Judging Iowa: Gay Rights, Good Law, and Why the Election Results Don't Really Matter

I spent election night at the party for Alexi Giannoulias, the Democrat running for Illinois's Senate seat. It was at the international ballroom of a swanky hotel, in the shadow of Chicago's ultra-chic Aqua Tower. The crowd, mostly suited and tied but occasionally volunteer-T-shirted, was abuzz -- the big media narrative was all wrong, people said. We've been knocking on doors. Politics is still local. The big money and the national issues won't trump Alexi's smile and some good old-fashioned turnout.

Of course, it wasn't much of a party. Giannoulias lost -- it was close, but he lost. And all around the country, the narrative was pretty much right: massive outpourings of third-party cash and a general anti-progressive frustration cost the Democrats just about as much as everyone thought it would, if not a little more.

Nowhere was that clearer than just over the Mississippi from me, in the normally inoffensive judicial retention vote in Iowa. Since Iowa put its Supreme Court judges on the ballot, to be retained or recalled, in 1962, the electorate has sent home a total of zero judges. Until this year, of course, when it recalled all three names on the ballot: Justices David Baker, Michael Streit, and Chief Justice Marsha Ternus.

There's no doubt as to why. A well-financed, well-coordinated campaign -- with out-of-state backing from the same folks who supported Prop 8 in California -- pressed Iowans to vote the judges out for their ruling in Varnum v. Brien, the landmark case that legalized same-sex marriage.

It won by spending piles of cash on such charming ads as these:

The retention vote is a nice microcosm of the national scene. A lot of good public servants (and, admittedly, plenty of mediocre ones, in Congress anyway) lost their jobs for taking a potentially unpopular stand for fairness, for extending rights to the disenfranchised -- be it marriage for gays and lesbians or healthcare for the poor and unemployed.

But the parallel goes one step further: the election results, while they might sting, don't really matter. Fairness has already won.

William Saletan at Slate says it better than I could. On the many pundits who said the health care bill cost Democrats the election:

If health care did cost the party its majority, so what? The bill was more important than the election...
A party that loses a House seat can win it back two years later, as Republicans just proved. But a party that loses a legislative fight against a middle-class health care entitlement never restores the old order.

The same is true in Iowa, even if the analogy isn't perfect: those judges, rightly or wrongly, are departing from the bench, but judges come and go. The entrenched legal precedent established in Varnum, and the plain soundness of the ruling, mean that marriage equality is likely to stick around in the Hawkeye State.

Yes, it stings to lose sixty seats, to watch three good justices get the boot. But it compares favorably to that other election night result, the one I learned on my laptop while waiting for Alexi's results to come in. In spite of the tide, and the lost Congressional seats, Illinois Democrats retained their firm hold over the state legislature.

How'd they do that, in a year when 19 state legislatures flipped from blue to red? Some of it was old-fashioned machine politics, but a lot of it was done by strategically deferring any potentially unpopular vote on anything that really mattered until after the election. Chief among those votes was a tax increase to help close Illinois's gaping budget deficit, which has left social services shuttering their doors and schools unable to pay their staff. That vote will come up in this winter's veto session. One controversial vote that isn't likely to make it through is on SB 1716, the bill that would allow gay couples the same rights as straight ones.

Our Democratic speaker kept his job in Illinois, as did our Democratic governor. But when I try to cajole my brother -- an openly gay Brooklynite -- into moving to Chicago when he gets his Master's this May, I still have to add a caveat: if you want to live in a state where your future spouse can visit you in the hospital, hey, it's only a three-hour drive to Iowa.

This post originally appeared on Bachelors of the Arts, a blog of cultural-criticism essays. Read more from Bachelors of the Arts: on the novel in the age of pornography, the smartphone to "save us from our phones", and more.