The truth is all we've got

In the spirit of the gift-giving season, Ira Lacher offers a few pointers to see you through our ever-increasing spate of less-than-credible news.

November 22 passed last week, not with a bang but a whimper. It seems no one cares to remember that on that date fifty-eight years ago, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Fifty-eight years ago, Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t even a zygote, so the rash of conspiracy theories circulating around the shooting in Dallas — “the Mafia did it, with the help of Cuban guerrillas and the CIA!” — had to depend merely on the number of book authors attempting to take advantage of Americans’ chronic abdication of reality.

Today, of course, social media is to conspiracy theorists what steroids were to Barry Bonds. And for good reason. We know the companies who administer those platforms do so with the idea of magnifying shrillness. It’s like substance addiction: The more you ingest, the more your body wants it.

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Honor Thanksgiving spirit by respecting Indigenous people

Sometime during the fall of 1621, white European settlers at Plymouth held a harvest feast, attended by some Wampanoag, one of the Indigenous peoples living in the area. Almost everything else you learned about that “first Thanksgiving” was wrong.

The Pilgrims didn’t invite the Wampanoag to share their bounty. Some historians now believe the Native men came because they heard gunshots and assumed the settlement was under attack. (They had formed an alliance with the European settlers in the spring of 1621.) Another theory is that the warriors showed up “as a reminder that they controlled the land the Pilgrims were staying on and they vastly outnumbered their new European neighbors.”

According to Thanksgiving myths, the Pilgrims expressed gratitude for Wampanoag who taught them how to grow or find food in their new surroundings. In reality, “Their role in helping the Pilgrims survive by sharing resources and wisdom went unacknowledged that day, according to accounts of the toasts given by Pilgrim leaders.”

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Fall berries and seeds

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m wrapping up the tenth year of Bleeding Heartland’s wildflowers series. I’m so grateful to the guest authors who contributed posts and photographs this year: Katie Byerly, Lora Conrad, Tommy Hexter and Jacy Highbarger, Elizabeth Marilla, Marla Mertz, Bruce Morrison, Leland Searles, Kenny Slocum, and Patrick Swanson.

Iowa wildflower Wednesday will return sometime during the spring of 2022. Please let me know if you would like to write about any one plant, or group of plants that thrive in a similar habitat, or special place or trail. Anyone on Facebook can connect with nature lovers year round in the Iowa wildflower enthusiasts group, which now has more than 5,300 members.

To close out this year’s series, Lora Conrad contributed nine photographs of berries or berry-like fruit that can be found on plants in Van Buren County at this time of year. All but one are native to Iowa.

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Court finds law targeting trans Iowans unconstitutional

For Aiden Vasquez and Mika Covington, the news was life-changing. Polk County District Court Judge William Kelly ruled on November 19 that Iowa’s law designed to deny Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming surgery “violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.”

He ordered the Iowa Department of Human Services to change a longstanding regulation “excluding coverage for sex reassignment surgery” and said the agency must apply the revised rule to allow “transgender individuals coverage under Iowa Medicaid for medically necessary gender affirming surgery for the treatment of Gender Dysphoria and other relevant diagnoses.”

Vasquez and Covington are transgender Iowans who qualify for Medicaid and have been unable to obtain the health care they need for years. They have been seeking legal redress since soon after Governor Kim Reynolds signed the discriminatory statute in May 2019.

Naturally, not everyone was happy with what the ACLU of Iowa’s legal director Rita Bettis Austen described as a “historic win for civil rights in Iowa.” Soon after the court ruling was published on November 22, Reynolds’ spokesperson Alex Murphy told reporters, “The governor’s office is disappointed in today’s decision and disagrees with the district court’s ruling on Medicaid coverage for transgender reassignment surgeries.”

Reynolds echoed the sentiment when speaking to reporters on November 23: “Of course we were disappointed with the ruling and disagree […] My legal team is looking at it. There will be more to come later on. We’re still looking through it and trying to determine what our options are.”

She should stop fighting this battle.

