Laura Belin

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What to know about the Iowa Supreme Court's next big abortion case

Iowa Supreme Court Justice Dana Oxley listens during oral arguments on April 11. Photo by Lily Smith/Des Moines Register (pool).

For the sixth time in the past decade, an abortion-related case is pending before the Iowa Supreme Court.

The only certainty is that the court will issue some majority opinion in the latest iteration of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v Reynolds. All seven justices participated in the April 11 oral arguments.

The law at issue, adopted during a special legislative session last July, is almost identical to the near-total abortion ban at the center of last year’s case. But after Justice Dana Oxley recused herself from the 2023 litigation, the other justices split 3-3, leaving a permanent injunction on the 2018 abortion ban in place.

In all likelihood, the Iowa Supreme Court will decide before the end of June whether to lift the temporary injunction on the new abortion ban. Normally, it’s not advisable to guess how any justice will rule following oral arguments. We can draw more inferences here, because all seven justices have written or joined opinions that are relevant to the current case.

This post is designed to help readers understand the legal context and key arguments for each side.

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Iowa House speaker not looking for AEA funding fix

House Speaker Pat Grassley speaks to reporters on April 11 (photo by Laura Belin)

Iowa House Republicans are unlikely to push for changing the new state law on services currently provided by Area Education Agencies (AEA), House Speaker Pat Grassley indicated in his latest public comments on the topic.

While some GOP lawmakers are concerned about a provision that could divert tens of millions of dollars from the AEA system, Grassley told reporters on April 11 that giving school districts more control over media and education services funding was consistent with the bill’s original purpose.

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Governor's summer meal grants amount to "crumbs for Iowa kids"

Free summer meal provided by the Cedar Rapids Community School District in June 2023. Photo originally published on the school district’s Facebook page.

Governor Kim Reynolds asked state legislators this year to “join me in making literacy a top priority in every Iowa classroom.”

Judging by her approach to feeding hungry kids, the governor appears to lack basic numeracy skills.

On April 10, the governor’s office and Iowa Department of Education announced “$900,000 in competitive grants to help more Iowa children and teens access nutritious meals and snacks during the summer months.” Those federal funds, which Reynolds is drawing from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, may help a few thousand more kids receive food while school is out.

But in December, Reynolds turned down $29 million in federal funding—more than 30 times the value of the new grants. Those funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program would have provided food assistance worth $120 to each of an estimated 240,000 Iowa children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

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Ernst, Hinson keep quiet about Ukraine visit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shakes hands with U.S. Representative Tom Suozzi (D, NY-03) on April 5, while U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (background), U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (D, IL-05), and U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson (R, IA-02) stand nearby. Photo originally posted on Zelenskyy’s X/Twitter account.

Traveling to a strategically important foreign country as part of a Congressional delegation is an honor—but you wouldn’t guess that from how Iowa’s current representatives in Washington avoid talking about the experience.

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst and U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on April 5 in Ukraine’s northern Chernihiv Oblast. Zelenskyy posted that he briefed the bipartisan delegation “on the situation on the battlefield, our army’s urgent needs, and the scale of the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.” He also “emphasized the vital need” for Congress to approve another military aid package to Ukraine.

Neither Ernst nor Hinson announced the visit in a news release or mentioned the trip on their social media. Since April 5, Hinson’s official Facebook page and X/Twitter feed have highlighted topics ranging from Hamas to Iowa women’s basketball, biofuels, a fallen World War II soldier, border security, “Bidenomics,” drought conditions, and solar eclipse safety. During the same period, Ernst used her social media to praise Iowa women’s basketball while bashing Hamas and President Joe Biden’s so-called electric vehicle “mandates,” “border crisis,” “socialist student loan schemes,” and federal policies on remote work.

Communications staff for Ernst and Hinson did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s emails seeking comment on the trip and their views on further military aid to Ukraine. Both have voted for previous aid packages.

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"Take time to read this bill": House Dem flagged AEA funding "oversight"

Barely a week after Governor Kim Reynolds signed an overhaul of Iowa’s Area Education Agencies, House Republicans are looking for ways to change the law’s provisions on media and education services funding, State Representative Brent Siegrist confirmed on April 4.

Siegrist was among the House Republicans who worked closely on House File 2612, having previously served as executive director of the AEA system. He described the language giving school districts the ability to divert funding from media and education services as “just an oversight.”

He and his colleagues should have listened more carefully during the March 21 debate. Democratic State Representative Sharon Steckman flagged this very problem, despite having little time to review the 49-page amendment Republicans rushed to pass.

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State of Iowa completes key financial reports on time

For the first time in four years, the state of Iowa submitted its Annual Comprehensive Financial Report and its Single Audit for the previous fiscal year without months of delays. The Iowa Department of Administrative Services released the comprehensive financial report covering fiscal year 2023 (July 2022 through June 2023) in late December, and the State Auditor’s office published the Single Audit on March 29.

The Annual Comprehensive Financial Report typically comes out within six months of the end of a fiscal year. But Iowa State University’s switch to the Workday system for accounting in fiscal year 2020 created enormous difficulty in compiling accurate financial data. As a result, the state’s comprehensive report for FY2020 came out nine months behind schedule.

For the next two years, turnover within the Department of Administrative Services delayed work on the comprehensive report, which came out more than seven months late for FY2021 and eight months late for FY2022.

The Single Audit is a mandatory report covering federal dollars spent by state agencies and universities. It typically comes out in late March but can’t be issued before the comprehensive report is complete. So beginning in FY2020, Iowa’s Single Audit was months late for three years in a row.

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Iowa House Democrats strangely quiet on eminent domain bill

Protester’s sign against a pillar in the state capitol on February 27 (photo by Laura Belin)

What’s the opposite of “loud and proud”?

Iowa House Democrats unanimously voted for the chamber’s latest attempt to address the concerns of landowners along the path of Summit Carbon Solutions’ proposed CO2 pipeline. But not a single Democrat spoke during the March 28 floor debate.

The unusual tactic allowed the bill’s Republican advocates to take full credit for defending property rights against powerful corporate interests—an extremely popular position.

It was a missed opportunity to share a Democratic vision for fair land use policies and acknowledge the progressive constituencies that oppose the pipeline for various reasons.

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Iowa House GOP's "big wins" won't avert big problems for AEAs

Representative Skyler Wheeler floor manages the AEA bill on March 21 (photo by Laura Belin)

UPDATE: The Iowa Senate approved the final House version of this bill on March 26, and the governor signed House file 2612 the following day. Original post follows.

Iowa House leaders attempted to wrap up work last week on the thorniest issue of the 2024 session: overhauling the Area Education Agencies (AEAs) to comply with Governor Kim Reynolds’ demand for “transformational change.” Less than three hours after a 49-page amendment appeared on the legislature’s website on March 21, the majority party cut off debate and approved a new version of House File 2612 by 51 votes to 43.

State Representative Skyler Wheeler hailed many provisions of the revised AEA bill as “wins” for House Republicans during the floor debate. House Speaker Pat Grassley likewise celebrated “big wins in this legislation” in the March 22 edition of his email newsletter.

Nine Republicans—Eddie Andrews, Mark Cisneros, Zach Dieken, Martin Graber, Tom Jeneary, Brian Lohse, Gary Mohr, Ray Sorensen, and Charley Thomson—didn’t buy into the official narrative and voted with Democrats against the bill.

I doubt any of them will regret that choice. If House File 2612 becomes law, it could irreparably harm the AEAs’ ability to provide a full range of services to children, families, educators, and schools.

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Iowa superintendents sound alarm about AEA changes

Superintendents from more than 30 Iowa school districts warned state legislators on March 17 that major changes to Area Education Agencies (AEAs) “will have grave consequences for the students we serve.”

In a message enclosed in full below and available here (pdf), the superintendents told lawmakers they “are deeply concerned about the proposed changes to the AEAs, especially the shift towards a ‘Fee-for-Service’ approach.” They highlighted the value of the existing AEA model, particularly for rural school districts that “rely heavily on AEAs for critical support.”

Caleb Bonjour, superintendent of the Gladbrook-Reinbeck Community School District, told lawmakers that those who signed are a “non-comprehensive list of superintendents” opposing legislation “that could drastically affect our Area Education Agencies.” Gladbrook-Reinbeck covers some rural areas in Black Hawk, Grundy, and Marshall counties.

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Iowa House and Senate Republicans are not on the same page

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley (left) and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver speak to members of the media on March 14 (photos by Laura Belin)

If you didn’t know Iowa was in the eighth year of a Republican trifecta, you might be forgiven for thinking different parties controlled the state House and Senate after watching the past week’s action.

Dozens of bills approved by one chamber failed to clear the legislature’s second “funnel” deadline on March 15. While it’s typical for some legislation to die in committee after passing one chamber, the 2024 casualties include several high-profile bills.

The chambers remain far apart on education policy, with no agreement in sight on overhauling the Area Education Agencies, which is a top priority for Governor Kim Reynolds. The legislature is more than a month late to agree on state funding per pupil for K-12 schools, which by law should have happened by February 8 (30 days after Reynolds submitted her proposed budget). The Senate Education Committee did not even convene subcommittees on a few bills House Republicans strongly supported.

House Speaker Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver struck an upbeat tone when speaking to journalists on March 14. Both emphasized their ongoing conversations and opportunities for Republicans to reach agreement in the coming weeks.

But it was clear that Grassley and Whitver have very different ideas about how the legislature should approach its work.

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Iowa governor's 2024 legislative agenda in limbo

State legislators escort Governor Kim Reynolds into the Iowa House chamber on January 9, 2024. Photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register (pool).

Governor Kim Reynolds had every reason to be confident about her legislative plans this year. Republican lawmakers approved most of her priorities in 2023, including some that had previously stalled in the Iowa House, such as a “school choice” plan and damage caps for medical malpractice awards.

Ten weeks into the 2024 legislative session, only two policies the governor requested have made it through both chambers. Nearly a dozen other bills still have a chance to reach her desk with few changes.

But Reynolds’ top priority—downgrading the Area Education Agencies (AEAs) and centralizing power over special education in her administration—will be dramatically scaled back, if it passes at all.

Three bills the governor introduced and promoted in public remarks or on social media are almost certainly dead for the year. Those include her effort to enshrine “separate but equal” treatment of LGBTQ Iowans.

Leaders moved several of Reynolds’ bills to the “unfinished business” calendar in one or both chambers on March 14, keeping them eligible for floor debate despite missing an important legislative deadline. The rest of the governor’s proposals involve taxes or spending, and are therefore “funnel-proof.”

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Iowa Republican misleads about bill threatening IVF

As the Iowa Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on the near-total abortion ban Republicans enacted last year, state House and Senate Republicans are advancing several bills to further their anti-abortion agenda. The latest example is House File 2575, which rewrites the criminal statute on causing a non-consensual pregnancy loss. House members approved the bill on March 7, voting mostly along party lines.

Republican State Representative Skyler Wheeler denied during Iowa House debate that what he called a “fetal homicide” bill could jeopardize the legality of in vitro fertilization (IVF). He either doesn’t understand the plain meaning of the legislation he floor managed, or was trying to mislead the public about its potential impact.

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Whip count fail: Iowa House leaders suffer defeat on stormwater bill

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley confers with Majority Leader Matt Windschitl on March 6 as votes for a bill limiting local government authority stall at 49.

