How the Iowa House passed the civil rights bill in 2007

Former Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy shares his memories of an important legislative victory twelve years ago. -promoted by Laura Belin

Last month Iowans celebrated ten years of marriage equality. Two years prior, the legislature added protections for LGBTQ people to Iowa’s civil rights law. One of my children asked me to share that experience in writing. What you are about to read is an excerpt.

Every year I served in the legislature, there was a bill to guarantee civil rights for gay and lesbian citizens of the state, but being a Cubs fan (which I was and still am) was about the same. They played every season for 108 years from (1908 winning the World Series) until they did it again in 2016. The old adage started at some point from May, or as late as the post season, when people would say, “Wait until next year.”

Civil rights bills were the same in Iowa. The bill was introduced and passed the House in 1989, but failed in the Senate before I won a special election for a House seat in Dubuque later that year. The Senate approved a similar bill in 1992, but it only received 47 votes in the House. (It is important to remember that Iowa has a constitutional majority, which means you have to have a simple majority of all the members for a bill to pass a legislative chamber.)

Allow me another Cubs comparison: it was like making the playoffs but having a Buckner or Bartman event prevent the outcome from being victorious. Sorry, Bill and Steve, but it is a good analogy.

Democrats controlled both legislative chambers in 1989 and in 1992. They had the majority and set the agenda; committee chairs could take up any issue or cause they chose.

Democrats lost control of the Iowa House in 1992. It would be another fifteen years before we could get it back. Think about this: fifteen years is as long as serving time for a Class C and D felony consecutively, not concurrently, with no time off for good behavior. In other words, we served the full Monty.

Personally, I never expected to serve that long in the minority, but I wanted to get “control” back and show that we Democrats could do some “good things.” Civil rights for LGBTQ Iowans was one of those things. By the way, I never expected to be the speaker of the House when it did happen. I just wanted us to get control.

Every biennial session of the legislature, the three to five most liberal members of the Democratic caucus would introduce a bill adding civil protections for sexual orientation. It would get read into the House Journal and assigned to a committee, which would then appoint it to a subcommittee.

Since Republicans controlled the majority and did not want the bill to come up, they would make sure they had two people on the subcommittee who opposed the bill. The chair of the subcommittee puts his copy of the committee report in a drawer, and it sits in his desk for the remainder of the biennium. In the legislature, this fate is known as sitting in someone’s draw, collecting dust, never seeing the light of day, or DOA (what my wife knew as an emergency room nurse for decades as Dead On Arrival). It all means one thing: the bill is DEAD. Remember, this went on for fifteen years.

One thing I never understood with legislators is playing your cards when you are in the minority. Do not tip the other side as to the legislation you would like to do if you get the majority. It makes great brochure material for the other side. Brochure material means issues that are highlighted in last-minute mailings hammering your opponent on the bad things he will do if he gets elected. I know people want to show others what they would do if they had the opportunity, but I prefer to save legislative ideas for when you can pass them, or at least have a chance of making it law.

Finally, the 2006 elections came along. For the first time in forty-two years, Democrats had the trifecta (control of the governor’s office, Senate, and House). It’s like the Cubs getting Bryant, Rizzo, Arietta, Lester etc. In other words, hopefully, we can do some “good things.” All of a sudden, bills that were DOA for 15 years were now “ALIVE.”

A few people were very optimistic about our ability to do this right away. One I know was Rich Eychaner. He had been following this bill since Representative Tom Jochum first ran the bill in the House 19 years earlier. He visited with me frequently about it.

I even had a constituent who became upset about the fact that I had voted for the civil rights bill in 1992. I remember it well, because our spouses had to settle the two of us down. We ended up agreeing not to talk about the subject again. Well, he had a change of heart years later and thought it was time for such a bill in Iowa. Ironically, one of his children “came out” to him between 1992 and 2007. I think more importantly, he wanted to make sure his child had the same rights and protections his other children would have. He apparently thought it would be easy for me to pass the bill, since I was elected speaker.

Now the Senate passed the bill easily. I learned one thing from Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal: don’t make a bet on how fast the Senate could pass a bill. If they wanted to pass something, they could do it in warp speed. We had a peregrine falcon on the roof of the capitol in those days. It is the fastest bird in the world and only eats other live birds. They claimed it was there to kill all the pigeons hanging around (and pooping by the doors and on people). I believe that the Senate had the peregrine falcon there to see if they could do a bill faster than it took the bird to kill its prey (they fly at 240 mph).