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Iowa Ag Department still ignoring state auditor's warnings

With the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and Single Audit for the 2020 fiscal year in the rear view mirror, the State Auditor’s office has been churning out its annual “reports of recommendations” for state government agencies and other entities. The majority of reports issued so far have cited no concerns related to internal control or compliance with statutory requirements.

However, the latest report for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), published on November 23, pointed to several practices “for which we believe corrective action is necessary.”

A news release noted that State Auditor Rob Sand “recommended the Department strengthen internal controls over receipts in certain Bureaus,” adding, “The finding discussed above is repeated from the prior year.”

That’s an understatement. Sand and the previous two state auditors have been warning IDALS about the same internal control problems for more than ten years.

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Dave Muhlbauer ends Senate campaign after family tragedy

Dave Muhlbauer announced on November 23 that he is ending his U.S. Senate campaign to take more time to grieve with his family. Douglas Burns reported for the Carroll Times Herald that Muhlbauer’s 4-year-old nephew Jed Riesselman died in a farm accident on August 12.

In a statement posted on his social media feeds, Muhlbauer said the loss of his nephew “has had a devastating effect on our family. It’s something you can never prepare yourself for and will leave a hole that will never be filled.”

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Pro-Ernst group fails to toss lawsuit over undisclosed donors

The public is one step closer to learning who funded a sophisticated messaging and organizational effort to re-elect Senator Joni Ernst in 2020. A federal court on November 19 denied a motion to dismiss a watchdog group’s lawsuit against Iowa Values, which supported Ernst’s re-election in 2020 but did not disclose its fundraising or spending.

The Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit focused on “advancing democracy through law,” sued Iowa Values in February, after the Federal Election Commission did not act on the center’s complaint against the pro-Ernst group for more than a year.

Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia comprehensively rejected legal arguments the pro-Ernst group raised in trying to dismiss the lawsuit and return the case to the FEC, which would likely do nothing.

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Miller-Meeks' revised disclosures still have discrepancies

U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-02) has revised the financial disclosure forms Congressional candidates and members of Congress must submit annually. The new documents mention more than 50 assets, liabilities, or income sources not listed on the 2020 annual report Miller-Meeks submitted in August. The apparent omissions prompted the Iowa Democratic Party’s executive director to file an ethics complaint last month against the first-term Republican.

Despite working with the House Ethics Committee to fix the problems, Miller-Meeks’ latest filings don’t entirely line up.

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The real obscenity is punching down on marginalized kids

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance, I should be writing about the 46 transgender or gender non-conforming people who have been killed in the United States so far in 2021—the most recorded in a single year. Most of those murder victims were people of color; young Black trans women are especially at risk.

Iowa Republicans didn’t speak out today for ensuring the safety or equality of trans or gender-nonconforming people. When GOP politicians acknowledge LGBTQ Iowans exist, it’s usually to portray them (and any attempt to accommodate them) as a threat to straight white Christians, whom Republicans value above all others.

Governor Kim Reynolds scored points with her base by scapegoating trans athletes in the spring. More recently, conservative politicians and their activist allies have demanded that high school libraries remove books that explore sexual themes, especially queer sexuality. They are also targeting books by authors of color that supposedly contain obscenity or portray some institutions in a negative way.

Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman announced this week that he is having legislation drafted “to create a new felony offense” in Iowa for educators who disseminate “what I believe to be obscene material.” Chapman promised his bill will have “additional mechanisms to force prosecutions or allow civil remedies.”

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Maybe Chuck Grassley should do something stupid

Herb Strentz: Hatred and extremism are more visible in the current political climate. Yet those elements have been active in the U.S. for decades.

A few recent news items and internet links point to the same conclusion: the GOP (Grand Old Party) has become the COT (Cult Of Trump), which appears to be just fine with many Republican leaders.

Concern about Donald Trump as a business and political figure goes back decades. But the catalyst for this collage is twofold and recent.