For the second time in three years, a bill backed by top Iowa House Republicans failed to gain the 51 votes needed on the House floor. Senate File 455, which would restrict local government authority to regulate topsoil and stormwater, topped out at 49 votes in favor during floor debate on March 6. By the time the clerk closed the machine a few minutes later, yes votes had dropped to 44.

Such events are rare in any legislature, because leaders typically don’t bring a bill to the floor unless they know it will pass. No bill favored by the majority has failed an Iowa Senate floor vote for many years.

The last time Iowa House GOP leaders lost a floor vote was in March 2022, on an amendment that combined liability protection for trucking companies with limits on private employers requiring employees or customers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Republicans had a 60-40 majority at that time; the GOP advantage in the chamber has since grown to 64-36.

Majority Leader Matt Windschitl quickly filed a motion to reconsider Senate File 455, indicating leaders plan to call another vote on the bill soon. Even so, the episode revealed surprisingly deep opposition to this legislation in Republican ranks.

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Chuck Grassley rewrites history of his role in smearing Joe Biden

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley is well known for lamenting the lack of history on the History Channel. This week he has engaged in revisionist history about his role in spreading false allegations against President Joe Biden.

The senator spent months publicizing claims that the president and his son Hunter Biden took bribes from a Ukrainian businessman, even though FBI officials had warned Grassley and other Republican politicians the bribery had not been verified.

Now Grassley is trying to reshape the narrative, casting himself as the hero who helped expose the source of the false claims as a liar. He continues to push back against accusations that he has been a conduit for Russian disinformation.

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Adventures in misleading headlines

Some Iowa news headlines misrepresented an Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision on February 27, which resolved a long-running lawsuit over Iowa’s 2021 law banning schools from requiring masks.

“Federal appeals court upholds Iowa law banning school mask mandates,” read the headline on a Cedar Rapids Gazette story, also published in some of the Lee Newspapers.

KCRG-TV’s version (carried by other television stations with the same owner) was titled “Federal appeals court upholds Iowa ban on mask mandates.”

“Appeals court upholds law banning mask mandates in schools,” read the headline on Iowa Capital Dispatch, a website that allows Iowa newspapers to republish its reporting at no charge.

The framing closely tracked written statements from Governor Kim Reynolds and Attorney General Brenna Bird, who hailed the Eighth Circuit decision.

There was just one problem: the appeals court did not “uphold” the law.

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Iowa Senate Republicans just made blood donations a partisan issue

Following two days of contentious debate in the Iowa Senate, the chamber’s calendar for Wednesday, February 21 appeared to be stacked with non-controversial bills.

Then State Senator Jeff Edler rose to offer Senate File 2369, an “act relating to autologous and directed blood donations.”

The blood donation bill may not be as impactful as other legislation Senate Republicans approved last week: proposals to undermine Iowa’s state auditor, reduce Medicaid eligibility for pregnant Iowans, make state funded crisis pregnancy centers less accountable, enable discrimination if grounded in religious beliefs, and repeal the gender balance requirement for state boards and commissions.

Yet Senate File 2369 is important—not only because of its potential impact on the blood supply, but for what it reveals about legislative culture in the eighth year of Iowa’s Republican trifecta.

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Davenport secrecy inspires Iowa House bill on sunshine laws

Photo of Davenport skyline is by WeaponizingArchitecture and available via Wikimedia Commons

The Iowa House has overwhelmingly passed a bill designed to improve local government compliance with the state’s open meetings and open records laws.

House File 2539, approved by 92 votes to 2 on February 22, would increase fines for members of a local government body who participated in an open meetings violation, from the current range of $100 to $500 to a range of $500 to $2,500. Penalties would be greater for those who “knowingly” participated in the violation: each could be fined between $5,000 and $12,500, compared to $1,000 to $2,500 under current law.

The bill would also require all elected or appointed public officials to complete a one- to two-hour training course on Iowa’s open meetings and open records laws (known as Chapter 21 and Chapter 22). The Iowa Public Information Board would provide the training, which officials would need to complete within 90 days of being elected, appointed, or sworn in.

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Grassley silent after feds link Biden smear to Russian intelligence

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley has yet to comment publicly on a new document asserting that “officials associated with Russian intelligence were involved in passing a story” about Hunter Biden.

The revelation came in a detention memo federal prosecutors filed on February 20, hoping to convince a court to keep former FBI informant Alexander Smirnov incarcerated pending trial. Smirnov was arrested last week and charged with lying to FBI agents about an alleged bribery scheme involving Hunter Biden and his father, when Joe Biden was vice president. The FBI memorialized those claims in an FD-1023 document, which Grassley released and hyped last year as evidence of Biden family corruption. Prosecutors now say Smirnov fabricated the allegations.

The detention memo details Smirnov’s “extensive and extremely recent” contacts with “officials affiliated with Russian intelligence,” and asserts he was planning to to meet with Russian operatives during an upcoming trip abroad. The defendant reported some of those contacts to his FBI handler before being arrested and divulged other relevant information in a custodial interview on February 14.

Grassley’s communications staff did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries this week about Smirnov’s reported contacts with Russian intelligence. The senator has regularly posted on social media as he tours northern Iowa, but has not acknowledged news related to the false bribery claims. His office has issued ten news releases about various other topics since February 20.

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Iowa's revised abortion rules still more political than medical

The Iowa Board of Medicine has unanimously approved a new version of administrative rules related to a near-total abortion ban Republicans hope to enforce in the future.

The law, known as House File 732, is currently enjoined under a Polk County District Court order, which the state has appealed. If the Iowa Supreme Court eventually allows the ban to go into effect, the administrative rules would provide some guidance to physicians on how to approach the law’s (mostly unworkable) exceptions.

The revisions approved during a February 15 teleconference meeting address some objections physicians raised when the board discussed the rules in November and January. However, they do not change the reality that the rules don’t match how doctors normally interact with patients seeking to terminate a pregnancy.

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Iowa legislature's clock runs out on feeding hungry kids

Interactive School Nutrition Dashboard created by the Iowa Hunger Coalition

At least four bills that would have helped needy Iowa families feed their children didn’t make it through the state legislature’s first “funnel.”

Most bills not related to taxes or spending are considered dead for the 2024 session if not approved by at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by February 16. Efforts to expand access to meals didn’t receive a subcommittee hearing, let alone consideration by a full committee. That was true even for one school lunch bill with 20 Republican co-sponsors.

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Abdul-Samad retiring, Rob Johnson running in Iowa House district 34

Left: State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad in February 2024. Right: Rob Johnson (photos cropped from their Facebook pages)

The longest-serving Black legislator in Iowa history will retire at the end of this year. State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad announced on February 15 that he will not seek another term in the Iowa House, Stephen Gruber-Miller reported for the Des Moines Register.

Abdul-Samad has represented part of the city of Des Moines since 2007. Speaking at a Black History Month event at the capitol, he explained his decision:

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Grassley unrepentant as DOJ declares explosive claims to be "fabrications"

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley did his best last year to promote what he called “very significant allegations from a trusted FBI informant implicating then-Vice President Biden in a criminal bribery scheme.”

On February 15, the Justice Department unsealed an indictment charging that informant, Alexander Smirnov, with two felonies: making a false statement to a government agent, and creating a false and fictitious record. Last July, Grassley released that document (an FBI FD-1023 form) to bolster claims President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, had accepted bribes worth $5 million. Federal prosecutors determined the events Smirnov first reported to his handler in June 2020 “were fabrications.”

At this writing, Grassley’s office has not sent out a news release about the criminal charges returned by a federal grand jury in California. But in a statement provided to Bleeding Heartland, staff claimed the indictment “confirms several points Senator Grassley has made repeatedly.”

The spin was not convincing.

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"It's embarrassing"—Democrats slam do-nothing Iowa House environment panel

From left: Democratic State Representatives Austin Baeth, Molly Buck, Josh Turek, Elinor Levin, Sharon Steckman, and Adam Zabner. Screenshot from video posted to Facebook on February 8.

“When I joined Environmental Protection, I never envisioned that I would be talking about a raccoon bounty, but here we are,” Democratic State Representative Josh Turek said on February 7, while the House Environmental Protection Committee considered the only bill on the agenda that day.

As they weighed in on the bill, Democrats voiced broader frustrations about the committee’s failure to engage with any of Iowa’s serious environmental challenges.

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Zach Nunn visits Ukraine on Congressional delegation

U.S. Representative Zach Nunn met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, members of the Ukrainian parliament, and intelligence officials in Kyiv on February 9 as a member of a bipartisan U.S. House delegation.

At this writing, Nunn has not posted about the trip on his social media feeds or announced it in a news release, but he appears in pictures others shared from the visit, and is second from the left in the photo above.

Four of the five members of Congress on this delegation serve on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. A committee news release mentioned that Nunn “sits on the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security, Illicit Finance, and International Financial Institutions and currently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.”

Representative Mike Turner, who chairs the Intelligence committee, said at a news conference in Kyiv, “We came today so that we could voice to President Zelenskyy and others that we were seeing that the United States stands in full support of Ukraine.”

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Exclusive: ISU acquired $5 million plane for athletics

Photo of the Cessna 560XL recently purchased for ISU’s Athletics Department, cropped from an online listing of the plane for sale

Iowa State University recently acquired a Cessna 560XL airplane for $5.06 million, university staff confirmed to Bleeding Heartland on February 7. The 2004 model Cessna arrived in Ames last month and is intended to replace the university’s King Air 350.

ISU communications staffer Angie Hunt said via email, “the Cessna plane was purchased for the athletic department’s primary use,” with the ISU Foundation using the athletic’s department’s “cash reserves” for the transaction. She added, “No general funds or tuition dollars were used.”

Staff in the Athletics Department have already used the Cessna for several trips.

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No one needs a civility lecture from Jeff Shipley

Photo by Greg Hauenstein of protesters at the Iowa state capitol on January 31, 2024.

“If you wish to enjoy civil rights, being able to act and behave civilly is a prerequisite,” State Representative Jeff Shipley tweeted on January 31, shortly after his latest effort to take civil rights protections away from transgender Iowans went down in flames.

Even for a practiced troll like Shipley, it was a remarkably ignorant and obnoxious statement.

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Governor's latest attack on trans Iowans can't be constitutional

Photo by Laura Belin from a rally outside the Iowa capitol on March 5, 2023

UPDATE: On February 6, Republicans advanced this bill from an Iowa House subcommittee. A few hours later, the full House Education Committee amended the bill to remove the driver’s license section, then approved it along party lines. Democrats requested a public hearing, which took place on February 12 (video). Following committee passage, the bill was renumbered as House File 2389. Original post follows.

Governor Kim Reynolds didn’t give LGBTQ Iowans even one full day to celebrate the downfall of a bill to remove gender identity protections from Iowa’s civil rights law.

The latest legislative proposal from the governor’s office would lay the foundation for “separate but equal” treatment of transgender Iowans and what one advocate called an “astonishing government violation of privacy rights.”

Although House Study Bill 649 contains some language designed to bolster the state’s potential defense in court, there’s no way the governor’s newest effort to codify discrimination against LGBTQ people could be constitutional.

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Iowa state auditor asks feds to block fertilizer plant sale

State Auditor Rob Sand has asked federal regulators to block Koch Industries’ planned acquisition of OCI Global’s Nitrogen Iowa fertilizer plant in Lee County.

In a January 30 letter to Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and Assistant U.S. Attorney General Jonathan Kanter, who leads the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, Sand noted tax incentives totaling some $550 million had supported building the plant, which “was pitched to taxpayers as a project that would encourage future competition and growth for the region.”

