Best of Bleeding Heartland's original reporting in 2020

My primary goal in running this website is to provide Iowa political news and analysis that’s not available anywhere else. I’m proud of what Bleeding Heartland accomplished in 2020 and want to highlight some of the investigative reporting and accountability journalism published first or exclusively here.

A forthcoming post will review the site’s most popular pieces from 2020, which included many I worked hardest on or most enjoyed writing.

As always, I’m grateful for readers whose appetite for this kind of reporting keeps me going.

COVID-19

I expected to spend most of my energy in 2020 writing about the Iowa caucuses and their aftermath, state government and the legislature, and campaigns and elections for various state and federal offices. At this time last year, I’d heard about a novel virus identified in China, but I wasn’t following that story closely. I’m a political writer, not a public health reporter.

The COVID-19 pandemic derailed everyone’s plans, of course. Having worked primarily from home for many years, I was less affected personally than most Americans. But figuring out how to cover this enormous horror show was the biggest professional challenge I’ve faced since I began writing for this website in 2007. Every day there were a dozen or more newsworthy angles to pursue. Where to begin?

My organizing principle was the same as for any political topic: either work on a story no one else is reporting, or provide some unique perspective or more in-depth coverage of a story everyone is reporting.

Use of CARES Act funds to pay governor’s staff

Bleeding Heartland broke the news in September that Governor Kim Reynolds had designated $448,449 from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to pay part of the salaries and benefits for 21 permanent staffers in her office. No publicly available reports or databases revealed the allocation. Even the Legislative Services Agency’s analysts (who regularly produced updates on Iowa’s pandemic spending) weren’t aware of this expenditure when I started asking about it in August.

The governor defended the decision to use CARES Act funds to pay her staff, but her comments on the subject left many questions unanswered. When a state database revealed no Coronavirus Relief Fund expenditure to the governor’s office during the month of September, I kept digging.

I later learned and exclusively reported that the governor’s office had devised an indirect payment scheme for these expenses. Reynolds authorized $1 million in CARES Act money to the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for “COVID Staffing.” Homeland Security then transferred $448,449 to the governor’s office, at the direction of Reynolds’ chief of staff. To my knowledge, no other Iowa media have covered that part of the story.

Multiple public records requests later, I reported in December that the governor’s office had been overspending its budget long before coronavirus arrived in Iowa. The invoice sent to Homeland Security had been revised to make the spending on staff salaries appear consistent with U.S. Treasury guidance on allowable uses of CARES Act funds. For the same reason, headings were altered on an accompanying table so that a “FY 2020 Shortfall” of $448,448.86 was labeled “COVID-19 Personnel Costs.” Again, Bleeding Heartland was the only media organization to report this news.

A huge raise and generous overtime pay for Iowa’s state medical director

A little-noticed provision of Reynolds’ disaster emergency proclamations allowed state employees to receive overtime pay for work related to COVID-19, even if their positions normally were not eligible for overtime. About two months into my research on this overtime pay, a records request turned up a bombshell: Iowa’s State Medical Director and Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati had received a 45 percent raise in late June, as well as more than $55,000 in overtime pay during the early months of the pandemic.

Other news organizations followed up this scoop, but Bleeding Heartland was the only media outlet to report later in the year that Pedati’s salary hike violated state policy in several ways.

Inaccuracies in reported case and test numbers

The Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) has revamped its COVID-19 website several times, adding lots of new information and graphics. A recurring focus for me was to scrutinize the reliability of the published data, such as a misleading “epi curve” updated regularly in April. It vanished from the website soon after University of Iowa researchers warned state officials that “Use of symptom onset dates in any estimation of COVID peaks and trajectory is incorrect unless the most recent 7-10 days of data are excluded.”

In May, Bleeding Heartland highlighted a website feature not grounded in any principles of epidemiology, which allowed users to project the number of daily cases, tests, hospitalizations, or deaths weeks or months into the future. IDPH staff didn’t respond to my inquiries prior to publication, but coronavirus.iowa.gov removed the feature a few hours after the post went online.

Bleeding Heartland was the first to report in July that the IDPH was not counting antigen test positives as confirmed COVID-19 cases. That policy alarmed many health care providers who were flying blind in areas where health care providers had purchased the rapid antigen testing machines. IDPH officials began counting antigen test positives in late August.