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Governor will struggle to justify CARES Act funds for staff salaries

Governor Kim Reynolds used $448,449 in federal COVID-19 relief funds to cover a shortfall in her office budget without documenting that 21 of her staffers were “substantially dedicated” to the pandemic response, a state audit determined.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General asked state auditors in January 2021 to review whether the spending complied with rules governing the use of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds. Bleeding Heartland was first to report in September 2020 on CARES Act payments supporting the governor’s permanent staffers, and reported exclusively last December on how documents were altered to make a “FY 2020 Shortfall” in the governor’s office budget appear to be “COVID-19 Personnel Costs.”

State Auditor Rob Sand warned the Reynolds administration in October 2020 that without adequate documentation, COVID-19 relief funds used to pay governor’s staff salaries might need to be repaid to the federal government. The report issued this week advised the governor to return the money to Iowa’s Coronavirus Relief Fund “for other eligible and supported uses prior to the December 31, 2021 deadline.”

The governor’s spokesperson Alex Murphy told reporters the office is “now working with Treasury to provide them documentation” to support the CARES Act spending.

That’s easier said than done.

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Murder fantasy video not a bridge too far for Iowa Republicans

Republicans talk a good game about running government like a business. But almost every U.S. House Republican balked when asked to punish conduct that would be a firing offense at just about any private company.

Like all but two of their GOP colleagues, Iowa’s Representatives Ashley Hinson (IA-01), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-02), and Randy Feenstra (IA-04) voted against censuring Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona and removing him from the House Oversight and Natural Resources committees.

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What UAW members gained with five-week strike

Iowa’s largest strike in decades is over after nearly five weeks. About 10,000 United Auto Workers members, including nearly 7,000 in Iowa, ratified the latest tentative agreement with John Deere by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent on November 17.

The offer was only marginally different from the agreement UAW members voted down on November 2 by 55 percent to 45 percent. But many workers appear to have been convinced that this was truly Deere’s “last, best and final” offer, as management repeatedly claimed. Some local leaders warned the company might not come back to the negotiating table, or could hire strikebreakers if the UAW rejected the offer.

The last time John Deere employees went on strike in 1986, it took more than five months to resolve the impasse. Hundreds of UAW members who voted no in early November were unwilling to roll the dice on going into the winter receiving strike pay of only $275 a week, with no guarantee the final deal will be better than today’s tentative agreement. Tyler Jett reported for the Des Moines Register that support for the tentative agreement rose among UAW members at all five Deere facilities in Iowa.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the hugely profitable equipment manufacturer could have offered its workforce more generous terms. On the other hand, the new contract improves greatly on the company’s first offer in October. By going on strike, the UAW obtained the following:

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: A fungal takeover

Elizabeth Marilla is a mental health worker, writer, picture-taker, hiker, and mom living in Iowa. Connect with her on instagram at iowa.underfoot.

Wildflowers were a gateway to Mycophilia for me. Until very recently, I could only name and identify the most famous mushrooms I might wish for while walking around looking at wildflowers: Morel, Chanterelle, and Chicken of the Woods.

This post is dedicated the members of the Prairie States Mushroom Club, who warmly welcomed me into this bottomless new pastime during the pandemic, and who have very generously taught me many new things about the fungal biodiversity of Iowa–in particular Sarah, Glen, Roger, Marty, and Dean. These folx spotted some of the mushrooms pictured below. There are no additional forays planned for this year, but all fascinated newbies (as well as those with years of expertise) are welcome to join the club again next spring.

This post is also dedicated to the vigilant, patient, and devoted administrators of the Iowa Mushrooms Facebook page, total strangers who have been great teachers, helping me identify so many scrappy little specimens at all hours of the day and night! Impassioned beginners desperately need people like them. Luckily, it appears that the mushroom-loving community includes many genius laypeople, as well as quite a few very cool scientists.

Pictured below are ten of my favorite mushrooms found and photographed in southeast Iowa this summer and fall, with friends and often with my 3-year-old daughter. I have included a few of her recent mushroom drawings at the bottom of the post.

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Rural Iowa and an approach to political dialogue

Charles Bruner: Democrats need to recognize rural Iowans’ frustration with the political system and start finding common ground.

