Five thoughts about Linda Upmeyer's tenure as Iowa House speaker

Iowa House Republicans meet in Des Moines this morning to elect new leaders for the 2020 legislative session. Linda Upmeyer announced on September 30 that she will step down as House speaker when the legislature reconvenes in January and will not seek re-election next November. She said in a written statement that she wants to spend more time with her husband, children, and grandchildren.

Speaking to WHO Radio’s Jeff Angelo on October 1, Upmeyer said she was also influenced by her predecessor Kraig Paulsen’s decision to leave the post long before an election. A new speaker is “well-served” by having a session under their belt, which helps them with fundraising and recruiting candidates, she explained. “I wanted to make sure that whoever was going to be leading the caucus in the future had those tools at their disposal going into this next election.”

Sources close to the legislature indicate that current House Appropriations Committee chair Pat Grassley is likely to become the next speaker, with Matt Windschitl moving up from House speaker pro-tem to majority leader. Current Majority Leader Chris Hagenow may not be part of the new leadership team, for reasons that remain unclear. UPDATE: The caucus selected Grassley as speaker, Windschitl as majority leader, and State Representative John Wills as speaker pro tem.

I’ve been thinking about Upmeyer’s legacy and how she influenced the chamber.

She will be remembered for breaking glass ceilings.

For many years, Democrats have nominated and elected more women to the Iowa legislature than Republicans have. But Democrats have controlled the state House for only four of the last 23 years. During their brief time in the majority, they didn’t choose a woman for either of the top two House leadership roles.

Consequently, Upmeyer became Iowa’s first woman majority leader in 2011 and the first woman speaker after Kraig Paulsen left that role in the summer of 2015.

Dallas Warren and Caroline Cummings reported for Cedar Rapids station CBS-2 on September 30,

“It’s been a huge privilege and honor to do the job, whether you’re male or female, but I’m particularly touched and privileged that I got to be the first woman to do it,” Upmeyer told reporters in the House Chamber Monday afternoon. “That was a big honor. I don’t take that lightly and it will be something I always remember.”

As the daughter of former Iowa House Speaker Del Stromer, Upmeyer had an easier path to legislative success than do many women who run for office. Still, rising to the top of a male-dominated caucus is a significant achievement. Upmeyer’s place in the history books is secure.

She delivered for every Republican constituency and usually got what she wanted.

Compared to her predecessor, who had to deal with a Democratic-controlled Senate every year he was speaker, Upmeyer was fortunate. She was able to govern as part of a trifecta for the last three years.

Business groups got tax cuts and multi-pronged attacks on workers’ rights, wages, and benefits. Social conservatives got restrictive abortion laws and discrimination against transgender Iowans. Gun advocates got almost everything on their wish list. People hung up about immigration got a mean-spirited and probably unconstitutional bill over the objections of local governments, law enforcement, civil libertarians, and religious organizations.

You might think, of course Upmeyer got what she wanted. She had a majority. But it doesn’t always work that way. Ask labor Democrats or environmentalists how many of their priorities made it through the Iowa House between 2007 and 2010. A major tax overhaul, which Governor Chet Culver would have signed, also got stuck in the House, where Democrats held 56 out of 100 seats.

Though Upmeyer had a huge 59-41 majority in 2017, getting the collective bargaining bill through the House was no sure thing. Even after a major concession (granting more rights to so-called “public safety workers”), a group of GOP lawmakers resisted. That bill barely passed.

Similar scenarios played out on other bills. Water quality legislation stalled in 2017, but House Republicans approved it early the following year. (Probably the Iowa Farm Bureau deserves more credit than Upmeyer for that arm-twisting.) An energy bill was hung up in the House for quite a while in 2018 but got through thanks to amendments that chipped away at the opposition. This year, judicial selection changes seemed dead two days before lawmakers adjourned, but a last-minute deal garnered just enough votes in the House.

When Upmeyer was determined to get legislation to the governor’s desk, she rarely failed to deliver. MidAmerican’s solar bill was one of very few high-profile exceptions.

In terms of policy substance, the collective work of the House GOP caucus has been a disaster for this state. But there’s no question Upmeyer succeeded in enacting her agenda.

She mostly missed opportunities to improve Iowans’ health care.

