Blum’s seat is curiously called “most vulnerable”

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The most vulnerable U.S. House of Representatives seat is located in Iowa. That’s what Roll Call, a leading provider of congressional news, recently said about Iowa’s northeast district and its seat holder—Rod Blum.

Iowa is a swing state. Elections, here, have an element of uncertainty. But to be labeled “most vulnerable” out of 435 districts is something. Not everyone in Northeast Iowa resides in the 1st Congressional District, but all should wonder about the makings of the most vulnerable House seat in the country.

According to Ballotpedia, there are two big determining factors: election data and candidate viability.

Election data shows that the party of a newly elected president can be more vulnerable at mid-terms. That vulnerability increases if you’re a Republican representative running for re-election in a district that voted Democratic in the last presidential election. That’s not the case here, as Donald Trump won the district.

Trump’s win over Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, in that district was a narrow one, though, and the district voted for Barrack Obama in the previous two presidential elections.

The margin of victory from past congressional elections is also considered. Slimmer wins increase vulnerability. Blum beat his last opponent by almost eight percentage points—a comfortable victory.

The data shows some signs of vulnerability, but isn’t overwhelming. It’s hard to understand how it places the district more vulnerable than hundreds of others.

Then there’s candidate viability. A strong candidate needs a minimum of three things: a message that resonates with voters, a history that instills confidence and approval, and enough money to run a successful campaign.

Challenger Abby Finkenauer’s message is that she will fight to improve the standard of living for hard-working Americans. This sounds awfully close to fighting for the “forgotten ones” that Trump campaigned for in 2016. His message resonated, and voters put him in office.

The cause was a good one, and we’re beginning to see some positive results. According to Trading Economics, a provider of historical data on economic indicators, wages increased 4.56 percent in April, over the previous April. In fact, since December 2017 monthly wages have consistently been four percent higher than the previous year.

There’s room for improvement, but paychecks are already increasing.

The candidates’ personal histories sharply contrast. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the majority of representatives in the U.S. House are now millionaires. Rod Blum is one of them. To his credit, though, he became a self-made millionaire in the private sector before going to Washington, D.C. There are many government servants who become millionaires during their public service.

Finkenauer’s history is as a solid public servant.

She had previously worked as a page in the Iowa House of Representatives and after graduating from Drake University, she worked as a legislative assistant. In 2014, she was elected as a representative to the Iowa House and won re-election in 2016.

Blum is a success story from the private sector. Finkenauer is a success from the public one. Voters are more frequently choosing outsiders—those who aren’t career government individuals—to fix what’s wrong in Washington.

Strong candidate viability also requires enough money to run a successful campaign. Finkenauer has raised more than a million dollars, keeping her campaign on a level playing field with Rod Blum’s. And according to the Washington Post, the Nancy Pelosi-connected House Majority PAC plans to spend a half million dollars in television advertisements against Rod Blum. There will likely be a healthy response from Republican political action committees.

Finkenauer’s candidacy is certainly viable, but doesn’t seem so extraordinary that it would catapult the 1st Congressional District to most vulnerable status.

Anything can happen in a swing state, but the district’s “most vulnerable” ranking is a head-scratcher.

Rankings and polls, though, are slippery words in politics. Results are concrete.

The sunset deliverer


The shacks, peppered throughout St. Pete’s Beach, are for housing beach chairs. But these hardy Midwesterners saw them as the perfect windbreak from Florida’s unseasonably chilly gusts, even for January.

Sunsets here are renowned, and it was our last vacation night. My husband and I made our way through the squeaky, white sand and hunkered down by our windbreak. Once out of the wind, we could relax and look to the horizon. The sun was on the move.

That’s when the sunset deliverer appeared.

With mixed drink in one hand and a smart phone in the other, he ambled over to the windbreak. I guess he knew the value of a good beach chair shack, too.

He’d been here before. Many times.

Our middle-aged visitor lived just on the other side of the highway. It was an easy walk to get to one of the plentiful beach bars and wind up his day with a favorite drink. He was a bachelor and didn’t have any other family with him. His mother lived in the Midwest. And she worried about him.

That’s the thing about mothers. Even before you were born, she was worrying about you.

We learned a lot about each other in those few minutes. Funny how that can happen with complete strangers. But we weren’t there to talk. The sun was meeting the water. We strode out and clicked away at the colorful sight before us.

Walking back to the windbreak, he got busy texting and attaching his sunset photo. He sent it to his mother.

He does that every night.

It lets her know that he’s ok. I’m guessing his elderly mother sends a quick acknowledgement back, letting him know that she’s ok too.

