The 21 most-viewed Bleeding Heartland posts of 2021

It’s time for another review of Bleeding Heartland’s most widely-read posts from the year that just ended. I always struggle a bit with this task, because the work I’m most proud of doesn’t always overlap with what resonated most with readers. Also, I’m wary of watching traffic numbers too closely, because I try not to let potential clicks drive my editorial decisions.

However, I always gain some insight from this review, so here goes.

This list draws from Google Analytics data about total views for 598 posts this website published during 2021: 362 written by me and 236 by other authors. I left out the site’s front page and the “about” page, where many people landed following online searches.

It was a strange year for traffic. Fewer of the most popular posts related to the Iowa legislature’s work, and four of the top 21 were published in August, which can be a slow month for political news. On the other hand, perhaps I should not be surprised, since the posts that took off in August related to the biggest ongoing stories of the year: the pandemic and efforts by Donald Trump and his followers to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Note: visits to news websites and ratings for television news programs dropped dramatically during 2021, following a surge in 2020 related to COVID-19 and the elections. Those trends affected this site as well; on a typical day in 2021, Bleeding Heartland had fewer visitors than during the previous year. But traffic settled a bit above what was common before the pandemic. About 30 pieces published here last year would have qualified for my compilation from 2019.

Those that just missed the cut for today’s post:

On to the countdown:

21. Governor’s own words helped sink mask mandate ban in court

In September, I didn’t manage to finish my post about U.S. District Court Senior Judge Robert Pratt’s temporary restraining order on Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates. So I was determined not to make the same mistake in October, when the judge issued a preliminary injunction barring the state from enforcing the ban, pending resolution of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Iowa on behalf of a disability advocacy group and eleven parents of children with disabilities.

Every Iowa news organization immediately covered the court ruling, so for this piece, I focused on an angle that had received little attention from other media.

The state’s lead attorney (Governor Kim Reynolds’ former senior legal counsel Sam Langholz) had presented several arguments in defense of the new state policy. Those included a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose proposition: nothing in federal disabilities law requires schools to mandate masks. But if the Americans with Disabilities Act or other federal statute does require that action, nothing is stopping Iowa schools from implementing such a policy, since the law Republicans rushed to enact in May gives school districts the authority “to comply with any requirement of federal law.”

The problem was, Reynolds had repeatedly vowed to use her authority to stop schools from mandating masks. Judge Pratt cited several of those public statements when he wrote, “Governor Reynolds has indicated she intends to ‘hold strong’ and vigorously enforce section 280.31 this fall.”

Reynolds had also dismissed concerns for children with serious health conditions, saying their parents could choose online learning options. Judge Pratt noted in his order that such an approach “effectively leaves disabled children with not only an inferior service but unnecessarily segregated from their peers.”

A three-judge panel on the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet ruled on the state’s appeal of the injunction.

20. Ten ways Dr. Caitlin Pedati failed Iowans

I spent three days in September at the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat, organized by Julie Gammack. While checking my Twitter feed during a break on the last morning, I saw the Iowa Department of Public Health had announced Dr. Caitlin Pedati would soon leave the post of State Medical Director and Epidemiologist. I wasn’t surprised; Pedati had supposedly put her house on the market weeks earlier, and she hadn’t appeared at any of the governor’s press conferences all year.

On the long drive home from Okoboji, I thought a lot about how to approach this post. Every other Iowa media outlet had already covered the news well before I was able to begin writing.

I decided to review the low points of Iowa’s COVID-19 response. Although Reynolds bears responsibility for lots of wrong-headed decisions, Pedati played an important enabling role. She also failed to clean up some messes that should have been priorities to fix, like unreliable data on the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

19. Iowa senators still won’t debunk big lie about election

In the aftermath of the January 6 coup attempt, I wrote several pieces about the line Iowa GOP politicians were walking. On the surface, they condemned mob violence and acknowledged Joe Biden was going to become president. But in an apparent effort to pander to Trump loyalists, Republican elected officials and state party leaders repeatedly validated the fantasy of widespread irregularities or “illegal” votes in states that delivered Biden’s electoral college win.