Looking at Upmeyer’s record on health-related issues, you’d never guess she was a nurse practitioner.

In 2016, the speaker buried Senate-approved bills that would have either blocked Medicaid privatization or imposed real oversight of the program. As a result, thousands of vulnerable Iowans have experienced cuts to services they need. Hospitals and health care providers have more trouble getting reimbursed, and some have gone out of business because of unpaid bills.

The speaker helped decimate family planning services in this state by cutting off Planned Parenthood’s funding for non-abortion services in 2017. This year, statehouse Republicans tried to block Planned Parenthood from sex education funding as well. (That provision is on hold pending litigation.)

Also this year, Upmeyer went along with the Senate’s cruel and cynical bid to discriminate against transgender Iowans on Medicaid. Let’s leave aside the unanimous Iowa Supreme Court ruling authored by a conservative justice. How can a nurse practitioner ignore the evidence that gender-affirming surgery is medically necessary for some trans people?

Upmeyer is also the primary reason Iowa has one of the worst medical cannabis laws in the country. Bleeding Heartland has previously discussed her influence on the unworkable 2017 bill. Carl Olsen explained here how Upmeyer “ran the ship aground” this year by pushing a poorly-conceived House cannabis bill instead of the Senate’s more thoughtful approach to the issue. Governor Kim Reynolds later vetoed the bill.

The speaker has told interviewers she’s proud of advances the legislature made this year on children’s mental health. But those programs were mostly unfunded.

And if mental health was such a priority for the speaker, why did House leaders threaten to pull a major mental health bill from the floor in 2018 if a Democratic lawmaker didn’t agree to withdraw a proposal to make it easier to get firearms away from Iowans who pose a danger to themselves or others?

Upmeyer can claim one big accomplishment in this area. As majority leader in 2013, she was a key player in the negotiations that produced Iowa’s Medicaid expansion compromise. But that didn’t happen because Upmeyer was committed to giving 150,000 more Iowans access to health care. Rather, House Republicans and Governor Terry Branstad were desperate to pass a big commercial property tax cut, and Senate Democrats insisted on expanding Medicaid in exchange. (A third part of that grand bargain eliminated any meaningful oversight of homeschooling in this state.)

The jury is out on her approach to budgeting.

Speaking to WHO Radio’s Angelo last week, Upmeyer said proudly,

We’ve been able to really change the culture in the way we view our budgeting in this state. You know, it used to be that every pot of money that existed was fair game for spending when it came to the wants and needs of the state. We took a different approach because of the ups and downs of the economy […] and spent ongoing revenue. So one-time dollars were set aside for one-time expenditures, ongoing dollars were used for ongoing expenditures.

The speaker went on to say that this budgeting method “smoothed out” the ups and downs. She also hailed “historic tax cuts, generational tax cuts” (those directed most of the benefits to the wealthiest Iowans). In addition, Upmeyer claimed new limits on local governments’ ability to increase property taxes–passed in the middle of the night before the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency had produced a fiscal note–would increase “transparency” in local government. Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project demolished that argument.

Some indicators point to a recession beginning in 2020 or 2021. Around the same time, additional state tax cuts will go into effect, which were part of the 2018 law but delayed in order to keep the price tag down.

If state revenues collapse the way they did during the “Great Recession” of the last decade, Upmeyer won’t be around to deal with the fallout.

She has driven some people away, which could cost her party control of the House after 2020.

Preserving the majority is part of any legislative leader’s job, and Upmeyer managed. Republicans held a 57-43 majority when she became speaker. They party enjoyed a net gain of two seats in the 2016 elections and came out of the last midterm with a 54-46 advantage, despite much higher Democratic turnout than usual. That’s not too shabby. Upmeyer deserves some credit for raising a lot of money, though that’s not tough when your party looks out for wealthy individuals and corporate interests.

But I would argue that Upmeyer’s heavy-handed leadership style has weakened her party’s position.

The large number of GOP retirements in the Iowa House didn’t get as much attention as it deserved in 2016 and 2018. Normally, retirements are a problem for the party out of power. Life in the minority isn’t fun, so people tend to head for the exits. Competing for the majority is harder when you have lots of open seats to defend.

