BY ART CULLEN
Our head’s been in a swirl and our heart’s been in our throat since 2 p.m. Monday, when the Pulitzer Prize Committee announced that The Storm Lake Times won the gold medal for editorial writing. We can muster enough sense to thank a lot of people, starting with the committee that honored us with the greatest award in American arts and letters. We are humbled and gratified to be in the rarified company of The Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle, which were finalists in the category. We congratulate them and thank them for their service to the First Amendment.
We have some other thank-yous.
First, a statement of the case: We were awarded the 101st Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for a series of 10 editorials published in 2016 about the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties. Because the drainage districts were not insured, corporate agribusiness interests stepped in to cover the counties’ defense costs — well into the millions. We wanted to know who the donors were. The Agribusiness Association of Iowa, which organized the fund, refused to say. So the counties did the right thing and said they would no longer take the donations. Good for them. It took some cajoling, but that dark-money fund was shut down. Recently, the lawsuit was dismissed from federal district court by a judge who found that the drainage districts lacked legal standing to be sued. The counties won the case. And we won the Pulitzer Prize because they refused to disclose the information in the first place.
So we thank the supervisors for being obstinate in the first instance. And, we thank in particular Supervisor Paul Merten, D-Storm Lake, who after appreciating how that lack of disclosure was wrong and illegal insisted on a more transparent path. He earnestly tried to provide the public with an accounting of the letters of engagement with law firms and how the bills would be paid. He often didn’t know an answer to our questions but eventually got answers. He grew as a political leader, in our estimation.
We thank Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in Des Moines, who engaged with us in our efforts to get these secret documents unveiled. The IFOIC is a non-profit organization funded by member dues, including ours and other media organizations along with attorneys, librarians, artists and educators. The Iowa Cubs, too. Evans is an accomplished bulldog reporter and editor who thinks and writes like a lawyer when he has to. We thank his co-conspirator Mike Giudicessi (we spelled it right for once, counsel) of the Faegre Baker Daniels Law Firm in Des Moines for his many years of selfless pro bono work on behalf of the council and the First Amendment and open government in Iowa.
We thank the Hamilton Law Firm of Storm Lake for its invaluable counsel and support. Steve, Willis and Mary have stopped us from jumping over many cliffs through the past 27 years. And thanks to our friends Dan Connell and Dave Jennett, too, for their friendly insights.
We thank Buena Vista County Attorney Dave Patton for his persistent honesty and candor, and for his efforts to seek a mediated solution to the litigation.
We thank Central Bank, Citizens First National Bank, and Security Trust and Savings Bank for betting on us when they shouldn’t have.
We thank our late Uncle Joe Cullen, editor and publisher of The Flanagan Home Times in Illinois, for exposing us to the joy of writing and sarcasm. We thank our mom, Eileen, for always correcting our grammar, and our dad for leaving the publisher his good-sense gene.
We thank our brothers and sister — Tom, Ann, Bill and Jim — for investing in us and believing in us and always cheering us on. (Bill even goes light on us when we endorse Terry Branstad.) Jim is our partner in publishing The Progressive Populist, a twice-monthly publication aimed at, well, progressive populists.
We thank our employees for working so hard and so smart and so cheerily — especially this week when the phones were blowing up. And we thank our families for their patience with us and for their lives of genteel poverty.
We thank Michael Gartner — the only other living Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial writing in Iowa — our former boss at The Daily Tribune of Ames for prodding us, correcting our grammar just like mom, and telling us that we should take a shot at the big game because it was important. We thank the late John McCormally, also a Pulitzer winner for editorials, for inspiring us as young men from his perch overlooking the Mississippi at Burlington. The best advice from the Marine from Iwo Jima who became a pacifist: When they knock you down on the mat, get back up and come back for more.
So we will, thanks to you. Each and every one of you. For subscribing. For complaining. For writing letters to the editor telling us to lay off Farm Bureau. For all those gracious notes and emails coming from New Zealand to Newell. You make us want to get up off the mat and go for more. You are the reason we publish these editorials. You are the one who must take control of your democracy and your town and your state. We have all been involved in a huge debate over the tensions between agriculture and the environment that at times boils over even among friends like us. We don’t know where all these editorials lead, but we hope it is to a solution of Iowa’s terrible water quality problems and away from damaging, needless conflict. Another piece of advice from McCormally: “There are solutions to every problem. Seek them lovingly.”
We will try.