I wrote this post soon after Biden’s inauguration. Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley issued public statements acknowledging the transfer of power. But when responding to constituent letters or phone calls, both senators continued to suggest there were legitimate concerns about election fraud in some states.

This post included the full texts of form letters Iowans received from the senators during the third week of January 2021. Instead of admitting that Trump lied, and encouraging fellow Republicans to face the reality that the president didn’t win a second term, Ernst portrayed disputes about the election as just another topic Americans disagree on.

Grassley normalized the tactic of losing candidates filing lawsuits without evidence to back up their claims. His form letter also drew false equivalencies between Trump’s attempts to subvert the constitution and isolated protest actions by Democrats following the 2000, 2004, and 2016 elections. Grassley didn’t acknowledge that John Kerry and Hillary Clinton had immediately conceded in 2004 and 2016, as did Al Gore within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court halting the Florida recount in December 2020.

18. Governor muzzles public health experts on masks

After blocking me from the governor’s news conferences for years, most recently in July 2021, Reynolds’ staff agreed late this summer that I could attend—not representing Bleeding Heartland, but in my role as statehouse reporter for KHOI Community Radio in Ames.

The first press conference Reynolds held after I gained access inspired two of my most-viewed posts of the year. First, I wrote about the governor’s absurd take on Iowa’s hospitalization trends (that’s number 6 below).

I was also struck by how the governor and her communications director Pat Garrett intervened twice to stop Iowa Department of Public Health Director Kelly Garcia from answering questions about the benefits of masks in schools. What Garcia did say on the subject was another sign of the agency’s retreat from recommending masks as part of a layered COVID-19 mitigation strategy. That became the focus of this post, which included a video clip from the press conference and audio from Garcia’s “gaggle” with reporters a few minutes later. Without being able to attend in person, I would have missed the gaggle.

Holidays aren’t usually busy days on the website, but this post took off, despite being published on Labor Day.

17. New COVID-19 outbreak hits Iowa Veterans Home

Bleeding Heartland was first to report in late June on new coronavirus cases at Iowa’s largest nursing home. Although the Iowa Veterans Home didn’t announce the outbreak publicly, I was able to obtain emails sent to family members or guardians of residents. All of the affected residents were supposedly vaccinated against COVID-19. Nevertheless, two passed away shortly after becoming infected.

According to Sara Anne Willette, who closely monitors state and county-level trends at her Iowa COVID-19 Tracker website, this was the fifth COVID-19 outbreak at the Iowa Veterans Home. The facility experienced at least two more outbreaks affecting residents later in 2021.

16. Forget you, Governor Reynolds

Mark Langgin was furious in February when Reynolds lifted all capacity restrictions for businesses as well as the limited mask requirements she had enacted during the worst of the COVID-19 surge in November 2020. He and his wife had opted to send their youngest child back to school in person, “with the understanding that the outside world took at least some of the CDC and public health officials’ precautions to make the environment safer.”

Now, Governor #CovidKim Reynolds has decided to yank the rug out from under us and told Iowa’s three million-plus residents that it’s OK (and encouraged) to start going back to the bar, restaurants, and other places where the virus runs rampant.

I’ll take these words from CeeLo Green and say, “Forget You,” Governor Reynolds.

If this is making Iowa great, I would hate to know what the alternative is.

Of the many guest posts I’ve published criticizing Reynolds’ COVID-19 response, Mark’s was the most widely shared.

15. Three Iowa connections in final batch of Trump pardons

I had to revise this post, published on Trump’s last day in office. I initially wrote about two Iowa connections among the 73 new pardons and 70 commutations the White House announced shortly after midnight on January 20.

Eric Branstad had urged the president to pardon Elliott Broidy, who pleaded guilty in October 2020 to “conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws as part of a covert campaign to influence the administration on behalf of Chinese and Malaysian interests.” In addition to being the son of Terry Branstad, Eric was state director for Trump’s 2016 campaign in Iowa and later worked in the Commerce Department.

Trump had also granted a last-minute pardon to Paul Erickson, who had been convicted of financial crimes. I took an interest because of Erickson’s involvement in Russian efforts to enlist support from top National Rifle Association figure Pete Brownell, the CEO of Grinnell-based firearms retailer Brownell’s. Erickson was never charged in connection with that scheme.

