Mayor Frank Cownie is raising money for re-election. Remembering Culver and Flansburg.

Civic Skinny


Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie is out and about raising funds for re-election, and the long-time Democrat is being aided by Republican lawyer and insider Doug Gross. There’s probably a reason. As starters, they are asking 10 business people to cough up $5,000 each.

It’s unclear who or how many people will challenge Cownie, but several are kicking the tires. Cownie, 71, has been mayor since 2004, and by the end of this four-year term he will have been mayor for twice as long as any predecessor. Except in his first race, when he beat Christine Hensley, he has coasted to office.

If he is to be beaten, “it will have to be by a west-sider,” said an old-time politician who watches such things. And, indeed, people on the West side and in Beaverdale tend to turn out for elections in greater numbers, confirms Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald.

Going back to 1956, when Ray Mills was elected to a two-year term, Des Moines has had 13 mayors. Eight were from the West side: Charles Iles, George Whitmer, Tom Urban, Dick Olson, Arthur Davis, Bob Ray, Preston Daniels and Cownie. Three were from the East side: Mills, Reinhold Carlson and John (Pat) Dorian. Two were south-siders: Pete Crivaro and George Nahas.

The election is Nov. 5, and candidates can file between Aug. 26 and Sept. 19. The November election will be the first under Iowa’s new law combining municipal elections with school-board elections, which probably will affect the turnout.

MEANTIME, REPUBLICAN Jim Cownie (he and Mayor Cownie share a great-grandfather) and Democrat Gerry Neugent are out raising several hundred thousand dollars to support a campaign advocating for a one-cent local-option sales tax. The election on that is March 5, and if it passes it will bring in an estimated $37 million a year for the cash-strapped city.

THE FINAL ACCOUNTING has been filed for the estate of Kirk Blunck, the Des Moines architect who died under mysterious circumstance on Jan. 24, 2016, leaving a trail of debts and lawsuits as well as a heritage of being a pioneer in the development of the East Village.

The gross value for estate-tax purposes is $6,549,68.22, according to the court filing. That’s after the many claims against the estate have been settled, but it is not after mortgages or other types of debts he might have had. The number includes art works valued at $1,800,000 and life insurance of $150,000 payable to the estate. Excluded from the estate is another life insurance policy, of $1,020,000, payable directly to his widow.

Blunck died at age 62 on a Sunday afternoon when he fell or was shoved to his death in a stairwell of the East Village’s Teachout Building, which he owned. The Polk County Coroner said the death was caused by “multiple blunt force trauma, manner undetermined.” The family, and some law-enforcement people, believe he was murdered, though no charges ever were brought.

The family, however, filed a wrongful-death action against Zachary Allen Gaskill, a 27-year-old convicted would-be burglar. The suit sought $6,250,000. Gaskill never showed up in court, and the judge entered a default judgment against him for the entire amount.

At the time of his death, there were millions of dollars of claims and lawsuits against Blunck, who had the contradictory life of being a good architect and a bad businessman — in at least one case, a slumlord. Among the claims paid off by the estate was an 18-year-old note to the city, which was in default at his death but which was paid in full with a final $920,276.25 check on Dec. 1 of 2017.

John Culver

John Culver, a bear of a man, had a booming voice, a fierce temper and a magnificent brain.

He used all to his advantage —and to the benefit of Iowans and the nation.

Culver, who died Dec. 26 of kidney disease in Washington at age 86, was a five-term Congressman from Northeast Iowa and then a United States Senator from 1975 to 1981, when he was beaten by Charles Grassley.

He grew up in a staunchly Republican household in Cedar Rapids. He remembered as a teenager picking up the newspaper in the front yard of his home the morning after the 1948 Presidential election and rushing it upstairs to his father. “Dad, Dad, Truman won!” he reported. “John,” his father replied, “that’s nothing to even joke about.”