Other discrepancies were not so easily resolved. Nurse practitioner Dana Jones discovered in August that Iowa’s website had been backdating some COVID-19 cases for months. Top IDPH officials had known about the backdating when the state began publishing county-level positivity rates, calculations that drew on inaccurate case numbers.

Even after state officials assured the public the “glitch” had been corrected, coronavirus.iowa.gov continued to rewrite history, as old tests disappeared from the published data on a daily basis.

Later in the year, a guest author and self-described “data nerd” showed how Polk County’s presentation of COVID-19 positivity rates by zip code made a severe outbreak look like nothing to worry about.

Scrutiny of reported deaths

In July, I set out to write a piece debunking a conspiracy theory that was making the rounds on some social media. To hear some tell it, the state was reporting only about half of Iowa’s coronavirus fatalities. That wasn’t true. But when I tried to set the record straight, I became concerned by the IDPH’s refusal to tell me anything about how they determined that an Iowan had died of COVID-19.

By late October, it was obvious that the state’s deaths dashboard was routinely lowballing the number of COVID-19 fatalities. About two weeks after Bleeding Heartland’s in-depth look at this problem, the IDPH announced it would match the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s way of counting coronavirus deaths. State officials told reporters at an invitation-only news conference that the change would produce more accurate data. They projected a net increase of 175 fatalities.

The new counting method does provide a more reliable picture of the pandemic’s destructive path in Iowa. But a close examination of the revised numbers shows that through November, the death toll was more than 600 higher than was previously apparent. Not 175.

Original takes on the pandemic response and trajectory

From the earliest weeks of the pandemic, Bleeding Heartland sought to cover the public health disaster from many angles. A non-exhaustive list of topics explored:

  • Racial and ethnic disparities in reported COVID-19 cases and deaths;
  • A years-long trend of declining funding for Iowa’s State Hygienic Laboratory;
  • Previously unreported comments by the president of MercyOne Central Iowa Medical Center about worrying levels of community spread;
  • Low numbers of in-person inspections that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) staff conducted at Iowa meatpacking plants in the spring and early summer;
  • Courtesy of Susan Nelson, a step-by-step guide on how to make your own “anti-virus hardware” (a face shield);
  • Jon Muller’s analysis on how delaying property tax enforcement might affect Iowa’s local governments;
  • First-person accounts from two doctors working in rural areas, Glenn Hurst and Greg Cohen, who shared their observations and fears for their communities.
  • Throughout the year, deep dives challenged the governor’s assurances about state officials’ ability to track and contain virus spread.

    Joe Gorton warned in March that Reynolds’ plan for managing COVID-19 relied on “dangerous and unreported assumptions.”

    Richard Lindgren was prescient in early April: “The math of how the coronavirus emerges in rural America is different from how it has hit New York City. If red state governors like Iowa’s Kim Reynolds don’t figure this out, their actions may cause more problems than solutions.” Indeed, current data shows the Iowa counties with the highest per capita case and death rates are mostly rural.

    In April, I wrote about the peak that officials projected, but did not materialize, and turned a critical eye to Reynolds’ reopening plan. Though the governor claimed increased COVID-19 testing “allows us to make evidence-based decisions about how to mitigate and manage the virus with precision,” her approach appeared to be more faith-based than data-driven.

    Over the summer, Bleeding Heartland published a comprehensive review of a modeling app created by a team of University of Iowa faculty and researchers. The model indicated that steps to enforce social distancing and universal face coverings would dramatically reduce COVID-19 cases and deaths.

    When Reynolds rolled out a “Step Up, Mask Up” campaign in mid-July, I contrasted her new tune with previous statements suggesting only vulnerable people needed to worry about covering their faces in public settings. That piece also showcased the governor’s habit of mingling in close proximity to others with faces uncovered, a practice she continued as the summer wore on.

    Clips from the governor’s news conferences inspired several posts about Reynolds’ mixed messages and misguided appeals to “personal responsibility” or “normalcy.” Although the governor did shut down bars in six counties in late August–blaming young adults for driving up community spread–she imposed no new mitigation measures in October, as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths accelerated. This piece highlighted recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force over several months, which Reynolds ignored as she insisted, “we can’t let COVID-19 dominate our lives,” and Iowa hospitals could handle the influx of inpatients.