Scott Syroka highlighted the problematic sale in a Bleeding Heartland post last month. That article detailed how then Governor Terry Branstad’s administration orchestrated a package including $300 million in federal tax giveaways related to a flood relief program, $133 million in local tax abatements from Lee County over twenty years, and $112 million in state tax credits or forgivable loans.

The auditor’s letter argued that a sale to Koch Industries would likely increase fertilizer costs for farmers. It would also negate the original intent of the deal; the idea that Koch wouldn’t own the new plant justified “the massive commitment of tax dollars in the first place.” Sand said he agreed with comments Branstad made to reporters in 2013, asserting that the Koch brothers “don’t want the competition,” whereas Iowans “want competition.”

Sand is the first Iowa statewide official to contact federal officials about the sale, which OCI Global announced in December.

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Trans Iowans face broadest civil rights threat in years

UPDATE: After this post was published, the Iowa Business Council, Technology Association of Iowa, and Greater Des Moines Partnership registered against the bill.

SECOND UPDATE: Subcommittee members voted 3-0 on January 31 not to advance this bill. Original post follows.

An Iowa House Judiciary subcommittee will soon consider the broadest threat to trans rights since lawmakers added gender identity protections to the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 2007, the first year of a Democratic trifecta. House File 2082 would remove gender identity as a protected class, while redefining “a diagnosis for gender dysphoria or any condition related to a gender identity disorder” as a disability under the civil rights act.

Eighteen organizations are already registered against the bill, which is scheduled for a subcommittee hearing on January 31.

But as the Republican-controlled legislature’s attacks on transgender Iowans continue to escalate, some groups that helped hold the line against past efforts to rewrite the civil rights code are on the sidelines, for now.

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A cautionary note for Iowa Democrats who attended a GOP caucus

From left: Carolyn Jenison, Angelo Thorne, and Tanya Keith attend a Republican precinct caucus in Des Moines on January 15 after changing their party registrations. Photo by Tanya Keith published with permission.

The Iowa Democratic Party will soon send “presidential preference cards” to registered Democrats who would like to vote by mail for Joe Biden, Dean Phillips, Marianne Williamson, or “uncommitted.” Voters will have until February 19 to request the cards, and will need to return them by March 5 (or with a March 5 postmark).

One group of Iowa Democrats should not attempt to vote by mail, however: those who switched parties in order to attend a Republican precinct caucus on January 15.

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In rapid reversal, House clerk grants me press credentials

My five-year effort to gain a seat on the Iowa House press bench ended less than five days after the Institute for Free Speech filed a federal lawsuit on my behalf.

House Chief Clerk Meghan Nelson informed me shortly after 5:00 pm on January 23 that the Iowa House approved my application for work space, and a spot has been reserved for me in the press box on the floor of the House chamber.

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Dubuque-based Iowa Senate seat no longer solid blue

State Senator Pam Jochum presents a resolution on brain health during Iowa Senate debate on January 17. Photo first published on her Facebook page.

Catching up on some legislative campaign news: Iowa Senate Minority Leader Pam Jochum announced on January 12 that she won’t seek re-election this November. Jochum is the longest-serving current Iowa Democratic legislator, with sixteen years of experience in the state House followed by sixteen in Senate. Her colleagues chose her to lead the sixteen-member caucus last June. The last four years Democrats held a majority in the chamber, Jochum served as Senate president (the second-ranking position).

While the open seat in Iowa Senate district 36 leans Democratic, the Dubuque area is no longer as blue as it has been for much of the last century. Depending on who wins each party’s nomination, this could be a race to watch in November.

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Ron DeSantis helped change Iowa for the worse

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suspended his presidential campaign in humiliating fashion on January 21, endorsing the man who had taunted and mocked “DeSanctimonious” for months.

Many political reporters have written about what went wrong for DeSantis, who ended up fighting for second place in Iowa after his team and allied super PACs spent at least $150 million and landed coveted endorsements. I wrote my own Iowa obituary for the Florida governor’s campaign shortly before the caucuses.

But make no mistake: despite gaining only 23,420 votes here last week, the DeSantis approach to politics left its mark on Iowa. While Governor Kim Reynolds formally endorsed her friend less than three months ago, she’s been copying his leadership style for years, hurting many vulnerable Iowans in the process.

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I'm suing the Iowa House Chief Clerk over denial of press credentials

“The First Amendment prohibits government officials from arbitrarily denying reporters access to official information, and from discriminating against reporters based on their viewpoint,” declares a federal lawsuit filed on my behalf on January 19. Yet since 2019, the Iowa House Chief Clerk “has arbitrarily applied an ever-shifting credentialing system” to limit my “ability to gather and report political news” from the Iowa House chamber.

The Institute for Free Speech filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, making four claims under the U.S. Constitution. First, by denying me access to the Iowa House press bench, where other statehouse reporters can closely observe House debate and attend regular briefings by House Speaker Pat Grassley, Chief Clerk Meghan Nelson is violating my First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of the press.

Second, the complaint also states that Nelson’s policy, limiting access to reporters who provide “nonpartisan news to a broad segment of the public,” amounts to unconstitutional content-based and viewpoint-based discrimination, on its face and as applied to me.

Third, Nelson’s press credential policy “constitutes a prior restraint in violation of the First Amendment.” Chief Clerk Nelson has “unbridled discretion” to grant reporters access to the House press box, and “relies on the undefined, broad terms of the credential policy to subjectively exclude news media and deprive them of the ability to gather news in a manner equal to that afforded to other media representatives.”

Finally, the suit asserts that the press credential policy is vague in violation of my “First Amendment rights to free speech and press and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.”

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Honestly, what did Kim Reynolds expect?

Screenshot of President Donald Trump and Governor Kim Reynolds at a rally in Des Moines on January 30, 2020

“I would say with a great deal of confidence that Kim Reynolds is the only person in the state of Iowa that could be a king or a queenmaker,” Republican Party of Iowa state chair Jeff Kaufmann told the Des Moines Register last February. “There’s a lot of people who like to cast themselves as kingmaker because it helps them to push their organizations, but she’s the only one that could be.”

Wrong.

Governor Reynolds spent much of the last two months campaigning for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and starred in a tv ad on his behalf. Yet her backing didn’t move the needle; polls showed support for DeSantis between the mid-teens and low 20s in Iowa for the last six months. As expected, he finished about 30 points behind former President Donald Trump at the January 15 caucuses.

DeSantis did eke out a second-place finish with 21.2 percent of the vote, about 2 points ahead of Nikki Haley. But that more likely stemmed from the Never Back Down super PAC’s extensive field operation, which was superior to what Americans for Prosperity Action delivered for Haley.

Reynolds should have known it was far too late to convince the GOP base to abandon Trump. She’d avoided offending his fans for years.

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How the 2024 Iowa Democratic caucuses will work

For once, I don’t have to write a whole Iowa caucus series explaining the complexities of delegate allocations or the viability threshold. Democratic caucus-goers won’t spend ages counting, realigning, or complaining about how the math worked out.

The 2024 Iowa Democratic caucuses should be drama-free affairs that wrap up in an hour or less.

While the Republican gatherings on January 15 will generate more excitement and suspense as attendees wait to find out who finished a distant second to Donald Trump, Democrats who brave the cold can expect a smaller and friendlier local meeting.

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Iowa House speaker hints at new law on "sexually explicit" books in schools

Republican lawmakers may take additional steps to remove “sexually explicit material” from schools, Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley indicated on January 8. Speaking to fellow legislators, Grassley also blamed schools for politicizing what he called “a simple solution to protect Iowa’s students from inappropriate material.”

Grassley was the only House or Senate leader to address the school book bans in opening remarks on the first day of the legislature’s 2024 session. His comments came ten days after a federal court blocked the state of Iowa from enforcing a ban on library books and classroom materials that describe or depict sex acts.

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Who's who in the Iowa Senate for 2024

Iowa Senate chamber, as photographed by Nagel Photography, available via Shutterstock

The Iowa Senate convened in Des Moines on January 8 for the first day of the 2024 legislative session. Although the balance of power remains the same (34 Republicans, sixteen Democrats), I’m publishing a new version of this post to note changes in leadership or among the chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing Senate committees.

Fourteen senators (nine Republicans, five Democrats) were elected to the chamber for the first time in 2022. Seven of them (four Republicans and three Democrats) previously served in the Iowa House.

Fifteen senators are women (eight Democrats and seven Republicans), up from twelve women in the chamber prior to the 2022 election and more than double the six women senators who served prior to the 2018 election.

Democrat Izaah Knox is the second Black state senator in Iowa history. The first was Tom Mann, a Democrat elected to two terms during the 1980s. The other 49 senators are white. No Latino has ever served in the chamber, and Iowa’s only Asian-American senator was Swati Dandekar, who resigned in 2011.

Democrat Janice Weiner became the first Jewish person to serve in the Iowa Senate since Ralph Rosenberg left the legislature after 1994. Democrat Liz Bennett became the first out LGBTQ state senator since Matt McCoy retired in 2018.

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Who's who in the Iowa House for 2024

Photo by Carl Olsen of the Iowa House chamber in 2020

Iowa House members return to Des Moines on January 8 for the opening day of the 2024 legislative session. Although the balance of power remains the same (64 Republicans, 36 Democrats), I’m publishing a new version of this post to note small changes in leadership or among the chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing House committees. Where relevant, I’ve noted changes since last year’s session.

Thirty-eight House members (24 Republicans and fourteen Democrats) are serving their first term in the legislature. Two Republicans previously held other legislative offices: Craig Johnson served one and a half terms in the Iowa Senate, and David Young served two terms in Congress.

The House members include 71 men and 29 women (sixteen Democrats and thirteen Republicans), down from 31 women who served in 2021 and 2022. The record for women’s representation in the Iowa House was 34 female lawmakers in 2019.

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Best of Bleeding Heartland's original reporting in 2023

Before Iowa politics kicks into high gear with a new legislative session and the caucuses, I want to highlight the investigative reporting, in-depth analysis, and accountability journalism published first or exclusively on this site last year.

Some newspapers, websites, and newsletters put their best original work behind a paywall for subscribers, or limit access to a set number of free articles a month. I’m committed to keeping all Bleeding Heartland content available to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. That includes nearly 500 articles and commentaries from 2023 alone, and thousands more posts in archives going back to 2007.

To receive links to everything recently published here via email, subscribe to the free Evening Heartland newsletter. I also have a free Substack, which is part of the Iowa Writers Collaborative. Subscribers receive occasional cross-posts from Bleeding Heartland, as well as audio files and recaps for every episode of KHOI Radio’s “Capitol Week,” a 30-minute show about Iowa politics co-hosted by Dennis Hart and me.

I’m grateful to all readers, but especially to tipsters. Please reach out with story ideas that may be worth pursuing in 2024.

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The 23 most-viewed Bleeding Heartland posts of 2023

Iowa’s Republican legislators, Governor Kim Reynolds, and Senator Chuck Grassley inspired the majority of Bleeding Heartland’s most-read posts during the year that just ended. But putting this list together was trickier than my previous efforts to highlight the site’s articles or commentaries that resonated most with readers.

For fifteen years, I primarily used Google Analytics to track site traffic. Google changed some things this year, prompting me to switch to Fathom Analytics (an “alternative that doesn’t compromise visitor privacy for data”) in July. As far as I could tell during the few days when those services overlapped, they reached similar counts for user visits, page views, and other metrics. But the numbers didn’t completely line up, which means the Google Analytics data I have for posts published during the first half of the year may not be the same numbers Fathom would have produced.