The Senate had a larger majority than the House (they had 30 of the 50 Senate seats whereas the House Democrats only had 53 of 100 seats). Gronstal made it look easy. They passed the bill with limited debate; all 30 Democrats and four Republicans voted for it. In fact, they could have overridden a gubernatorial veto. (Of course, everyone knew Chet Culver would sign the bill.) They immediately messaged the bill to the House.

This is the weird part about the two chambers that you need to understand. The Senate puts no time limits on debate, so a senator can talk for hours on a bill. Yet in the House (because we have twice as many members) we limit debate to each member to ten minutes. You can rise a second time to speak for ten minutes, but that is your limit. In the Senate, as long as I was there in my 26 years, debate was always shorter and quicker in the Senate.

The House is more bloodthirsty. Everybody gets up and uses their ten minutes. We suspend rules, so debate takes much longer. (The Senate is a lot like the Catholic Church: they always follow the rules and abide by them, if they don’t it’s like a mortal sin.) A bill may pass the Senate in ten minutes, and that same bill may take six or eight hours in the House.

Now I visited with Brad Clark, who was lobbying for the LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa. We also visited with Marcia Nichols from AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees for you non-union types). We needed to assign the civil rights bill to a committee with no problems of getting it out.

I had deliberately stacked a couple of committees when I formed the committees in November. One of them was Human Resources. Mark Smith was the chair, and when we called him in my office, we informed him he was getting the civil rights bill, and I had in advance made sure that everyone (meaning Democrats) would vote for the bill. We even discussed who should floor manage the bill. Someone who was liberal and comfortable with the issue. Someone not too abrasive. That was important, because if someone was verbally abusive in floor debates, it would give Republicans all the more reason to be combative during debate. Lastly, they had to do their homework on the issue to answer questions from conservatives.

Those criteria really left two people on the committee: either Janet Petersen or Beth Wessel-Kroeschell. We went with Beth because she had done the same-day voter registration bill earlier in the year. She was totally prepared and dismantled Republican criticisms. We decided to assign the bill to her in committee and have her handle all the floor work.

Brad was in charge of floor votes. We had the infamous six-pack (no not alcohol, but legislators who proudly referred to themselves as this, they were the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus on some social and many budget issues). I knew that several of them were very supportive of this policy.

I remember my administrative assistant Carolyn Gaukel coming into my office late one evening, saying Brad needed to visit with me. Brad had a vote count of 42 (remember we need 51). Needless to say, I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach not like Bartman or Buckner, but more like that feeling of being at the beside a sick relative in the hospital. Total silence and not knowing what to say.

I asked to see the blue card (now the blue card is a card that is blue in color that has all the Democratic legislators on one side and all the Republicans on the other. They have columns on the card that are listed at the top for Yay, Nay or Undecided, and no, when Republicans controlled the House they do not become red cards). The spot in my stomach disappeared immediately.

I told Brad to give me a couple of days to get the other votes. Once I saw his list, I felt I could get the votes.

Over the next few days, I would put different people in the speaker’s chair while I quietly (as quietly as a speaker can wonder around the chamber) talked to people about the civil rights bill. Some simply would not answer Brad, and some were a NO vote, which surprised me, while others were undecided on his blue card. Quite frankly, it was easy. There was no arm twisting, which is what everyone thinks is done to get these votes. No threats of any sort were used by me on this vote.

We had three no votes in Brian Quirk, Delores Mertz (who always was consistent on this issue), and Dawn Pettengill, who switched over to the Republican Party a few days later. This issue was one of her reasons for leaving the party. Regarding Dawn, I will quote Forrest Gump by saying, “I won’t say any more about that.”

Most conversations on the civil rights bill took five minutes or less. Some people didn’t want to be “blue carded” on an LGBTQ issue, which I could understand. Others were not comfortable with Brad because he was young and not one of the “regular” members of the lobby. One discussed it with me and said they had a child that was gay and did not want to discuss the issue with anyone, but gave me their assurance that on final passage they would follow my vote. That was good enough for me.