After publishing, a reader tipped me to an Iowa connection I’d missed: former Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker had also sought one pardon and one commutation that Trump granted near the end of his presidency.

I updated the post again in December 2021, when Roger Sollenberger reported for the Daily Beast that the dark money group Freedom Works had paid Whitaker $400,000 in “consulting fees” to advocate for Trump pardons. Whitaker never registered as a lobbyist, raising ethics concerns.

14. Governor blocks Iowa schools from opening safely and responsibly

I published this post during the last week in August, when most K-12 schools were starting the new academic year. Reynolds loves to boast that Iowa “led the way” in bringing kids back to school, “and we did it safely and responsibly.” Even in 2020, the talking point was not convincing; Iowa’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations began surging several weeks after schools reopened.

It was laughable in the summer of 2021. The Delta variant was already causing spikes in pediatric cases and hospitalizations in southern states. Yet Reynolds and top state education and public health officials blocked nearly every practice that had helped reduce COVID-19 spread in schools during the previous school year.

This post closely examined the Iowa Department of Public Health’s latest guidance for K-12 schools, which contradicted CDC recommendations in important ways. I also discussed some particularly ignorant comments from Reynolds about masks and a possible showdown with the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education hinted that it may claw back some COVID-19 relief funds awarded to states that have banned mask mandates in schools.

13. Another Democrat retiring in deep blue Iowa House district

I strive to provide the most in-depth coverage of Iowa legislative races, so after state lawmakers approved new maps in late October, I kept my eye out for candidate and retirement announcements. One Thursday in December, sources told me State Representative Jo Oldson’s latest email newsletter confirmed she planned “to step aside and provide an opportunity for new leaders to step forward” after completing her tenth term in the Iowa House.

The race was sure to attract several Democratic candidates, since lots of activists live in House district 36, covering parts of the south side and several west-side neighborhoods in Des Moines. The post included comments from some possible contenders, a district map, and recent voting history in the area.

I was surprised this piece drew such a large reader response. From my perspective, it wasn’t as interesting as some of the state legislative campaign analysis I had published in November. Timing may be partly responsible. I ran this piece on a Saturday night, when there was less competing political news online. All other things being equal, weekend traffic is lower than on weekdays. But every so often, a post published on a weekend takes off. One Sunday morning report on an Iowa House campaign misstep became my third most-viewed post of 2017.

12. Iowa State Patrol fatality involved vehicle with “inadequate” headlights

Several weeks after Iowa State Trooper Ted Benda died of injuries suffered in a late-night, single-vehicle crash, John Morrissey reached out to me. He had learned that late model Dodge Chargers, including models used by the Iowa State Patrol, have poor-performing headlights, according to an insurance industry trade group that publishes evaluations of vehicles sold in the U.S. 

John did a lot of research while working on this story. He found that vehicle accidents were the third-leading cause of death for law enforcement officers over the past decade. Many of those were single-car accidents occurring at night.

John delved into crash and headlight testing data for Dodge Chargers and similar 4-door sedans. A recent study found that “good-rated headlights were associated with a 19 percent reduction in the nighttime single-vehicle crash rate, compared with poor-rated ones” (like those on Dodge Chargers).

John also drove up to Allamakee County to learn more about visibility and pavement conditions on Iowa Highway 51, where Trooper Benda’s fatal crash occurred.

I met John nineteen years ago (long before Bleeding Heartland existed) when we both served on the board of the nonprofit group 1000 Friends of Iowa. I didn’t know then that he had done some reporting early in his career. I’m grateful he periodically brings his talent to my website, and that this piece received some well-deserved attention. An exclusive state government story John reported in 2019 didn’t get noticed as much, for some reason.

11. Iowa redistricting predictions part 5: Data almost here

Evan Burger produced some of the best analysis of Iowa’s redistricting process during 2021, and I was proud to publish each installment. Going above and beyond the call of duty, Evan turned around a post on the Legislative Services Agency’s first proposed map only a few hours after its release on September 16. (I was offline that whole day for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.)