Further complicating this enterprise, I cross-post some of my original reporting and commentary on a free email newsletter, launched on Substack in the summer of 2022 as part of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative. Some of those posts generated thousands of views that would not be tabulated as visits to Bleeding Heartland. I didn’t include Substack statistics while writing this piece; if I had, it would have changed the order of some posts listed below.

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Court blocks Iowa's "staggeringly broad" book bans, teaching restrictions

UPDATE: Attorney General Brenna Bird filed notice of appeal to the Eighth Circuit on January 12. Original post follows.

The state of Iowa cannot enforce key parts of a new law that sought to ban books depicting sex acts from schools and prohibit instruction “relating to gender identity and sexual orientation” from kindergarten through sixth grade.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Locher issued a preliminary injunction on December 29, putting what he called “staggeringly broad” provisions on hold while two federal lawsuits challenging Senate File 496 proceed. The judge found the book bans “unlikely to satisfy the First Amendment under any standard of scrutiny,” and the teaching restrictions “void for vagueness under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

However, the state may continue to enforce a provision requiring school administrators to inform parents or guardians if a student seeks an “accommodation that is intended to affirm the student’s gender identity.” Judge Locher found the LGBTQ students who are plaintiffs in one case lack standing to challenge that provision, since “they are all already ‘out’ to their families and therefore not affected in a concrete way” by it.

Governor Kim Reynolds and Attorney General Brenna Bird quickly criticized the court’s decision. But neither engaged with the legal issues at hand.

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Recognizing Bleeding Heartland's talented 2023 guest authors

Bleeding Heartland set another record for guest contributions in 2023, with more than 125 individual authors contributing a total of 358 posts. For many years after I became this website’s primary author in 2008, I wrote most of the material published here, but that’s no longer the case.

Guest authors covered a remarkably wide range of topics, and as noted below, some of their contributions were among the most-viewed posts on the site this year.

Writers provided exclusive reporting and in-depth analysis of topics ranging from the water usage associated with CO2 pipelines to federal farm subsidies to major constitutional questions to Iowa Supreme Court rulings to proposed new charter schools.

They covered important events in Iowa history, flagged pending business deals that warrant scrutiny, and showcased wildflowers from diverse habitats. They offered insights about polling errors, ticket-splitting in Iowa’s 2022 elections, ways to address the teacher shortage, and policies to improve maternal health.

They shared personal experiences relevant to political debates over abortion, the COVID-19 pandemic, pollution caused by conventional agriculture, and bullying directed at teenagers who challenge gender stereotypes.

They recalled good times at the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City and memorable encounters with Governor Harold Hughes and Attorney General Lawrence Scalise.

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Recap of Iowa wildflower Wednesdays from 2023

Photo by Kara Brady of Lesser yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium caleolus), found in Jones County

Guest authors carried the load for most the twelfth year of Bleeding Heartland’s wildflowers series. Although I have been getting around pretty well (despite a catastrophic ankle fracture in early 2022), the pace of Iowa political news was relentless in 2023. In part for that reason, I spent less time on trails and prairies than I would have liked. Turning that around is on my list of New Year’s resolutions.

I can’t express how grateful I am for the outstanding contributions of guest authors and photographers. In alphabetical order: Katie Byerly, Lora Conrad, Kara Grady, Beth Lynch, Bruce Morrison, Diane Porter, Leland Searles, and Kenny Slocum. Thanks also to the friends who allowed me to publish some of their images in my own wildflower posts, and to Bleeding Heartland user PrairieFan for highlighting the devastating impact of chemical trespass on many native plants.

This series will return sometime during April or May of 2024. Please reach out if you have photographs to share, especially of native plants I haven’t featured yet. The full archive of posts featuring at least 250 wildflower species is available here. I have also compiled links to several dozen posts that covered many plants found in one area, rather than focusing on a single kind of wildflower.

For those looking for wildflower pictures year round, or seeking help with plant ID, check out the Facebook groups Flora of Iowa or Iowa wildflower enthusiasts. If you’d like a book to take with you on nature outings, Lora Conrad reviewed some of the best wildflower guides last year. A book featuring plants native to our part of the country is probably more reliable than the plant ID app on your phone.

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State gaslights on Iowa's book ban, "don't say gay/trans" law

Image of frequently banned books by On The Run Photo is available via Shutterstock. All books shown here have been removed from multiple Iowa school districts, according to the Des Moines Register’s database.

A federal judge will soon decide whether to block enforcement of all or part of an Iowa law that imposed many new regulations on public school libraries and educators.

Two groups of plaintiffs filed suit last month challenging Senate File 496 as unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Among other things, the law prohibits school libraries and classrooms from offering “any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.” It also forbids schools from providing “any program, curriculum, test, survey, questionnaire, promotion, or instruction relating to gender identity or sexual orientation to students in kindergarten through grade six.”

U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Locher of the Southern District of Iowa did not consolidate the cases, which contain some overlapping arguments. But he did consolidate the hearings on the plaintiffs’ requests for a temporary injunction, which would prevent the state from enforcing certain provisions of SF 496 while litigation proceeds.

Near the end of that December 22 hearing in Des Moines, the judge said he will rule on whether to issue an injunction by January 1, when provisions allowing the state to investigate or discipline educators or school districts for certain violations will take effect.

Attorneys for the state advanced several misleading or contradictory legal arguments at the hearing and in briefs filed last week.

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Exclusive: After budget boost, Iowa governor gave senior staff big raises

Governor Kim Reynolds gave four of her top staffers raises ranging from 13 percent to 17 percent several months after Republican lawmakers approved a major boost to the governor’s office budget.

The large pay increases took effect in early September, according to salary records Bleeding Heartland obtained through a public records request. All staff in the governor’s office had already received a 3 percent raise at the beginning of fiscal year 2024 in July.

Public employees often receive a small bump in compensation at the start of a new fiscal year, but few are able to obtain raises of 10 percent or more without a promotion or a significant change to their job duties.

A spokesperson for Reynolds described the salary hikes as an “important investment” and asserted that “offering salaries commensurate with experience and job responsibilities is critical to ensuring optimal performance and continuity of state government.”

However, data the governor’s office provided to Bleeding Heartland did not support the claim that many of Reynolds’ staffers were previously underpaid compared to counterparts in similar states.

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How Iowa is addressing racial disparities in juvenile justice

Black youth in Iowa continue to be punished more severely than white peers for criminal offenses. According to The Sentencing Project’s latest analysis of disparities in youth incarceration (a category covering detention centers, residential treatment centers, group homes, and youth prisons), Iowa remains among the ten states with the highest overall Black youth incarceration rate, as well as one of the ten states with the greatest Black/white disparity in youth incarceration.

Those statistics reflect only one aspect of a larger problem. Early this year, the final report from a Juvenile Justice Task Force established by the Iowa Supreme Court acknowledged that “Gender and racial disparities are present throughout the system.”

Iowa is in the early stages of implementing the task force’s 55 recommendations, at least seven of which relate to racial disparities. (Many more address out-of-home placements for youth.)

However, advocates say Iowa must do more to address the ongoing disparities. And while an expanded diversion program is keeping many young people out of the juvenile justice system, one Iowa county with a particularly troubled history on youth incarceration is in the process of building a much bigger detention center.

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What Iowa's House members said about Biden impeachment inquiry

All four Republicans who represent Iowa in the U.S. House voted on December 13 to formally authorize an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. The chamber’s 221 to 212 vote fell entirely along party lines.

House Speaker Mike Johnson wrote in a December 12 op-ed that the vote will allow the House Oversight, Judiciary, and Ways and Means committees to “continue investigating the role of the president in promoting the alleged influence-peddling schemes of his family and associates […].” He said the formal inquiry “puts us in the strongest legal position to gather the evidence” as the House seeks to enforce subpoenas.

Critics have noted that while focusing on business activities of the president’s son Hunter Biden, House Republicans have yet to uncover evidence of any criminal activity involving Joe Biden, and are using unsubstantiated or false claims to justify their inquiry. Democrats have charged that Republicans are pursuing impeachment at the behest of former President Donald Trump.

None of Iowa’s House members spoke during the floor debate, but three released public comments following the vote.

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Exclusive: Agencies spent $1 million on Iowa governor's office costs last year

In March, Governor Kim Reynolds hailed passage of her state government reorganization plan, saying it would be “an important step” to “reduce the size and cost of government.”

The governor’s commitment to making government smaller and less costly hasn’t extended to her own staff.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, other agencies spent more than $1 million to cover operating costs in the governor’s office, documents Bleeding Heartland obtained through public records requests show. Those funds allowed the governor’s office to spend nearly 50 percent more than its budget appropriation of $2.3 million for fiscal year 2023.

Reynolds’ chief of staff Taryn Frideres told state lawmakers in February that increasing the governor’s office allocation for the current fiscal year by about $500,000 (a 21 percent bump) would be “more transparent” and ensure that “our actual appropriation is closer to our expenses, so that we can budget in a more straightforward way.”

But records Bleeding Heartland reviewed indicate that the $2.8 million general fund appropriation Republicans approved for fiscal year 2024 will fall far short of what the governor’s office will spend on staff salaries and other expenses.

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A close look at the second lawsuit challenging Iowa's book bans

From left: Author Laurie Halse Anderson, author Malinda Lo, and Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek. Screenshots taken during the November 30 news conference announcing a new legal challenge to Senate File 496.

“The right to speak and the right to read are inextricably intertwined.”

So declare the plaintiffs in the second lawsuit filed challenging Iowa’s new ban on certain library books and classroom materials.

The new federal lawsuit focuses on two provisions of Senate File 496, which Republican lawmakers approved in April and Governor Kim Reynolds signed in May. A separate federal lawsuit filed last week challenges SF 496 in its entirety, focusing on additional provisions targeting LGBTQ students as well as the book bans.

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Preference cards will give Iowa Democrats four options for president

Registered Democrats who participate in the 2024 Iowa caucuses by mail will be able to select one of four options for president. The Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee voted on December 2 to ratify presidential preference cards that will list President Joe Biden, U.S. Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota, author Marianne Williamson, and “uncommitted.”

Biden, Phillips, and Williamson were the only candidates who submitted a letter requesting to list their names on the preference cards, Stephen Gruber-Miller reported for the Des Moines Register.

Uncommitted has always been an option at Iowa Democratic caucuses, and won the most delegates in 1976. In recent decades, few caucus-goers have chosen to stay uncommitted.

The party is not calling the preference cards “ballots,” in part to avoid upsetting New Hampshire officials who jealously guard that state’s law guaranteeing the first primary in the country. Although the cards will be tallied like ballots are, the caucus is a party-run operation, not an election administered by county and state officials.

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For first time, whole Iowa delegation parts ways with House leaders

Quite a few U.S. House Republicans have stirred up trouble for their party’s small majority this year. But the four House members from Iowa—Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-01), Ashley Hinson (IA-02), Zach Nunn (IA-03), and Randy Feenstra (IA-04)—have generally aligned with the preferences of GOP caucus leaders. It has been rare for to even one of the Iowans to vote differently from top Republicans in the chamber, and they have never done so as a group.

That streak ended on December 1, when Miller-Meeks, Hinson, Nunn, and Feenstra all voted to expel U.S. Representative George Santos.