We were still one vote short in the Democratic caucus of the 51 needed. Now Ray Zirkelbach had been elected in 2006, but he was serving a tour in Iraq. I knew Ray would be supportive of this issue. The problem was Ray would not be back until after we adjourned for the year, which meant if we waited for him, the bill would be taken up in January 2008.

This is where I differed from Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He wanted to kill the bill for 2007 and come back the following year. I thought that was a huge mistake. The reason why Kevin (at this point Kevin had only been in the Legislature for four years) did not understand is if we left the bill sit it would give Christian conservatives and others the interim in the summer and fall to lobby against the bill and to try and get a few members to flip or switch their support.

Plus, as speaker you are paid to worry. That is why you get the big chair in front of the room and that is why everybody complains to you. Ray was in a war zone. Would he return? These are the things that go through your head. Ray did come back, but he received a Purple Heart, since his Humvee blew up after it hit an IED (Improvised Explosive Device or a bomb).

My decision was to proceed. Now I knew from talking to Marcia, Brad and Alicia Claypool that we had two Republicans, Libby Jacobs, and Doug Struyk, who had stated previously that they would vote for the civil rights bill if it came up. They had told constituents that they would vote for such a bill.

However, the legislature is a lot, I mean a lot like school. We have peer pressure. When you get peer pressure especially from members of your own party it can be worse than high school. Minority Leader Chris Rants was telling everyone to say they were opposed to the bill and that they would unite against it. They even inferred that people would take a walk. A walk in the legislature is when you don’t want to vote for a bill, because your caucus and constituents are on different sides. Some people would make Dr. Oz happy because they got 10,000 steps while they are in office, but I never took one of those walks in 26 years. Rants was insisting they had people in lock step on this issue.

When I became speaker-elect, before I was sworn in, I vowed never to take up a bill without knowing I had 51 votes. Here I was, four months into my job, and guess who was thinking about going back on those words. After a week, and much deliberation with the Democratic leadership team, I made a decision. I had had it with the games of Chris Rants. We would run the bill, and I knew what I would do to make sure everyone voted.

I decided that we would do a “Call of the House” which is a procedural motion. When one is filed in the House well with the Chief Clerk it requires the Sergeant of Arms to lock the doors of the House Chamber. Attendance is taken, and anyone who isn’t present is immediately brought back to the House. If you are not in the building, they will send out the Iowa State Troopers to bring you back.

Politically, and publicly it is extremely embarrassing if law enforcement is sent out to bring you back to do your job. I once heard a legislator say that getting picked up by a State Trooper in these circumstances is probably like getting caught in the town square with your pants around your ankles. I did not discuss this with anyone, including the leadership team, until the day before, because I wanted the element of surprise. During my 26 years I saw the “Call of the House” done three times. I enacted two of them.

We had the leadership meeting and got the signatures (you need five House members) we needed for the “Call of the House,” and asked for secrecy. This leadership team was good at keeping secrets. If I knew where Jimmy Hoffa was buried and I told them, they would have kept the secret. We set the next day for the bill.

I remember the day we passed the bill as I drove up to the capitol. I pulled into the speaker’s parking spot. I decided to call my wife. I remember calling her and saying I am sitting in the car. I am going against something I promised my caucus I wouldn’t do, take up a vote and know I do not have the votes. I told her about the “Call of the House” (she is a nurse and she keeps really good secrets) to force Republicans to at least vote on the bill.

I remember her saying, “Murf, you will do what you think is best, and I don’t know anyone better to do the job and make the right decision. I’ve trusted you my whole life and that trust is what your caucus sees in you.” With the reassuring words of my wife, I felt good. It felt right. I finished up the call and I decided to never look back.

We went into the caucus in the morning after gaveling in. We covered a few bills that were non-controversial and then we headed to the civil rights bill. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell walked through the bill. She took discussion from folks and answered questions. I quite frankly, was more focused on the big picture, whereas Beth was dealing with the explanation and giving an understanding of what the bill would do.

When she finished up, it was leadership’s turn. I remember telling people that all but three members of our caucus had said they would support the bill. We discussed strategy and explained we had a “procedural” move to force a vote. We asked for the caucus to keep things quiet until we called the bill up for a vote.

