Governor Kim Reynolds got just about everything she wanted from the Iowa legislature during the 2023 session. But she signaled this week that she isn’t ready to let bygones be bygones when it comes to Republicans who have stood in her way.
The governor’s office announced three District Court judicial appointments on June 16, including Michael Carpenter for District 8A, covering ten counties in southeast Iowa. The other person nominated for that judgeship was former State Representative Dustin Hite.
TWO QUALIFIED FINALISTS
Under Iowa’s merit-based selection process, judicial nominating commissions comprised of the governor’s appointees and attorneys elected by their peers interview candidates and select finalists. The governor has 30 days to appoint one of the applicants chosen by the nominating commission—two finalists for a District Court vacancy, three for a position on the Iowa Supreme Court, and five for the Iowa Court of Appeals.
Both Carpenter and Hite are well-qualified for the bench. Each graduated from the University of Iowa law school with distinction. Carpenter is a litigator who has practiced in the Ottumwa area since 2004, handling many kinds of cases: criminal defense, family law, personal injury, workers’ compensation, and Social Security disability.
Hite’s Oskaloosa-based practice has been similarly wide-ranging since 2009, covering “family law, probate and estate planning, litigation, real estate, and taxes.” He serves as the city attorney for about ten small towns as well.
A REPUBLICAN NOT ALWAYS ALIGNED WITH THE GOVERNOR
Reynolds has named former legislators to many state boards and commissions—most recently appointing former State Representative Erik Helland to chair the Iowa Utilities Board, even though Helland has no background in such regulatory matters.
One might reasonably expect the governor to prefer a conservative who has been active in GOP circles to Carpenter, a plaintiffs’ attorney who is an Iowa Association of Justice board member and donated to Democratic candidates for governor and state Senate in 2018. The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board’s database shows Carpenter’s only recorded contribution to an Iowa Republican’s campaign went to Hans Wilz, a 2022 candidate in Ottumwa’s state House district where Reynolds endorsed the other GOP contender. That was the only legislative race where the governor’s preferred candidate lost last year’s primary.
In contrast, Hite has donated to several Iowa GOP candidates over the years. Before he was elected to the legislature, he contributed $500 to Reynolds’ 2018 campaign for governor, according to state records. He was well-liked and respected by legislative colleagues and lobbyists.
As chair of the Iowa House Education Committee in 2021 and 2022, Hite supported many of the governor’s priorities. Notably, his committee fast-tracked a bill in January 2021 that required school districts to provide fully in-person instruction for students whose families preferred that option. Later the same year, he floor-managed the bill that prohibited school districts and local governments from imposing mask mandates.
But Hite opposed the governor’s plan to use public funds to cover private school tuition, and did not bring school voucher bills up for a vote in the Education Committee during the 2021 or 2022 legislative sessions. He said those proposals lacked enough support to advance from the panel.
Hite helped block at least one other priority for Reynolds, when he opposed efforts to limit damages Iowans could recover in medical malpractice cases or lawsuits involving trucking companies.
He also declined to move “bathroom bills” targeting transgender Iowans when such legislation was referred to his committee. During a February 2021 appearance on the Iowa PBS program “Iowa Press,” Hite said he hadn’t assigned those bills to a subcommittee because “we have to be extremely careful that what we are doing does not come across as hateful.” However, he voted for the 2022 bill banning transgender girls and women from playing on sports teams that aligned with their gender identity.
THE GOVERNOR STRIKES BACK
Shortly before the 2022 primary election, Reynolds recorded a phone message urging residents of House district 88 to support Helena Hayes, Hite’s GOP challenger. On that robocall, the governor described Hayes as “a strong conservative leader prepared to defend parental choice in education” and “100 percent pro-life.”
Conservative advocacy organizations spent more than $100,000 before the primary opposing Hite or promoting Hayes. Another strike against Hite for many Republicans: his campaign had received a $2,500 contribution from the Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Hite’s loss in the primary (by 57.4 percent to 42.5 percent) shocked many Iowa political observers. His fate, and that of several other House GOP incumbents opposed by Reynolds, made a strong impression. As many as ten House Republicans who had opposed education savings accounts prior to this year’s legislative session voted for the governor’s vastly expanded “school choice” plan in January.
Today’s judicial appointment could likewise be perceived as an act of revenge against someone who showed a measure of independence in the legislature. Whatever Reynolds’ reasons for passing over Hite, the choice comes across as a warning to Republican lawmakers: if you cross the governor, she will make you pay for it—not only now, but in your future endeavors.
State Representative Brian Lohse, a Polk County Republican who served with Hite for four years, told Bleeding Heartland in a June 16 telephone interview, “Dustin Hite is one of the most brilliant legal minds I’ve ever known.” He sees him on the same intellectual level as David Wiggins, for whom Lohse clerked before Governor Tom Vilsack named Wiggins to the Iowa Supreme Court. Lohse characterized it as “a travesty” for Hite not to be a judge.
Top photo of Governor Kim Reynolds speaking to the Global Insurance Symposium in Des Moines first published on the governor’s official Facebook page on April 19.