The chickens that could flip the Senate

The strange tale of one fierce Iowa political contest and four chickens who won’t stop pecking at Bruce Braley

Chris Moody
Yahoo News

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Pauline Hampton owns four hens for her therapy practice with children. Bruce Braley's home is next to hers. (Photo: Chris Moody/Yahoo News)

Pauline Hampton owns four hens for her therapy practice with children. Bruce Braley's home is next to hers. (Photo: …

BROOKLYN, Iowa – Enclosed in a small pen overlooking serene Holiday Lake, four hens live quiet and seemingly happy lives, unaware that they’re being used as pawns in what has become one of the strangest episodes in a fierce competition for the United States Senate.

The chickens are the property of Pauline Hampton, an Air Force veteran who lives and works from her small home atop a sloping grassy hill overlooking the lake in a quiet vacation community surrounded by Iowa farmland. Hampton is a licensed therapist, and she purchased the birds last year to use in her work in “animal-assisted therapy” for children recovering from abuse, autism or social disorders. The bond her young patients form with the chickens helps them open up in ways that traditional adult-to-child therapy strategies don’t provide, she said.

“A lot of times we let them out and they can follow the chickens around,” Hampton, a small woman in her 50s with blond hair, told me when I visited her home here last week. “A lot of times they have a lot of problems trusting people, but you’d be surprised at how quickly they learn to trust an animal. It’s almost as if they use the chickens as if they’re telling the story to the animals, and that makes them feel safer. Chickens are nonjudgmental, and they’re not big scary adults like everyone else is in their life. They tell their secrets to them. Before you know it, then they’re really starting to make some improvements with how they communicate.”

When Hampton brought the hens to her home, she didn’t secure permission from the Holiday Lake Association board, the local governing body of the community, which does not allow livestock on owners’ property unless the animals are pets. Hampton initially provided a coop for the hens but let them wander around her unfenced yard, where they scratched for bugs in the grass.

This spring, some neighbors complained that the roaming hens posed a nuisance. One of those neighbors was Carolyn Braley, the wife of Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, who earlier this year won the Democratic Party’s nomination to be its candidate for the state’s open Senate seat. Braley is engaged in a tight race for the spot against Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, and help national Democrats retain their threatened Senate majority.

The Braleys’ modest vacation home, which he and his family visit on holidays and weekends, sits about 100 feet from Hampton’s. In this tranquil, rural neighborhood, which has a mixture of paved and dirt roads where residents tootle around on ATVs, the Braleys and Hamptons are basically next-door neighbors.

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Pauline Hampton's chickens live in a coop near Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley's vacation home near Holiday Lake. (Photo: Chris Moody/Yahoo News)

Pauline Hampton's chickens live in a coop near Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley's vacation home near Holiday Lake. (Photo: …

In April, the Braleys filed a formal complaint to the association board about the chickens.

The Braleys complained that they could smell the chickens from their porch, and that the free-range birds were wandering onto their property line. According to Hampton, the Braleys never approached her about the issue before filing the report with the board. Instead, she found out about their dissatisfaction with her chickens when she went down the sloping hill to offer Carolyn Braley fresh eggs from the hens one day. Braley, Hampton said, turned them down.

“I just happened to see Mrs. Braley in her yard mowing, and I thought, ‘Well, when she takes a break I’ll go run down and offer her a dozen eggs.’ That was the first time that I found out that she had filed a complaint,” Hampton said. “I had no idea there was a complaint out there until she said, ‘I can’t take these eggs. I just want you to know that I’ve filed a complaint against you.’ The chickens don’t smell. Yes, they do wander, but most of the time they stay in their territory.”

The Braleys weren’t the only family in the neighborhood bothered by the chickens, according to other neighbors who spoke to Yahoo News. Dale Howe, who lives in Des Moines during the week but spends her weekend at a home in Holiday Lake near Hampton’s, echoed the Braley complaint.

“Before she ended up containing them, they were just wandering free. They were often in Braley’s backyard. We saw them around a lot. People who were out walking would stop and say they were concerned about them getting into the road and being a traffic hazard,” Howe, a longtime resident who temporarily served on the association board, said. “You can hear them, and I would guess if I were a little closer I could smell them.”

The board met in May and determined that Hampton could keep the chickens so long as she built a pen for them and kept them contained. Hampton complied.

That probably would have been the end of it — just another routine spat between neighbors resolved by a local council — had Bruce Braley not picked up the phone on a May afternoon and called the board’s attorney, Thomas A. Lacina, to check up on the resolution of his family’s complaint.

