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Zieman is first political casualty of Postville
If immigration issues were a political football in this year’s state legislative races, then Senate District 8, an area that encompasses Howard, Chickasaw, Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in northeastern Iowa and includes the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant, was the 50-yard line. It was in that race that Iowa Senate Minority Whip Mark Zieman lost his re-election bid to Mary Jo Wilhelm, a relatively unknown Democratic upstart. The defeat came amid whispers and campaign mailers about the immigration concerns surrounding Agriprocessors in Postville, Zieman’s hometown.
Zieman, owner of a trucking company that does business with Agriprocessors and one of the few sitting Iowa politicians who had taken campaign donations from executives at the plant, had to realize the political ramifications on the day of the raid. Perhaps he believed his standing as something of a political legacy — his father also represented the area in the Iowa Senate — or as a hometown prodigy would insulate him from direct attacks related to the issue of immigration.
If so, he could not have been more wrong.
Midwest Enterprise Group, a 527 advocacy group with Democratic ties, targeted Zieman with a mailer that highlighted Zieman’s own words in the Des Moines Register about the situation at the Postville Agriprocessors plant. As Iowa Workforce Development and the U.S. Department of Labor investigated allegations of child labor law violations and immigration documenation fraud at the plant, Zieman said he’d like the government agencies to point out plant deficiencies to Agriprocessors’ managers, to make sure such problems are corrected and “then leave them alone.”
“Is there some way to make this thing work? If there’s no way, so be it,” Zieman said. “But we owe it to the employees. If that plant isn’t there, all of a sudden getting a job around here gets quite a bit more difficult.”
In 2000 and 2002 Zieman accepted a $1,000 campaign contribution from former Agriprocessors executive Sholom M. Rubashkin. Rubashkin, a son of company founder A. Aaron Rubashkin, has been arrested by federal authorities and released on bail while awaiting trail on charges that he conspired to harbor undocumented immigrants for profit, aided and abetted document fraud, and aided and abetted aggravated identity theft.
Although the Rubashkin family and Agriprocessors have given numerous campaign contributions to Iowa politicians, Zieman is the only current member of the Iowa legislature that had accepted such money. Former Iowa House Republicans Chuck Gipp and Leigh Rokow accepted $2,250 and $2,100 in campaign donations, respectively. The Republican Party of Iowa has also been a benefactor of the Rubashkin family, garnering $7,550 between 2000 and 2004.
Many other Republicans in Iowa, most of them candidates or sitting members of the U.S. Congress, accepted campaign contributions from either plant executives or the Rubashkin family:
- Bill Dix, U.S. House candidate — $1,500
- Chuck Grassley, U.S. Senate — $14,000
- Tom Latham, U.S. House — $2,000
- Stan Thompson, U.S. House candidate — $8,500
- Doug Gross, Iowa governor — $10,000
- Jim Nussle, U.S. House and Iowa governor — $32,500
In addition, a contribution of $5,000 was given in 2005 to a 527 group called Progress for Iowa. The group sought to influence local legislative elections for the purpose of electing more Republicans.
In early October Portfolio magazine published a profile of Agriprocessors that contained a photograph of family patriarch Aaron Rubashkin at his Brooklyn, N.Y., butcher shop. On the wall behind the desk there, according to the article, there is a photo of Aaron Rubashkin with Sen. Chuck Grassley. Grassley’s office is not aware of when or where this photograph was taken.
On the Democratic side, the Rubashkin family and the plant have donated a total of $18,000 between 2005 and 2007. Upon launching her unsuccessful bid for governor, Patty Judge was given $10,000 by Sholom Rubashkin and his wife, Leah. When her campaign merged with that of Chet Culver, the joint venture received $3,000 from Sholom. Culver has since taken $3,000 from his campaign fund and donated it to charity.
A corporate donation of $5,000 was also given to the Democratic Governors Association in February 2007.
U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, who was the only other politician with ties to Agriprocessors or the Rubashkin family that appeared on the November ballot, had little difficulty being re-elected to his seat. Agriprocessors sits in the far northeastern corner of Latham’s district — Iowa’s second largest with 28 counties.
If there is more political hay to be harvested in connection with Agriprocessors, it is likely to come during the next election cycle when Culver and Judge will again face the voters. There is little doubt that it will be a hotly contested race as Republicans seek to take control of Terrace Hill. The amount of impact Agriprocessors will have on the contest will most likely depend on the amount of headlines the immigration raid aftermath continues to make at that time.
Barring any new developments coming to light, Grassley, who hasn’t faced a significant opponent since John Culver in 1980, might suffer at worst the political equivalent of a mosquito bite — a nuisance, but far from a fatal blow.