Ames Council Election Number-Crunching

With the help of Tabula, a great data-journalism tool that rips tables from PDF files into spreadsheets, I sorted through the latest campaign finance disclosure documents via the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board (for the Oct. 29 filing deadline) for the Ames City Council election next Tuesday. The reports cover activities 10 days before the election, or Oct. 24, and earlier. Scroll down to take a look at my visualizations of that data, or browse through the spreadsheet yourself here.

There are five candidates running but only four who filed disclosure forms. As with his previous campaign, Ward 2 council member Tim Gartin, who is running unopposed, apparently didn't raise enough to meet the filing threshold.

The hottest race is between Bronwyn Beatty-Hansen and Matt Converse, both local business people who have been active in the community for years and are vying for the at-large seat of veteran council member Matthew Goodman. Goodman has served on the council since 2004 and is stepping down at the end of the year. (Community volunteer Cindy Paschen, a third candidate who previously launched an ill-fated state Senate primary campaign against local Democrat Herman Quirmbach last year, dropped out of the race in early August.) Beatty-Hansen, the more liberal of the two candidates, has Goodman's blessing, while Converse has much of the Ames business and development community as well as former high school classmate Fred Hoiberg in his corner.

In Ward 4, Dan DeGeest, a software engineer at the Silicon Prairie Iowa State University Research Park company Workiva, is challenging incumbent Chris Nelson, a sixth-generation Amesian who serves as vice president of his Nelson Electric Co. family business, from the left. (Ames council elections are nonpartisan and typically have fairly low voter turnout, with national and local political leanings not always aligning.)

The top 11 overall donors have given exclusively to Converse and Nelson and include the Fareway Stores political action committee, which donated $1,000 to Converse and has a history of giving to Republicans representing Iowa in Congress. The No. 1 overall donor, local developer Dickson Jensen, also dropped a grand on Converse.

The next 14 top donors (mouse over the bars to display donor names) mostly break for Converse and Nelson, too, but also include Julie Popken, the wife of former council member Jim Popken; Quirmbach and his partner Leigh Tesfatsion; self-funder Beatty-Hansen; and Goodman and his wife Neysa. Another former council member, Jami Larson, gave a combined $350 to Converse and Nelson.

Overall donations in both contested races followed the top donor trends, with Beatty-Hansen and DeGeest the clear fundraising underdogs. (Converse also loaned himself $1,332.31, raising his campaign fund to $16,357.31.)

Here's a summary of how many unique donors each candidate has, counted by household and excluding unitemized contributions: Beatty-Hansen, 96 donors who gave an average of $62.43 apiece; Converse, 104 donors (including the Fareway Stores PAC and Cable R. E. Investments, which gave $100) averaging $142.55; DeGeest, 37 donors averaging $61.76; and Nelson, 33 donors averaging $121.67.

Not including unitemized reports, this chart counts every individual donation, including multiple donations from the same person or couple, across different giving ranges. Nelson reported no contributions under $25 (aside from seven unitemized ones ranging from $20-25). Beatty-Hansen's largest individual hauls were four $200 donations, including one from herself. DeGeest received a single $200 donation — his largest — from Julie Popken.

Most of the donors have been from Ames, with a small handful chipping in from elsewhere in Iowa or out of state. (Unitemized contributions were assumed to be Ames donations.)
Here's a map of individual donations by location to give you a sense of from where around town the money's coming. Click on the dots for more information about a specific contribution.

Council election contributions by location, 2015
Key: Yellow dots = $25 or under, Green dots = $26-50, Blue dots = $51-100; Pink dots = $101-200, Red dots = $201-1,000 

Here's a quick look at the money the four candidates have reported spending so far on the election. You can browse through a list of all expenditures on the spreadsheet.

As of Oct. 24, Converse and Nelson had the most cash on hand left over despite outspending their opponents. Converse's cash on hand includes his remaining fundraising haul and also $1,332.31 he loaned his campaign committee, so he's been working with a total of $16,357.31.


Rick Perry Continues to Deny Wrongdoing in Cameron Todd Willingham Case

I'm not sure if another reporter's asked Rick Perry about this yet, but during his not-considering-running-for-president-again-wink-nod campaign stop near Ames Monday I probed the Texas governor on the latest developments casting doubt over Cameron Todd Willingham's guilt that were reported last week by the Marshall Project. Perry's response, as expected, was the denial of any wrongdoing by the Texas justice system and its "open and ... thoughtful process."

For the uninitiated: Cameron Todd Willingham was a man executed on Texas' death row in 2004 for allegedly setting fire to his home, killing his three children — but as many reporters have shown, none better than the New Yorker's brilliant David Grann in "Trial by Fire," he was almost certainly innocent.

Grann's story focused largely on the incompetent arson investigation that led to Willingham's conviction. But John Jackson, the prosecutor in the case, has argued that even if that investigation was flawed, the testimony of a jailhouse snitch still proved Willingham's guilt. Not quite: despite Jackson's denials, documents obtained by the Marshall Project (based on evidence reported earlier this year) revealed that he offered to reduce the informer's sentence for armed robbery and funnel him thousands of dollars if he kept in line.

Perry's response to my question about Jackson's misconduct, which, had it been revealed while Willingham was still alive, could have been grounds for a new trial: "I really don't have any quotes about any response to someone who thinks they may have found something. We have a very open and, I think, a thoughtful process."