Yet eight out of 57 House Republicans opted not to run for re-election in 2016. At least four of them represented potentially competitive districts, and three of those were nowhere close to retirement age. If they didn’t see a future in the Iowa legislature, it doesn’t reflect well on their caucus leaders.

The speaker was fortunate a big swing toward Donald Trump in eastern Iowa kept Democrats from picking up any of those open seats.

You’d think every Republican lawmaker would have been a happy camper in 2017 and 2018, with the new GOP trifecta passing one conservative bill after another. Yet twelve of the 59 House Republicans chose not to run for re-election last year. Some represented safe districts, had coveted committee assignments, and were in good health. Why did they want out?

One of those retirements (Rob Taylor in House district 44) certainly cost Republicans a seat. The party lost two other open seats as well.

The 54-46 majority could easily have been 52-48. Democrats were caught napping in House district 82, where State Representative Phil Miller lost to GOP challenger Jeff Shipley by 37 votes. And in a raw expression of partisanship over fair play, House Republicans declared State Representative Michael Bergan the winner in House district 55, where he led by nine votes and 29 absentee ballots cast on time were never counted.

Upmeyer’s approach to her job cost her party another House seat in April. Though some media reported that State Representative Andy McKean switched parties because of Donald Trump, his statement indicated he was unhappy with how the Republican caucus was managed.

Upon returning to Des Moines [in 2017] after a 15 year hiatus, I found a very different place. As Bill Petroski mentioned in his speech last month and as long-time legislators and lobbyists will attest to, the legislature is considerably more partisan and regimented than it used to be. I have found that difficult to adjust to and believe it often stands in the way of good legislation. I’m also concerned by the increasing influence big money is having on the legislative process.

In addition, I found a very changed Republican caucus. Although I have great respect for the Speaker and Majority Leader and appreciate their efforts to find a role for me in the caucus, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the stance of my party on the vast majority of high profile issues and often sympathetic with concerns raised by the minority caucus.

McKean was a sure bet to keep House district 58 in Republican hands. Now there’s a good chance he will hold the seat for Democrats in 2020.

At times, an atmosphere of distrust seemed to pervade the House GOP caucus. Occasionally signs were visible in public, as when State Representative Chip Baltimore (one of the 2018 retirees) blasted members of his own party for backtracking on a bipartisan water quality bill.

Postscript: Linda Upmeyer’s April 30 appearance on Simon Conway’s show

Now that Upmeyer is finally stepping down, I want to address a point WHO Radio’s popular conservative host Simon Conway has made repeatedly in recent months, seeking to discredit me and my work.

In two detailed posts about important bills pending in the Iowa House in April, I mentioned in passing that Upmeyer was widely rumored to be resigning from the legislature soon after the 2019 session ended (see here and here). I didn’t speculate about her new job, because there was no consensus about why she was supposedly leaving. By some accounts, Upmeyer was in line to be ambassador to an unspecified country. Others said she was planning to work for an organization affiliated with Newt Gingrich (she has long admired him and chaired his 2012 presidential campaign in Iowa).

Those rumors didn’t pan out. Upmeyer didn’t leave immediately after session ended and doesn’t appear to have any other job lined up.

In one poorly and hastily-written tweet on April 27, I indicated that Upmeyer was leaving for a new job, rather than citing rumors that she was leaving. That was a mistake.

Nevertheless, the published posts at Bleeding Heartland were accurate. As I reported, Upmeyer was widely believed to be leaving soon. Many people in and around the legislature were talking about the prospect and wondering who might replace her. That context was relevant to ongoing negotiations about MidAmerican’s solar bill and proposals to change judicial selection.

Upmeyer didn’t impulsively decide to step down as speaker. Signs indicate her departure has been in the works for some time:

  • Only a few weeks after lawmakers adjourned for the year, Terri Steinke was fired as the staffer who worked at the front desk in the House speaker’s office.
  • As the summer progressed, Upmeyer’s longtime chief of staff Tony Phillips planned his own transition. Last month he launched a lobbying and political consulting firm.
  • Upmeyer was a guest on Simon Conway’s show on April 30, three days after lawmakers adjourned. Here’s my transcript of their exchange, beginning around the 4:00 mark.

