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CCI stirs passion in supporters and critics alike
Jack Hatch still vividly remembers one of his first encounters with the group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, otherwise known as CCI.
It was the late 1980s and Polk County planned to level a vacant house in Des Moines’ Sherman Hill district, known for its Victorian homes.
“There were a number of homes the group was asking the county to save so they could be sold to low-income families,” said Hatch, a Democratic state senator representing District 33 in Des Moines. “The county wasn’t listening, so they got signs and protested in the street in front of this house in Sherman Hill.”
The scene attracted the interest of local media, and eventually the house was sold to CCI for $1, Hatch said. The group renovated it and followed through with its promise to sell it to a low-income family.
“Twenty years later, that house is worth $240,000,” he said. “They saved the house and get credit for helping save that neighborhood.”
The group’s supporters say CCI stands up for progressive values and empowers citizens to make sure the state’s power brokers hear their voices. But critics characterize CCI as a mean-spirited group of agitators big on bluster and short on solutions.
“They are a citizens army,” Hatch said. “And they represent the everyday Iowan.”
“They are the least effective lobbying group in Iowa,” counters Jeff Angelo, a former Republican state senator from Creston. “I can probably be more candid now that I’m not running for anything than a lot of people at the Capitol. Their only tactics are harassment and intimidation.”
Whether considered heroes or villains, one thing is clear: Iowa CCI is not planning to go away any time soon.
The nonprofit group, formed in 1975 by a group of ministers in Waterloo who felt Iowa needed an organization to fight for social justice issues, today boasts nearly 3,700 dues-paying members from 97 of Iowa’s 99 counties.
For years, members packed meetings of city councils, school boards and state agencies fighting for their pet issues. They often carried signs and raised their voices to officials they hoped would help them.
Over the years the group has bargained with bank executives to ensure home loans were being made in low-income neighborhoods and family farms around the state; negotiated agreements with subprime lenders to win $3.5 million in restitution for dozens of families; and helped more than 200 farmers renegotiate loans to avoid foreclosure.
“One of the guiding principles of our organization is empowering people, so it’s not me or our staff going out and solving people’s problems for them,” said Hugh Espey, a 29-year veteran of CCI who serves as the group’s executive director. “So regular folks who didn’t think they had a voice realize they can get things done in their community and in their state working together with other like-minded folks. “
Along the way, CCI has also attracted headlines for its tactics, which have included protests in the lobbies of corporate adversaries, picket lines outside the homes of legislators and loud rallies outside the chambers of the state House and Senate.
Espey calls this direct action. Critics call it harassment.
“Their tactics are repulsive,” Angelo said. “During my early years in the Legislature, I would meet with them, but instead of trying to discuss issues, they would threaten me and accuse me of being in the tank of corporate interests. They are never willing to negotiate. They just want to shout and intimidate people into going their way. That never works.”
Espey said those accusations just aren’t true.
“That’s flat-out wrong,” he said. “Anyone who spends any time with this group knows we are very willing to compromise. We understand that the kind of changes we’re fighting for have to come in steps.”
And as for the group’s tactics, Espey said there is one reason they do the things that they do.
“It works,” he said. “Basically, it’s designed to get the attention of decision-makers who have ignored the issues we’ve been raising.”
Grabbing signs and hitting the streets is never the preferred option, Espey said, but CCI isn’t afraid to implement it as a last resort.
“If they take us seriously, fine,” Espey said. “If they ignore us, we have to take that next step. We always try to start at the negotiating table, but if we can’t get through, we have to try something else.”
Fighting for their issues
When it comes to the legislative session, two issues have been at the forefront of CCI’s effort for a number of years — local control of hog confinements and the Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections bill, known as VOICE.
Espey said the group’s biggest obstacle is the influence of money on the system. That’s why VOICE, a legislative proposal which calls for the public funding of Iowa’s elections, is an important stepping stone to many of the group’s goals.
“But we understand these are tough battles and we’re in it for the long haul,” he said.
VOICE is an idea that CCI’s critics have pointed to as an example of the group’s unwillingness to compromise. However, this year it is pushing for a bill limiting the amount individuals and groups can give to candidates, a move Espey calls a step in the right direction.
“A lot of times the people we deal with try to paint us as an ‘either or’ group,” he said. “It’s totally inaccurate. We’d much rather have half a loaf than no loaf at all.”
“I think CCI’s attachment to an issue works to that issue’s detriment,” Angelo said. “They have alienated a lot of legislators with their tactics, and I think that’s a big factor in why their issues don’t get traction.”
Hatch said while people may point to the lack of action on some key issues as signs that the group isn’t succeeding, the reality is that CCI is pushing for issues that will take years to resolve.
“That’s why they are good and that’s why they are important,” he said. “They don’t tackle the easy stuff. Rearranging our campaign-finance laws isn’t easy. But it’s an issue that needs a champion and needs somebody to take a stand.”
Iowa CCI is a 501(c)3 nonprofit group, which means that it can lobby for its issues but cannot engage in direct advocacy for any candidate or party. It has grown from an annual budget of $45,000 to $1.2 million, with most of its money coming from churches and foundations such as the Ford Foundation. About half of the budget goes to staff salaries, which are modest. Espey, as its top-paid staffer, earns about $49,000 a year.
Over that time, Espey said the group’s core mission and values have remained the same, but lessons have been learned that he believes make them a more effective group.
“Just this past fall we were intentionally involved in electoral work, from the standpoint of making sure our issues were being addressed in races across the state,” he said. “We spent more time meeting with candidates from both parties about our issues. We were more involved in non-partisan electoral work.”
The group is also making an effort to have a presence at the Capitol more frequently than their usually raucous lobby days.
“You can’t just go up there once or twice and expect anything,” Espey said. “You’ve got to get members engaging elected officials back home on the weekends. Needs to be a real coordinated effort to have a presence at the Capitol and in the legislators’ districts.”
So with a tough budget year facing legislators, Espey said the group would have to redouble its efforts to ensure its issues get heard.
After three decades of stirring passion in Iowa, the question still remains: Do CCI’s tactics do more harm than good?
“Legislators from both sides of the aisle understand that they are an angry, venomous group,” Angelo said. “I don’t see any evidence that they are having an impact on the process.”
But to its supporters, CCI sometimes offers the only real option to get their message across.
“I think legislators understand the group’s power comes from regular people in Iowa,” Hatch said. “I think they are respected because they understand the issues, probably more so than most legislators and they get our attention because people understand CCI won’t be ignored.”