On May 29, Lacina wrote to the board to relay the message from Braley.

"Last week I received a phone call from Bruce Braley,” Lacina wrote to the board. “He was complaining about the lack of action by the Holiday Lake board as to chickens at Holiday Lake. The implication from Mr. Braley was that he wants to 'avoid a litigious situation' and believes strongly that chickens are not pets and should not be permitted at Holiday Lake.”

The single line — that Braley, a trial attorney and member of Congress, had hinted at the possibility of a “litigious situation” — is probably the reason you’re reading about free-range therapy chickens in Iowa right now. Residents were outraged at the way the Braleys handled the situation. In an agricultural state like Iowa, which is also the largest egg producer in the country and takes pride in its reputation for people there being laid-back and “Iowa nice,” even the most casual mention of a lawsuit over four curious hens was enough to raise hackles. In short, the email was a surprise golden egg for Republicans hungry to paint Braley as out of touch with his fellow Iowans.

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Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, talks with area farmers as he tours the East Central Iowa Co-Op in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, talks with area farmers as he tours the East Central Iowa Co-Op in Cedar Falls, Iowa. …

Word of the spat soon landed on the desk of a former journalist named Jeff Patch, a political activist who now works for the Iowa Republican Party. It was Patch who first drove out to Holiday Lake, discussed the issue with residents, attended a board meeting, dug up the emails and meeting minutes and posted the riveting-yet-one-sided tale of the great Chicken War at Holiday Lake at IowaRepublican.com, a conservative website. Under the headline "Braley threatened litigation over chickens at Holiday Lake vacation home,” Patch portrayed Braley as an out-of-touch trial lawyer eager to sue a female therapist. The story fit neatly with the narrative that Braley’s Republican Senate opponent was building against him. American Crossroads, a Republican advocacy group with ties to political strategist Karl Rove, released an ad accusing Braley of threatening “to sue his neighborhood.”

“A true Iowan would’ve just talked to his neighbors,” the female narrator says in the ad. “But not trial lawyer Bruce Braley.”

Braley’s campaign has pushed back fiercely against the allegation, insisting that Braley made no such threat. Bill Jensen, the board's vice president, told the Quad City Times that he never worried that the dispute would result in a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the Iowa Republican Party launched a website to highlight the issue, BraleyChicken.com, and an activist dressed in a chicken suit — get it? “chicken suit”? — followed Braley around the Iowa State Fair last week.

Ernst has pounced on Braley as well.

“I am campaigning that Bruce Braley, who occupies a seat in Congress for the past eight years, is caught up in doing things the Washington way,” Ernst told me in her campaign office in Urbandale, about an hour and a half drive from Holiday Lake. “This is just an example of that. He is a trial attorney and the only way he knew how to solve a problem is to threaten to sue a neighbor over a chicken. The Iowa way, if I had a disagreement, was to reach out to my neighbor and say, ‘Hey come on over, let’s have a glass of tea and let’s talk about this.’”

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The therapy chickens that started it all. (Photo: Chris Moody/Yahoo News)

The therapy chickens that started it all. (Photo: Chris Moody/Yahoo News)

The Braley campaign responded by saying that Ernst is “trying to use barnyard animals in a desperate attempt to distract from her extreme Tea Party agenda.”

Back at Holiday Lake, both the Braleys and Hampton consider the issue resolved, although Hampton still seems ruffled by the experience.

“They’re not really what I would call neighborly,” she told me, referring to the Braley family. “The only time that we ever seem to have any communication is when we’re in a dispute about something.”

Despite the tension, Hampton, a Democrat who said she caucused for President Obama in the past two elections and hasn’t voted Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1980, says she’s not sure whom she’ll support in November.

“I’m still considering my options,” she said.

There could even be more trouble between Hampton and the Braleys on the horizon. Hampton said she suspects that when the Braleys bought the land next to hers that they built their home over her property line, and she intends to have the land surveyed. That could lead to a real lawsuit, if so. And Hampton has a litigious history, having filed four unrelated lawsuits since 2010, including a complaint against an employer who fired her for “insubordination” in 2012. All of Hampton’s lawsuits were decided against her, according to Poweshiek County District Court documents. In 2000, a judge dismissed one case, saying that she “appears to like to provoke confrontation.” Within her neighborhood, she has registered complaints with the association board about a roving Doberman pinscher in the neighborhood, a neighbor’s wood burner and a questionnaire she was asked to fill out to receive a parking sticker on her car.

Hampton said she plans to continue her work with the children and with the chickens.

She even lets them out of the pen still.

But only when the Braleys aren’t home.

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