Four weekends in a row, Iowans have turned out in large numbers to challenge Republican lawmakers about cuts to higher education and other state services, a historically small funding increase for K-12 schools, a bill to discontinue funding for Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services, and most recently, plans to sweep away every meaningful aspect of public employees’ collective bargaining rights.
The two people with the most influence over events in the Iowa House won’t be found in any images of packed legislative forums carried by local news outlets or shared on hundreds of social media feeds.
That’s because House Speaker Linda Upmeyer and House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow haven’t scheduled any meetings open to the public since the 2017 session began.
I enclose below documents showing all the public events House Republicans have held in their home districts this year. Whereas a few GOP state representatives make themselves available almost every weekend, the top two leaders haven’t managed even one listening post.
Upmeyer and Hagenow aren’t the only members of their caucus to have avoided showing up in crowded rooms, where they might face hostile questions or make unexpected newsworthy remarks, which could go viral.
But their lack of accountability is more striking because Upmeyer and Hagenow have so much power over what will become Iowa law this year. No important deal is struck and no bill comes to a vote in the House without their blessing.
On the first day of this year’s legislative session, Upmeyer promised her Republican caucus would “tackle a variety of issues through a process that allows for input from voices both large and small.” While calling for “bold action,” the speaker acknowledged that “in order to be successful we must work together.” She went on to say, “If we are to accomplish great things during this General Assembly, it means that we must accept the challenge of doing difficult things and having the courage to stay the course because we are acting with Iowans’ best interests at heart.”
Upmeyer’s “courage” and willingness to do “difficult things” doesn’t extend to facing her own constituents, many of whom will be harmed by bills moving through the House with minimal public input.
During his speech to House colleagues on the session’s opening day, Hagenow thanked residents of “Clive, West Des Moines, and Windsor Heights for placing your trust in me to represent you in the state legislature. It is a great honor I never take for granted.”
Apparently Hagenow doesn’t feel this great honor obliges him to take public questions from the Iowans he represents. Nor does he reliably respond to those who contact him by phone or e-mail.
Hagenow won his 2012 race in House district 43 by fewer than two dozen votes. He was re-elected by a relatively small margin last year despite spending more than $400,000 defending his seat amid what turned out to be a GOP landslide in Iowa. Most of that money went toward television commercials. This spot, full of revisionist history claiming Hagenow had made “our schools stronger,” was in heavy rotation for weeks:
No wonder the self-styled champion of Iowa education is not eager to come out and explain his support for the third-lowest K-12 school funding increase since 1973, a decision that will force staff and program cuts on schools serving hundreds of his constituents.
Hagenow’s district is home to numerous teachers and state or county employees. At a public forum, he would have to deal with angry and sometimes heartbreaking comments like the ones two of his GOP colleagues heard in Ankeny this past weekend.
At a public forum, someone might ask Cedar Falls native Hagenow why he agreed to big budget cuts for the University of Northern Iowa, and why House Republicans are ramming through a collective bargaining bill that will hurt UNI’s ability to recruit and retain good faculty.
Dodging public policy discussions where he can’t control the script is nothing new for Hagenow. He let television ads do the talking last fall while refusing to appear alongside his opponent on Dave Price’s WHO-TV program or at a candidate forum organized by a non-partisan group.
Going through House Republican weekend schedules from past years, I’ve found only a handful of appearances by Hagenow and Upmeyer, mostly at events organized by local chambers of commerce, where the lawmakers could expect friendly audiences.
The Iowa House has already approved legislation that will profoundly affect education and other state and local services. This week, Republicans will vote to eviscerate the bargaining rights of some 180,000 public workers.
It’s long past time for the speaker and majority leader to stop hiding from their constituents.
P.S.- Most people on the Iowa House GOP leadership team have been more accessible than Upmeyer or Hagenow. Only Assistant Majority Leader Jarad Klein has attended no public forums this year. UPDATE/CORRECTION: Bleeding Heartland user tricialipski notes in the comments that Klein “attended at least two public forums already during the 2017 legislative session: one in Washington (Wash. Co., January 21), and one in What Cheer (Keokuk Co., February 3).” I was going by the schedules published on the official website for the House majority caucus.
House Speaker Pro Tem Matt Windschitl has attended three public forums: one each on January 21, January 28, and February 4.
Majority Whip Zach Nunn has attended one public forum, on February 4.
Assistant Majority Leader John Wills has attended four public forums: two on January 21 and two on February 4.
Assistant majority leader Megan Jones has attended three public forums: one on January 21 and two on February 11.
Assistant Majority Leader Mike Sexton has attended two public forums: one on January 21 and one on January 28.
UPDATE: A reader informed me that Hagenow attended a January 4 panel discussion at Des Moines Golf and Country Club, where attendees were required to pay $20. Worth noting: none of the bills that would be considered during this year’s session had been published at that time.
According to Democratic State Representative Sharon Steckman, Upmeyer is scheduled to appear at a Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce event on Friday morning, February 24–a time when most working people (including the public employees who are about to lose their bargaining rights) would be unable to attend.
Schedule of Iowa House Republican appearances at public forums, January 20 and 21:
Note: GOP State Representatives Ashley Hinson and Louis Zumbach attended a January 21 forum hosted by the Linn County League of Women Voters, which was not listed here. (State Representative Ken Rizer did not come to that event.)
Schedule of Iowa House Republican appearances at public forums, January 27 and 28:
Note: GOP State Representative Bobby Kaufmann attended a January 28 forum hosted by the Johnson County League of Women Voters, which was not listed here.
Schedule of Iowa House Republican appearances at public forums, February 3 and 4:
Schedule of Iowa House Republican appearances at public forums, February 10 and 11: