COUNCIL BLUFFS — Iowa Republicans have one big target for their ire this campaign season: State Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, the veteran lawmaker from Council Bluffs.
Democrat Gronstal is up for re-election this year, and Republicans contend he uses his position to bottle up legislation. One often-cited example is Gronstal's blocking of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Republicans seek such a ban, though it was opposed by 56 percent of Iowans in an Iowa Poll earlier this year.
Gronstal's Republican challenger is Al Ringgenberg, a retired Air Force officer. The two men are competing for the seat representing District 8, which makes up most of Council Bluffs and all of Carter Lake.
Ringgenberg is campaigning on a socially conservative platform. He opposes abortion, wants the state constitution amended to ban same-sex marriage and seeks tax cuts for people and businesses. The need for that, he says, can be seen on city blocks with three or four houses for sale, and on Pottawattamie County's delinquent tax list.
“Folks have absolutely been driven out of the community by the lack of jobs and the bills they can no longer pay,” he said.
Gronstal and other Democrats strongly dispute the portrayal of him as a roadblock, pointing to several areas in which he cooperated with Republicans, including education and economic legislation. And Gronstal says he gets results that have helped Council Bluffs and its residents, citing the casinos, Google and the Mid-America Center as examples.
“I think you can look around this community and see literally thousands of jobs that wouldn't be there if it wasn't for some of the things we did in the Legislature,” Gronstal said.
The most recent campaign finance reports indicate Gronstal, a 30-year veteran of the Legislature, enjoys a significant fund-raising advantage over his opponent. Democrats have a slight edge over Republicans in terms of registered voters in the newly-redrawn district.
Gronstal has lived in Council Bluffs nearly all his life. He graduated from St. Albert High School and has worked at several jobs locally. He first entered the Iowa House following the 1982 election. He soon advanced to the Senate and has been the Democratic leader there since 1997.
In 2009, the seven members of the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of same-sex marriage — which then focused Republican attention on the Senate majority leader.
Republicans wanted to pass a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, which opponents said would write discrimination into the constitution.
Such a proposal would have to be passed by two consecutive General Assemblies and then put to a vote of the people. Gronstal has blocked the GOP measure from being voted on in the Senate.
“We don't put people's basic fundamental civil liberties to a vote,” he said.
Gronstal's stance has made him a symbol of Republican frustrations as the GOP tries to gain control of the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority.
“They want that majority in the Senate desperately, and Mike Gronstal is that poster boy,” said Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford. “He has been able to slow down and restrain the Republican agenda.”
Ringgenberg supports an effort by social conservatives to oust State Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, who is up for a retention vote. He disagrees with the court's unanimous decision legalizing same-sex marriage and disagrees with equating gay marriage with civil rights.
“I think (voters) are entitled to the final say in their constitution, and there is nothing bigoted about that,” he said.
Ringgenberg is a Perry, Iowa, native with undergraduate and law degrees from Drake University. He served around the United States and the world as an Air Force lawyer.
After he retired in 2004, Ringgenberg and his wife, Jackie, returned to the Midwest and settled in Council Bluffs. Ringgenberg worked as a civilian at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue until leaving his job last year to campaign full time for the Senate.
In 2010, Iowa voters elected a Republican governor and gave House Republicans a 20-seat majority. That seemed like a good time to advance different ideas in state government, Ringgenberg said, but Republican legislation wasn't able to get very far.
“The need for a comprehensive property tax reform bill in the Legislature has been recognized by every single politician in the state for several years now,” he said.
Gronstal agrees that changes in property tax law are needed but believes the GOP plan was too concerned with attracting big corporations to Iowa rather than helping Iowa-based businesses.
“Our plan was focused on Main Street rather than Wall Street.”
Gronstal points out that Democrats worked with Gov. Terry Branstad in the 2012 legislative session to make the Department of Economic Development a public-private partnership, but demanded transparency. He encouraged Democratic senators to attend the governor's education summit and compromised with him on his proposed requirement that all third-graders must know how to read before advancing to the fourth grade.
To improve Iowa's economic standing, Gronstal wants to boost state support of the community college system, saying most jobs in the future will require post-high school education but not a four-year degree. Gronstal also advocates giving Iowa companies first crack at state contracts.
Ringgenberg wants a more attractive tax climate to boost economic development.
“If you don't have a good business climate, you are not creating the sort of economic activity that really fills up state coffers,” he said.
Gronstal has a healthy fund-raising lead, according to 2012 campaign finance reports. Through July, he raised $498,425, compared with Ringgenberg's $24,326 for the same period.
Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans in the district, 12,982 to 11,217, but independents represent the biggest bloc: 13,532.
Goldford, the Drake political scientist, said Gronstal's financial position is enviable, but the race's outcome depends on turnout. The same-sex marriage issue gives Ringgenberg a ready-made organizational structure in conservative evangelical churches.
“When your friend, your neighbor says to you face to face ‘Can we count on you?' that's different,” he said. “When it comes down to it, it's who's going to vote, not how much money you have in the bank.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1310, firstname.lastname@example.org
Home: Council Bluffs
Occupation: State senator
Offices held: First elected to Iowa House in 1982; elected to Senate in 1984 and has served there since.
Education: Bachelor of science at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio
Family: Wife, Connie; two adult daughters
Home: Council Bluffs
Occupation: Retired Air Force officer (JAG Corps)
Offices held: None
Education: Bachelor of arts and law degree from Drake University
Family: Wife, Jackie; two adult sons
Faith: Evangelical Christian