Of the eight posts Evan wrote here last year, the one that resonated most with readers appeared soon after the U.S. Census Bureau confirmed in August that it would soon release detailed population data to states.

Evan covered the time constraints facing state lawmakers and the role the Iowa Supreme Court would likely play in the redistricting process. He also played around with Dave’s Redistricting App to see how Iowa Republicans might draw the next Congressional map to maximize their advantages, if they rejected two nonpartisan plans and amended the third.

10. Exclusive: Governor fast-tracked COVID tests for firm linked to major donor

Months of work went into this scoop. I learned in June 2020 that an Iowa National Guard “strike team” had recently conducted COVID-19 testing at the GMT Corporation in Waverly. I had many questions about the strike team program, but the Iowa Department of Public Health’s press contact ignored them all that summer. I tried again in late 2020, when a new person stepped into the role of communications director for the agency. Still no response.

In the meantime, I had requested records from the Bremer County Health Department. I received emails in December 2020 showing that someone from Summit Ag Investors, the majority shareholder in GMT, had “contacted the governor directly” after GMT staff learned they “would most likely be denied” testing assistance from the state. Summit Ag is controlled by Bruce Rastetter, one of the leading donors to Iowa Republican candidates.

Bremer County Health Department administrator Lindley Sharp wrote to a company employee in May 2020,

The State was not aware that GMT went over local government to put in this request.

The bigger matter with this request is that the Bremer County Emergency Manager put in a request over 3 weeks ago that our county get all long term care residents and essential healthcare workers in our County tested and we’ve yet to get a response back on that, but a multi-million dollar corporation like GMT puts in a request and gets approved in a day when said organization has had only one positive case.

GMT’s top executive confirmed in a telephone interview with me that “someone at Summit” contacted the governor. GMT contacted the Bremer County Health Department first, Snedegar explained. “We were told that they couldn’t do anything for us.” Since the company is among the area’s larger employers, “I escalated.” 

I had hoped to publish this piece before the end of 2020. But it took weeks to get the Iowa Department of Public Health to provide a list of workplaces that received COVID-19 testing assistance from “strike teams.” (I learned months later that the agency had omitted several strike team events from the supposedly complete list sent to me in January.)

The benefit of waiting until January was that I was able to review the disclosure showing Kim Reynolds’ political fundraising in 2020. Not only had Bruce Rastetter and his brother Brent given generously to the governor’s re-election campaign, several senior figures in Summit Agricultural Group also donated to the Reynolds campaign in late 2020. Several of them had never donated to the governor before; one $15,000 donor had never previously contributed to any Iowa Republican candidate.

I published on January 24, 2021. Two days later, State Auditor Rob Sand announced his office would review the state’s use of COVID-19 “strike teams” involving the Iowa National Guard. State auditors have not yet released that report.

In April 2021, the Iowa Department of Public Health revealed that strike teams had assisted with testing at several other politically connected firms in April and May 2020. The governor’s office did not respond to any of my inquiries about the matter. Reynolds’ spokesperson Garrett told Ryan Foley of the Associated Press, “Political support wasn’t a factor, ever. All these decisions are made in conjunction with public health based on the needs of a company that would come to us.”

9. Iowa tv anchor calls Biden policy “crazy”—twice

As a night owl, I don’t regularly watch any early morning newscasts. But in early November a reader flagged an interview KWWL’s morning anchor Daniel Winn did with U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson the morning after the election. The NBC affiliate based in Waterloo reaches most of Hinson’s Congressional district.

I’ve seen a lot of Hinson’s Iowa television interviews. She usually is able to set the agenda and rarely (if ever) has to field a tough question. This segment stood out because of Winn’s blatant political bias. KWWL might as well have had Hinson’s press secretary conduct the interview.

I also felt compelled to write this post because I was troubled by Winn’s ableist language. Journalism style guides discourage the use of derogatory terms like “crazy” or “insane,” “unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to the story.”

8. Iowa GOP lawmakers demand actions to overturn 2020 election

I was working on another project when I learned on a Friday in August that a group of Republican state legislators had signed a letter demanding that “all 50 states need to be forensically audited,” with voter rolls “scrubbed.” The endgame is to “decertify” presidential electors in certain states, with the goal of installing Trump in the White House again. Ironically, the lawmakers issued their demand the same day that the so-called “Cyber Ninjas” admitted their phony review of Maricopa County ballots showed Biden won Arizona.