Santos is only the sixth U.S. House member ever to be expelled, and the 311 to 114 vote (roll call) divided Republicans. While 105 GOP members joined almost all Democrats to remove Santos from their ranks, 112 Republicans opposed the resolution, including the whole leadership team of House Speaker Mike Johnson, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, Majority Whip Tom Emmer, Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, and Republican Policy Chair Gary Palmer.

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LGBTQ plaintiffs make strong case against Iowa education law

Plaintiffs Puck Carlson (left) and Berry Stevens (right) in photos provided by the ACLU of Iowa and Lambda Legal

Iowa Republican lawmakers and Governor Kim Reynolds enacted several laws this year that discriminate against LGBTQ people. This week, seven Iowa families and the advocacy group Iowa Safe Schools filed the first lawsuit challenging one of those statutes: the wide-ranging education bill known as Senate File 496.

The plaintiffs, who include eight LGBTQ students attending public elementary, middle, or high schools across Iowa, have laid out a compelling case that SF 496 violates LGBTQ students’ First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights in several ways, as well as the federal Equal Access Act.

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Error prompts governor's "extraordinary" intervention on appointing judge

For the second time in three years, Governor Kim Reynolds refused to act on a slate of nominees approved by one of Iowa’s regional judicial nominating commissions.

In early November, Reynolds took the “extraordinary step” of returning one candidate to the District 2B Judicial Nominating Commission. She eventually appointed Ashley Sparks to fill the District Court vacancy, but only after the commission held an additional meeting (at the governor’s request) to nominate a second eligible candidate for the judgeship.

The sequence of events raises questions about the governor’s legal authority to intervene when a judicial nominating commission has not adequately discharged its duties.

The situation also raises broader questions about the District 2B Judicial Nominating Commission. In November 2021, Reynolds refused to fill a vacancy in the same district after determining a judge’s “unprofessional” conduct had tainted the selection process. Since then, the District 2B commission—unlike all of its counterparts around the state—has not followed statutory and constitutional provisions that call for the senior judge of a district to chair such bodies.

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Miller-Meeks has faced tougher GOP opponents than David Pautsch

U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks officially has competition in the 2024 Republican primary to represent Iowa’s first Congressional district. David Pautsch, best known as the founder of the Quad Cities Prayer Breakfast, filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission this month and held a news conference on November 16 to lay out his vision.

Based on what we’ve heard so far, Pautsch won’t give Miller-Meeks anything to worry about. She defeated several well-funded opponents as a non-incumbent candidate for Congress, and will take more advantages into next year’s race as an incumbent.

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When Iowa refused to join "Franksgiving" celebrations

I’m grateful for so much this Thanksgiving, including an independent platform and a community of readers who appreciate in-depth coverage of Iowa politics.

In past years, I have marked this holiday by sharing links about its origins and the associated myths, or ideas for making soup and other dishes from Thanksgiving leftovers.

Today, with permission from Matthew Isbell, I want to share a vignette about Iowa’s Thanksgiving celebrations during a previous era, when (like today) this state was solidly Republican during a Democratic presidency.

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What Kim Taylor's voter fraud case tells us about Donald Trump's big lie

Federal courthouse Northern District of Iowa, photo by Tony Webster, creative commons license and available at Wikimedia Commons

Kim Taylor could face years in prison after a federal jury convicted her on November 21 of 52 counts of voter fraud, voter registration fraud, or giving false information in registering or voting. Over the course of a six-day trial, prosecutors presented evidence Taylor forged signatures on voter registration forms, absentee ballot request forms, and absentee ballots in order to secure votes for her husband in the 2020 election. Prosecutors identified Jeremy Taylor, a Republican who previously served in the Iowa House and is now a Woodbury County supervisor, as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.

The jury found Kim Taylor helped cast dozens of fraudulent ballots—a large number, but small in comparison to the 45,700 ballots cast in Woodbury County in 2020, not to mention the 1.7 million ballots cast across Iowa.

Which raises an obvious question for all Republicans who have expressly or tacitly endorsed Donald Trump’s sweeping claims that the 2020 election was “rigged” or stolen from him.

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A close look at Iowa's very political—not medical—proposed abortion rules

Iowa’s near-total abortion ban remains blocked by court order. But new details emerged last week about how some provisions might be enforced if the Iowa Supreme Court finds the law constitutional (as the state has requested), or lifts the temporary injunction on the ban while litigation proceeds.

One thing is clear: despite repeated references to “standard medical practice” in the document the Iowa Board of Medicine considered on November 17, the proposed abortion rules bear little resemblance to how physicians actually care for patients seeking an abortion.

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Court finds Iowa's garbage search law unconstitutional

A Polk County District Court has ruled that the Iowa legislature “overstepped” when it enacted a law allowing police to search garbage outside a home without a warrant.

In a November 13 order granting a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained through trash grabs, Chief Judge Michael Huppert found the 2022 law “void as inconsistent with the language of article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution as interpreted by the Iowa Supreme Court.”

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Why Iowans can't force a statewide vote on abortion rights

Ohio residents voted to add reproductive rights protections to the state constitution on November 7, passing the measure known as Issue 1 by 56.3 percent to 43.7 percent. When that language goes into effect, it will prevent enforcement of a law Ohio’s Republican trifecta enacted in 2019, which would prohibit almost all abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected.

Iowa Republican lawmakers approved and Governor Kim Reynolds signed a similar near-total abortion ban in July. A Polk County District Court blocked enforcement of that law, and the state has asked the Iowa Supreme Court to dissolve that injunction and uphold the law as constitutional.

Voters in Michigan, California, and Vermont approved reproductive rights constitutional amendments in 2022, and activists hope to place similar measures on the November 2024 ballot in other states, such as Arizona, Florida, Nebraska, and Missouri.

Some Bleeding Heartland readers have asked why Democrats aren’t trying to do the same in Iowa, where polls indicate a strong majority of adults believe abortion should be mostly or always legal, and the state’s partisan lean is roughly the same as Ohio’s.

The answer is simple: there is no mechanism for Iowa voters to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

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Progressives win, book banners lose many Iowa school board races

Voters in Iowa’s large school districts overwhelmingly picked progressive candidates over conservatives on November 7. In many urban and suburban districts, candidates backed by local Democrats, the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), and/or the LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa Action ran the table, while candidates backed by activists on the religious right fell short.

The results are a rebuke to Governor Kim Reynolds and Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature, which enacted new laws in 2023 that undermined public schools and LGBTQ students, and restricted school library books and inclusive curriculum materials.

They also show the enduring strength of the state’s largest teachers union. For many years, Iowans elected school boards in September and city councils and mayors in November. The GOP trifecta changed state law so that beginning in 2019, school board and city elections would occur on the same day. The idea was to increase local election turnout and thereby diminish the ISEA’s influence over school boards. Nevertheless, candidates backed by public educators prevailed in many of this year’s most competitive races.

One city election also underscored how unpopular book banning is with Iowans. In the notoriously conservative town of Pella, voters rejected by 2,041 votes to 1,954 (51.1 percent to 48.9 percent) a ballot measure that would have empowered the city council to overrule the public library board.

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Dark money group trying to buy Des Moines mayoral race

It’s a textbook example of spending to influence an election.

A brand-new organization, “Citizens For Des Moines,” was registered with the Iowa Secretary of State on October 20. Its president, Doug Gross, is a prominent Republican attorney and major donor to city council member Connie Boesen’s mayoral campaign. The group paid to print and send at least two mass mailings attacking Boesen’s main rival in the mayoral race, which reached numerous Des Moines voters less than a week before the November 7 election.

Iowa law requires disclosure of independent expenditures that support or oppose a candidate for office, and requires political action committees to periodically report on their fundraising and spending. But Citizens For Des Moines exploited gaps in the law, so voters will be unable to find out who donated to the group or how much was spent on mail targeting city council member Josh Mandelbaum.

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Data show which Iowa counties have (or don't have) representative juries

Five of the eight Iowa counties with the largest Black populations “had trial juries that were fully representative of their jury-eligible Black population” during 2022 and the first half of 2023, according to data analyzed by the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP. However, trial juries in Polk County and Scott County failed to hit that benchmark, and Dubuque County was “particularly problematic,” with zero Black members of any trial jury during the eighteen-month period reviewed.

The same review indicated that trial juries in Linn and Woodbury counties were close to being representative of the area’s jury-eligible Latino population, while Latinos were underrepresented on juries in Johnson, Marshall, Scott, and Polk counties, and particularly in Muscatine County.

Russell Lovell and David Walker, retired Drake Law School professors who co-chair the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP Legal Redress Committee, examined juror data provided by the Iowa Judicial Branch and presented their findings at the 11th Annual Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities in Ankeny on November 3.

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Anti-Trump messages hit a wall with Iowa Republicans

Iowa Republicans have seen more advertising against former President Donald Trump this year than GOP voters anywhere else in the country.

The Win It Back PAC, a super-PAC with “close ties” to the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth, spent more than $4 million over the summer to run six different television commercials in the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Sioux City markets. The Republican Accountability PAC kicked in $1.5 million on its own series of tv ads in Iowa. AFP Action, an arm of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity network, has sent numerous mailings with anti-Trump messages to Iowa households and paid for dozens of Facebook ads seeking to convince Iowans the former president is unelectable. New groups have popped up to fund direct mail in Iowa attacking Trump on issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to COVID-19 policies to crime.

Nevertheless, Trump is as well positioned for the 2024 caucuses as ever, according to the latest Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register, NBC News, and Mediacom. Among those likely to attend the GOP caucuses in January, 43 percent support Trump, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley are tied for second place at 16 percent. No other candidate was in double digits.

Selzer’s findings are consistent with other recent polls of Iowa Republican caucus-goers, showing Trump ahead of DeSantis by at least 20 points and in most cases by more than 30 points.

One could argue the barrage of anti-Trump messages dented the front-runner’s appeal. His numbers in Iowa are lower than his support nationally, where he’s been hovering at or above 55 percent lately in presidential GOP primary polls.

But any early success from the television, direct mail, and digital ad blitz seems to have dissipated. Selzer’s polling suggests Trump’s level of support held steady among likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers: 42 percent in August, 43 percent in October. His lead over the second-place candidate grew from 23 points in August to 27 points this month. Trump’s supporters are also more enthusiastic and “locked in” than those leaning toward other presidential candidates.

The latest Iowa Poll validates the conclusions of research Win It Back PAC conducted this summer: most ads seeking to drive Republicans away from Trump either have no effect or increase his support among the target audience.

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Full archive: Iowa wildflower Wednesday nature walks

Bleeding Heartland authors have featured about 250 plant species since I launched “Iowa wildflower Wednesday” in 2012. You can find most of those posts in this archive, alphabetized by common name from alumroot to zigzag goldenrod.

But not every post in the wildflower series focuses on one or two kinds of native plants. Many chronicle the author’s visit to a park, prairie, natural area, or wooded trail, where they may have photographed a dozen or more species. When I’ve updated the archive, I haven’t linked to every post that includes one picture of, say, spring beauty or Culver’s root or rattlesnake master.

For this piece, I compiled links to all of the Bleeding Heartland posts that survey a range of plants in a given area, arranged by season. I hope these links will help readers who are wondering which flowers may be blooming at different times of the year, or are trying to identify a plant they saw on their own nature walk. By the way, Lora Conrad reviewed many guides to Iowa wildflowers, shrubs, and trees.

Words can’t convey how grateful I am to guest authors who have showcased corners of Iowa that are unfamiliar to me, from Shimek State Forest (southeast) to Motor Mill (northeast) to the Loess Hills (southwest) and the Little Sioux River valley (northwest).