    Conway: I want to either confirm this stupid rumor that’s out there or have you put it to rest. I got quite upset with a blogger the other day who said that the session was being rushed to an end just so you could start a new job, Madam Speaker. I called her out on it, I pointed out that if this is what passes for journalism these days, we’ve got real problems, because she did not have one fact. Not a single fact. And I even–she pointed out to me that she had, I’m quoting her now, that she had “dozens”–that’s a plural–of sources. So, when you simply could ask the person you’re talking about, your sources seem to be irrelevant. So I’m asking you, Speaker Upmeyer, are you leaving?

    Upmeyer: I’m not going anywhere, Simon. And I was really amused by those rumors, actually, because the things that I was rumored to be doing sound quite exciting, actually. But none of this is true. In fact, I got a text from former Speaker Gingrich that he’d heard a rumor that I was entertaining being an ambassador. And I told him that the rumors actually, were that I was going to work for him. […] So this is just how these rumors go. But you are correct. It could have been put to rest if someone had simply asked.

    Note that Upmeyer herself acknowledged she’d heard the same rumors, which reached Gingrich as well. I didn’t invent this idea. I mentioned the scenario in writing only after hearing independently from many sources that Upmeyer would not stick around long after the session.

    And how disingenuous for Upmeyer to say, “It could have been put to rest if someone had simply asked.” I’ve periodically e-mailed the House speaker seeking comment on various issues over the years. She has never replied to a single message. Colin Tadlock, communications director for House Republicans, has likewise not responded to a single inquiry from me, ever, about any subject.

    Moreover, Upmeyer’s staff went to absurd lengths this year to prevent me from asking her any questions. When I applied for credentials to cover the legislature in January, one reason was a desire to participate in the weekly “gaggles” Upmeyer and Majority Leader Hagenow held in the House chamber. Only journalists in the press box have access.

    With Upmeyer’s blessing, the former House chief clerk denied me credentials, citing various pretexts. The House then adopted a written credentialing policy for the first time, to justify the chief clerk’s arbitrary decision to exclude me. Even though I demonstrated I met the terms of the new policy, they still refused to grant credentials.

    The upshot is that I have had no opportunity to ask the speaker any questions about anything while writing numerous posts related to the state legislature. So no, I didn’t e-mail her to ask about rumors she was planning to step down after session.

    Back to Conway’s April 30 segment with Upmeyer. After a little discussion of why Republican leaders ended the session a week early, the talk radio host delivered a mini-monologue about how “this particular individual had literally nothing.”

    Because clearly it’s untrue, and so they were just spreading rumors. And if you want to be regarded as a journalist, the one thing you don’t do, ever, is spread a rumor.

    So I’m very pleased we had you [Speaker Upmeyer] on and you were able to put that to rest. Let’s move on from that and move to more important issues. But you heard it here first, she’s not going anywhere. [Upmeyer chuckles]

    You heard it there first.

    UPDATE: Conway attempted a little clean-up in an October 7 radio interview with Upmeyer. First, he differentiated between “perfectly reasonable” rumors toward the end of the legislative session (“I think she’s gonna go”) and “completely unreasonable” rumors (that the speaker was rushing to adjourn so she could start a new job). But he acknowledged that Upmeyer had told his listeners in the spring she wasn’t going anywhere. What changed? “Nothing really changed, Simon, I’m not going anywhere.”

    Asked when she decided to step aside, Upmeyer said an “a ha moment” occurred in June, when she was spending time with her children and grandchildren and realized she’d never seen her high school-aged grandson play soccer.

    Steinke’s position was terminated in May. She served at the pleasure of the speaker and was not replaced. It seems likely Upmeyer decided to hand over the reins very soon after lawmakers adjourned, if not before then.

    Top photo taken from the banner at the top of the Facebook page for Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer.

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    • Thanks for linking to that good 2009 post...

      …about what it was like to be an Iowa environmentalist in 2009. And thanks for the reminder of why some of us avoid WHO Radio. If I want dubious claims and laughable assertions, I need only visit the website of a certain Iowa farm organization.

    • Credibility

      for Laura Belin–going up.
      for radio guy–going down.

      Now let’s see if Grassley recognizes you, showing he has more guts than Upmeyer had.