Governor Chet Culver and dozens of Iowans who work in human services agencies gathered today for a statehouse news conference, urging Republicans in the Iowa Senate to vote to confirm Gene Gessow as director of the Iowa Department of Human Services.
"I just want to say thank you to everybody here. It really is one of the most extraordinary days of my life…Unusual for me, I am actually speechless," Gessow said, as one supporter stood behind Gessow holding up a red poster that said, "Confirm Gessow."
The governor nominates the directors of state agencies, but 34 of the 50 state senators must vote to confirm those people for the posts. Governor Culver, who is a Democrat, says the senate’s Republican leader told him last week none of the 18 Republicans in the senate will vote to confirm Gessow to be Department of Human Services director.
"We’re hoping with all the support of the individuals that we can make a strong case that his confirmation is critically important," Culver says.
The governor describes Gessow as the right man for the top job in the largest agency in state government. There are more than 5700 employees in the Department of Human Services, directly serving over 800,000 Iowans who qualify for a variety of welfare benefits or who are disabled. The agency’s current budget — a combination of state and federal money — amounts to over $4.6 billion and Culver says he needs an experienced hand running the department.
"We are working hard to encourage people to contact Republican senators and that will involve…prominent Republicans across the state," Culver says. "They’re sending emails and making phone calls directly to state senators."
But Senate Republican Leader Paul McKinley says Republicans have "grave concerns" about Gessow.
"And those concerns stem from a failure of him to be forthright about the Atalissa issue," McKinley says. Atalissa is the eastern Iowa city where several dozen mentally retarded men who worked at the West Liberty meatpacking plant lived in a "bunkhouse" that was shut down earlier this year. The only heat in the building was provided by space heaters and state officials say the men were malnourished and hadn’t been to a dentist in years. The Department of Human Services and other state agencies were criticized for failing to shut the place down years before when complaints first surfaced.
McKinley accuses Gessow of being less than honest when he testified before a legislative committee investigating the Atalissa case.
"The one thing we know from the citizens of Iowa, they’re extremely frustrated and what we need is much more transparency in government," McKinley says. "We need much more honesty and much more openness from officials in state government."
John Severtson of Clear Lake leads the Iowa Association of Community Providers and runs Opportunity Village, a non-profit group that provides residential care for about five-hundred mentally retarded and disabled Iowans. "At Opportunity Village and our organization, specifically, we’ve found Gene to be very responsive to our ideas and very willing to listen," Severtson said at today’s news conference.
Severtson spoke by phone with Republican Senator Merlin Bartz yesterday, but didn’t sway Bartz. Bartz intends to vote against Gessow.
"He was disingenuous with the Oversight Committee in regard to the Atalissa situation," Bartz says. "And in Gene’s talking points that he shared with the Human Resources Committee there are some philosophical chasms that I don’t think we could ever overcome, such as wanting to license all child care in the state of Iowa, such as wanting to extend Medicaid benefits to illegal aliens."
If all 18 Republican senators vote against Gessow, he will not be confirmed for the job.