, but it seemed reasonable. Besides, I could not make that decision on my own. What was he thinking?

Boswell didn’t get endorsed by Labor, and that was my naivete getting in the way again. His primary opponent in that Congressional race was an attorney from Council Bluffs, Scott Hughes. During the primary season, Boswell was rarely, if at all, in Crawford County. And he certainly wasn’t talking to union members. On the other hand, Hughes was in Crawford County continuously and asked to speak at a union meeting.

On the morning of the Iowa Federation of Labor’s convention to endorse candidates, I met with UFCW delegates individually and asked each if they would cast a vote for “no endorsement” in the Fifth District. I had to get back home that Saturday afternoon and could not stay for the vote.

The following morning, Sunday, I was out mowing the yard when my wife came out and told me that Jim Wengert, Iowa Federation of Labor President, was on the phone. I told her to tell him that I would call back later. She came back out in less than a minute and told me that Jim said, “to shut that fucking mower off and get on the phone!” I complied.

I respected Jim more than any other Labor leader, past or present. But he was not going to get by with bullying me. He told me that I obviously didn’t understand the procedure of the endorsement process[1] and that I had screwed things up. I responded by telling him that I obviously did understand the process and it worked. There was no endorsement for candidates from the Fifth District by the Iowa Fed. Jim told me that Boswell had a Labor record and Hughes didn’t. I could see Jim’s face get red when I told him that Leonard’s Labor record was shitty.

Scott Hughes wound up being the Democratic candidate for the Fifth Congressional District of Iowa that year. He defeated Boswell in the June primary. In November, Hughes would get smeared by incumbent James Ross Lightfoot with fewer than 40 percent of votes cast. Boswell was saved from the embarrassment. I take credit for that.

When I began lobbying the Iowa Legislature in 1992, I met Senator Boswell in the Rotunda. I introduced myself to him and he said, “I know who you are. You jumped ship on me in 1986.” I attempted to discuss it with him, but he walked away.

My relationship with Leonard improved over the time he was a senator at the Iowa Capitol.

Boswell finally made it to Washington, DC, but he had to wait until Lightfoot wasn’t running as an incumbent. Lightfoot was popular in that district. Boswell won the district as Lightfoot took on Tom Vilsack in the governor’s race. Lightfoot’s terrible campaign against a qualified candidate was his last ticket out of politics.

Naivety showed up as a strong personality trait once more when I was an alternate delegate to the Polk County Democratic Special Convention a few years later. The Convention was called to select a candidate for the Democratic ticket to run for Polk County Supervisor. The Iowa Federation of Labor was supporting a person who was a small business owner. He was running against Representative Tom Baker. Tom Baker’s record with Labor over the years in the Iowa House of Representatives was impeccable. When I was asked to support the business owner, I said I was confused. Didn’t Baker have a Labor record as opposed to his opposition? I remained an alternate delegate.

[1] The endorsement process consisted of the IFL’s Executive Board meeting the night before the convention and making recommendations for the delegates to adopt.

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One Response to Political Baptism

  1. Mike Scott says:

    You are good at recollecting history. Like having a ringside seat. We’ll done. Boswell was ride to you. Cocky demand he put on you, Marty.

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