Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer announced today that following State Representative Chip Baltimore’s OWI arrest, she has named Majority Whip Zach Nunn to lead the Judiciary Committee for the remainder of the 2018 legislative session. “Serving as a committee chairman is a privilege that requires a higher level of responsibility,” Upmeyer said in a statement. “Drinking and driving is unacceptable behavior that endangers the lives of all Iowans who wish to travel our roads safely. Rep. Baltimore’s actions were clearly irresponsible and he is being held accountable.”
The last two Iowa House Republicans caught drunk driving did not face such consequences.
State Representative Erik Helland was arrested and charged with OWI in June 2010, when the legislature was out of session. Less than six months later, after Republicans gained control of the lower chamber, colleagues chose Helland to serve as majority whip. Though only starting his second term, he held the fourth-ranking GOP leadership position, after Speaker Kraig Paulsen, Majority Leader Upmeyer, and Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Kaufmann.
GOP State Representative Greg Forristall was arrested in May 2011 after nearly causing a collision on a state highway. His blood alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit. But Forristall did not lose his position as House Education Committee chair during the remainder of that year’s session, which lasted through June. He continued to hold the post the following year.
House leaders removed Forristall as Education Committee leader only after the 2012 session, in apparent retribution for his refusal to support a bill that would put the tourism industry’s interests ahead of school districts’ authority to set the academic calendar. Even then, Forristall was allowed to chair the House Labor Committee, starting in 2013.
Meanwhile, Jeff Lamberti was caught driving with a blood alcohol level more than double the legal limit in May 2012. Not only did the former Republican state senator keep his position on the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, his colleagues elected him to chair that powerful board just two months after his OWI. Governor Terry Branstad reappointed Lamberti to the gambling regulatory body in 2014.
Drunk driving endangers the public more than any number of non-violent crimes for which tens of thousands of Iowans have been permanently disenfranchised.
Nevertheless, it’s worth asking why Upmeyer brought the hammer down on Baltimore, when other prominent Iowa Republicans have not faced political repercussions after an OWI.
Baltimore has never been known as a big fan of Upmeyer’s. When Paulsen was considering leaving the legislature in 2013 to run for Congress, Baltimore was rumored to be an ally of Peter Cownie, a rival to then Majority Leader Upmeyer for the speaker’s job. When Paulsen stepped down as the top House Republican in 2015, both Cownie and Baltimore were mentioned as possible candidates for speaker, though neither challenged Upmeyer.
More recently, the Des Moines rumor mill has indicated that Baltimore and Upmeyer disagree over water quality legislation. Last year, Baltimore led a group of House Republicans who refused to vote for Senate File 512, a bill masquerading as a “water quality” initiative with support from agribusiness advocacy groups. Instead, he promoted House File 612, an approach to funding water programs favored by most leading Iowa environmental organizations. During the late stages of the 2017 session, House members substituted their language for the Senate bill, but Republicans in the upper chamber insisted on the original Senate File 512 language.
In November and December, multiple sources indicated that Iowa Farm Bureau lobbyists and others had been chipping away at the “Baltimore 16,” with a view to getting the lower chamber to send the Senate’s water bill to Governor Kim Reynolds’ desk during the first two weeks of the 2018 session. Senate File 512 has been eligible for debate in the House since the first day lawmakers convened this year. It’s still sitting on that debate calendar. Since leaders haven’t brought the bill to the floor, House Republicans likely do not have the votes to pass it. (Baltimore declined my request for comment on this issue in early January.)
When I heard about Baltimore’s criminal charges on Friday, I wondered whether Upmeyer would remove him as floor manager for such a high-profile bill. But at this writing, the legislature’s website lists Baltimore as the House point person for both Senate File 512 and House File 612. Along with State Senator Ken Rozenboom, Baltimore was a guest on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” program today, which focused on water quality proposals.
