Three nightmares in Iowa politics

Herb Strentz reflects on the Iowa legislature's moves against the press, Senator Grassley's obliviousness, and the 2024 Iowa caucuses.

Let’s tackle a troika of nightmares, one at a time.

Nightmare 1: AI and the Iowa legislature's 2022 session

AI normally refers to “Artificial Intelligence,” but given recent legislative actions and Governor Kim Reynolds’ agendas, one can take AI to refer to Arrogance and Ignorance — two characteristics of what Iowa was subjected to during the 2021 legislative session and what awaits us this year.

Republicans swept away any hesitancy about expressing a harsh version of AI when they needlessly banned the press from the floor of the Senate this year, ending access that was routine for more than a century.

The Senate's new policy made the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post, following a report by Stephen Gruber-Miller in The Des Moines Register. The ban also sparked online attention and dread from people around the nation who care about access to information and having an informed citizenry capable of self-government.

I saw plenty of press-legislative contact on the floor of the Senate in the 1970s and 1980s when working on freedom of information matters. The contact was always courteous and respectful and made good use of the time of lawmakers and reporters when there was a lull in chamber business.

Today’s legislature and governor will have none of that.

The governor’s troubling penchant for secrecy set off alarms for Richard Gilbert, a press secretary (1969-1974) for then Republican Governor Robert Ray and a former Des Moines Register executive. He wrote in a commentary for Substack, which the Register republished on January 11,

As a press secretary, my job was not to control access to what went on in state government. It was to make the information accessible.

When reporters ran into obstacles to learning what was going on, it was my job to get the barriers out of the way.

Gilbert’s commentary echoes what Iowa Capital Dispatch editor Kathie Obradovich observed last August, in what likely is an understatement: the Reynolds administration “is the least transparent (governor’s office) in 30 years.”

Nightmare 2: Chuck Grassley seems oblivious about Donald Trump

A year ago, Iowa’s U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley seemed to know what was going on. In a news release of January 6, and in the subsequent edition of his newsletter ("THE SCOOP"), the seven-term senator said of the insurrection at the nation’s Capitol:

Grassley: America Must Be Better Than This

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) today condemned the violent attack on the nation’s capital and implored all Americans to honor the nation’s principles through their actions.

“Today’s violent attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attack on American democracy itself. This was not a demonstration of any of our protected, inalienable rights. These were un-American acts worthy only of condemnation. Those who plowed over police barricades, ignored law enforcement or desecrated our monument to representative democracy flouted the rule of law and disgraced our nation.

“I condemn today’s violence in the strongest terms and perpetrators deserve to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

“The United States has stood as a beacon of self-governance, free expression and the peaceful transfer of leadership since its founding, and we must uphold these principles. Our nation has been through highs and lows. We’ve vigorously debated differing philosophies and have endured disagreements on policy and leadership. Through it all, our shared values have held strong. We must not lose grip of those shared values today.

“This is a sad day for America. As a nation, we must be better than this.”

Apparently, Grassley believes we have become better, because in the 47 subsequent issues of THE SCOOP that I’ve looked at, I could find no further reference to January 6, or to then President Trump's role in inciting the rioters.

To the contrary, Grassley is almost dismissive of Trump and his cult’s worsening impact on the nation.

As Brianne Pfannenstiel reported for the Des Moines Register in October, shortly after a Trump rally in Des Moines,

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley defended his recent onstage appearance with former President Donald Trump, who has continued using the same election rhetoric Grassley previously criticized as "extreme, aggressive and irresponsible."

"He's a private citizen," Grassley told reporters following an event in Des Moines. "He can say anything he wants to. I'm looking to the 2022 election and presenting my case to the people."

Grassley struck a similar tone in a January 10 response to an email from me. I had expressed concerns about Trump and Grassley’s failure to use his tenure and credibility in the U.S. Senate to speak out against the divisiveness the former president and his followers have created in the nation.

It’s almost as though, in Grassley’s eyes, Trump has just been hanging out, playing golf at his Florida country club. Trump’s involvement in today’s politics? Not a worry for the senator.

President Trump has been out of office for about a year and we are now in the middle of the Biden administration. I am fully focused on working with my colleagues in the Senate and the Administration where possible to pass meaningful legislation that benefits Iowa and the nation as a whole. I welcome any input you may have on the issues of the day.

To Grassley, Trump's lies and the ongoing threat they pose to democracy are not among the “issues of the day.”

Nightmare 3: The 2024 Iowa caucuses

For non-Iowans who have long opposed our state’s first-in-the-nation role in presidential campaigns, what's happening here only strengthens their convictions. Businesses, conventions, political events and other activities have fled states for reasons not as troubling as we’re experiencing in Iowa.

How can one make a good case for Iowa as a bellwether state, given the legislature's recent actions against women’s rights and repression of voting rights under the guise of election reform? Given Governor Kim Reynolds' wish to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and her denial that masks are effective weapons against a deadly virus? Given that the state’s whiteness continues to manifest in public displays of racism?

Perhaps the only argument for Iowa having a preferred position in 2024 is that any alternative — be it another state or a revision of the campaign process — might be just as bad or worse.

That may be the worst nightmare of all, but also a call to echo Grassley's fleeting thought from last year: We must be better than this.

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

Top photo of Donald Trump with Chuck Grassley during an October 9, 2021 rally in Des Moines originally published on the senator's campaign Twitter feed.

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