Iowa lawmakers had their chance. Now governor should issue voting rights order

“Let them vote! Let them vote!” Black Lives Matter protesters chanted a few minutes after Governor Kim Reynolds signed a police reform bill on June 12. Reynolds did not acknowledge hearing them, continuing to pass out pens to advocates of the legislation, which the Iowa House and Senate had unanimously approved the night before.

The protesters want the governor to sign an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to Iowans who have completed felony sentences. Iowa has the country’s strictest felon voting ban, which disproportionately disenfranchises African Americans. Reynolds has resisted calls to issue an executive order, saying she wants the legislature to approve a state constitutional amendment on felon voting instead.

The Iowa legislature adjourned for the year on June 14 without the constitutional amendment clearing the Senate.

For many thousands of Iowans with felony convictions, an order from Reynolds provides the only path to voting before 2024. She should issue one as soon as possible.

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Who's who in the Iowa Senate for 2020

The Iowa Senate convened for its 2020 session on January 13 with 32 Republicans and 18 Democrats. Eleven senators are women (six Democrats and five Republicans), up from six women in the chamber before the 2018 elections.

I enclose below details on the majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing Iowa Senate committees. Where relevant, I’ve mentioned changes since last year’s legislative session. A few committees have new Republican leaders. On the Democratic side, Eric Giddens now represents the Senate district where Jeff Danielson resigned last year.

A few words about demographics: all current state senators are white. To my knowledge, the only African American ever to serve in the Iowa Senate was Tom Mann, elected to two terms during the 1980s. No Latino has ever served in the Iowa legislature; in 2014, Nathan Blake fell 18 votes short of becoming the first. No Asian American has served in the Iowa Senate since Swati Dandekar resigned in 2011.

Some non-political trivia: the 50 Iowa senators include two Smiths (a Democrat and a Republican) and two Taylors (both Democrats). As for first names, there are three Marks, three Zachs, and two men each named Dan, Jim, Tim, and Tom.

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Bleeding Heartland's coverage of Iowa legislative races in 2019

I’ve always enjoyed writing about legislative happenings and campaigns, since my first year on the job as an analyst covering Russian domestic politics during a parliamentary election year.

While most political reporters were understandably assigned to follow the many presidential candidates visiting Iowa in 2019, I made it a priority to keep an eye on down-ballot races. The 2020 Iowa House and Senate elections may affect our daily lives more than whether Donald Trump or the Democratic nominee wins our state’s electoral votes. For one thing, breaking the GOP trifecta is the only way to guarantee that Iowa preserves nonpartisan redistricting for the coming decade.

I’m proud that Bleeding Heartland provided more in-depth coverage of potentially competitive state legislative races than any other Iowa news source this year. All of those stories are linked below.

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Democrats have candidates in all top Iowa Senate targets

Fifteen months before the 2020 election, Democrats have at least one declared candidate in each of the four most vulnerable Republican-held Iowa Senate districts. That’s good news for a party that needs to start making up ground in the upper chamber, where Republicans hold 32 of the 50 seats.

Bleeding Heartland will publish a fuller review of the Iowa Senate landscape (comparable to this first look at 2020 state House races) when the field is set in more competitive districts. For now, here’s where things stand in the top Democratic targets:

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Reynolds, GOP killed way to reduce racial, economic disparities in Iowa courts

Governor Kim Reynolds made headlines last week with two vetoes: blocking language targeting the attorney general, and rejecting a medical cannabis bill that had strong bipartisan support in both chambers.

A provision she didn’t veto drew little attention. For the foreseeable future, it will prevent Iowa courts from using a tool designed to make the criminal justice system more fair to defendants of all races and income levels.

Reynolds should appreciate the value of the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), since she works closely with two former State Public Defenders: Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg and the governor’s senior legal counsel Sam Langholz. But last year she ordered a premature end to a pilot program introducing the tool in four counties. The governor’s staff did not reply to repeated inquiries about the reasoning behind Reynolds’ stance on this policy.

Notably, the owner of Iowa’s largest bail bonding company substantially increased his giving to GOP candidates during the last election cycle, donating $10,100 to the governor’s campaign and $28,050 to Republicans serving in the state legislature.

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