Maybe he’s not the best at making phone calls. A lot of people aren’t. I got the feeling that many days could go by without a visit on the phone with his mother. With the distance between them, personal visits had to be even tougher to accomplish.

The natural order of life is for our kids to grow up and become independent adults with productive and busy lives of their own. We parents wouldn’t want it any other way.

But no matter how spectacularly autonomous they become, mothers still worry about them. Are they happy? Are they lonely? Are they safe? Are they healthy? The list goes on.

The sunset deliverer knows this. He’s figured out that a mother’s love will also include unnecessary worry over a grown and capable man. It’s all a package deal.

And so even though he doesn’t call, he sends a stunning sunset.

Every night.

Some might feel he’s doing the bare minimum for his elderly parent. Others will see the act as one of great thoughtfulness. It’s not everything, but it’s something.

I watched the sunset deliverer trudge through the deep sand and return to his bar stool, where he comfortably struck up a conversation with the fellow next to him.

It’s sundown at St. Pete’s Beach, and all is well. His mother needn’t worry tonight.

“Right to Try” needs a rewrite


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The “Right to Try” bill makes some procedural changes, intended to help the terminally ill. But without addressing core issues, it could be tough to meet the end goal of giving these individuals what they want and need—a chance.

The proposed federal legislation aims to expand access to experimental or investigational drugs that have cleared phase one testing. The current procedure is to contact the Food and Drug Administration, where a compassionate use request may be made. The new bill could allow that request to be made directly to the drug company.

The bill seems sensible. Patients gain quicker and greater access to experimental and potentially life-saving drugs, and manufacturers are protected from lawsuits if these drugs—not yet approved by the FDA—fail or accelerate the terminal diagnosis.

But although patients may request access to these experimental drugs, there’s no requirement that for-profit companies must grant those requests. In fact, the Senate’s version states, “No liability shall lie against a sponsor, manufacturer, prescriber, dispenser or other individual entity for its determination not to provide access to an eligible investigational drug…”

Dozens of states have similar legislation. Iowa’s law, “…does not require a manufacturer of an investigational drug, biological product, or device to provide or otherwise make available the investigational drug, biological product, or device to an eligible patient.”

Drug companies can’t be forced to provide a developing and preliminary product.

There are several reasons why a manufacturer may deny a compassionate use request for an unapproved drug. One thing that’s certain is that marketing and profitability come only when proven products receive official FDA approval, and that currently requires rigorous, controlled clinical testing.

The standard approval process includes a minimum of three testing phases on humans. Phase one tests 20-80 individuals and emphasizes safety and the discovery of side effects. Phase two tests hundreds of individuals with the disease or condition that the drug hopes to successfully treat. Typically, these are controlled tests with some receiving the experimental drug and others receiving a placebo. It tests for effectiveness and monitors safety. Phase three tests thousands of individuals under controlled conditions where safety and effectiveness continue to be monitored.

There is an accelerated approval program designed to fast-track drugs for life-threatening illnesses. But the fast-track approval process may still not be fast enough for the terminally ill.

And it remains that—despite this legislation that advocates for expanded access of unapproved drugs—the FDA continues to require the manufacturer to successfully finish phase two and three controlled clinical testing in order to potentially receive official drug approval.

It’s not clear, either, whether these separate compassionate use experiences could derail drug approval. The Senate’s version states that it will not use a clinical outcome associated with the use of an investigational drug to delay or adversely affect its review or approval. But the sentence continues with an “unless”—unless the clinical outcome is critical to determining the safety of the eligible investigational drug.

That provides zero clarity and assurances for manufacturers.

The House and Senate have passed their own versions on the “right to try.” Much more thought is needed as they work together to pass a bill that helps the terminally ill.

Consumer safety and company profitability are key in successfully bringing a drug to market for issues that are not life-threatening. The system in place can work well when time is on our side.

The terminally ill, though, need a second system—one where they can request access to a hopeful but unapproved drug and then have that request granted because it’s in the manufacturer’s best interest to do so.

The current bill doesn’t address this problem. For every person battling a terminal illness, I wish it would.

Effective teachers are key in solving school safety issues

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The United States may be the Wild West of the civilized world. Many perceive us as a nation of freedom-loving gun-toters, and it has its perks. It takes a gritty spirit to successfully defend the homeland. We have been unconquered. Not every nation can say that.

Some want to strengthen the Second Amendment, and others want to weaken it. All, though, can recognize the need to balance our freedoms with public safety.

The aftermath of a school mass shooting rightfully focuses on the immediate loss of innocent life. The long-range view, though, is dire as well.

