Conlin and the “empty chair” routine

It’s about 10 ’til three on a Sunday afternoon. Roxanne Conlin, the Iowa Democratic Party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate, is working the crowd in this room at the downtown Des Moines library.  In a few minutes Conlin will be debating an “empty chair” — a “stunt” according to Grassley spokesman Eric Woolson.

Conlin says she got the idea from Barbara Grassley, who suggested to Republican congressional candidate Marinnette Miller-Meeks that she do the “empty chair routine” if Congressman Dave Loebsack, a Democrat from Marion, refused to debate.

“At this time, it’s five after three and it appears that Mr. Grassley has not shown, so we will be proceeding with the debate,” moderator Julie Stauch just said.

There’s not an empty chair, by the way.  Instead, there’s a lectern behind which Grassley won’t be standing.  Conlin is standing behind one of them.

“I think most people agree that Washington is broken.  Everyone is tired of the bickering…and the hyper-partisanship…and I want to go there to fight to fix it,” Conlin said to begin.  She then launched into her biography.

The first topic, or “question” is about Senator Grassley’s campaign ad and his assertion that he had to compromise to get Medicare Part D through congress.

“Well, if I may answer the question on his behalf,” Conlin said. “Senator Grassley’s Part D…was the biggest give-away to the drug companies in the history of the United States of America…The drug companies won.  Seniors lost.  Seniors are now paying 80 percent more for their drugs then they did before.”

Conlin is looking at the empty space behind the neighboring lectern, as she poses a question in her comment.

A couple of people in the crowd clapped as Conlin concluded her answer.  The moderator admonished the crowd, reminding them to hold their applause until the conclusion of the event.

“I wouldn’t mind,” Conlin interjected.

The Conlin campaign employed what they called “technology” in the next segment.  Characterizing the second segment as a “candidate-to-candidate” question, Conlin spoke briefly about PACs. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

At this point, the Conlin campaign played a snippet of something Grassley said on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” which aired last week (it was a joint Grassley/Conlin appearance on IPTV).

Grassley: “I have two conditions for taking money:  one, is it legal, and two, are there any strings attached.”

Conlin “responded” to the video clip: “The standard he sets for himself is extremely low…I think people are very queasy about money in politics.”

The next topic was filibusters, followed by the topics of “privatizing” Social Security and gay rights.

Woolson, the Grassley campaign spokesman, emailed a statement:

“She’s perfectly welcome to talk to an empty chair because I’m sure she’s talked to a lot of empty chairs this year. The empty chair may represent the jobs that would be lost due to her job-killing policies.”

Conlin used the event to address the Grassley campaign criticism of her husband, James Conlin, for getting gov’t subsidies to build low-income housing.

Conlin said those government tax credits are completely different from the farm subsidies Grassley receives.  “That goes into his pocket,” Conlin said.

Conlin said, by comparison, the tax credits are used to build low-income apartments.  “It doesn’t come to us,” Conlin said. “It goes into the building.”  It’s the way the projects are financed, Conlin said, based on a “public-private partnership” that was established by a federal law, a law Grassley voted for.

“I’m very proud of what my husband has done for a living,” Conlin told the crowd of about 200.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.


  1. I understand Grassley won the debate.


  1. […] Roxanne Conlin, I asked Grassley what he thought of the “empty chair” (actually “empty lectern debate”) Conlin held Sunday by herself in what she lamented wasn’t an actual […]