Naturally, I checked to see whether any Iowans joined this constitutionally illiterate effort. I wasn’t surprised to see the names of State Senator Jim Carlin and State Representative Sandy Salmon. They are outspoken believers in Trump’s alternate reality and had recently attended conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell’s symposium in South Dakota.

Carlin promoted the Big Lie on the Iowa Senate floor during the 2021 session, and I would have liked to publish that video as part of this post. I wasn’t able to, though, because my attempt to upload the clip earlier in the year earned me a warning from YouTube about spreading disinformation.

7. Iowa Republicans unveil assault on early voting

I’d been waiting for Republican lawmakers to drop another terrible election bill, and was able to jump on the story when the proposal appeared on the legislative website February 16. The bill was obviously on a fast track, with subcommittee meetings scheduled for the following day in both the House and Senate.

Bleeding Heartland was first to report the details about how Republicans planned to make it harder for Iowans to obtain and cast absentee ballots, either using the mail or voting early in person. The lead author, State Senator Roby Smith, introduced more changes before GOP lawmakers gave final approval to the bill, just eight days after its publication.

Some provisions in this bill are being challenged by the League of United Latin American Citizens. That lawsuit is pending in Polk County District Court.

6. Governor, ER doctor on how COVID-19’s affecting hospitals

During the governor’s September 2 news conference, I tweeted that the Iowa Department of Public Health would soon begin updating its COVID-19 dashboard three times a week, instead of weekly. I thought my write-up would mention that, and perhaps highlight how Reynolds didn’t let agency Director Garcia express an opinion on whether children should wear masks to school.

My plans changed after freelance reporter Andy Kopsa posted the link to a Facebook live video by an emergency room physician in Marshalltown. Dr. Lance VanGundy wanted Iowans to know, “in over 20 years of doing this, I’ve never been this busy or this stressed or seen this many sick people.”

I structured this piece as a point/counterpoint. I pulled the video clip from Reynolds’ prepared remarks, which put a positive spin on recent COVID-19 trends (“the rise we’re currently experiencing isn’t cause for panic—far from it”). Then I posted and transcribed the unscripted video from the exhausted doctor:

In my ER I had to hold on to a meningitis case, a stroke case, a heart attack, and a blood clot in the lung.

And these are all people that should have been transferred out to ICUs right away, and there are no ICUs in the state of Iowa. They’re all full.

So this is bad. It feels like a third world country sometimes.

When I published this post, Iowa’s total COVID-19 hospitalizations had recently crossed the 500 mark, a level not seen since January 2021. In the four months since then, hospitalizations for coronavirus have stayed high, dipping below 500 only for one stretch of a little more than a week. Throughout December 2021, hospitalizations fluctuated in the 700s and 800s, levels comparable to what the state experienced in December 2020.

5. Iowa governor wrongly claims credit for state budget surplus

Few people know more about this state’s budget than Randy Bauer. As a senior Iowa Senate staffer during the early 1990s, he helped craft the law (approved by a Democratic-controlled legislature) that restricts general fund spending to 99 percent of the state’s projected revenues. Later, he served as Governor Tom Vilsack’s budget director for more than six years.

After Reynolds bragged that her “fiscal responsibility” had created Iowa’s record $1.24 billion surplus, I reached out to Randy for context. He confirmed my suspicions that the massive influx of federal funds during the COVID-19 pandemic were the biggest factor in the surpluses most states are now enjoying.

In this piece, Randy broke down the many policies that produced higher than expected revenues for Iowa during the last fiscal year. Not only did the federal government send money directly to the state, it indirectly increased sales and income tax revenues through programs like PPP loans, enhanced unemployment benefits, and $1,400 stimulus payments to most adults.

Randy also highlighted lesser-known provisions in the CARES Act, like increasing Iowa’s federal match for the Medicaid program. That alone will allow the state to spend $690 million less on Medicaid through the end of 2021.