Ames Embraces the Natural Gas Boom

My latest story, published in the Sunday edition of the Ames Tribune, takes a look at the city council's recent decision to satisfy new and anticipated Environmental Protection Agency regulations by converting its main power plant units so they burn natural gas instead of coal. Ames' electric department didn't get into the fracking debate, athough a few residents did, but both were generally on board with an "interim" switch to a less polluting fossil fuel, a departure from decades of dependence on coal:
In 1896, Ames residents voted 298-40 in favor of a $12,000 bond to establish a city-owned power plant. 
By the turn of the century, the plant served 175 customers. Now it serves around 28,000. 
Throughout those nearly 120 years, one thing has remained constant: The plant has always used coal as its primary fuel. 
But that’s all changing now, in Ames and cities confronted with similar dilemmas around the United States. Strict EPA standards proposed in September have coal producers worried that building new coal-fired plants will become cost-prohibitive, while new regulations for existing plants could lead to an increasing number of cities abandoning coal for natural gas, as Ames is doing. 
In a fight for survival, the once-dominant coal industry has aggressively lobbied against the EPA regulations. In coal-rich states such as Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky, many blue-collar workers see coal not as a climate antagonist but as a guarantor of their livelihoods.
Read the rest here.


No, Not All of Iowa's Legislators Are ALEC Members

There's a hyperbolic story floating around the internet this week repeating a false claim that every legislator in Iowa is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential political organization that drafts model legislation for state legislatures on a range of controversial conservative issues.

That claim originally came from ALEC itself, which the Guardian revealed last week by posting a leaked agenda from the organization's 40th annual board of directors meeting in August. The agenda mostly got attention for exposing schemes to woo back lapsed corporate members and create a 501(c)(4) lobbying arm, and for a so-called loyalty oath proposal for state chairs that ALEC said board members never adopted. But on page 39 there's a state-by-state breakdown of legislative membership that claims Iowa's is at 100 percent.


Another Cityview Conspiracy: Fluoride Is Poison

I wasn't going to touch this one but...can't help myself: Last Wednesday, Cityview published another classic conspiratorial story by Amber Williams, this time on the Des Moines Water Works' public forums on water fluoridation. Like in her past stories on 9/11 and vaccines, Williams extensively parrots the claims of someone with no expertise—in this case a "local artist and activist"—to give a veneer of legitimacy to junk science.

I'm not going to dissect the entire article this time, but to summarize, the activist makes a litany of serious claims, many of them misleading or false, that Williams only occasionally qualifies (mostly by lifting words from the American Cancer Society).


Will Iowa Be the Next State to Legalize Medical Marijuana?

I asked that question in 2009, to open my comprehensive report on medical marijuana's history in Iowa. It popped up again a few days ago as the headline for this Iowa State Daily story. In 2009, 13 states had medical marijuana laws; now there are 20. But the answer's still almost certainly no.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, said Steve Jenison, a native of Ames, Iowa, and the former director of New Mexico's medical marijuana program, who spoke Sunday evening at Iowa State University. In 2007, after years of discussion, New Mexico became the seventh state to legalize medical marijuana through its legislature. That approach, Jenison said, allowed more time to implement the sort of tightly regulated program that states like California are so frequently criticized for lacking. (A common red herring used by Iowa foes of medical marijuana is that they don't want to see the state turn into California, where the streets in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco often reek of weed.)


Monsanto Helps Kill Washington's GMO Labeling Initiative

In my recent story for Al Jazeera America, on the Monsanto executive who won the World Food Prize, I took a look at the more than $5 million Monsanto has given the prize's foundation since 1999. But unfortunately, I didn't manage to find enough room to delve into the debate over efforts to mandate labeling genetically modified (GM) foods—so I didn't mention the ballot initiative to label GM foods in Washington state, which Monsanto helped defeat on Tuesday by spending nearly $5.4 million campaigning against it.


Same-Day Voter Registration Shenanigans at the Polls in Ankeny

If you're registering to vote at the polls today in Iowa, don't let a poll worker tell you that you can't register if you've got a photo ID with your current address.

That's what happened to me today at the Ankeny Free Church after I provided my driver's license to the man handling same-day registration. He asked for a second form of ID, like a utility bill, which by Iowa law is only required if your photo ID has an outdated address.


Vodka Samm and the Troubling Practice of Mugshot Journalism

I'm late to the most recent chapter of the Vodka Samm story, but I'm not alone so I'm going to finally write some thoughts about one of my biggest pet peeves in journalism: the irresponsible use of mugshots. In this story, it's just a small part of the mean-spirited harassment of an ordinary college student. In other situations, it creates the impression of guilt before convictions that often never come, and for that reason can also be a convenient intimidation tactic for police.


Occupying the World Food Prize

I spent last week traveling between Ames and Des Moines to take a closer look at the controversy over the naming of Monsanto executive Robert Fraley as a World Food Prize laureate. My story on that—my first byline since leaving Mother Jones in August—was published at Al Jazeera America on Friday.

As with the Occupy Iowa caucus protests, the Occupy the World Food Prize demonstrations, led by many of the same activists, were far more subdued than anything I witnessed covering Occupy Oakland, but things got fairly lively thanks to Jim Hightower:
"I don’t like what Monsanto does to foist themselves on other countries and on our farmers ... turning agriculture into just another get-rich scheme," said Janet Klaas, a retired reference librarian from Ames.
In a Des Moines Methodist church sanctuary on Wednesday, she listened to Texas populist Jim Hightower rail against corporate agriculture behind an Occupy banner with an image of a raised fist clenching a carrot and ear of corn.
Read the rest here.