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Four paths: How Iowa Republicans are navigating House speaker fiasco

UPDATE: All four Iowans voted for Mike Johnson for speaker on October 25. Original post follows.

Iowa’s four U.S. House members didn’t want to be here.

Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-01), Ashley Hinson (IA-02), Zach Nunn (IA-03), and Randy Feenstra (IA-04) were Kevin McCarthy loyalists from day one of the new Congress. All voted against the motion to vacate the speaker’s position early this month.

Nineteen days after the House of Representatives removed a speaker for the first time in history, the Republican majority is no closer to finding a way out of the morass. A plan to temporarily empower interim Speaker Patrick McHenry collapsed before coming to the floor. House Judiciary chair Jim Jordan was unable to gain a majority in any of the three House votes this past week. Republicans voted by secret ballot on October 20 not to keep Jordan as their nominee for speaker.

At minimum, the House will be without a leader for three weeks. Members went home for the weekend with plans to return for a “candidate forum” on October 23, and a possible House floor vote the following day. More than a half-dozen Republicans are now considering running for speaker; none has a clear path to 217 votes. McCarthy has endorsed Representative Tom Emmer, the current majority whip. But former President Donald Trump, a close ally of Jordan, doesn’t like Emmer, who voted to certify the 2020 presidential election results. Most Republicans in public life are afraid to become a target for Trump or his devoted followers.

The Iowans have adopted distinct strategies for navigating the embarrassing crisis.

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IA-01: Bohannan outraised Miller-Meeks in third quarter

Photo of Christina Bohannan at the Polk County Steak Fry in September 2022 is by Greg Hauenstein and published with permission.

The latest batch of Federal Election Commission quarterly filings from Congressional candidates contained one Iowa surprise: Democratic challenger Christina Bohannan substantially outraised U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks during the third quarter.

Bohannan’s campaign for Iowa’s first district reported raising $663,417.54, of which nearly all ($644,805.03) came from individual donors. Five political action committees donated a total of $12,012.51, and the candidate gave $6,600.

Miller-Meeks’ campaign reported raising $467,286.85, but only $225,385.34 of the total came from individuals. As was the case during the first and second quarters of 2023, the majority of funds donated to the incumbent’s campaign came from PACs or other political committees.

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Iowa Republicans couldn't have been more wrong about defunding Planned Parenthood

When Iowa Republicans gained the trifecta following the 2016 elections, defunding Planned Parenthood was near the top of their agenda. GOP legislators promised a new state-funded family planning program would increase access to reproductive health care and give women more options, especially in rural Iowa.

The latest official data, first reported by the Des Moines Register’s Michaela Ramm, show the program has flopped. In just five years, the number of Iowans receiving services such as contraception, pregnancy tests, Pap smears, and testing or treatment for some sexually transmitted infections dropped by 90 percent compared to the population served during the last year of the previous Medicaid waiver. The number of health care providers involved is down by a staggering 97 percent.

The Iowa Department of Health and Human Services has done almost nothing to promote the program, even as enrollment crashed.

The reality could hardly be more different from the scenario Republicans described in 2017: “connecting folks with their home health care” for essential services by taking Planned Parenthood’s mostly urban clinics out of the equation.

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Larry McBurney, Jason Menke running in Iowa House district 44

Two Democrats are actively campaigning for a open Iowa House seat covering much of the city of Urbandale.

Urbandale City Council member and U.S. Air Force combat veteran Larry McBurney launched his campaign for House district 44 in September, soon after State Representative John Forbes, who has represented much of this area since 2013, announced he will run for Polk County supervisor in 2024.

Urbandale School Board member Jason Menke made his legislative campaign official on October 10.

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State drops charge related to Adrian Dickey's RAGBRAI arrest

State Senator Adrian Dickey no longer faces a criminal charge stemming from his arrest in Sac County on the second day of RAGBRAI.

Sac County Attorney Ben Smith filed a motion to dismiss the charge of interference with official acts in Sac County Court on October 6. Magistrate Joshua Walsh granted the motion later the same day. Dickey had pleaded not guilty and had requested a jury trial. His attorney had characterized the dispute with a sheriff’s deputy as a “misunderstanding.”

Smith made three points in the motion to dismiss:

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Iowa attorney honored for half-century of civil rights advocacy

Russell Lovell was troubled by the segregation and discrimination he witnessed growing up in a small Nebraska town and resolved to work on civil rights while attending law school in his home state during the late 1960s. His passion for justice extended beyond his nearly 40-year career as a Drake Law School professor and recently earned Lovell an award from the Notre Dame Alumni Association “for his outstanding dedication to advancing civil rights and his commitment to providing experiential learning to the next generation of lawyers.”

Iowa-Nebraska NAACP President Betty Andrews nominated Lovell for the Rev. Louis J. Putz, C.S.C., Award, citing his “fifty years of exceptional NAACP pro bono civil rights advocacy.” As co-chairs of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and Des Moines Branch NAACP Legal Redress Committees, Lovell and fellow Drake Law Professor Emeritus David Walker have collaborated on eight amicus briefs submitted to the Iowa Supreme Court. They have also successfully pushed for systemic reforms to make Iowa juries more diverse.

The Iowa Chapter of the National Bar Association recognized Lovell’s civil rights work and advocacy for representative juries in 2020.

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Hinson, Miller-Meeks back Steve Scalise for House speaker

Two of Iowa’s four U.S. House members laid down their marker early in the battle to elect a new House speaker.

U.S. Representatives Ashley Hinson (IA-02) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-01) announced on October 5 that they will support current House Majority leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana for the chamber’s top job.

The House cannot conduct normal business until members elect a new speaker, following the 216-210 vote on October 3 to declare the office vacant. As expected, all four Iowa Republicans opposed the effort to remove House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, but the resolution succeeded as eight Republicans joined all Democrats present to vote yes.

Scalise’s main competition appears to be House Judiciary Committee chair Jim Jordan of Ohio. Others considering the race include Republican Study Committee chair Kevin Hern of Oklahoma. Several House members have vowed to nominate Donald Trump, but the former president told one of his supporters on October 5 that he is endorsing Jordan for speaker.

At this writing, Representatives Zach Nunn (IA-03) and Randy Feenstra (IA-04) have not publicly committed to a candidate for speaker. Iowa’s House members have voted in unison on most important matters this year. In a statement to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Nunn said, “I’m waiting to make a decision until we have the opportunity to hear from everybody running about their vision to take on the D.C. bureaucracy, balance the budget, secure the border, and support the critical programs — like Medicare and Social Security — that Iowans rely on every day.”

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: October stragglers

Most Iowa wildflowers have gone to seed by now. But I’m always intrigued by the plants that keep blooming long after others. So I ventured out on yet another unseasonably warm day to photograph late bloomers in the prairie planting along the Windsor Heights trail, immediately behind the Iowa Department of Natural Resources building on Hickman Road.

I’ve been impressed by how well this patch has been managed over the past decade or so. It’s mostly free from the invasive plants that took over the onetime Eagle Scout project about a quarter-mile away on the Windsor Heights trail (near where Rocklyn Creek runs into North Walnut Creek).

The patch behind the Iowa DNR building is most colorful over the summer, but I enjoy watching the succession of wildflowers blooming, from golden Alexanders in the spring to rosinweed and wild bergamot in the summer to the last of the asters in the fall. There’s plenty of parking near the building, if you can’t access the area on foot or by bicycle. The Windsor Heights trail is paved and flat, for those who struggle with uneven ground.

I took all of the photos enclosed below on October 4.

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Four takeaways from Iowa Republicans' latest federal budget votes

Every member of Congress from Iowa voted on September 30 for a last-ditch effort to keep the federal government open until November 17. The continuing resolution will maintain fiscal year 2023 spending levels for the first 47 days of the 2024 federal fiscal year, plus $16 billion in disaster relief funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is the amount the Biden administration requested. In addition, the bill includes “an extension of a federal flood insurance program and reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.”

U.S. Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-01), Ashley Hinson (IA-02), Zach Nunn (IA-03), and Randy Feenstra (IA-04) were among the 126 House Republicans who joined 209 Democrats to approve the measure. (Ninety Republicans and one Democrat voted no.) House leaders brought the funding measure to the floor under a suspension of the rules, which meant it needed a two-thirds majority rather than the usual 50 percent plus one to pass.

Iowa’s Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst were part of the 88-9 majority in the upper chamber that voted to send the bill to President Joe Biden just in time to avert a shutdown as the new fiscal year begins on October 1.

House members considered several other federal budget bills this week and dozens of related amendments—far too many to summarize in one article. As I watched how the Iowa delegation approached the most important votes, a few things stood out to me.

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Iowa still among worst states for racial disparities in incarceration

Iowa is tied for seventh among states with the highest disparities in Black incarceration rates, according to new analysis from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. Data released on September 27 show Black Iowans are about nine times more likely than whites to be in prison or jail, and Native Americans are about thirteen times more likely than whites to be incarcerated in Iowa.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said in a statement that the findings “underscore the need for systemic reform.” She called on Iowa to “take action in every facet of the justice process.”

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What needs to happen for Bohannan to beat Miller-Meeks in IA-01

Photo of Christina Bohannan at the Polk County Steak Fry in September 2021 is by Greg Hauenstein and published with permission.

Christina Bohannan is hoping to join Neal Smith, Tom Harkin, and Berkley Bedell in the club of Iowa Democrats who were elected to Congress on their second attempt.

Challenging an incumbent is usually an uphill battle, and recent voting trends favor Republicans in southeast Iowa, where Bohannan is running against U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks. The Cook Partisan Voting Index for Iowa’s first Congressional district is R+3, meaning that in the last two presidential elections, voters living in the 20 counties that now make up IA-01 voted about three points more Republican than did the national electorate. The Daily Kos Elections team calculated that Donald Trump received about 50.5 percent of the 2020 presidential vote in this area, to 47.6 percent for Joe Biden.

The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate IA-01 as “likely Republican” for 2024—potentially competitive, but not among the top two or three dozen U.S. House battlegrounds across the country. Inside Elections recently moved this district to the more competitive “lean Republican” category.

That said, no one should write off this race. Miller-Meeks ran for Congress unsuccessfully three times and was considered the underdog against Democrat Rita Hart in 2020. Many factors contributed to the Republican’s six-vote win that year, and I’ve been thinking about what would need to happen for Bohannan to prevail in next year’s IA-01 rematch.

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State board split on how to approach "vexatious requesters" of public records

The Iowa Public Information Board will continue to weigh options for giving government bodies more tools to deal with people who allegedly use public records requests in a harassing way.

Discussion during the board’s September 21 meeting revealed sharp differences of opinion over the proper role for the state board, which is charged with providing guidance and resolving disputes over Iowa’s open records and open meetings laws. Board members agreed to have a committee gather more information before deciding whether to proceed with a legislative proposal giving government bodies a way to have troublesome individuals declared “vexatious requesters.”

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State board concerned about "vexatious requesters" of public records

The Iowa Public Information Board will consider options for government bodies to deal with individuals who file “excessive and abusive” public records requests. During a September 15 telephonic meeting of the board’s legislative committee, members E.J. Giovannetti and Barry Lindahl tabled proposed legislation that would allow governments to have some people declared “vexatious requesters.”

But they agreed to put the topic on the agenda for the full board, which could adopt an advisory opinion for dealing with burdensome records requests, or could ask the state legislature to address the issue.