    2020 ELECTIONS

    Even though election coverage had to take a back seat some weeks, Bleeding Heartland still provided content not available through other news sources.

    Federal races

    Dan Guild produced a steady stream of original analysis about the presidential and U.S. Senate races, informed by his research on campaigns and polling since the 1970s. He highlighted parallels between the 1980 and 2020 elections, which foreshadowed Trump’s loss in November. The Senate outcomes didn’t follow the same path, however.

    Early in 2020, my own campaign coverage was similar to that of previous election years. I kept readers up to date on Congressional candidates’ fundraising and sometimes highlighted notable changes in candidates’ messaging.

    Once the pandemic was in full swing, I didn’t have the bandwidth to stay on that track. Instead, I looked for some angles not covered elsewhere. An analytical piece from October contrasted Ernst’s hard-fought battle for re-election with how Senator Chuck Grassley coasted to re-election after his first term in the 1980s.

    In the fall, I continued Bleeding Heartland’s tradition of publishing daily updates on absentee ballots requested and returned statewide and in each of Iowa’s Congressional districts. Since those reports aren’t archived on the Secretary of State’s website, I’ve found it helpful to preserve these tables as points of reference for future years.

    I also covered some election issues that got relatively little attention, such as a new state law on candidate ballot order. In addition, Bleeding Heartland was the first (and perhaps the only) media outlet to profile Ricki Sue King, Iowa’s first Black woman presidential candidate.

    State legislature

    COVID-19 obliterated my ability to produce as many previews of individual Iowa House and Senate races as I’d written in 2019. However, I did occasionally zero in on races in competitive districts or campaigns that were particularly interesting, such as Christina Bohannan’s lopsided Democratic primary victory over a 20-year incumbent.

    I also wrote comprehensive reviews of the Iowa House landscape in March and October, along with details on record-breaking fundraising by Democratic candidates and a final look at the state House and Senate battlegrounds just before the election.

    After November 3, Bleeding Heartland highlighted baby steps toward diversity in the Iowa House and Senate, with more women set to serve in the upper chamber and more people of color elected to the lower chamber.

    Post-election analysis

    Guest authors including Rod Sullivan, Bill Brauch, Glenn Hurst, and Brett W. Copeland stepped up after the general election with thoughts on what went wrong for Iowa Democrats. I argued that Iowa is no longer a swing state and calculated the political lean of the state’s four Congressional districts, based on a measurement used by many election forecasters.

    The “lessons of 2020” series will continue in the new year, with posts about various races similar to the one I wrote about Iowa’s second Congressional district in November. I’ll also take a close look at the statewide statistical report on general election turnout, as I did for the report on 2020 primary voting.

    IOWA CAUCUSES

    With hundreds of reporters from in-state and national outlets following presidential candidates around Iowa, I shied away from duplicating their spot coverage of campaign events. My goal was to focus on broader issues, such as Julián Castro’s critique of the caucus system. Unfortunately, the deluge of guest posts supporting presidential candidates in January interfered with my own writing. I never finished the last two installments in a planned series on how the Iowa caucuses work. If the caucuses are still around in future election cycles, I resolve to find someone else to copy edit candidate endorsements.

    While I expected to be able to move on to other topics soon after caucus night, the ongoing controversy over tabulating and certifying the caucus results, as well as an unexpected leadership change in the Iowa Democratic Party, occupied much of my time throughout February.

    STATE LEGISLATURE

    State legislative coverage remained a priority for this website. Before COVID-19 interrupted lawmakers’ work, Matt Chapman continued to keep a close eye on Republican bills seeking to restrict access to public assistance programs. I was first to report on a compromise brewing over a solar energy bill that had been one of the most contentious issues during the 2019 legislative session. Bleeding Heartland provided lengthy excerpts from testimony by Iowans at a public hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion.

    During the busy two weeks in June when legislators wrapped up their work, I closely followed new Republican efforts to make it harder for Iowans to vote, harder for the secretary of state to change election procedures, and harder for county auditors to process absentee ballot request forms. This website also posted videos and transcripts of speeches by all five African-American lawmakers during a historic Iowa House debate on a policing reform bill.

    After lawmakers adjourned for the year, Bleeding Heartland was first to report that Iowa House Democratic leaders had advised caucus members to get COVID-19 tests, following an unexplained disappearing act by GOP State Representative Gary Worthan.

