Randy Richardson is a former educator and retired associate executive director of the Iowa State Education Association.
The last two presidential elections have highlighted the deep divides between Democrats and Republicans. According to information from the Pew Research Center a month before the 2020 election, roughly 8 in 10 registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly 9 in 10—again in both camps—worried that a victory by the other would lead to “lasting harm” to the United States.
Although I’m well aware of this divide and have probably contributed to it in some small way, I still long for the days when a true leader would rise above partisanship and work for the common good of their constituents.
That hope was dashed at the recent Moms for Liberty event in Des Moines on February 2.
The “Giving Parents a Choice” town hall was advertised as a meeting where all views would be welcome. The list of speakers included Governor Kim Reynolds and school choice advocate Cory DeAngelis. The speakers would be followed by a Q and A session with seven Iowa Repulican legislators including State Senator Sandy Salmon and State Representatives Stephen Holt, Eddie Andrews, and Jeff Shipley. Some of them would make Steve King look like a moderate.
For a meeting that was supposed to welcome all views, there was one glaring omission to the list of participants: not one Democrat was included.
While I may be an idealist, I’m not naïve. I’ve been watching the Moms for Liberty group spread across the country and have seen local chapters pop up in several Iowa communities. The organization is an extreme right wing group that trains parents to run for school board so that they can enact conservative policies in our public schools.
Since all views were supposedly welcome, I shared the information about the meeting to the 13,000 members on the Iowans for Public Education Facebook group and encouraged people to attend the meeting in support of public schools. Some members of that group even called for an organized protest at the meeting.
Evidently the Polk County chapter of Moms for Liberty found out. They posted their assessment of our attendees, which supported my hunch that this wasn’t truly an event where all would be welcome.
I decided to attend, just to see who showed up and how balanced the presentations would be. When I arrived at the old Franklin Junior High building, the parking lot was full. As I walked to the entrance, I noticed cars from Wright, Van Buren, and Carroll counties in Iowa, as well as a car with California plates.
Clearly Moms for Liberty was attracting a rural Iowa crowd. One member of the Polk County chapter even contacted members of the Iowa State University Republican club and offered to buy them drinks if they would attend.
I was surprised to see a member of the Des Moines Police Department stationed by the registration table. Evidently the group feared there might be trouble and had asked the police to be on hand.
A number of vendors supporting conservative causes set up in the lobby outside the auditorium. The usual suspects were there—Turning Point USA and Americans for Prosperity—along with some organizations that were new to me.
The auditorium was about half full, but it wasn’t readily apparent if everyone was a Moms for Liberty fan or, like me, just someone curious about the meeting.
After introductions from Tina Descovich, the national co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a student from West Des Moines sang the National Anthem and a young woman offered a prayer. Governor Reynolds was next on the stage, beginning around the 13:45-minute mark of this video.
Reynolds thanked the host organization, then launched into a full-throated defense of her school voucher bill and other policies.
Protestors scattered throughout the auditorium interrupted the governor’s speech about half a dozen times. As each protestor rose, a couple of Des Moines police officers scurried down the aisle to quickly escort them out of the auditorium. Protestors attempted to speak out against Reynolds’ approach to education and LGBTQ Iowans.
Every time a protestor spoke out, supporters of the Moms for Liberty group chanted “USA! USA! USA!” I have no idea what this has to do with the governor’s positions, but it certainly implied one side represented patriots, while the other side was something less.
Reynolds wasted little time attacking her critics, telling the audience, “I want to say thank you for speaking out for your refusal to stand quietly by while we’ve seen the radical left treat our kids like their personal property. Not on your watch, not on my watch, not on our watch.”
The governor tried to have it both ways by pivoting to say most teachers in Iowa are very good, and her own daughter teaches in a public school. It was clear Reynolds wanted to vilify public school teachers, as she continually asserted that students were being indoctrinated in our public schools.
As the governor wrapped up her speech, I decided I’d had all I could take. I was positive the Q and A session with legislators would only contain more conservative rhetoric and misinformation. The politics of division was clearly on display. What could have been an opportunity for real discussion turned into one more Republican advertisement that appealed to their backers.
It’s apparent that Reynolds intends to continue on her current path sowing division among Iowans. That seems to be working for her in the short term, but I can’t help but wonder how long people will tolerate this before they begin to demand more. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Great leadership involves valuing all people, regardless of their background, ethnicity, gender or any other individual difference. It entails listening to them, understanding where they come from and respecting their opinion, even if you don’t agree with it.”
Let’s hope someone out there takes this to heart and decides to run for office on a platform that seeks to unite us rather than divide us.
Editor’s note from Laura Belin: For accounts of what Republican lawmakers said at the Moms for Liberty forum, read articles by Robin Opsahl of Iowa Capital Dispatch, Nikoel Hytrek of Iowa Starting Line, and Francesca Block of the Des Moines Register.
Top photo of Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich (left) with Governor Kim Reynolds on February 2 first published on Reynolds’ political Facebook page.