Prior to the meeting, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council warned Iowa Public Information Board members that the proposed changes to Iowa Code would “seriously erode” the state’s open records law and would violate the constitution while trying to solve a “nonexistent problem.”

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Iowa House district 22 primary: Samantha Fett vs. Garrett Gobble

Education is shaping up to be a defining issue in an open-seat race for a strongly Republican Iowa House district.

State Representative Stan Gustafson, who currently represents House district 22, is planning to retire at the end of his current term. Samantha Fett, a former Carlisle school board member and chapter leader of Moms for Liberty, announced last month that she will seek the Republican nomination. Fett has spoken at several Iowa House or Senate meetings during the past two years, urging lawmakers to approve various education-related or anti-LGBTQ bills.

Garrett Gobble announced his candidacy for the same district in a September 8 Facebook post. He previously represented part of Ankeny in the Iowa House for one term. A recent guest commentary for the Des Moines Register indicated that Gobble hopes Governor Kim Reynolds and groups focused on school policies will stay out of his upcoming race.

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Iowa board review committee's "public input" was a farce

“It was a great day to hear from Iowans,” Department of Management Director Kraig Paulsen told reporters on September 6. He was speaking in his role as chair of Iowa’s temporary Boards and Commissions Review Committee, after nearly 70 people had testified about proposed changes to more than 100 state boards and commissions.

The two-plus hour public hearing created the impression that affected Iowans had ample opportunities to provide feedback in person. The committee is also accepting comments submitted via email (BCRCcomments@iowa.gov) through September 17.

Although some testimony or written comments may prompt the committee to tweak its plans for certain boards, the reality is that in many ways, Paulsen and other committee members prevented Iowans from offering meaningful input on the proposed changes.

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State funds not used for Kim Reynolds' "Fair-side chats"

Governor Kim Reynolds’ office told a state regulator no public funds were used for the twelve “Fair-side chats” Reynolds held with Republican presidential candidates during the Iowa State Fair last month.

Reynolds conducted friendly interviews with the candidates in the courtyard of JR’s SouthPork Ranch, a restaurant on the state fair grounds. A sign produced for the events featured a logo and the words “Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Fair-side chats.”

I sought to clarify who paid for the sign and other expenses associated with the chats, because Iowa Code Chapter 68A.405A prohibits statewide elected officials from spending public funds on “any paid advertisement or promotion” bearing the official’s “written name, likeness, or voice” in a range of settings, including “A paid exhibit display at the Iowa state fair […].” Reynolds signed that statute (commonly known as the the “self-promotion law”) in 2018.

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Iowa town blocked Pride group from Labor Day parade

City leaders in Essex, a town of about 722 people, ignored warnings about the First Amendment when they prevented local LGBTQ residents from participating in the town’s Labor Day parade on September 4.

Shenandoah Pride represents LGBTQ people in several towns in southwest Iowa’s Page County. The group had signed up months ago to participate in the Essex Labor Day parade, a longstanding community event. Local drag performer Cherry Peaks was going to ride in a convertible and wave. But Essex Mayor Calvin Kinney emailed Peaks on August 31 to say,

Out of concern for the safety of the public and that of Essex Labor Day parade participants, the City of Essex has determined not to allow parade participants geared toward the promotion of, or opposition to, the politically charged topic of gender and/or sexual identification/orientation.

This parade will not be used for and will not allow sexual identification or sexual orientation agendas for, or against, to be promoted.

The Essex City Council held a special meeting on September 1 to discuss the matter but did not reverse the decision. Jack Dura of the Associated Press reported that the city council didn’t vote on the mayor’s action: “Council Member Heather Thornton, who disagreed with the move, said ‘it was the mayor himself,’ and added she was told he had the authority and didn’t need a council vote.”

“I DON’T EXPECT A CITY COUNCIL TO MAKE THAT DECISION ON MY BEHALF”

Jessa Bears, a member of Shenandoah Pride, challenged the pretext for the city’s action in a September 2 Facebook post. She noted that the mayor repeatedly invoked “safety” at the meeting, but “no one on the Shenandoah pride team has seen or heard about the threats” from what he described as an opposition group. Bears wondered why the alleged safety threats weren’t “being addressed appropriately,” and why leaders were “protecting the identities of the people or group” said to be making the threats.

She also noted,

I think any queer person in southwest Iowa understands the risk they run when they choose to be openly queer in this community. We know there’s a danger, safety has been a part of every discussion in Shen Pride before we go out in public. I believe I’m responsible for making decisions about my own personal safety, I don’t expect a city council to make that decision on my behalf just because I’m gay.

Bears told reporter Jessica Perez of KETV in Omaha that the goal of being part of the parade was “visibility,” showing others that LGBTQ people live, work, and go to school in the community. Peaks told KETV, “It feels like they’re trying to shove us back in the closet,” adding that while it’s a common “misconception” to think gay people are only in big cities, members of Shenandoah Pride live less than ten miles from Essex.

It’s cowardly for people with power to prevent a marginalized group from joining a community event, especially while claiming to do it for their own protection. But in this case, the city’s action wasn’t merely spineless—it was unconstitutional.

A “CLEAR VIOLATION OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT”

Sharon Wegner, an attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, wrote to the Essex mayor and city attorney Mahlon Sorensen on September 2, urging them to respect the constitution by changing course. The letter (enclosed in full below) indicated that when the organization contacted Sorensen to warn him about “the impending infringement on the rights of Shenandoah Pride,”

You confirmed for us that there was no credible security threat of which you were aware, let alone one justifying the prohibition made by Mayor Kinney, but, nevertheless, told us that the City would not change its position and would prohibit Shenandoah Pride from participating in the parade.

Wegner explained that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 7 of Iowa’s constitution “protect and secure the right of organizations like Shenandoah Pride to express their views in public forums such as the Labor Day Parade.” Government bodies and officials can’t infringe on that right based on the content of a message or the viewpoints expressed.

It is obvious from Mayor Kinney’s email that the City1 is prohibiting Shenandoah Pride from participating in the Labor Day Parade because it disagrees with its position on the rights of LGBTQ+ persons. That the policy purports to apply equally to groups in “opposition to . . . gender and/or sexual identification/orientation” does not render it neutral, particularly, though not only, because there is no such opposition group that has requested to participate in the Parade.

The ACLU warned that failing to allow Shenandoah Pride to join the Essex Labor Day parade would “violate the rights of its citizens, potentially expose it to substantial liability, and be an injustice to the constitutional rights of every person and every group to participate in its public events.”

Mayor Kinney did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s email over the weekend, or to messages KETV’s Perez sent on multiple platforms.

ACLU of Iowa executive director Mark Stringer said in a September 2 news release, “City leaders cannot ban participants from a government-sponsored parade just because they don’t like their viewpoint. It is a clear violation of the First Amendment and each person’s right to free speech and free expression in a public space. This action also sadly fails to acknowledge the many contributions of LGBTQ community members in our Iowa communities, large and small.”

Bears told Perez she wants the city of Essex to apologize to Shenandoah Pride, which she described as “a ragtag group of gay people that just wanted to walk in the damn parade.”

Disclosure: The ACLU of Iowa represented Laura Belin and other plaintiffs in an open records lawsuit against the governor’s office, which was settled in June 2023. That litigation is unrelated to the topic of this article.


Appendix: Full text of September 2 letter from the ACLU of Iowa to Essex leaders

Top photo of a protester holding a sign outside the Iowa state capitol on March 5, 2023 is by Michael F. Hiatt and available via Shutterstock.

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Big win for Kimberly Sheets bucks Warren County trend

A massive organizing effort paid off for Kimberly Sheets, as the Democrat won the August 29 special election for Warren County auditor by a two-to-one margin. Unofficial results first reported by Iowa Starting Line show Sheets received 5,051 votes (66.56 percent) to 2,538 votes for Republican David Whipple (33.44 percent). Turnout was more than three times higher than the previous record for a Warren County special election (a school bond issue in 2022).

Republicans haven’t lost many races lately in this county, but they pushed their luck by nominating Whipple. Not only was he lacking experience in election administration—one of the duties of Iowa county auditors—he had shared Facebook posts espousing conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election and other QAnon obsessions.

The county’s previous auditor, Democrat Traci VanderLinden, retired in May and wanted Sheets (the deputy in her office) to succeed her. Whipple’s appointment by an all-Republican county board of supervisors generated lots of statewide and some national media attention, because of his now-deleted social media posts. Local Democrats collected about 3,500 signatures over a two-week period demanding a special election.

County GOP activists could have picked a less controversial nominee for the auditor’s race, but they stuck with Whipple. The move backfired spectacularly.

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IA-04: Ryan Melton, Jay Brown seeking Democratic nomination

UPDATE: Jay Brown announced in late December 2023 that he was withdrawing from the race and endorsing Melton. Original post follows.

A two-way Democratic primary is shaping up in Iowa’s fourth Congressional district. Ryan Melton, the 2022 Democratic challenger to U.S. Representative Randy Feenstra, announced on July 4 that he plans to seek the office again. And last week, first-time candidate Dr. Jay Brown launched his campaign.

Disclosure: Brown grew up in the house next door to mine in Windsor Heights, and our families have been close friends for decades. Bleeding Heartland will not endorse in this race. As with any competitive Democratic primary, I will welcome guest commentaries by the candidates or by any of their supporters.

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Iowa county withholds footage related to senator's RAGBRAI arrest

Officials in Sac County, Iowa are refusing to provide footage from law enforcement body cameras and dashboard cameras related to State Senator Adrian Dickey’s arrest last month during RAGBRAI.

Dickey was charged with interference with official acts (a simple misdemeanor) after allegedly refusing to comply with a deputy sheriff’s request to move along a rural road a “big party” of bicyclists were blocking.

The Republican senator has pleaded not guilty and asked for a jury trial. His attorney has characterized the dispute that led to the arrest as a “misunderstanding.”

The day after learning about Dickey’s arrest, I requested relevant records from the Sac County Sheriff’s Office, including copies of body camera and squad car dash camera video from all deputy sheriffs who were present during the incident, as well as audio and video recordings from the jail where the senator was booked. I noted the high public interest in this case, because the defendant is a member of the Iowa legislature.

Responding on behalf of Sheriff Ken McClure, Sac County Attorney Ben Smith said he could not provide the information. He cited Iowa Code Section 22.7(5), a provision in the open records law that declares peace officer’s investigative reports are confidential.

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Nikki Haley is playing the long game

Let’s start by stating the obvious: it’s very unlikely any of the eight candidates on stage for the August 23 debate in Milwaukee will become next year’s Republican presidential nominee. All nationwide and early-state polls point to the same conclusion: most GOP voters aren’t looking for an alternative to Donald Trump. They don’t find his baggage disqualifying. He’ll be the nominee unless he is physically incapacitated between now and next summer.

With that assumption in mind, we should think about “winners” from the first Republican National Committee debate in a different way. The question isn’t who improved their chances of winning this race, but rather, who made sure they will remain relevant, both in this election cycle and in the future, when Trump won’t be on the ballot?

From that perspective, no one had a better night than former South Carolina Governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. Here’s why:

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Sizing up a Matt Blake/Brad Zaun race in Iowa Senate district 22

UPDATE: Zaun told the Des Moines Register on October 6 that he will seek re-election in 2024. Original post follows.

A parade of presidential candidates visiting the Iowa State Fair overshadowed some important election news this week. Urbandale City Council member Matt Blake announced on August 17 that he’s running to represent Senate district 22, giving Democrats a strong contender in what will be a top-tier Iowa legislative race.