    I gave readers a close look at the House and Senate debate on a last-minute push for an abortion waiting period, highlighting remarks by the floor managers that were tailored to get the law past the Iowa Supreme Court.

    I also pulled video clips from many House roll call votes to illustrate State Representative Ashley Hinson’s habit of leaving the chamber when members were debating controversial bills.

    Later in the year, I reported exclusively on how State Representatives Gary Mohr and John Landon had refused to act on a deal the state auditor’s office negotiated with federal officials, despite approval from the governor’s office and key Iowa Senate Republicans.

    STATE GOVERNMENT

    Most of Bleeding Heartland’s state government coverage in 2020 related to the pandemic in some way. Other noteworthy original reporting included a close look at Reynolds’ extraordinary and possibly unconstitutional proclamation in April, which favored Christianity over other faiths. The following day, in videotaped remarks with her official seal in the background, the governor thanked a religious group for “glorifying Jesus Christ through the public affirmation of His sovereignty over our state and our nation.”

    One year after Reynolds strong-armed Attorney General Tom Miller into ceding part of his authority to her, I reviewed the multi-state legal actions the governor had either approved or denied Miller’s requests to join.

    This piece from August examined what was left unsaid and who was left out of the room when Reynolds issued an executive order granting voting rights to most Iowans with felony convictions. That post also explored a generational divide over tactics between Black Lives Matter activists and civil rights advocates who had worked on the voting rights issue for many years.

    In the fall, Bleeding Heartland was first to report on the state moving forward with plans to integrate programs of the IDPH and the Department of Human Services.

    Late last year, Marty Ryan reported for this website on his efforts to get the Iowa Board of Corrections to perform one of its legally required duties. A state audit released in September 2020 showed his concerns were well-placed.

    IOWA COURTS

    Last year brought more turnover to the Iowa Supreme Court and the selection of a new chief justice following Mark Cady’s untimely passing in late 2019.

    I wasn’t able to write up as many Iowa Supreme Court rulings as I would have liked, but Bleeding Heartland delved deep into the applications and interviews submitted by Justice Dana Oxley, whom Reynolds appointed in January, and Justice Matthew McDermott, whom Reynolds appointed in April.

    When the governor’s senior legal counsel Sam Langholz took the unusual step of applying for the latest Supreme Court vacancy, I highlighted some red flags in his background. Some Iowa attorneys expect Langholz to be in the mix for another judicial appointment before long. He will gain valuable appellate experience after taking a job in the Attorney General’s office in late 2020.

    CONGRESSIONAL COVERAGE

    Something had to give last year. Bleeding Heartland published fewer posts than usual about what the Iowans in Congress were up to. However, I did provide the most detailed reviews of how Grassley and Ernst justified their votes to acquit President Donald Trump on the counts for which he was impeached. Occasionally I looked at what the senators were not saying or not doing in response to other abuses of presidential power.

    I also kept up with how our state’s members of the U.S. House and Senate voted on major COVID-19 relief legislation.

    Telephone town halls by various members of Congress provided source material for other posts, as when Ernst said it would not be “prudent” to end social distancing by Easter, and Representative Steve King suggested Trump was “too optimistic” about getting back to normal life. I believe Bleeding Heartland was the first news organization to report that King advocated for releasing the names, addresses, and medical history of those who test positive for COVID-19.

    As far as I know, Bleeding Heartland was the only media outlet to report that Ernst signed a letter aimed at ensuring that oil, gas, and coal companies would have access to CARES Act funding, and that King closed out his Congressional career by skipping dozens of House floor votes.

    I’m grateful to everyone who read or shared Bleeding Heartland’s work during 2020, and especially to the tipsters who alerted me to topics worth investigating.

    I’m committed to keeping all reporting published here available for free, which means Bleeding Heartland will never have a paywall or subscriber-only content. If you are able to support this work financially, you can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo, or by mailing a check (contact me for the address).

    Donations to Bleeding Heartland are not tax-deductible. To avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest, I don’t accept funds from Iowa elected officials, candidates, or paid staff and consultants on Iowa campaigns.

    • Thank You

      The covid journalism has been just as important and impressive as the political journalism. I am, alas, not sure that Iowa deserves to have you. But Iowa surely does need you and is fortunate that you work here.

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