Takeaways from the Partnership’s 2014 D.C. Trip
Monday, May 12, 2014 1:31 PM
It really is like summer camp for adults.
“Summer camp” was how Jason Walsmith of The Nadas described the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Washington, D.C., trip as he was on stage at Hill Country on May 8. The Nadas played a show for trip attendees and for area residents with Iowa ties.
I was a first-time attendee on the trip this year, which took place May 7 through 9. I was lucky enough to represent the Young Professionals Connection as the 2014 president-elect. I also spent the week taking notes for this story and jotting down potential story ideas for the future. My editor, Chris Conetzkey, was a first-timer on the trip last year, and going in, he cautioned me to stay away from writing too much about how unusual this trip is from a networking standpoint, even though he knew that would be one of the big takeaways I had.
Chances are, at this point, most business people in Greater Des Moines have either been on the trip or have a pretty good idea of what the trip is about. About 195 attendees present one voice for our region to our state’s congressional delegations. From a networking standpoint, we travel together, eat together, drink together and watch live music together.
I’ll just say this about the trip: My biggest takeaway is that, in Central Iowa at least, business is personal. The people who go on the trip get to know each other on a personal level in a way that just doesn’t happen as much when everyone is running from one appointment to the next in Greater Des Moines. Deals may not get done on the spot, but I would bet the relationships built pay long-term dividends.
If you have never gone, I highly recommend taking the opportunity next year.
Here are some of my other takeaways from the trip:
Piecemeal immigration reform
Immigration reform was the topic of one of a Wednesday panel. Lori Chesser, an attorney at the Davis Brown Law Firm who specializes in immigration law, moderated the panel, which included Rosemary Gutierrez from Sen. Harkin’s office and Kathy Nuebel Kovarik from Sen. Grassley’s office. I’ve talked with StartupCity Des Moines principal Tej Dhawan a number of times about his push and lobbying efforts for more H1B visas for highly skilled technology workers. Immigration reform can become an emotional issue, but Dhawan has been a proponent of passing certain parts of immigration reform to allow more skilled workers to stay in the United States, whether it be to work in jobs or create jobs with their own business. His point: Piecemeal immigration reform is OK. We can fix parts of the system right now without having to pass a comprehensive reform bill. That thought seems to have resonated in Washington, as panelists felt there was a chance - maybe even a 50-50 chance, Nuebel Kovarik said - that some sort of piecemeal reform would pass this year. Though, as Nuebel Kovarik pointed out, about 20 percent of current H1Bs that are granted are fraudulent, meaning workers aren’t doing what they say they are going to when applying for the visas.
Vice presidential visit
Vice President Joe Biden made a visit to Wednesday evening’s reception. Biden greeted and took pictures with tripgoers for about 45 minutes. Of course, there is speculation by some in the national media that the visit was a campaign stop with the possibility that Biden will run for his boss’s job in the upcoming election cycle. For his part, Biden told the crowd that he came because Sen. Tom Harkin told him to, according to Jennifer Jacobs of The Des Moines Register. Regardless, it was an experience that I doubt trip attendees will ever forget, regardless of their political affiliation. Read about the speculation here.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott spoke to the crowd at lunch on Thursday. He stole the show with his quick wit and a story about Sen. Grassley’s frugalness. More impressive, though, was a story that appeared in The Washington Post earlier in the week detailing Scott’s undercover visits to work in blue-collar jobs in South Carolina. “It’s really just the best way to talk to and try to understand people,” Scott told the Post. The story is a worthwhile read. It’s also notable that Scott is the only black Republican senator, and he’s “everything the Republican Party could ask for,” the article says. Read the article: Click here
As I wrote in my preview story, transportation topics are always a priority on this trip, and representatives from the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority were out in full force. In post-earmark Washington, transportation updates on this trip are more about pushing the conversation forward. Some of the discussions on the table included a bus rapid transit line for DART, the reauthorization of the U.S. 65/Iowa Highway 5 beltway as part of the interstate system and reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund, which is critically low. Not on the agenda, though, was passenger rail. Consensus from sources was that federal money on the table will be pulled soon due to Iowa’s inability to provide matching funds.