The caucus kept it quiet, so it was a surprise for the Republicans. That was helpful because asking 53 people to keep a secret is hard. Smart phones were just coming out then, and people would text members of the lobby about what we were doing. Leaking information usually was not a huge deal, on this one bill it was helpful that everyone stayed silent. We broke for lunch a little bit before noon and wanted everyone back to debate at 1:00.

When we arrived from lunch, I remember Kevin McCarthy calling up the civil rights bill for immediate consideration. Abruptly, Chris Rants, who was visiting with Mike Gronstal, announced that Republicans need to caucus immediately, because he had just been given important information about the budget from Gronstal.

BS is what I thought, and Chris Rants was good at it. Chris was so good at BS, that if you gave him an enema you would be able to bury him in a shoe box. We all knew they were going to caucus because of the LGBT civil rights bill.

Gronstal and McCarthy both came up to me after the Republicans went to caucus. Rants said to Gronstal, “Oh my, Murphy is going to call my bluff and run the bill.” McCarthy, who had Libby Jacobs sitting across the aisle from his desk, said she was on her computer when he announced the bill and that her head sunk down and her face flushed.

The Republicans caucused for four hours that day. During that time, I will never forget that one of my members came to me and said he had been lobbied by a member of the Catholic Conference. He said, “Pat, I got lobbied about this bill. He says that they are not actively lobbying the bill, but they have questions about the T in the LGBT bill.”

He gave this example, he said, “if William, who is in a suit, and is a 20-year male teacher at school goes home on a Friday, and comes back to school on Monday in a dress and wants to be called Wilma and wants access to the women’s bathroom. What do you do?” I said to the lobbyist, “I don’t know.” This is the other problem you have: people who are opposed to what you are doing can continue to do whatever they can to have a bill “blow up” and take it down before you vote on a bill. That was a real concern with this.

Fortunately, I dealt with the few attempts we had on this day as they came up. My response to the legislator was “that is @#$%ing stupid.” I said the bill covers those types of issues, and to ignore someone who even claims they are not lobbying the bill, but then lobbies the bill.

About two hours into the Republican caucus Walt Tomenga, a Republican from Polk county who had a great relationship with Kevin McCarthy, came out of caucus to visit with Kevin. McCarthy shared with them we were going to put a “Call of the House” on the bill to force everyone to vote. I pretty much told Walt that if Chris wanted to have his entire caucus to vote “NO,” they could. We would do the bill next year when Zirkelbach came back.

After another 45 minutes, McCarthy approached me to say Republicans wanted to compromise on the bill. At first, I thought this was a stall tactic, but when I heard it, I decided to take it. The compromise required us to pull all amendments to the bill and the Republicans would do the same. Furthermore, Wessel-Kroeschell would be the only Democrat allowed to speak on the floor. In exchange for that no Republicans would speak on the bill either.

Rants would then offer an amendment stating that this civil rights legislation would not in any specific way, condone, support, or endorse marriage equality. I know it sounds goofy, but I don’t think like a Republican. This is a civil rights bill, and has nothing to do with marriage equality. That decision will (and did) come from the courts at a later date (and they got it right too!). It was obvious this was a divisive issue for the Republicans and they wanted the bill to be dealt with in the least painful way possible for there own caucus.

We agreed to the changes, but a “Call of the House” would remain to guarantee everyone still voted. I then had to go around to all our members and get a guarantee that they would not speak on the bill. Republicans did not want any “gloating” about the bill’s passage. This was tougher than you think. We had members who wanted to have their voice heard. They wanted to have remarks, so they could go back home and tell them what they said on this particular issue. For me it came down to something simple. When you have the votes, SHUT UP, let’s vote and get this into the Iowa Code. I could not be that abrupt, but when you explained to people it was more about taking action and making law than speeches they understood.

So, after Republicans returned from their caucus, some 4 hours from when they left, we put on the “Call of the House,” Wessel-Kroeschell made opening remarks, and all other amendments were pulled except the Rants amendment which was adopted. With the “Call of the House” “on” we did a roll call where everyone’s name was called and they had to verbally say “aye” or “nay” on the passage.

