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Iowa suburbs' political views? Much like they are here
By David Beery | Daily Herald Staff

Paul Bissinger once lived in Arlington Heights but now lives in West Des Moines, Iowa, where he sees the same suburban Republican views.


Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

Chicago or Iowa? The suburb of West Des Moines, Iowa, features a quaint older downtown as well as these newer homes that are near a large shopping area.


Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/19/200 12:19 AM

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One clue that the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, are not a mirror image of Chicago's Northwest and West suburbs?

Residents on the southern edge of West Des Moines -- the largest Iowa suburb, with a 2003 population of nearly 52,000 -- glance out their windows and see on the near horizon a 12-pack of enormous concrete grain silos. This is not Schaumburg or Wheaton.

But other parts of West Des Moines, Clive and Urbandale -- all western suburbs of Des Moines -- feature upscale retail malls to match anything suburban Chicago offers. Elsewhere, Des Moines' suburbs consist of sprawling new residential developments rising from erstwhile cornfields, creating a suburban landscape similar to much of Kane and Lake counties.

Nestled in the rolling hills of southwest West Des Moines are million-dollar homes on large lots that would fit perfectly into the most affluent neighborhoods of Barrington or Naperville.

Political and demographic similarities between suburbs of Des Moines and Northwest and Western Chicago? A few of those exist, too.

Obviously, cosmopolitan Chicago, with nearly 3 million people, is a different sort of city from Des Moines, with its population of about 200,000. But both vote solidly Democratic and have for as long as anyone can recall.

By contrast, Des Moines' suburbs, like Chicago's, tend to favor Republicans. Nowhere is that more evident than in booming Dallas County, where one-time Arlington Heights resident Paul Bissinger lives. In 2004, President Bush carried Iowa by the narrowest of margins; Dallas County voters favored the president by 58 percent to 42 percent over John Kerry.

To put that in perspective, historically Republican DuPage County went for Bush by 54 percent to 45 percent in 2004.

Bissinger, a recently retired farm seed salesman active in local GOP events, attributes Dallas County's Republican leanings to the low-tax, small-government views shared by many suburban residents elsewhere.

"A lot of people who have moved to the suburbs," Bissinger said over a breakfast recently, "have saved up to buy a bigger and nicer house, and in the process, they tend to vote for people who appreciate and respect their savings."

Indeed, residents of Des Moines' western suburbs, like those of Chicago's Northwest and Western suburbs, generally are well above the national average for income as well as education.

Brian Gongol, a West Des Moines resident and partner in his family's small business, agrees with Bissinger's assessment. So important are sound tax and business principles to the 29-year-old that he draws up an elaborate chart of all presidential candidates' views on every economic issue relevant to him and his business.

But economic issues, Gongol said, are not enough to unite suburban Republicans behind a single presidential nominee. The party and its suburban supporters, he observed, are splitting -- much as they have in Chicago's suburbs -- over social issues.

Arthur Sanders, politics and international relations department chairman at Drake University in Des Moines, noted that most Des Moines' suburban Republicans align with Bissinger and Gongol: More attuned to economic and security issues than social.

Which is not to deny the influence of social conservatives. Consider Kathy Lewis, who with her husband moved her family from Des Moines to Dallas County several years ago. Drugs and gangs in city schools helped prompt the migration, said Lewis, whose youngest son, now 16, has been home-schooled.

"I first got involved in Republican politics because the pro-life issue is so important," Lewis said. "It still is, but I'm also very concerned now about immigration."

She's backing presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo, a Colorado congressman who espouses sealing the border and deporting illegal immigrants.

That's an agenda that Gongol doesn't understand.

"I don't like watching Republicans become the anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-fill-in-the blank party," he said.

Nor does he always recognize his party in other regards.

"In the last eight years," Gongol said, "there have been a large number of Republicans who've said, 'What happened to smaller government? What happened to lower spending? What happened to government staying out of my life?' "

Eventually, such divisions could create openings for Democrats in suburban Des Moines, much as Democrats have made inroads in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. But so far, that hasn't happened. Unable to abide most Democrats' economic views, Gongol, for one, said he's resigned for now to tolerate a little discomfort with his own party.