By the time he got to Congress 17 years later — as a staunch Democrat — he had developed the drive of a Marine captain, the skills of a first-rate lawyer, and the connections and intellect of a Harvard graduate — he was all of those things — along with the compassion of a preacher. He was also a great story-teller.

He was a liberal who always voted his conscience — even when that conscience was at odds with the views of most Iowans. In 1967, his third year in Congress, he voted against a bill that would have made it a federal crime for protesters to burn the American flag, a way of protest that he found deeply offensive. He was one of just 16 Congress members to vote that way, and later he said it was the most important vote he ever cast.

To some Iowans, the vote was courageous. To others, it was outrageous. To him, it was simply the right thing to do. (And, 22 years later, in 1989, the United States Supreme Court embraced Culver’s view on the issue, ruling in a five-to-four decision that flag burning was a form of speech protected by the Constitution.)

Culver understood that freedom, and liberty meant everything. Freedom to speak out. Freedom to march. And freedom to protest in ways that many people — a majority of Americans at that time of bitter divisiveness over the Vietnam war — believed to be criminal.

The vote, he said later, was his “moment of truth.” “My conscience and my constituency were clearly in conflict,” he recalled 20 years later in a speech at Harvard. That vote, early in his career, made all future tough decisions seem not so tough, he said, for it taught him a valuable lesson: “Do what one believes is right, rather than popular at the moment.”

And that’s what he did, without fail.

When he took up a cause, he took it up with every fiber of his body. He would master the facts, then master the politics, then master the oratory. His voice would rise — and sometimes his temper would rise with it — as he argued, be it with his colleagues, his staff or his constituents. (Years later, and mellower, he admitted to a dinner companion that sometimes he planned to lose his temper in an argument, knowing how effective it could be.)

“He is an unusual combination: a man with firm principles and beliefs who is also a practical politician — one who gets in there and does the hard work of legislating, of putting together coalitions, of mediating among the conflicting interests in this country, of making the whole thing go,” reporter Elizabeth Drew wrote in The New Yorker magazine in 1978.

As a legislator, he knew that compromise was “essential to the functioning of our political process.” However, he said, “that compromise should take place regarding issues, not ideals, and the compromise is with competing interests, not with one’s integrity.”

He was very smart. He graduated cum laude from Harvard (where he was the fullback on the football team) and then studied at Cambridge University in England before serving three years in the Marines and then going back to Harvard for law school. He could talk knowingly of Greek philosophers or Linn County corn prices, and in 1999 he co-wrote with former Register reporter John Hyde the definitive biography of Henry A. Wallace, an Iowan who blazed a trail sometimes trod by Culver.

All told, he was elected six times — five times to the House and once to the Senate. But he said it was the seventh election, which he lost decisively to Grassley, that “was the most satisfying and memorable to me.”

“After a defeat,” he told his Harvard audience, “you have plenty of time to think about what you did wrong. Looking back on that campaign, I am sure we most likely made some tactical errors. But I have no regrets and no second thoughts, for one simple reason: I said and did what I believed to be right.” 

Jim Flansburg

Jim Flansburg did not suffer fools gladly or editors at all.

As best he could, he ignored both.

He had even more disdain for owners of newspapers. “I assure you that, in the final analysis, all owners are horses—-,” he once said.

But he loved newsrooms — in his day, a “mixture of bums and gentlemen” — and was dedicated to newspapering and to his job. That job, for a generation or so, was informing Iowans about what was going on, first at City Hall in Des Moines and, later, in the Statehouse. Early on, he figured fools couldn’t help him and editors could only crimp him, so he simply went out every day on his own to find out what was going on and then reported it.

Along the way, he became certainly the best political reporter in the state and perhaps the best reporter on any beat in Iowa. His method was simple: “Learn more about your subject than the subject knows. Know more about what is going on in the legislature and in the law-making than the legislators and the governor know.”