Our schools are already struggling. According to the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, the United States ranked 30th in math and 19th in science out of 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It’s a challenge to find and keep high-performing teachers in the classroom. They deal with multiple frustrations daily—some students who don’t apply themselves, a lack of tools they sometimes need to be successful in their job, and no increased financial reward or recognition for excellent performance.

And now we must add a sense of lack of safety to the mix.

A 2013 School Improvement Network survey reported that 31 percent of educators felt their school was not safe from gun violence. Now, that number has jumped to 69 percent.

At some point, these high-performing teachers will make the reasonable conclusion that they can take their skill set and be equally or more successful in another endeavor. And feel safer.

Our country can’t withstand that loss. A report entitled, “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” published by the Council on Foreign Relations, states, “Human capital will determine power in the current century, and the failure to produce that capital will undermine America’s security. Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy.”

In order to keep our best teachers in the classroom, we must ask them what they need in order to feel safe and keep their students safe. It also wouldn’t hurt to survey our high-achieving college students who are pursuing teaching degrees.

We need to listen—and then deliver to the best of our ability.

There have been many suggestions to make our schools safer: Secure entrances with locked doors that require the individual to be buzzed in, increase police or security officer presence, utilize metal detectors at entrances, strengthen background checks for firearm purchases, allow concealed carry permits in schools, raise the age to purchase certain firearms, eliminate certain firearms, conduct active shooter drills, address mental health and social breakdown issues, educate all that when you “see something, say something,” and hold accountable authorities when they drop the ball.

Some of these solutions must be debated and tackled at the federal or state level. Others can be considered now at the local level. For every solution, there’s the potential of an unintended consequence. And nothing will make our schools 100 percent safe. But teachers’ voices should be one of the loudest when we aim for that goal.

In Iowa, a child who has reached the age of six and is under sixteen years of age by September 15 is of compulsory attendance age. Unless home schooled, kids have no choice and are required to be in these school buildings.

Teachers, though, choose to be in the profession of teaching. And they can choose to leave.

A loss of effective teachers from our schools would be harmful to our nation. A poorly-educated populace could lead to a different kind of Wild West—one that none of us wants.

Nonprofits needn’t worry that fewer will itemize


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The recently passed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (affecting 2018 taxes) will help most middle-class wage earners keep more of their hard-earned dollars. It would be nice to celebrate this tax cut, but those who oppose the law are trying to take the fun out of it with their premonitions of significant drops in charitable giving.

That’s because the standard deduction has doubled to $12,000 for an individual and $24,000 for a married couple. Those are big numbers. Fewer will meet the threshold of $12,000-$24,000 in deductions—such as charitable donations—that bumps them into itemization. Instead, the better deal for this group will be to take the standard deduction.

And so, fewer will itemize.

But the rhetoric surrounding this issue tries to make you believe that charitable giving is the same as itemization of giving. It’s not.

Charitable donations will still happen, whether or not they’re itemized at the end of the year. Potential itemization is not the first or most important thought of donors when they’re considering whether or not to make a contribution.

According to a 2106 Gallup poll, “Donors invest money and effort in charitable organizations when they feel a strong emotional or psychological connection to them.” Also, a 2016 Holiday Giving Survey by World Vision reports that, “Roughly half of Americans (52 percent) would choose to donate to charities that support a cause they are passionate about, and more than one-third (35 percent) say they would choose a charity they have a personal connection to.”

Without surveys and polls, we know this makes sense when we think about where we send our charitable donations. Perhaps believing that no child should go hungry prompts you to donate to the Northeast Iowa Food Bank. Or, maybe the spirit of doing “the wave” at an Iowa football game propelled you to make a financial contribution to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

On the flip side, there may be nonprofits that would never receive your donation dollars—no matter how great the itemization reward. If you’re not a fan of the National Rifle Association or Planned Parenthood, benefits of itemization wouldn’t be enough for you to write the check.

It’s the heart muscle that gets used when donating. It pumps successfully whether using the standard deduction or the itemization process.

Charitable giving depends upon three things. First, citizens must have a disposable income strong enough in order to be able to give. The new tax law helps with that, by allowing individuals and married couples to keep more of the money they earn. Secondly, there must be a strong emotional connection to a cause. There are tens of thousands of worthy nonprofits in the state of Iowa. Pick one. Or two, or four, or more. Lastly, the donor must feel confident that donation dollars are being used wisely by the nonprofit. A 2015 poll conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy states, “When asked about factors that influence their giving, the biggest portion, 68 percent, said it is very important that the charity has evidence that its programs are effective.”

