After easily defeating a primary challenger in June, Iowa House member Kevin Koester was kind enough to sit down with The Conservative Reader: Iowa to discuss his upcoming general election in November, as well as the many issues he will be dealing with should he earn a third term in the Iowa Legislature.
The Primary, The General Election, and the Pulse of House District 38
The process of winning re-election for Rep. Koester began even before the legislative session ended, as the first order of business was winning a primary challenge by Saylor Township resident Brett Nelson.Â As the session ran long, Koester made several hundred phone calls in his downtime and began getting acquainted with the voters in his newly re-drawn House District 38.
He handily defeated Nelson 456 to 80, and took many positives away from the effort this challenge required, â€œIâ€™m very grateful for both the margin of victory and for the experience of the primary because it really helped energize my campaign for November, and gave me a great familiarity with the new territory in the district.â€Â In an interesting aside, after not meeting or speaking to each other throughout the primary, the two have since met and Nelson even took up an offer by Rep. Koester to join him in a weekly bible studyâ€”a great, albeit rare, good ending to a primary challenge.
Talking to voters throughout this process affirmed to Rep. Koester that the dominant issues for his November show-down with Democrat John Phoenix will include the state budget, government over-spending, and the economy.Â Besides these economic issues, the background of the two candidates, combined with the issues still facing the legislature, serve to telegraph the subject matter that will be front and center in this raceâ€”education reform and public sector unions.
While Koester has decades of experience with education in Iowa, Phoenix was elected to the Des Moines School Board where he served for six years.Â In addition to this, Phoenix also has been a long-time union steward, has already been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, and strongly believes that â€œunions help make our country stronger and improve the lives of all workers.â€
Speaking to these differences, Rep. Koester believes that, â€œbecause of his role and his voice on collective bargaining issues and union viewpoints, there will be plenty of distance between us to give the voters a clear choiceâ€.Â Given the fact that Mr. Koester is a strong Conservative Republican and Phoenix is a pro-union, former school board member who featured Des Moines super-liberal Ako Abdul-Samad at his first fundraiserâ€”the gulf between the two is likely to be enormous on a long list of issues.Â Here is a look at two of these issues, and where Rep. Koester stands on them.
Like most Iowa Republicans, Mr. Koester was very disappointed in the progress made on education reform by the last General Assembly.Â â€œThe things we voted on last session were not reforms, they were Band-Aids.Â We did not do surgery, and that is what is truly needed.â€
After seeing countless specific and detailed proposals get torn apart by the opposing sides, he stands ready to work on a broad frame of reform that can be agreed on in principle and passed.Â â€œWhat I have is a drive to dismantle the fluff, and no patience for the simple arguments that only serve to attack valid ideas.Â We need to stop the nit picking and the warring, and come up with a product and move forward on it.â€
Two realities in the current system that he sees as negatively affecting students are the lack of teachers being removed for poor performance and the practice of â€œlast in first outâ€, which is the seniority structure that protects long-time teachers from being let go, in favor of removing less tenured teachers when staff sizes are cut.Â This practice has long been under fire by Republicans because it refuses to take into account the skill level and effectiveness of each teacher.Â â€œLast in first out is bad for kids.Â We need to look at who is performing and have that be the prime focus, and not necessarily just who has the most experience.Â A pay raise needs to be given for performing better, not just given out for coming back the next year and being a year olderâ€.
In terms of the reforms needed to reverse our recent embarrassing trend in education, the crucial ingredient in Rep. Koesterâ€™s view is to quantify the performance of the employees in our education system.Â He will not support any proposal without this component, and he concisely summed up his position on education by saying:
We will have meaningful and fundamental reform when we agree on how we are going to measure student learning, how we are going to measure each of our Principalâ€™s leadership and influence in the classroom, and how we are going to measure teachers and instruction.Â That is where the rubber meets the road on this issue.
Unions and Collective Bargaining
With Governor Branstad recently signaling a desire to look at their financial impact on the state, and John Phoenixâ€™s close personal ties to them, there is little doubt that public sector unions and collective bargaining will be hotly debated in this race.
Rep. Koester has already taken several votes on this issue, all with the goal of bringing public sector unions more in line with the realities of the private sector, and attempting to prevent the payouts involved from breaking the bank as we have seen in several other states in recent years.
The votes he has taken include voting three times for employees of the Legislative branch, including himself, to pay a portion of their health insurance cost.Â The first was for a contribution of $50 a month, the second for a $100 a month, and the third for $200 a month.Â â€œI have gone on record every opportunity I have had insisting that Legislators are charged something, and I strongly believe that all state employees should help pay for the cost of their health insurance.â€
He also voted in favor of the measure that went into effect July 1st, which changed the formula for calculating retirement benefits for state employees.Â In the past payouts were figured using an average of an employeeâ€™s top three wage earning years, which has now been changed to take the average of the top five years.
In the larger picture, he supports having a policy ensuring that the number of government employees does not swell beyond what is needed and can be financially sustained in the long run.Â To this end he favors implementing breaks on the growth of state government that ties the number of workers and salaries to the overall growth of our state economy, and prioritizes the issue the following way:
I want to start with how we plan for how many state jobs there will be.Â You donâ€™t grow the economy by growing the number of public jobsâ€”that is socialism.Â The second thing is then addressing the disproportions in the health insurance contributions and the retirement benefits.Â The benefits are out of control compared to what the private sector is doing, and to what Iowa taxpayers are doing to take care of their families.Â We need to get those things in line, and what is fair for the rest of Iowans should be fair for the public employees that they are paying for.
Next Stop: November
Anyone who talks issues with Rep. Koester immediately realizes that he has a deep grasp on nearly all of them, including all the moving parts involved with each.Â On substance, he can go toe-to-toe with anyone and will shine in the public forums and debates with Mr. Phoenix.
As this contest slowly unfolds till November, the topics these two candidates debate along the way will be a roll call of every major issue facing the citizens of Iowa.Â In particular, the colliding ideologies on taxes, education, and public sector unions will be a true foreshadowing of the debates that will consume the next General Assembly.
How strong a candidate John Phoenix will be remains to be seen, but Republicans throughout Iowa and HD 38 can be assured that Kevin Koester is up to the challengeâ€”and will remain a strong Conservative voice for the Party in the coming years.