OTTUMWA — When told he’s made a politician mad, state Sen. Mark Chelgren’s first response has often been a quiet yet seemingly proud chuckle.
It’s one of the messages Chelgren has repeated: He’s in Des Moines for constituents, not to make his party, or any other party, happy. The media has done more than one story sparked by messages from his fellow Republican senators complaining of how Chelgren was not playing ball.
But Chelgren told an audience at a local coffee house Saturday he also wasn’t interested in saying “no” just to make a point. He understands compromise.
“You actually want to fix problems, not just be a naysayer,” he said.
Chelgren was at the first of several campaign stops over the weekend. He’s running for the Iowa Senate again and will face competition from one of at least two Democrats who want his seat.
Chelgren claims there are times he’s worked with local and state Democrats to get things done, though the party doesn’t usually publicize his efforts — and prefers he not make a big deal out of those cooperative efforts, either. They want their candidates elected, after all, he said. It’s a small price, he added, for actually getting things accomplished.
“I ran for office so I can accomplish things, not so I can just keep running for office.”
And he’s seen changes in Iowa. The tax code is moving toward a more fair balance than when he first went to Des Moines; he’d campaigned, in part, on “fixing” a tax code that gives business a much higher tax rate than residential property owners.
When audience members brought up high taxes even on individuals, Chelgren warned against trying to suddenly make huge governmental changes that can do more harm than good.
“Doing away with Iowa income tax would be a long-term goal,” Chelgren said in response to an audience suggestion.
Yet he agreed that he sees the tax structure being self-defeating even at the personal level. People who make a good living retire, then go to one of the nice, warm states with lower (or no) taxes on retiree pensions. They live there six months and a day, so Iowa gets no taxes from them. Their sons and daughters bring the grandkids down for vacation. After a while, retirees may start thinking, why are we going back and forth? And maybe the kids can get jobs down here.
Doing away with taxes on pensions makes sense, Chelgren said. Because at the other end of the scale, the elderly are some of the most vulnerable citizens.
There are vulnerable citizens, by the way, he said. When he talks to Democrats, he tells them he agrees that our most vulnerable Iowans need help.
“We just disagree on the number,” he said, explaining that some Democrats consider 40 percent of the population as needing to be taken care of, while he believes it’s closer to 5 percent.
At one time, charities helped the poor, but now, he said, it has become the government’s role. The state would be better served by not having the government be the first option for the poor or for those who just don’t want to work.
Another audience member was concerned over people who vote illegally; maybe it’d solve some problems if there were identification required, residents suggested.
“There’s a lot to fix,” said Chelgren. “One loophole: Even if you’re not allowed to vote (for example, an unrestored felon), you are allowed to register to vote.”
In fact, he marveled, going to the DMV to get a license automatically registers you to vote, whether you’re in the country legally, allowed to vote or not allowed to vote.
“However ... for them to vote would be illegal.”
Asked if there are issues that didn’t get brought up this weekend yet still seem to have the public’s interest, Chelgren said, “I’m still hearing a lot about roads.”
— Follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter @couriermark