Near the beginning of that segment, host Ben Kieffer asked Baltimore about his removal as Judiciary Committee chair. He apologized for his “terrible decision,” saying he accepted full responsibility for the mistake and all of the ensuing criticism and “appropriate” consequences. Baltimore told Kieffer he did not want to be a “distraction” to the legislature’s important work and said he had talked to Upmeyer over the weekend.
UPDATE: Several readers have pointed out that Baltimore wasn’t only charged with OWI, he also had a loaded gun within easy reach while intoxicated. The Des Moines Register’s editorial board pointed out on January 22 that Baltimore benefits from the gun law Republicans passed last year.
Before this law went into effect, carrying a firearm while intoxicated was an aggravated misdemeanor, punishable by up to two years in prison. An OWI conviction provided clear grounds for revocation of a permit to carry a weapon.
The new law, which went into effect July 1, cuts in half potential jail time and allows drunken drivers the ability to keep their permits to carry handguns.
At the time, one Iowa sheriff questioned the change, baffled that state legislators recognized the danger of operating a vehicle while drunk but not carrying a lethal weapon while intoxicated.
“We know alcohol blurs judgment,” said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson. “I’m not sure what the driving force was behind watering that down.”
State Representative Mary Wolfe, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, commented via Facebook on January 20, “I just noticed that under 724.4 carrying a dangerous weapon without a permit is an [aggravated] misdemeanor while under 724.4C as amended carrying a dangerous weapon without a permit while intoxicated is only a serious misdemeanor. That seems … counterintuitive.”
Amber Gustafson, a Democratic candidate for Iowa Senate district 19 and former leader of the Iowa chapter of Moms Demand Action, a gun safety group, noted that it would be difficult for Baltimore to run the committee that handles gun bills with this criminal charge pending. She informed me that House Joint Resolution 13, a state constitutional amendment to repeal all gun permitting, is due to be considered in a House Judiciary subcommittee on January 25. That bill went nowhere during the 2017 legislative session but was assigned to a subcommittee last week.
UPDATE: Baltimore was indeed sidelined on water quality ill. On January 23 he blasted the majority of his Republican colleagues who approved the Senate’s bill, backed by agricultural interest groups, over the bipartisan House version, which had a broad coalition of supporters.
Later in the week, a House Judiciary subcommittee approved along party lines a gun rights constitutional amendment, Joyce Russell reported for Iowa Public Radio on January 25:
The amendment states that Iowans’ rights to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer, and use arms for all legitimate purposes shall not be infringed, and that courts should strictly scrutinize any attempt to regulate them. […]
“It spells it out very clearly and concisely so that there is no question about what our Second Amendment rights are,” [GOP State Representative Matt] Windschitl said, “and that if they are to be regulated the regulations will be held to a very high level of scrutiny by our judicial system.” […]
“This language is not an attempt to try to circumvent the laws and regulations the state already has or to have them overturned in some future courtroom,” Windschitl said. […]
“We’re concerned that if this amendment becomes part of our constitution it would make it very difficult to have any future regulation,” said Tom Chapman with the Iowa Catholic Conference. “And in fact I think putting in there strict scrutiny I think that’s an invitation to legal action even to some of our current regulations.”
Kathie Obradovich interviewed Baltimore for her January 26 column in the Des Moines Register.
Baltimore, a Boone Republican, says he hasn’t decided whether to run for re-election to a fifth term in the Iowa House. He says his arrest won’t factor into his decision, however.
“Knowing full well political tactics, I know the postcard is going out with my mugshot on it,” he said. “So, I would be the one that would send the postcard out, with my own mugshot on it, and say, guess what? This is me.”
Baltimore said Thursday [January 25] he was getting ready to send out a newsletter to his constituents that details what he did and apologizes for his poor judgment. […]
Baltimore says he wants to be an example for anyone who might be thinking of getting behind the wheel when they’ve had too much to drink. “I hope they remember my mug shot on TV,” he said.
The 51-year-old lawmaker also isn’t keeping his head down at the Capitol, where people tend to treat any hint of scandal like a diagnosis of smallpox. “There were people that were surprised that I showed up on Monday,” he said, adding that those who know him shouldn’t have expected anything different.