DES MOINES — A panel of state officials concluded Friday that former state lawmaker Tony Bisignano should be allowed to run for the Iowa Senate.
Attorney General Tom Miller, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, and State Auditor Mary Mosiman considered a challenge by one of Bisignano's Democratic primary opponents, Ned Chiodo, who claims Bisignano is disqualified from running because he was convicted of second-offense drunken driving in January.
Chiodo's attorney, Gary Dickey, argued on Wednesday that the aggravated misdemeanor falls under the state's constitutional definition of an infamous crime, which means Bisignano cannot vote or hold public office.
He bases his argument on an article in the Iowa Constitution that says a person convicted of any infamous crime shall not have the privilege of holding public office. Court decisions and legislative action over the years have made the definition of an infamous crime rather fuzzy.
In the early 1900s, the courts concluded that an infamous crime was anything which resulted in a prison sentence. That was reaffirmed in the 1950s. However, in the 1970s, the legislature revised the criminal code and in some circumstances required individuals convicted of aggravated misdemeanors to serve prison sentences.
Miller acknowledged that changed things dramatically, in that it could disqualify many voters convicted of aggravated misdemeanors including public intoxication.
"Common sense tells us the court never intended that," he said.
In 1994, the Iowa Legislature defined infamous crimes as state felonies and crimes considered felonies under federal statutes.
Since Bisignano was not charged with a felony, Miller said he should be able to vote and to run for public office.
Miller said the impact of declaring aggravated misdemeanors infamous crimes would mean between 35,000 and 50,000 Iowans would be stripped of their right to vote.
"This is quite a weighty matter and it is appropriate to consider that in the context of our analysis," he said. "The right to vote is so fundamental in our state an in our country that the court considers that something important in its analysis and we should too."
"Mr. Bisignano has the right to run for election as well as the right to vote as does anyone else who would fall under this challenge," he said.
Bisignano and Chiodo are running in a Democratic primary for a Des Moines senate seat being vacated by gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch. Assistant Attorney General Nathan Blake also is running in the June 3 election.
Bisignano served six years in the Iowa House and was an Iowa senator from 1987 to 1997, rising to become its president pro tem. He resigned amid scandal, which included having a loaded shotgun during an altercation with a woman with whom he had an affair. He has vowed to give up alcohol.
Chiodo, 71, served five terms in the Iowa House from the late 1970s to mid-1980s.
Dickey said he will appeal to Polk County District Court and ask the judge to expedite the case. If that is unsuccessful he plans to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.
"This issue is much too important to leave unresolved. As the panel indicated, there's clearly some ambiguity between the constitution and the statute and we think the voters of Senate District 17 deserve some resolution, and frankly all the voters of the state of Iowa need resolution on this important issue," he said.
Bisignano, in a campaign statement, criticized Chiodo's "win-at-all-cost strategy."
"We think that it's the best thing for Iowans to be able to decide who they vote for in an election," Bisignano's attorney, Joseph Glazebrook, said in an interview. "We'd rather have the voters in District 17 make that call than a panel of executive branch officers."
The case must be resolved by early April in time for county election officials to get ballots printed, Schultz said.