Update: The Full Grassley Reimagined

Iowans love a lot of weird things. Food on a stick, for example. Or bacon, Maytag Blue Cheese, de Burgo sauce, and/or La Quercia prosciutto being included in staple dishes that absolutely do not warrant or require them. Iowans love humble-bragging about how modest and friendly they are. The most modest and friendly, in fact. And by golly, they’ve got the stats to prove it. Though they’re too modest and friendly to rub your noses in them. Much. Daytime drinking is also quite well-loved in Iowa, as are unique regional wines and cocktails. The fetishes about the two major state universities’ sports teams are mind-boggling and absurd in their intensity and frequency of expression, and I say that as someone raised in the sports-mad Cocks vs Tigers and Heels vs Pack parts of the country. (There are some other unique sporting events hereabouts too). Pork tenderloin sandwiches, Federal subsidies, caucus miscounts, and biking while blasting boomboxes (grrrr!) on the way to daytime drinking are also well-loved by Iowans.

Perhaps particularly odd among Iowa’s greatest loves are its array of tiny counties (99 of them!), and the widely-held expectation that Presidential wannabes and State-wide politicians must visit them all. Completing that circuit is known as “The Full Grassley,” after our senior citizen senior Senator’s oft-stated annual habit. I completed my own Full Grassley in 2011-2012, just because. Following that grueling exercise in road trippery, I had written a piece noting that the sizes and populations of Iowa’s counties were well out-of-line with national norms, and I made a modest proposal regarding a possible fix for that situation. In short, I deemed 17 counties to be “keepers” for a variety of reasons, and then suggested combining the other 82 into 41 to reduce governmental expense and redundancy in parts of the state where the interests and concerns of neighboring counties are virtually indistinguishable one from the other.

I re-ran that article a couple of weeks back to mark the occasion of COVID-19 completing its own Full Grassley. I ended it with this open appeal: “I would love to see someone with mad map skills take a crack at demonstrating how to best double up those 82 box counties, so if you think like I do, how about getting out your colored pencils and sharing what a new and improved Iowa County Map can and should look like in the 21st Century and beyond?”

I’m pleased to report today that I’ve had a taker for that request, and I love the outcome she sent me. Long-time reader Liz Cruz is also a long-time cartographer, and is married to a native Iowan, so she clearly possesses the chops and perspective to tackle the job. Here’s what she came up with (click the image for a larger PDF version of the map):

It’s an elegant and aesthetically pleasing solution to the exercise. The counties in red are the 17 that I deemed worthy of preservation as they currently stand. The other county combos are built around a mix of vertical, horizontal and diagonal pairings that effectively break up the monotonous box culture of the current map. The merged populations of the counties are also very helpful to see, as none of the newly configured counties would break into the Top Ten by population, affirming my sense that there’s a fundamental difference in that current most-populous roster (all included in the red counties) and the rest of the state. Also noteworthy: the smallest new county would have just a hair under 10,000 residents; right now there are 25 counties below that threshold.

I do note that Iowa is not completely homogeneous, and that there are subtle cultural, industrial, religious, and agricultural differences in various regions of the State, but (again) having visited all 99 of the current counties, I see none of the proposed pairings that would dramatically cross any of those regional barriers in ways that would make such pairings ineffective or inefficient. The options for new county seats are also interesting: in many of the paired counties, there’s clearly one of the two current seats of government that’s larger than the other and could effectively continue to serve its leadership role, while its sister former-seat’s municipal facilities could be used for other value-added community purposes.

Good stuff, on all levels! Thanks to Liz for taking a stab at it! I guess now I just need to convince the Governor and the State Legislature to get this done. (Iowa’s State and Federal legislative districts are not tied to county lines, meaning their own seats would not necessarily change in any ways beyond normal ten-year redistricting). So who knows a good lobbyist who doubles as a map nerd and is a fan of tilting at windmills? (The metaphorical ones, I mean. Not the ubiquitous Iowa wind turbines, that harvest the never-ending breezes hereabouts, and generate nice rental income for farmers). We’ve got a concept, we’ve got a map, we’ve got a cause, now we just need to get a political patron. I can state with certainty that this undertaking is less absurd than countless others that lobbying interests represent, in Iowa and elsewhere!

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