“The Republican cheers about the strong budget results remind me of an old baseball analogy,” Randy wrote. “It sounds like Kim Reynolds and her minions were born on third base and think they hit a triple.”

4. Governor, Ankeny mom worked to undermine COVID safety in schools

It’s unusual for a sitting governor to get involved in an Iowa school board race. So I was interested when a source offered to share a video clip of Reynolds speaking at the kickoff event for Ankeny candidate Sarah Barthole.

As I watched the video, I realized it revealed a bigger story than “governor endorses school board contender.” Reynolds recounted how she “strategized” with Barthole last year to force Iowa schools to abandon hybrid learning models, which allowed for social distancing in classrooms.

While the governor has often claimed “data” informed her COVID-19 response, these remarks revealed that she didn’t carefully examine the evidence on virus spread in schools. She listened more to an echo chamber of people like Barthole than to Iowa’s top infectious disease experts. And while Reynolds is a broken record about “parental control” in education, she only supports parental choices that align with her own biases.

3. A rural doctor’s ongoing pandemic experience

In September 2020, my regular guest author Ira Lacher suggested that I consider publishing a commentary his friend, Dr. Greg Cohen, wrote for his local newspaper. Greg’s been a family physician in Chariton (Lucas County) for more than 25 years. He was frustrated by watching a “disaster unfold”:

For those of you who think the disease is not real: it is real. For those of you who think this can’t happen in a rural state like Iowa: you are wrong. It is here. For those who have heard that the worst is behind us: you have heard wrong. The worst is yet to come.

Greg’s essay, published on September 9, 2020, became the most-viewed post in Bleeding Heartland’s fourteen-year history.

I reached out to Greg in September 2021. Did he have any thoughts to share about the current COVID-19 surge? I knew Lucas County had a relatively low vaccination rate.

The doctor wrote his latest commentary almost in one sitting. His frustration was palpable:

I still encounter patients who believe the pandemic is a hoax. It is not. I still see patients who trust me with their diabetes, blood pressure, heart disease, and lives, but believe I am lying to them about COVID. […]

I see too many patients who present for care too late and too sick, because they relied on untested remedies and are no longer eligible for treatments shown to decrease severity of illness and risk of hospitalization.

Within 24 hours of its publication, this piece had more than 4,000 views and had been shared on Facebook 130 times.

2. Iowa House Republican shares anti-COVID vaccine memes

A reader tipped me in April to the latest legislative update from Republican State Representative Ray “Bubba” Sorensen. Interspersed with ostensibly humorous images mocking public assistance programs, feminists, environmentalists, President Biden, and leftist intellectuals, two memes seemed to discourage people from getting vaccinated for COVID-19.

Sorensen didn’t respond to email or phone messages asking why he promoted the idea that the vaccines are unsafe. Unfortunately, his home county (Adair) has one of Iowa’s highest per capita death rates from the virus. When I wrote this post, Adair was one of four Iowa counties in the top 100 nationally on that metric. As of January 2, 2022, Adair has the second highest per capita COVID-19 death rate among Iowa’s 99 counties, a rate more than double the statewide average.

After ignoring three emails and a phone message seeking his comment and perspective on why he shared memes suggesting COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe, Sorensen wrote a lengthy complaint about my coverage in his next weekly newsletter, headlined “The Masked Humorless.” I published his rant as an update to my post.

1. What do we owe the unvaccinated?

Ira Lacher has been a prolific Bleeding Heartland author, and in the past two years, his commentaries have often been inspired by the pandemic. The starting point for this essay, published in July, was a moral dilemma: as the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads rapidly, “Should a person who has done the common-sense thing by getting the vaccine be mindful of others who have willfully chosen to reject the protection?”

While pondering the question, Ira cited research showing “the human response to the pain of others — described by some as morality — can differ based on whether we perceive that person to be worthy of a moral response.” He also quoted Nahum the beggar from Fiddler on the Roof.

The Newsbreak App picked up Ira’s commentary, and I suspect shared it with a national audience. This post had four times as many views as the second most-viewed Bleeding Heartland post of 2021 and is the second most-viewed of approximately 9,000 posts published here since 2007.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin