Anyone who follows the Iowa legislature has frequent occasion to wonder how someone that ignorant got elected to the Iowa House or Senate. But every once in a while, a spectacularly clueless act grabs our attention. Last week a little-known first-term state representative made himself a contender for the title of Iowa's most clueless lawmaker.
UPDATE: Not so fast--see today's news, added at the end of this post.
First, a definition of terms is in order. A lot of legislators support terrible bills, but being wrong on an issue isn't necessarily a sign of cluelessness. A crafty lawmaker knows not to call attention to himself when he's up to no good, as when Democratic State Senator Joe Seng slipped a provision delaying septic tank inspections into an appropriations bill a few years back. There's no real case to be made for undermining a law designed to keep pollution out of waterways, and Seng knew it.
Similarly, most lawmakers are savvy enough not to flaunt embarrassing views. Almost all the Iowa House and Senate Republicans have figured out that it's better not to spread paranoid fantasies about the "homosexual agenda" undermining our culture. Rather, they talk about defending "the right of Iowans to vote on the definition of marriage."
Republicans know not to say out loud, "Who cares about poor people's access to health care? I don't want to face a primary challenge over Medicaid expansion." Instead, they fall back on safe talking points about the federal debt or Medicaid lacking a focus on "outcome-based solutions."
The clueless legislator is different. He doesn't have an internal filter warning him when he's about to make a fool of himself. He muses out loud that we don't need to worry about global warming "now that we have modern refrigeration and air conditioning." Or, he shows off his historical "knowledge" by citing the big, strong Mayans as evidence that global warming will be good for Iowa.
The clueless legislator doesn't understand that trying to prevent judges from citing case law or precedent in their opinions is idiotic.
She thinks that providing free school breakfasts and lunches when school is not in session is a dangerous step toward socialism.
He takes time at a subcommittee hearing to ponder how his child's divorce will affect his teenage granddaughter's sex life, not realizing that he's about to become a laughingstock on a national scale.
Last week, the editor of the Montezuma Record weekly in Poweshiek County became another nationwide punch line from Iowa because of a "hilariously racist" story he published about salaries at the University of Iowa.
A report listing the employees at the University of Iowa who earn at least $100,000 was introduced by noting, "The relatively high numbers of employees with names from Asia and the Near East is interesting. While there are SMiths [sic] and Jones, there are eleven Ahmeds to only 30 Browns."
Later in the report, the paper astutely observed, "Hyphenated, unspellable and oriental names may get you the big bucks."
The Montezuma Record's editor, Chuck Dunham, may have earned himself the title of Iowa's most clueless newspaperman, as you can see from reading his comments to media blogger Jim Romenesko and James Q. Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
"In lily-white Iowa it does seem they are over-represented compared to the rest of the population," Dunham said. "Does it mean Orientals are being educated to a degree that they outshine the rest of the natives of Iowa?"
"I haven't got the answer, but I noted the anomaly," he said.
I learned from John Deeth's commentary that way back when, Dunham was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the Iowa Senate.
Matt Denner deserves a lot of credit for bringing the Montezuma commentary to public attention, but he wouldn't have seen the edition of the small weekly paper (estimated circulation 884) if not for first-term Iowa House Republican David Maxwell.
Gavin Aronsen reported for the Ames Progressive blog on March 15,
Progress Iowa executive director Matt Sinovic told the Progressive that GOP state Rep. Dave Maxwell, who represents Poweshiek County, requested that House members receive a copy of Thursday's Record, which is how the paper ended up in Des Moines. Maxwell owns a business in Gibson called Maxwell Tiling, which ran an advertisement in the paper.
That's right, Maxwell was so clueless that he thought a racist commentary on well-compensated Asian-Americans at the University of Iowa should be distributed widely among his fellow lawmakers. I assume he wouldn't be upset by high salaries paid to university employees with Anglo-Saxon surnames, whether or not they are easy to spell.
In Maxwell's defense, he knew better than to respond to James Lynch's request for comment. But it's a mark of true ignorance that he was proud to pass this newspaper around in the first place.
Other lawmakers who have stood out this session as clueless include Iowa House Republican Tedd Gassman, whose defense of his plan to end no-fault divorce in Iowa drew national attention.
A dark horse contender is State Representative Ralph Watts (informally known as "Worst"). This year he introduced a bill to fight a 20-year-old United Nations voluntary initiative on sustainable development.
Agenda 21, Watts argued, is an attempt to strip away individual property rights and to depopulate the countryside by forcing people to live in dense urban areas. For that reason, political subdivisions in Iowa should be shielded from its influence.
"Fundamental to Agenda 21 is the issue - they literally want to see people move off of rural areas into communities, kind of like the collectivism the Soviet Union has had for the last half-century." He added, "This is not tinfoil hat stuff, I guarantee it."
(The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 into 15 separate nations, none of which presently identify as communist or collectivist.)
Concern over Agenda 21 creeping into state and local governance, stripping away property rights and undermining local control has been a frequent concern in recent years among conservative and tea party groups.
Fellow Iowa House Republican Dawn Pettengill distinguished herself as clueless when she voiced a strange concern at a subcommittee hearing on Watts' bill:
Representative Dawn Pettengill, a Republican from Mount Auburn, fears the U.N. vision eventually will force Americans to move out of small towns and live in cities. Pettengill misses her home in rural Iowa while she's staying in Des Moines to serve in the legislature.
"Last night I woke up at 1:15 - around there - and, living right next to I-80, I couldn't go back to sleep for two hours because I live in the country and I don't hear a sound - it could be a feral cat or something," Pettengill said, "but you don't hear a sound and you can go right back to sleep."
Who seriously thinks that sustainable development advocates want to force Pettengill or anyone else out of small towns or rural homes?
In Pettengill's defense, she has occasionally shown more common sense than the people in charge of the Republican Party of Iowa.
Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.
UPDATE: On March 18, Maxwell decided to back away from this mess. Jason Noble reported for the Des Moines Register,
In an interview on Monday, Maxwell said he didn't read the newspaper before allowing his clerk to distribute it, and was unaware of the potentially offensive commentary until he began receiving calls about it on Friday and Saturday.
He said was "embarrassed" for being associated with the comments and blamed his "freshman ignorance and exuberance" for the mistake.
"I authorized passing it out, so the heat comes to me," he said. "Next time I'll read everything much more thoroughly and I certainly want to apologize for any discomfort or hurt that I may have brought to any of my colleagues here in the House."
Maxwell said he said he wanted to raise awareness of the number of U of I employees making more than $100,000.
"I just thought that the people of the House should know it, because you get west of Iowa City and you don't hear it," he said.
Passing this controversy off as a rookie mistake suggests that Maxwell may be more savvy than I gave him credit for. A truly clueless legislator would have doubled down.