Thoughts on Iowa Senate Democrats electing new leader Pam Jochum

A British prime minister once said that a week is a long time in politics. Iowa Senate Democrats proved the adage true on June 7, when they elected State Senator Pam Jochum as minority leader, replacing State Senator Zach Wahls.

Wahls was first elected to the legislature in 2018 and had led the caucus since November 2020. Jochum was first elected to the Iowa House in 1992 and to the Senate in 2008 from districts covering Dubuque. When Democrats last controlled the chamber, she held the second-ranking position of Senate president from 2013 through 2016. More recently, she has served as one of four assistant minority leaders.

A week ago, a Senate Democratic leadership election was not on anyone’s radar. Wahls was the guest on the latest edition of the Iowa PBS program “Iowa Press.”

The June 7 caucus meeting was scheduled to address an uproar that unfolded over the weekend.

Wahls informed Senate Democrats via email on June 2 that he was restructuring the leader’s office. He fired two longtime staffers, brought in Kaity Patchett (formerly district director for U.S. Representative Cindy Axne) as his chief of staff, and moved Senate Democrats’ communications director Jason Noble to the leader’s office.

The staffers dismissed, Eric Bakker and Deb Kattenhorn, had worked for the Senate Democratic caucus since the early 2000s. Wahls’ message to colleagues did not specify why he was removing them, other than to say he was trying “to bring our caucus into line with the other legislative leadership offices.”

According to the Iowa Senate’s Personnel Guidelines, employees can be terminated “for just cause,” defined broadly:

Just cause includes but is not limited to the following: inefficiency; insubordination; less than competent job performance; failure to perform assigned duties; inadequacy in the performance of assigned duties; dishonesty; sexual or other harassment; improper use of leave; unrehabilitated alcohol or substance abuse; use of alcohol or controlled substances while on the job; negligence; conduct that adversely affects job performance of the employee or of other employees; conduct unbecoming a public employee; improper use of state equipment or supplies; violation of Senate rules, policies, or guidelines; other misconduct; and illegal discrimination.

It’s obvious that whatever reasons Wahls had for making personnel changes, he did not lay the groundwork for the move and did not anticipate how strongly other senators would object.

It also seems likely that while the staffing decision precipitated the leadership challenge, broader disagreements over tactics and strategy (either for legislative work or for the 2024 election cycle) had been percolating within the caucus for some time.

The June 7 news release from Senate Democrats, enclosed in full below, didn’t allude to any conflict or controversy. Wahls and Jochum did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Democrats hold just sixteen of the 50 Iowa Senate seats, the lowest point for the party in that chamber since 1972. Six of the current Democratic senators, including Jochum, will be up for re-election in 2024, but it’s not clear whether all will seek another term.

Jochum often speaks during Senate debates on tax policy. She has served as the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee since Republicans gained control of the chamber in 2017.

She also is among the legislature’s leading advocates for children and disabled Iowans, and raised a daughter with developmental disabilities. This video shows part of a passionate speech Jochum delivered when the Senate debated the next health and human services budget in April. She predicted the legislature’s 2023 session would “go down in history as one of the most anti-child,” adding that the budget “fails Iowa children” and working poor families.

When the Senate considered an appropriations bill that deeply cut funding for Area Education Agencies, Jochum highlighted how those agencies “provide immense services to children who have different abilities” and are “a critical component of our school system,” especially for students with disabilities or special needs. She warned colleagues, “we are letting those children down.”

In addition to her legislative role, Jochum will replace Wahls on the Iowa Democratic Party’s steering committee. Under a bylaw change the party’s governing body adopted in January, that steering committee will “direct operational and election related activities.” Its voting members include the state party chair (Rita Hart), the leaders of the state House and Senate Democratic caucuses (Jennifer Konfrst and Jochum), statewide Democratic elected officials (State Auditor Rob Sand), and five members of the party’s State Central Committee, representing different parts of the state.

The minority leader also leads fundraising for Senate Democratic campaigns and makes important decisions about which races to target. Iowa Starting Line’s Pat Rynard predicted the leadership change “may have significant, far-reaching impacts,” since Wahls had been “a prolific fundraiser,” “communicates with Iowans often on social media, and built up a wide following within the party and beyond.”

UPDATE: Wahls commented on the changes in a June 12 post published on Medium and Facebook. Excerpts:

I am no longer Leader because I made the difficult decision to fire two longtime senate staffers who did not share my vision for change while restructuring our staff. My Senate Democratic colleagues disagreed with my decision. There is always a resistance to change and new ideas, and I stand by the decision because Iowa Democrats desperately need a new direction and leaders who will chart that course.

I chose to run for the Iowa Senate in 2018 because our state was heading in the wrong direction and we needed change. Since 2014, we have all watched Iowa Republican politicians strengthen their iron grip on our state, and we have all seen the damage the Republican agenda has wrought on our families and communities. Governor Reynolds and extreme Republicans in the legislature are hellbent on taking away our personal freedoms, defunding our public schools, and hollowing out the middle class. Our rural communities continue to lose population. Our young people are leaving Iowa for better opportunities in more welcoming states. Our political system is not working for Iowans.