In a news release, Blake said “Iowa is not heading in the right direction,” and characterized the Republican-controlled legislature’s actions as “out of step with what Iowans want and deserve.” 

Republican State Senator Brad Zaun has represented the Urbandale area in the legislature since 2005. He has not publicly announced whether he intends to seek a sixth term in the Iowa Senate and did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s phone or email messages seeking to clarify his plans.

Whether Blake ends up competing against Zaun or in an open seat, Senate district 22 is clearly Iowa Democrats’ best opportunity to gain ground in the upper chamber. The party currently holds only sixteen of 50 districts, its smallest Iowa Senate contingent in about 50 years.

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Adrian Dickey seeking damages from daughter who sued over car lien

State Senator Adrian Dickey is seeking monetary damages from his daughter and others who filed a civil lawsuit in July accusing him of fraud in connection with a car lien and title.

Korynn Dickey, her mother Shawna Husted, and adoptive father Allen Husted alleged in court filings that after buying Korynn a car in 2020, “no strings attached,” Adrian Dickey signed his daughter’s name to car lien and car title application forms, without her knowledge or consent. The senator asserted in a response filed with the Jefferson County District Court that Korynn “acquiesced or consented/gave her permission” for her father to sign her name.

I wondered whether Dickey might seek to settle this litigation to avoid the expense and publicity of a trial. Instead, he escalated the conflict on August 16, when his attorney Paul Miller submitted an amended answer to the lawsuit. A new section lays out a counterclaim against all plaintiffs, accusing them of making false “written and spoken statements” that “are injurious to the Defendant’s reputation.” Dickey is asking the court to award $120,000 in damages.

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Vivek Ramaswamy's "truths" are tailored to older voters—not youth

Photo of Vivek Ramaswamy at the Iowa State Fair by Greg Hauenstein, whose other Iowa political photography can be found here.

“Good things are going to happen in this country, and it just might take a different generation to help lead us there,” Vivek Ramaswamy said a few minutes into his “fair-side chat” with Governor Kim Reynolds on August 12. The youngest candidate in the GOP presidential field (he turned 38 last week) regularly reminds audiences that he is the first millennial to run for president as a Republican.

Speaking to reporters after the chat, Ramaswamy asserted, “it takes a person of a different generation to reach the next generation.” He expressed doubt that “an octogenarian can reinspire and reignite pride in the next generation,” and said his “fresh legs” can reach young voters by “leading us to something” instead of “running from something.”

But the candidate’s talking points—especially the “ten commandments” that typically cap his stump speech—are a better fit for an older demographic than for the young voters Republicans have been alienating for the past 20 years.

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Are Texas deployments an allowable use of Iowa's ARP funds?

Governor Kim Reynolds announced on August 2 that 109 Iowa National Guard soldiers were en route to Texas, where they will be deployed through September 1 “in support of Operation Lone Star to help secure the U.S. Southern Border following the end of Title 42.” In addition, the Department of Public Safety will send Iowa State Patrol officers to Texas from August 31 through October 2, to assist Texas state troopers with various law enforcement activities.

The governor’s news release confirmed that “federal funding allocated to Iowa from the American Rescue Plan” will cover “all costs” associated with these deployments. The statement went on to assert, “States are given flexibility in how this funding can be used provided it supports the provision of government services.”

Not so fast.

While the American Rescue Plan did give states more leeway than previous federal COVID-19 relief packages, ARP funds are still subject to detailed federal rules. A plain reading of those regulations suggests deploying Iowa National Guard and law enforcement to the U.S. border with Mexico does not fall under any eligible category.

Reynolds’ public statements about Operation Lone Star also confirm the mission is not related to the pandemic.

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Adrian Dickey won't face criminal charges over car lien dispute

The Jefferson County attorney opted not to pursue any criminal charges against Republican State Senator Adrian Dickey after his daughter alleged he forged her signature on a car lien application and related documents.

Korynn Dickey filed a civil suit last month, asserting that her father had purchased a car for her in 2020, “no strings attached,” and later signed her name to a lien application, title application, and damage disclosure statement, all without her knowledge or consent. The lawsuit claims Adrian Dickey “made numerous false representations” when obtaining the lien on the vehicle, which constituted fraud, and characterized his actions as “forgery.”

Jefferson County Treasurer Mark Myers, a Democrat, is also a named defendant, since his office accepted the lien application even though plaintiffs claim he “knew or should have known that Adrian was not authorized to sign the documents on Korynn’s behalf and that the signatures were therefore forged.”

Jefferson County Attorney Chauncey Moulding, a Democrat, told Bleeding Heartland in an August 4 email that Myers initially brought the matter to his attention. After receiving additional information from Korynn’s attorney, “I reached out to criminal investigators with the Iowa Dept of Transportation, and this matter was jointly investigated by their office and mine.”

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Fourteen quick takes on the Republican presidential field

Less than six months before the 2024 Iowa caucuses, former President Donald Trump’s grip on the GOP seems as solid as ever. Despite multiple criminal indictments and well-funded direct mail and tv ad campaigns targeting him, Trump has a large lead over the crowded presidential field in nationwide and Iowa polls of Republican voters.

Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has failed to gain ground with rank-and-file Iowa Republicans, despite massive support from this state’s political establishment and Governor Kim Reynolds’ thinly-disguised efforts to boost his prospects.

The Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Dinner on July 28 was the first event featuring both candidates, along with eleven others. State party leaders strictly enforced the ten-minute time limit, which forced the contenders to present a concise case to the audience of around 1,000.

I’ve posted my take on each candidates below, in the order they appeared on Friday night. I added some thoughts at the end about former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the only declared GOP candidate to skip the event (and all other Iowa “cattle calls” this year).

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Iowa Senator Adrian Dickey arrested during RAGBRAI

Republican State Senator Adrian Dickey was arrested on July 24 and charged with interference with official acts after he refused to move along a Sac County road during the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI).

According to a complaint signed by Sgt. Jonathan Meyer of the Sac County Sheriff’s office, Dickey was among a large group of bicycle riders who “had stopped in the middle of the road” on Quincy Avenue. The complaint said after the group had been there for about an hour and a half, Meyer “advised a subject to move on as we needed to open the road.”

The individual refused to move and “advised me to arrest him,” Meyer wrote. The sergeant, who has specialized in traffic enforcement, then “advised him that the road way down the road was open and then could go that way.” But the subject (identified as Adrian Dickey) “kept arguing with me about what he was going to do.” The sergeant eventually arrested Dickey and took him to the Sac County jail, where he was charged with interference with official acts.

Sac County court records indicate that Dickey was released after posting a cash bond of $300.

Dickey could not immediately be reached for comment. This post will be updated if he responds to phone or email messages.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: False Solomon's seal

I’ve been wanting to feature False Solomon’s seal for a long time. Eileen Miller pointed out a colony of these plants on a visit to Dolliver Memorial State Park in Webster County, I believe in 2015. They were not blooming yet, and I have never found the species close to my Polk County home base, where I could check on it at various stages of development.

Jo Hain came to the rescue this year. An active member of the Iowa wildflower enthusiasts Facebook group, she regularly visited a group of false Solomon’s seal in Cerro Gordo County and forwarded many pictures. All of the photographs below are by Jo.

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Governor turns up pressure on Iowa Supreme Court over abortion ban

Abortion became legal again in Iowa on July 17, after a Polk County District Court blocked the state from enforcing a near-total ban Governor Kim Reynolds had signed into law three days earlier.

Reynolds immediately vowed to “fight this all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court where we expect a decision that will finally provide justice for the unborn.”

It was the latest example of Reynolds striking a defiant tone toward the jurists who will eventually decide whether the Iowa Constitution allows the government to make abortion almost impossible to obtain.

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New Iowa mailer dubs Trump "Trailblazer for Trans"

A new group has sent a second mass mailing to Iowa households, purporting to praise former President Donald Trump as an advocate for LGBTQ rights. The latest mailer from Advancing Our Values, incorporated in late June, describes Trump as a “Trailblazer for Trans Rights!” and opponent of “bathroom bills,” which prohibit transgender people from using facilities that align with their gender identity.

Advancing Our Values sent its first mailer to Iowans earlier this month, highlighting Trump’s supposed backing for marriage equality and trans rights.

An Iowa reader provided the following images to Bleeding Heartland on July 15:

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Four ways (besides voting) to help preserve abortion access in Iowa

Iowans face more threats to their reproductive freedom now than at any time in the past 50 years.

After Governor Kim Reynolds signs House File 732 on July 14, restrictions that would prohibit an estimated 98 percent of abortions will go into effect immediately. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, the Emma Goldman Clinic, and the ACLU of Iowa have already filed a lawsuit, but there is no guarantee courts will block the law temporarily or permanently, once the case reaches the Iowa Supreme Court.

During a large rally at the capitol on July 11, many pro-choice advocates chanted “Vote them out!” State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott recalled that being present when Iowa Republicans approved a near-total abortion ban in 2018 inspired her to run for office. Organizing and volunteering for candidates who will defend reproductive rights will clearly be an essential task. And if Iowa Republican lawmakers put a constitutional amendment about abortion on the ballot next year, we’ll need all hands on deck to defeat it.

That said, you don’t need to wait until 2024 to help others avoid being forced to continue a pregnancy. So I’m updating this post with some concrete steps people can take today—or any day—to preserve abortion access in Iowa.

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Abuse charge highlights reforms needed at Iowa Board of Medicine

In a textbook case of “too little, too late,” the Iowa Board of Medicine appeared to move on July 3 to stop a physician who was recently charged with sexual abuse of a child.

The board did not disclose the name of the physician at the center of “an agreement not to practice,” approved by unanimous vote after an hour-long, closed-session discussion. But the meeting was widely believed to pertain to Dr. Lynn Lindaman.

The Department of Public Safety announced Lindaman’s arrest on June 28. Charging documents accuse him of touching the “privates” of a child born in 2015, first over the child’s clothing and the next day through “skin to skin contact.”

Late last week, the Board of Medicine revealed plans to discuss an agreement with an unnamed physician at a virtual meeting set for 5:30 pm on July 3. The pre-holiday dump is a well-known government tactic for keeping bad or embarrassing news from reaching a wide audience.

It’s not the first time Lindaman has been charged with this kind of crime. A jury determined in 1976 that he had committed “lascivious acts” with a 13-year-old child. Sherri Moler, the victim in that case, had “pleaded and begged” many times for the Iowa Board of Medicine to stop Lindaman and other abusers from practicing. Board members didn’t listen. Neither Governor Kim Reynolds nor the Republican-controlled legislature demanded action.

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Iowa governor names Emily Wharton to lead Department for Blind

Governor Kim Reynolds has appointed Emily Wharton to remain in charge at the Iowa Department for the Blind, effective July 1. Wharton has worked for the agency since 2013 and has served as its director since 2016.

NEW POWER FOR THE GOVERNOR

For generations, the Iowa Commission for the Blind (a three-member body appointed by the governor) had the authority to hire and fire the agency director. But Reynolds’ plan to restructure state government, which Republican lawmakers approved in March, gave that power to the governor.

The change was consistent with language giving Reynolds direct control over several other agency leaders not already serving “at the pleasure of the governor.” But that idea didn’t come from the outside consultant’s report on realigning Iowa government, commissioned by the Reynolds administration at a cost of $994,000. Blind Iowans turned out in large numbeers for state House and Senate subcommittee hearings on the bill and uniformly spoke against the proposal.

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