The Secrets of Chickengate

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 11 2014 12:57 PM

The Secrets of Chickengate

152841468-rep-bruce-braley-votes-during-early-voting-at-the-black
Rep. Bruce Braley votes on Sept. 27, 2012 in Waterloo, Iowa, along with farmers who never went to law school.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

On the way out of Iowa, a spokesman for the state GOP gave me a small rubber chicken with the website called BraleyChicken. It was, he explained, part of the effort to further the negative brand of Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley, an effort to a make sure that every voter knows that Braley complained about a neighbor who let chickens roam onto the yard of his vacation home.

Oh, sorry, I forgot. The spokesman was Jeff Patch, a former Politico reporter who became an activist, later moving to Iowa. He broke the chicken story at the Iowa Republican. The next day, he said, he climbed on board with the state party. You can see why, because Patch wrote a hell of a narrative.

"From the Classic Deli and Ice Cream Shoppe to the Casey’s General Store," he started, "folks are talking about the hometown boy-turned liberal trial lawyer-turned congressman and his bizarre legal battle with a neighbor over her chickens." In the story that followed, littered with chicken puns, Patch reported of "$1,700 in legal fees" incurred by the homeowners asssociation after Braley launched a "a contentious legal battle." 

The lake netted a $1,748 profit from hosting a triathlon. Braley’s legal fees nearly wiped that out. Two employees received raises from $8 to $9-an-hour. Braley’s legal fees could have put an extra $70.50 in those employees’ pockets each month over the next year. The association needed to purchase new tires for a tractor that cost $1,100. Again, Braley’s litigation caused the association to waste its resources battling a sitting U.S. Representative over a few birds instead of other priorities.

Phil Rucker, the great Washington Post correspondent, traveled to Iowa to explain exactly what happened. Republicans are generally thrilled that the story is out there—it's baffling that Braley pursued this during an election year, and after enduring his gaffe about the unsuitability of a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school" becoming head of Judiciary. (Absent that gaffe, it's hard to imagine this follow-up story getting the same play.) But Rucker's reporting suggests that at least one element of the story was overplayed.

Braley didn't actually sue. The "legal battle" was Braley's call to the association's lawyer, which the attorney recalled as Braley telling him he wanted to "avoid a litigious situation" by talking out whether the chickens violated the community's ban on animals that were not "household pets."

“At no time did I ever — ever — threaten a lawsuit or threaten litigation. Never. And anybody who says that I did is not being truthful,” he said. “This was a personal dispute between my wife and a neighbor because chickens were on our property all the time.”
He added, “I just reached out to somebody I knew expecting to get a phone call back and instead this thing blows up. And I think it’s obvious why, because people who don’t want me to be the next senator from Iowa will stop at nothing to try to drag my family through the mud.”
Dale Howe, who lives next door to the Braleys, said she made a similar complaint to the association board. “I did not think that they should be roaming around,” Howe said of the chickens. But, she added, “We didn’t have the same type of problems [the Braleys] did because they didn't leave their droppings in our yard.”
Even if Braley didn’t threaten a suit, some around Holiday Lake bristled at his tactics.

Right, and Braley's family screwed up by failing to handle this directly with the animals' owner, Pauline Hampton, who went on to build a fence and then tell anyone who asked about how the animals were used for children's therapy (maybe I'm an East Coast elitist, but therapeutic hens?), and has been interviewed for a possible American Crossroads ad. Here's how Crossroads currently dramatizes the situation:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 12.48.26 PM

There was no lawsuit, no farm, and no fence. Just a well-told story that took advantage of how a guy mishandled the problem of chickens shitting on his lawn. So well-told that the Washington Post put it on A1 with no reference to how it started—with a reporter-turned-activist who broke it and then joined the state party to really take the wood to Braley.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.