As long as I have the opportunity to serve in elected office, I will continue to push for change and to fix the broken system that is failing our state. Iowans deserve a strong and forward-looking Democratic Party that is ready and willing to embrace the change necessary to halt the advance of Republican extremism. We must put change and progress ahead of comfort and the status quo.

So many people are discouraged about the direction of our state and the losses our party has sustained over the past decade, and if you are one of them, I want to speak directly to you. While they want us to give in to cynicism, we must refuse to accept that Iowa is lost forever. Our fight for liberty, justice, and shared prosperity is difficult. Our success will require honest reflection, an immense amount of hard work, and a deep commitment to change. And while change is always hard — Iowans are counting on us, and failure is not an option. […]

Jochum confirmed to Bleeding Heartland that Bakker and Kattenhorn are back on the job. Patchett is no longer working for the caucus.

LATER UPDATE: Erin Murphy reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on June 13 that the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents construction workers across the state, asked Mike Gronstal to resign as the organization’s lobbyist “over concerns related to his involvement in recent internal Senate Democratic caucus matters.” Gronstal led Iowa Senate Democrats for many years, including ten as majority leader, before losing his 2016 re-election bid. He was reportedly whipping votes for Jochum during the days before the leadership vote.

Appendix: Iowa Senate Democrats news release, June 7:

Pam Jochum elected leader of Senate Democrats

Democratic members of the Iowa Senate on Wednesday chose Sen. Pam Jochum of Dubuque to serve as the Democratic Leader of the Iowa Senate.

“I am honored to receive the unanimous support of my fellow Democratic Senators during this critical moment for our caucus and the state of Iowa,” Senate Democratic Leader Pam Jochum said. 

“As a united team, Senate Democrats will continue to fight for the principles we believe in on behalf of the people of Iowa. We’re fighting for strong working families and the rights and freedoms of all people. We’re fighting for high-quality public education and affordable, accessible healthcare in every community.” 

“Senate Democrats look forward to offering a better way forward for the people of Iowa – in 2024 and beyond. We’re going to defend our incumbent senators, grow our caucus, and win a majority that delivers for middle-class Iowans.” 

“I want to thank Sen. Wahls for his vision and leadership in guiding our caucus over the last three legislative sessions.”  

Pam Jochum is serving her fourth term in the Iowa Senate and represents District 36, which encompasses the city of Dubuque and part of Dubuque County. She previously served as Senate President and most recently as an Assistant Democratic Leader.

Throughout her tenure in the statehouse, Jochum has played a leading role in expanding affordable health insurance coverage to thousands of working Iowans and has stood up for citizens with disabilities to protect their health services when the governor privatized Iowa’s Medicaid system. 

Her influence is evident throughout Iowa law—from historic property tax cuts to revitalizing manufacturing to nationally acclaimed legislation on ethanol production, wind energy, solar energy and flood mitigation programs. 

Born and raised in Dubuque, Jochum earned the value of a hard-day’s work from her parents, and the meaning of empathy and dignity from her daughter, Sarah. In addition to her legislative service, she worked as an administrator at Loras College, and at an insurance agency, Legal Aid, in financial services. 

The next session of the Iowa General Assembly will convene on Monday, January 8, 2024.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • Hmm

    All very interesting. I don’t buy that Wahls was such a great communicator though – on Iowa Press when asked about how Democrats would spend Iowa’s massive budget surplus he stated corrections would be a great place to start. Hmm.

    • Reply to Hmm

      My guess is that he was referring to getting staffing levels up to snuff so no more staffers would be murdered.

  • Out of touch

    There might be 50 Democrats in all of Iowa who give a damn about how Senate Dems staff things. This is a bunch of self-important bullshit that does not send a message of, “We understand what Iowans want and need.”
    I am even more bothered by the idea that this is “unanimous.” The kids can see mommy and daddy fight, OK? The fact that they claim the vote is 16-0 is simply disingenuous, and again, does not engender trust.
    I am hugely disappointed.

    • I read that part of the statement differently

      The caucus meeting was very long, around two and a half hours. I believe that they hashed out a lot of things and by the time they took a vote that Wahls was going to lose, he didn’t put his name in nomination. Therefore, “unanimous” vote. But clearly there was real disagreement in the caucus, otherwise the meeting would have taken ten minutes.

  • not bad but probably not the change we need

    Nothing against Sen. Jochum, but her as Senate Leader doesn’t necessarily inspire me with thoughts of retaking the majority. Wahls was good in the sense that he was a young energetic leader. Jochum seems to be a temporary fix. I hope she does well but the revolving door of senate leaders since they lost the majority is concerning and must contribute to the dwindling size of the caucus.

    • I have bad news for you

      There will be no Democratic Senate majority under the current map of political boundaries, regardless of who is the leader. Even getting back to the 18 seats they had would be a challenge.