‘Suspicious’ endorsement chase raises ethical questions for Iowa congressional candidate Melissa Vine weeks before Democratic primary

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Iowa 3rd District Democratic congressional candidate Melissa Vine speaks to party regulars in Red Oak Saturday night. (Photo By Douglas Burns)
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By Douglas Burns, The Iowa Mercury

Red Oak, Iowa – Iowa Democratic congressional candidate Melissa Vine stuck the landing for the vast majority of an exchange with an audience of party regulars in rural southwest Iowa Saturday night as they spooned up soups and delighted in homemade deserts.

Vine, a Des Moines Democrat and non-profit executive seeking the 3rd Congressional District seat, presented herself as the more forceful pro-choice candidate on abortion in the primary with Lanon Baccam, a former U.S. Agriculture Department official and military veteran who also lives in Des Moines. Both candidates are on the record as supporting choice.

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At the dinner, Vine made the case that abortion will be a defining issue in the election — and that having a pro-choice female on the November ballot is a winning decision for Democrats as they select a general-election opponent for the decidedly anti-abortion incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Zach Nunn.

“I do believe with that being top of mind for voters, especially in Iowa, I think it gives us one more reason this campaign can be strong — as a female candidate with folks thinking about abortion as top of mind, both at the state and federal level,” Vine said in the speech to Montgomery County Democrats in Red Oak.

That argument is one of the reasons the vice chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Party, Barb Nelson, a farmer and retired educator, had donated to Vine’s campaign and had planned to vote for her in just weeks in the June 4 primary. 

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But Nelson changed her mind within minutes after she asked Vine about her campaign’s scheme to stack dozens of new members with small donations in the Iowa Unity Coalition before that political action committee’s recent endorsement vote. Nelson asked Vine to explain the endorsement-chasing controversy that has resulted in an ethics complaint from the the Iowa Unity Coalition — one that today led to the Vine’s firing of Campaign Manager Lou McDonald.

“She’s referencing an article that came out this week by my opponent,” Vine said in Red Oak. “I will say this. There’s always a bigger story, right? One of our campaign values is to build our party so we made a decision as a campaign to not give more oxygen to a story that would potentially have negative ramifications on our party and rather focus on keeping things positive.”

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Barb Nelson, the vice chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Party, stirs soups for a dinner in a Red Oak church Saturday night. Nelson asked congressional candidate Melissa Vine pointed questions about her campaign tactics. (Photo By Douglas Burns)

When Iowa Mercury pointed out during the forum that Nelson was referencing a Des Moines Register newspaper story, not a news release or a campaign ad from Baccam, Vine said, “That is correct.”

Does she stand by the tactics of her campaign to seek the endorsement?

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“There was an accusation made about one of my staffers doing something and so my staffer acknowledged that a mistake was made. We remedied the situation as soon as we became aware of it,” Vine said Saturday night in Red Oak. “And I think sometimes in politics, right, we might want to make stories out of things. We’re just not wanting to make a big focus on something that could be detrimental to the Democratic Party.”

Nelson, who lives near Stanton where she farms with her family, said she had been energized by Vine.

“I am disappointed in her answer,” Nelson said of question on the endorsement strategy. “It was not at all strong. It was like evasive. It was like it’s a non issue. And I think it’s a huge issue.”

“It was a news story. She said there’s always more to the story. Well, tell us more,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the “bottom dropped out” of Vine’s ability as a candidate with the comments in Red Oak. Nelson said she doesn’t believe the campaign endorsement chasing is just a mistake. McDonald accompanied Vine the Red Oak party dinner Saturday at the First Congregational UCC Church in that city, the county seat of Montgomery County.

“I’m going to vote for Lanon Baccam,” Nelson said of the looming primary.

The Iowa Unity Coalition, once the voting membership was cleared of the questionable Vine supporters, endorsed Baccam.

The chairman of the Iowa Unity Coalition, Mitch Henry, a veteran political activist whose work dates back to the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, filed an ethics complaint against the Vine campaign.

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board is expected to consider the complaint this Thursday in a special meeting at 3 p.m.

Henry said his organization noticed suspicious activity with endorsement voting on April 30.

For his part, Henry, who provided Iowa Mercury with emails  and other exchanges with the Vine campaign, including what Henry described as a “threatening” voicemail from McDonald, said he believes the effort to sign up members, pay for them, and then tilt his organization’s endorsement was clearly not a surprise to Vine, who is set to graduate from Drake University Law School on Saturday. Vine was in the loop, Henry said.

Vine’s campaign did not take two phone calls from Iowa Mercury or respond to emailed questions.

For his part, Henry thinks Vine should drop out of the congressional race.

“How can a person like this who is a head of non profit, who is getting her law degree this weekend from Drake University be so ethically impaired?” Henry said. “She’s ethically impaired.”

“She was fully aware of what was happening,” Henry said.

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(Douglas Burns, a fourth-generation Iowa journalist from Carroll, is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative. Read dozens of the most talented writers in Iowa in just one place. The Iowa Writers’ Collaborative spans the full state. It’s one of the biggest things going in Iowa journalism and writing now — and you don’t want to miss. This collaborative is — as the outstanding Quad Cities journalist Ed Tibbetts says — YOUR SUNDAY IOWA newspaper. )

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