Dirty Politics in Davenport Print
Commentary/Politics - Editorials
Tuesday, 06 November 2001 18:00
The Reader has been publishing since 1993, which means we’ve witnessed a fair number of elections. None has been so fraught with dirty politics than Davenport’s 5th Ward race between incumbent Wayne Hean and his opponent Bill Holgerson. The interesting thing is that neither candidate appears to be behind the mud slinging, at least not directly. Instead, it appears that the attacks are primarily aimed at Hean, and are being attributed to a highly disgruntled citizen, Dan Lubell, with the help of his political consultant, Steve Grubbs.

Mr. Lubell’s apparent dissatisfaction with Alderman Hean is the result of proposals being made by the city’s housing department relative to a two-year study it recently completed on contract home sales in Davenport. Lubell is one of the principals in First Financial, a company that engages in contract sales as a regular part of its business endeavors. Alderman Hean supported the city’s recommendations that would bring accountability to certain aspects of contract home sales, such as inspections of homes at the time of the sale. Much of the campaign literature against Hean claims that Hean supports governmental inspection of contract home sales, but not bank-loan home sales. What the literature fails to mention is that all banks require appraisals of the homes they loan on, and that the state requires full disclosure of all problems in the home prior to sale. None of these safeguards is present in contract sales. Not to mention that a significant problem has been identified nationwide with contract home sales and their contribution to blighted neighborhoods precisely because of this lack of oversight and accountability. This is not to say all contract home sales cause blight, which is the false spin being given to Alderman Hean’s support of the safeguards proposed.

Lubell hired political consultant Steve Grubbs of Victory Enterprises to present a more positive view of contract sales to the council in hopes of defeating any legislation that might impede these kinds of transactions. Alderman McGivern was highly instrumental in making sure the council killed any proposals that would add consumer protections to contract sales, claiming that inspections were an infringement on property rights. However the Iowa Attorney General saw it differently and said the city had a right to enact its own ordinances to that end. Unfortunately, this has not yet occurred.

But because there were other aspects to First Financial’s contracts that were questionable—such as not allowing buyers to deduct the interest portion of their payments from their income taxes, or ballooning the loan after just two years and refinancing at a higher purchase price, or not amortizing the payments so that equity could be built in a reasonable timeframe—these transactions are being viewed as leases with purchase options, rather than contract sales.

Coincidentally, several months ago, Lubell began criticizing Hean’s renovation of a dilapidated historic home in the East Village. The criticism depicted Hean himself as an owner of a deteriorated property that was contributing to blight in the neighborhood, and that he was a pot calling the kettle black, so to speak. However, this comparison is thoroughly misleading. The property Hean bought was nearly destroyed from neglect. The city had cited it for numerous code violations, and it was on a well-established trajectory for demolition because it was apparent that the owner did not have the wherewithal to remedy the situation. Although not physically scheduled for tear-down, the house met all the criteria for demolition rather than stabilization.

Because the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, not to mention located in the historic East Village district, and because it is purportedly the second oldest structure in the Quad Cities, its historical significance is enormous. Hean bought the property with the intention of restoring it with historical accuracy. He sought a State Historical Society grant to assist in this effort. Hean was awarded the grant, which is only a small portion of the overall cost of the renovation project. The campaign literature criticizing him for this grant claims he is using taxpayers’ money to fix the roof on his home. Hardly an accurate characterization. Not only is the grant from the state just a small portion of the renovation costs, Hean’s considerable investment in the project will ultimately improve a blighted property in the neighborhood and eliminate a safety hazard. Furthermore, the project is consistent with a neighborhood-wide effort to revitalize the East Village using historical architecture. Finally, the property will once again contribute far more to the property tax base than it otherwise would as an abandoned structure or vacant lot.

Unfortunately, Hean’s opponents would have the public believe otherwise. In a deliberate attempt to discredit Hean just before the election, Ron Gruehagen, a fellow member with Lubell of the Quad City Rental Association, sent a letter of complaint to the Attorney General accusing Hean of falsifying documents on the application, and of inflating costs. The Attorney General’s office forwarded the complaint to the State Historical Society, which issued a statement fully exonerating Hean from any wrongdoing. But not before Jeff Wallace, another citizen claiming that politicians should be held accountable, but who admits he never reviewed any of the evidence supporting the accusations, sent a press release to the media reiterating the accusations. Channel 8 and Channel 18 ran the story without due diligence to find out if the story had merit. Both stations realized their error, and the following evening broadcast the state’s findings that Hean was in “complete compliance with all REAP guidelines and administrative rules.”