Caring is beneficial
We measure so much in education by measures such as grade point average, but Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, made the argument at a Thursday panel for using measures such as hope, engagement and well-being. Those things might sound “fluffy,” but they can be true indicators of success. For example, research shows that if students strongly agree that their teacher makes them excited about the future, they are statistically more likely to be successful. By the way, those kinds of measures are also indicative of success in the workplace. The trick, Busteed said, is for good principals to empower teachers to care for students. That’s the formula. Good news for Iowa: The state ranked highly in a recent report released by Gallup. In the report, called “The State of America’s Schools,” a total of 83 percent of Iowans polled rated public education in the state as excellent or good. To download that full report, which also details some of the research that Busteed talked about, go here: http://bit.ly/1eRHIpP
I decided to take a pass on one of Wednesday’s panels in order to rest up just a bit before dinner, but I regretted that decision once I heard some of the discussion surrounding the topic of affordable housing. So I caught up with Eric Burmeister, executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, to speak further about the issue. Burmeister was the local representative on the panel. His goal was to introduce the idea that affordable housing is an economic development issue as well as a social issue, and a quality-of-life asset that should be leveraged for workforce retention. He pointed out that creating high-paying jobs also creates low-paying jobs, and workers in those jobs need affordable housing. In Greater Des Moines, there are many low-wage job centers in the suburbs (such as service industry jobs), but not a lot of affordable housing, which means workers have to travel longer distances to get to work. That can be quite an expense for someone who can barely afford a vehicle or relies on public transportation to get around. The economic development argument, Burmeister says, is that if businesses want to maintain that workforce, workers are going to need places to live. There’s not enough space here to dive into this issue deeply, but Burmeister hopes that the panel discussion was the start of a shift in the conversation with leaders and developers in Greater Des Moines.
Sen. Chuck Grassley spent about five minutes of his speech at Thursday morning’s congressional breakfast talking about his respect for Sen. Tom Harkin, who is retiring this year. The trip seemed to have Harkin’s fingerprints all over it, starting with the visit from Biden. I went on a tour of the Pentagon on Thursday afternoon (a humbling and patriotism-building experience that I could probably write an entire article about). Our group found out at the end that we were given access to places that most tour groups never get to see, things like the hallways that house offices of the chiefs of staff for the Army, Navy and Air Force. I had a feeling I knew why that was, and sure enough, Partnership spokeswoman Susan Ramsey confirmed that Harkin’s connections made that experience possible. I think I can speak for the entire group in thanking the senator. Harkin got a standing ovation from the crowd at the end of his speech on Thursday morning, and seemed visibly moved when presented with a photo collage as a present from the Partnership. The Partnership presented a similar collage to Congressman Tom Latham, who is also retiring this year.
We’ve got corn and more
I’ll admit a pet peeve of mine is that media coverage of the Iowa caucuses doesn’t do much to help out the image of our state. Stock images of cornfields and candidates serving food at pancake breakfasts don’t exactly reflect the Central Iowa that I know. But Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for ABC News, told the crowd on Friday morning not to take that stuff negatively. We are portrayed as a state in the middle of America, a good brand in his view. Notably, Zeleny started his career with The Des Moines Register. I think he’s right, and I think we need to find even more ways to embrace our agricultural heritage. The Cultivation Corridor brand is a good start. During Central Iowa’s time in the spotlight, our message to the rest of the world should be something like this: We feed the world here in Iowa; we have great jobs in many fields, including ag and bioscience; and oh by the way, we have a world-class city in Des Moines (with running water, working Internet and everything). This is a great place to live, work and play, and we need to take advantage of our opportunity to share that message.
I think this pretty much sums up the trip. Wednesday morning, I took a picture of my clock at 3:41 a.m. as I got up to go to the airport to leave. On Friday morning, I took a picture of my clock as I got back to my hotel room at 3:41 a.m. It was a whirlwind 48-hour time period.