Instead of worrying about the itemization detail, nonprofits should focus their attention on successfully addressing a need that people in the community care about and then being transparent in how donation dollars are spent.

Many people give, but not all need to itemize.

The recent tax cuts were a win for the middle class. Nonprofits can be happy for these taxpayers.

Church leadership moment passes


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Leadership requires the ability to be proactive. Sitting around and waiting for events to unfold is something anyone can do. From our leaders, we expect more.

Recently, the Roman Catholic leadership failed to lead. Again.

Catholic cardinals are considered “princes of the Church.” When one passes away in Rome, the funeral Mass is traditionally grandiose. Rows and rows of fellow princes come to pay homage. The pope, himself, may preside over the funeral rites.

This is all fine and good to honor a beloved servant of the faithful. It’s not what we expect to happen for a serial accomplice to pedophilia.

Two pontiffs ago, Cardinal Bernard Law knowingly and repeatedly moved around pedophile priests enabling them to molest fresh supplies of innocents within the Archdiocese of Boston.

Canon 1329, of the Code of Canon Law, states that, “Accomplices who are not named in a law or precept incur a latae senteniae (excommunication that happens automatically) penalty attached to a delict if without their assistance the delict would not have been committed…”

In this section, Code of Canon Law commentary gives the example of an adult “living in concubinage with a cleric.” Being an accomplice to a priest’s broken vow of celibacy through a consensual sexual relationship would get you excommunicated.

But apparently a cardinal can be an accomplice to mass pedophilia, without penalty.

After the sex abuse scandal broke, Law was moved to Rome where he was appointed archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Many would call that a promotion. He also served on the Congregation for Bishops, which recommends appointments to the pope. The cardinal still wielded power.

Church leadership was fully aware of the funeral protocol expected for a cardinal who dies in Rome. It’s their system. They created it. They could have avoided this special recognition for Law by first not assigning him to a position in Rome. After that lapse in judgment, a second error was made by failing to adjust the protocol of the funeral Mass for this particular cardinal.

Because of a lack of sensitivity and foresight, the Church reopened wounds and caused fresh pain for the victims who were set up by Law. He received a majestic farewell. The abused will not.

With Law’s passing, the Church had one last chance to show accountability to the people of the Archdiocese of Boston. Once again, though, the moment dissipated.

Clericalism—the setting apart of the priesthood class over and above the laity—continues to reign in the Roman Catholic Church.

The funeral Mass—any funeral Mass—is a time of asking for God’s mercy and not the time to denigrate the deceased. However, Law’s funeral could have been respectful without being quite so grand. A smaller rite would have been more appropriate.

Strong and just leadership would have known that.


Ethics are a good thing, until they diminish the law

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A civilized nation relies upon the rule of law. Lately, though, our nation seems more fascinated with the nuances of ethics than with a code of law. Maybe we’re becoming less civilized.

Ethics are abstract guidelines of acceptable behavior that require only a credible (believable) standard of proof in order to condemn, with no legal binding. On the other hand, laws are written rules that require a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and if found guilty is punishable with fines and/or imprisonment.

It seems pretty clear where we should be focusing our attention, and yet the news is filled with stories about scandalous ethics violations instead of real criminal charges. It becomes difficult to remember that an ethics accusation does not carry the same weight as a criminal conviction.

Or, it shouldn’t.

Television journalists, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, were immediately fired after allegations of sexual harassment.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., is welcoming a congressional ethics investigation after a photo surfaced of him during his comedian career days with his hands on the breasts of a sleeping and unsuspecting woman.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., stepped down from the Judiciary Committee after multiple staffers accused him of sexual harassment.

And the Republican senatorial candidate in Alabama, Roy Moore, is accused of sexual misconduct with several individuals including a 14-year-old child several decades ago. The election is just weeks away, and he is under heavy pressure from members of both political parties to exit the race.

None of the allegations have resulted in charges of criminal activity.

If a law is broken, the breaker should be prosecuted and those who have been victimized should receive justice. Let the alleged offenders have their day in court to determine guilt or innocence, and let the alleged victims seek restoration through prosecution and the hopes that the abuse will not happen to others. And it needs to be done long before any statutes of limitations run out.

Lauer and Rose were fired by their employers. Voters will eventually determine the fates of Franken, Conyers and Moore.

For the most part, employers can fire at will and voters can fire on Election Day. That certainly includes firing individuals who at least appear to be unethical or criminal.

It just seems that the right thing to do would be to determine guilt first—before punishment.

But that’s not where this civilized nation is trending.