The surprising and quite shocking part that there were not 52 votes for the bill, but 59 votes. As the vote tally went on, we kept picking up more and more Republicans than anyone fathomed. Fifty Democrats and nine Republicans voted for the bill. The process worked the way it should and was bipartisan. No one expected this margin on final passage.

Many people in my caucus and in the Republican caucus viewed me as a bully, and the way I passed this bill may be one of the issues that my detractors point to. However, if people play games, my goal while I was the Iowa House Speaker was to get some good progressive legislation passed. Even if I ran over a few people and left some footprints on their chests. It’s what I had to do, and if the minority played games, it was my job to shut it down and get something accomplished.

After I announced the final vote on final passage, Mark Brandsgard, who was the Chief Clerk and was working in the speaker’s office when the bill was taken up decades earlier gave me the first copy as the vote tally came out of the machine. Usually that is given to the legal counsel in the well to place in the House Journal for the next day. He then gave me a fist pump, which I returned. Best fist pump I have ever gotten.

The part that was hard for me was announcing the final vote before the House. My voice started to crack. I felt myself getting emotional. As I finished announcing the results, I was happy, but I could not keep my voice from quivering. We adjourned for an hour for people to eat supper. We had been in session for over eight hours, done one bill and it took less than 30 minutes. And the statehouse press was standing at the base of the rostrum wanting me to comment. I couldn’t talk, so I waved them off and headed to the Speaker’s office where I gathered myself and called the person that started off my day, my wife. She seemed shocked, but then again, I remember she told me that night to continue to trust my guts because people trusted me.

Later that night, Don Avenson–who I noticed sitting in the House gallery during the debate and still is the longest serving House speaker in Iowa history–came up to me. He was sitting with Tom Jochum, who introduced and managed the first civil rights bill more than a generation earlier. Don left the Legislature in 1990. He said he had never missed being in the House until that night. He said it was the first time he wished he could cast a vote in seventeen years. That remark made me feel great.

When I headed down to the statehouse cafeteria, I ran into a lady from Johnson county, Janelle Rettig. She expressed to me how special it was that Iowa became one of those states that recognized more of their citizens. I had two more people come up to me that evening elated that Iowa had become a more welcoming state.

The strangest part was none of what you just read. It was a visit I got several weeks before the bill was taken up. Barry Griswold, the CEO of Principal Insurance. When I heard he wanted to meet with me I assumed it was some insurance mandate, or workers’ compensation bill. It was not. It was his personal plea to get this bill passed. Now I’m 6′ 1″, and Barry is 6′ 8″ so he is a person people recognize when he walks into the room. He looks like your typical insurance CEO. On this issue he talked about how open Principal was and how we needed this legislation. I was impressed. He sat down and talked openly and honestly about LGBT issues and how Principal worked with there employees from the LGBT community. I supported civil rights, but I learned a lot that day about LGBT issues based on his knowledge. You never know where you will find your advocates.

I was proud of my caucus that day. Many of them were uncomfortable with this issue, but they made the right decision for thousands of Iowans. Also, I was proud of nine Republicans who bucked their party to do what they thought was the right thing for them and others. I remember one Republican member telling Roger Thomas why they voted for the bill. “You know I don’t want my children and grandchildren coming here in the future and looking up my voting record, and seeing I voted against some else’s rights. I want to be on the right side of history.”

Me too! By the way, the Cubs won a World Series nine years later.

Top image: Pat Murphy (third from right) looks toward Governor Chet Culver (far right) during the 2007 bill signing ceremony for the amendments to the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Photo provided by the Iowa House Democratic caucus and published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Pat Murphy

  • Good story!

    The comment about Rants made me laugh out loud.

  • Pat Murphy is Great

    I served with Pat Murphy from 1998-2004, and he was always a great legislator.

    This story article explains how legislation getting passed often isn’t pretty, but it does get done. I’m sure this bill could not pass the Iowa House today. That is really scary. While the rest of Iowa and the country has moved to accept and even welcome equal rights, this is an issue we are fighting at many levels.

    Thanks Pat for reminding us that getting important things done often takes parliamentary rules and compromise.

  • Tom Jochum speech

    I remember covering Tom Jochum’s speech as the legislative reporter for the Telegraph-Herald. Jaded journalist that I was, I rarely thought much of floor speeches, but his oration impressed me deeply.