Then, he said in an interview for a University of Iowa oral-history project in 1998, “restrain yourself…rather than go crazy with the enormous detail” you’ve gathered. In an era when the Register was state-wide and enormously influential, that watchful eye kept the politicians honest and the readers informed.

He was raised in Tiffin, Iowa — his dad and uncle owned the hardware store there — and he knew as a boy he wanted to be a newspaperman. He studied journalism at the University of Iowa — an education interrupted by a stint with the Army in Korea — and upon graduation in 1957 he joined the evening Des Moines Tribune as a $70-a-week reporter. He moved over to the morning Register in 1965, became chief political writer in 1971 and editorial page editor in 1983. He stepped down from that role in 1989 but continued writing a column until he retired in 1997.

“It was just incredibly heady” being a newspaper reporter, he recalled. “My Lord. Nothing was asked of you except to go out and find the news and write it and make sense of it. And they put your name above it and pay you for it….” He viewed being a reporter as “something sacred…a calling.”

He had an ego, or maybe he was just supremely confident, and a temper, or maybe that was just part of an act. Young reporters — who sometimes called him The General, and not necessarily with affection — often gave him wide berth. So did some politicians, including the amiable Bob Ray, who was governor for 14 years while Flansburg was the Register’s main political reporter. “I never could figure out if Flansburg liked me,” Ray told a friend long after leaving the Governorship.

But if they feared him, the reporters and the politicians also respected him. You couldn’t fool Flansburg, former Lt. Gov. Art Neu used to say. And, he added, woe be to anyone who did try to fool him.

He could tell wonderful stories, but he wasn’t given to small talk. His son, Jim, recalled the other day that the conversations at the Flansburg house “were rich and deep, even when we were kids.” And in contrast to his gruff, take-no-prisoners persona at the office, Flansburg was a loving dad at home on Urbandale Avenue, where he and his wife, Carol, raised three daughters and a son. (Carol Flansburg “was upset about equal rights before women were invented,” Don Kaul once said.)

“He taught us to love nature, from ants to pets to deer and everything in between,” his son said. “He would take us on nature walks. When he heard a bird sing, he would know precisely what kind of bird” it was. Flansburg the father once saw his son stomp on an ant hill. “Dad stopped me, asking, ‘How would you like it if someone came and stomped on your house?’

“He loved all creatures great and small.”

 And he hated all stomping, small and great — on ants by little boys or on citizens by big politicos.

Or on politicians by grumpy columnists. After writing a column, he told the University of Iowa interviewers, “I ask myself, ‘Does this represent honest, intelligent analysis or is this the bitchery of a grouchy old man whose knee hurts.”  He added: “You have to watch that kind of thing.”

(The father was puzzled that three of his four children initially became journalists.  “I guess they figured if I could do it, anybody could,” he said.)

As Flansburg got old, macular degeneration took most of his eyesight and dementia took most of his mind. By 2011, he could no longer live at home. In the past year, he didn’t recognize his children when they visited. He was dimly aware that his wife died in 2015. “I presume your mother has died,” he said to his daughter Jane in a moment of lucidity three months after the fact. She said yes. “I always loved her,” he said and burst into tears. “Within a minute or two, dementia returned and he started whistling,” his son said.

James Sherman Flansburg had just turned 87 when he died of dementia on Jan. 30.

I RETURNED to Des Moines to become executive editor of the Register and Tribune in January of 1974. I had known Jim for years — he was a young reporter when I was working there summers during college in the 1950s, and my father and brother knew him — and on my first day in my new job he walked into my office.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said, and we chatted for a couple of minutes.

Then he said: “I just want you to know, if there’s ever anyone you want me to get, I’ll get him.”

I was taken aback. That’s not the way the Register or I operate, I told him. “I know,” he said, “but I just want you to know the offer is on the table.” He then walked out.

Years later, after he retired and after we had become good friends, I asked him about that. “That has always troubled me,” I told him.

“Aw,” he said, “I was just testing you.”

 — Michael Gartner