Broadly generalizing, rural Iowans are good folk. They work hard and play by the rules, care about their neighbors, and seek to leave a future where their children can succeed and prosper. If an African American family moves in next door, they welcome them with fresh-based bread or cookies. They regard a child with Down syndrome reaching the age of majority as a part of the community and look out to see that youth is supported by and included in community life. They are entrepreneurs and tinker to be good stewards in preserving the land and community, in the context of a corporate agricultural economy.

Those qualities may not distinguish them greatly from city folk, but rural Iowans frequently have much more sense of and hands-on involvement in community life.

They also are older, whiter, and less likely to have college degrees than their urban counterparts. In 2008 and 2012, nearly half of Iowans outside large metro areas voted for Barack Obama for president. But a third of those who had voted for Obama switched away from the Democratic candidate for president in 2016. Donald Trump received about two-thirds of the rural Iowa vote in 2020.

Democrats have been wringing their hands over this shift – and the change in the county coffee shop conversations that must have occurred in small-town and rural Iowa.

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Investing in Americans now will pay off for generations

Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife relates her family’s story in making the case for the Build Back Better Act.

In 1966, thanks to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty programs, I attended the Des Moines School of Practical Nursing—a year-long program. Our government invested in me, paying my tuition, buying my books and uniforms, and providing a stipend. 

When I divorced in 1971, I was able to take care of my three young children without government aid. This investment yielded even more dividends. Because I worked with other professionals who saw my hard work ethic, grit, and determination, they encouraged me to go back to school. I did, and I worked two jobs for the first half of my bachelor’s degree. I transferred from the urban center to a college town with three children in tow and completed my B.A. I would later earn an M.A. and PhD.

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Axne answers call with Social Security bill

Iowa Alliance for Retired Americans President Mike McCarthy (retired AFSCME), Vice President Kay Pence (retired CWA), Secretary Jan Corderman (retired AFSCME), and Treasurer Ken Sagar (retired IBEW and Iowa AFL-CIO President Emeritus) co-authored this commentary.

Years of cuts to the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) funding have caused reductions in service. Since 2010, SSA’s national 1-800 number staff shrank by 12 percent even as call volume grew 6 percent. As those staffing cuts started to go into effect, about 10,000 Baby Boomers started reaching retirement age every day. That trend is expected to continue until 2030.

Not everyone retires when they first become eligible, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many seniors into retirement earlier than they planned. Compounding those problems, the pandemic forced local Social Security offices across the country to stop in-person appointments.

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Once again, Democrats are in denial

Ira Lacher: Why is it so difficult for Democrats to do what Republicans are great at—seize an issue and run with it in a straight line to pay dirt?

On November 2, Democrats took a shellacking, losing the governorship of Virginia and nearly New Jersey, along with many local elections, once again illustrating they can’t convince enough Americans they share their values. Three days later, proving Napoleon’s adage “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap,” some doubled down.

Despite the Democratic-controlled U.S. House finally passing President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill that promises to repair dangerously broken bridges and highways, hasten to bring broadband internet to hundreds of rural counties, and enable scores of other improvements throughout much of America, six Democrats believed it still wasn’t progressive enough, and voted against it.

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Four ways to resolve Iowa Senate district 16 incumbent pairing

Iowa’s new legislative maps create many more match-ups between Republican incumbents than Democrats. But two first-term Democratic senators, Claire Celsi and Sarah Trone Garriott, live in the new Iowa Senate district 16. Celsi announced in early November she’ll seek re-election in the district, which covers a blue-trending portion of Des Moines’ western suburbs.

Trone Garriott hasn’t decided how to proceed and told Bleeding Heartland in a recent telephone interview that she hasn’t ruled anything out. She has “lots of options,” she said, but “none of them are easy.”

Trone Garriott’s choice may depend in part on how Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman responds to being placed in a competitive district for the first time. Will the chamber’s second-ranking Republican stay in a district Joe Biden carried, or flee to safer nearby territory?

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