Laura Belin

State auditor to review Iowa's COVID-19 "strike teams"

State Auditor Rob Sand announced on January 26 that his office will examine the state’s use of COVID-19 “strike teams” involving the Iowa National Guard. A news release noted,

Reports show public record emails in which a metal-working manufacturer owned by major donors to Governor Reynolds received a strike team deployment upon a personal request made to her office, while the same county’s public health department saw its requests for locations with higher needs ignored.

Bleeding Heartland exclusively reported on those emails. In one exchange, an employee of the GMT Corporation in Waverly told Bremer County’s public health administrator, “I requested testing and was told that we would most likely be denied with only one case. Our owners contacted the governor directly and she authorized the testing for us.”

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

Governor Kim Reynolds authorized using state resources to conduct COVID-19 tests at a workplace that had only one confirmed case after the company’s owners reached out to her last May.

Iowa National Guard and Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) personnel facilitated coronavirus testing at GMT Corporation, a machine parts manufacturer in Waverly, on May 22, 2020. Fewer than a dozen Iowa businesses received such visits during the two months the state’s “strike team” program was active, when coronavirus testing kits were not widely available.

Summit Ag Investors, the asset management arm of Bruce Rastetter’s Summit Agricultural Group, owns a majority interest in GMT. Emails Bleeding Heartland obtained through a public records request indicated, and GMT’s top executive confirmed, that someone from Summit Ag “contacted the governor directly” after GMT staff learned they “would most likely be denied” testing assistance from the state.

Neither Summit Ag executives nor staff in the governor’s office responded to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries.

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Historic new leadership for Iowa Democrats

For the first time, a person of color will lead one of Iowa’s major political parties. The Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee on January 23 chose Ross Wilburn to serve as state party chair for the coming election cycle. Wilburn won on the first ballot in a field of four candidates after Brett Copeland withdrew his candidacy during the committee’s meeting.

The two candidates with a strong base of support among the 50-plus State Central Committee members were Wilburn, who received just under 65 percent of the votes, and Jodi Clemens, who received 33 percent. Clemens is a former Iowa House candidate and former staffer on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign as well as Kimberly Graham’s 2020 U.S. Senate campaign. At last year’s state convention, she was elected to represent Iowa on the Democratic National Committee. She will continue in that role.

Wilburn has represented Iowa House district 46, covering part of Ames, since September 2019 and will keep serving in the state legislature. However, in order to focus his full-time efforts on leading the Democratic Party, he will quit his other job as diversity officer and associate director for community economic development at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

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Who's who in the Iowa Senate for 2021

The Iowa Senate convened for its 2021 session on January 11 with 31 Republicans, eighteen Democrats, and one vacancy in the district formerly represented by Mariannette Miller-Meeks. A record twelve senators are women (seven Democrats and five Republicans), up from eleven women in the chamber last year and double the six who served prior to 2018.

I enclose below details on the majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing Iowa Senate committees. Where relevant, I’ve mentioned changes since last year’s legislative session. A few committees have new Republican leaders.

All current state senators are white. The only African American ever to serve in the Iowa Senate was Tom Mann, elected to two terms during the 1980s. No Latino has ever served in the chamber, and Iowa’s only Asian-American senator was Swati Dandekar, who resigned in 2011.

Some non-political trivia: the 50 Iowa senators include two Smiths, a Democrat and a Republican. As for first names, there are three Jeffs, three Zachs, and two men each named Craig, Mark, Dan, Jim, and Tim.

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Iowa senators still won't debunk Big Lie about election

As Joe Biden’s presidency began on January 20, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst acknowledged the transfer of power “to a new presidential administration, a sacred tradition of our democracy.” Both she and Senator Chuck Grassley promised to work with the Biden administration on behalf of Iowans.

But Ernst and Grassley have yet to denounce Republicans who still claim, falsely, that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. On the contrary, in communications with Iowans, both senators continue to suggest there are legitimate concerns about election fraud in some states Biden carried.

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