Gruehagen submitted an estimate to the state, along with his letter of complaint, as a reference for comparison to support his accusation of “bloated costs.” However, upon review, it was discovered that his estimate was not an apples-to-apples comparison. When asked why not, Gruehagen admitted that he had not seen the estimate before he sent it to the state. When asked what circumstances caused him to write the letter in the first place, he claimed he had been looking into historic preservation for nearly six months, so he called the State to get an application and copies of other people’s grants, including Hean’s. He said that the problems with Hean’s application “jumped out at me.” However, a spokesperson for the State Historical Society confirmed that Gruehagen specifically requested Hean’s application only. Gruehagen claimed that he had originally spoken to city staff about historic preservation, but could not recall any names of those he spoke with on the subject. Finally, when asked if he had been advised by anyone on the content of the letter and supporting documentation, he admitted that he had, but was unwilling to disclose by whom. Jeff Wallace claims he was the author of the press release he sent to the media, but when asked to elaborate on its content, was unable to do so. He claimed he overheard some people talking about the letter to the State. When asked whose conversation he overheard, he refused to answer, explaining the parties had asked him not to disclose the information. Wallace said he called Gruehagen to investigate what he had overheard. But when asked if he had seen any evidence for himself, Wallace admitted he had not, but that he had been assured documentation could be produced. When Wallace was told about the state’s letter exonerating Hean of any wrongdoing, his commented, “Well, politicians should expect this kind of thing. Look what happened to Clinton.”

The same day that the state sent its letter of exoneration, a pamphlet appeared in the 5th Ward citing similar accusations against Hean, but including criticisms of Hean’s position on contract sales. The criticisms were highly skewed to inflame voters, with a clear mischaracterization of the facts about Hean’s renovation project. The pamphlet appeared to be the work of a group calling themselves Citizens for Good Neighborhoods. However, the group turned out to be a one-man show, with hired consultant Steve Grubbs authoring the pamphlet and distributing it, according to its solitary member, Van Willows. He admitted that he was approached by Lubell to circulate the pamphlet, and agreed to hire Steve Grubbs to author it. Willows, who is considered to be a true-blue activist for Davenport’s west end, and who consistently fights the good fight with a refreshing honesty and integrity, admits it is possible he could have been misled by those who involved him in this activity. Willows stands by his criticism of inspections of contract sales as an intrusion of those who participate in such transactions, but he concedes that there are likely remedies that would benefit all parties. He was not aware of the state’s exoneration of Hean, and admitted that he should have looked into it more before involving himself.

Several letters were included in a packet sent by Holgerson’s campaign citing some of these same criticisms, including misinformation that Hean voted against the relocation of the Humane Society to Brady Street. What wasn’t disclosed was that Hean voted against the relocation due to the high protest rate by the surrounding neighbors. But he helped negotiate a filtration system to be installed by the Humane Society, thereby substantially reducing the protest rate, whereupon he ultimately voted “yes” for the relocation. The campaign literature never tells that part of the story. When asked to respond to this misinformation, Holgerson admitted that he learned of Hean’s final “yes” vote after the literature was mailed. He said that he regrets it, but that there has been some unbecoming things happening on the parts of both campaign camps. Holgerson claims he has received many unfriendly calls, and that his signs are being stolen from yards, costing him enormously. This same claim of stolen signs is coming from Hean’s people, and it appears that no single campaign is responsible, but that possibly a mean-spirited citizen or group of citizens are the perpetrators. If so, be warned that it is much more than a misdemeanor if you get caught. Signs are expensive and the crime will reflect such.

Finally, Hean is characterized as being against new jobs and economic growth in Davenport because he opposed a TIF for Sentry Insurance. Once again, to refresh people’s memories, Sentry Insurance migrated from Moline over to Davenport. But before they did, they laid off at least 100 people. Once they got across the river over to the Iowa side, they rehired nearly 100 people and called it job creation. Meanwhile, it created ill will with Moline because they were not given an opportunity to see if they could keep the company. This ill will was further exacerbated by the fact that the cities have an agreement between them promising not to recruit from each other. Sentry Insurance received tax increment financing to finance their real estate deal. Everyone made out except the taxpayers, who will forgo the property taxes for the next 10 years for one of the most productive pieces of land in the city. But we will still pay for all their services. Sentry Insurance was a classic example of the abuse of TIF that continues to occur with the help of special interest advocates like Alderman McGivern. Hean was the only alderman to vote against such abuse and he should be lauded for it.

Why is this information important now that the election is over? Because this dirty politicking needs to be exposed. We need to draw the line locally if we ever expect to get better on any other level. It is one thing to be misleading. It is entirely another to conspire to discredit a candidate. I do not believe that Holgerson was a willing participant of this conspiracy. But those with political experience should know better than to deliberately craft misleading information, let alone make accusations that cross the line of ethical conduct. Some would argue that this is just politics, and the rule is that there are no rules of ethics. But are these accusations and criticisms, even though they are either unfounded or half-truths, legitimate political strategies? Or are they mean-spirited tactics as Hean claims in his letter to the 5th Ward responding to all the negative campaign literature against him? Calls were repeatedly made to Grubbs and Lubell for their input, but they were unavailable for comment.

We could argue all day about whether or not there is a “basis for facts in dispute, relative to the accusations against Hean that were sent to the state,” and it looks like the court will get to decide because Hean has brought a suit against Gruehagen. Gruehagen does not live in Davenport, let alone Hean’s ward. Willows also is not a resident of the 5th Ward. Most of the opponents spearheading the negative campaign against Hean are not residents of his ward. The attack was against Hean personally in some cases, others tried to distort his voting record. It is hard enough to make intelligent decisions about candidates without personal vendettas surfacing in the form of negative campaign misinformation. The only people that this kind of politicking should discredit are those who perpetrated it on the voters of Davenport.