Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Honewort (Canadian honewort)

Today’s featured wildflowers are the opposite of “showy.” If you’ve spent any time in the woods or near woodland edges, you’ve probably walked by these plants without noticing.

Honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis), sometimes known as Canadian honewort, is native to most of the U.S. and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. Like bedstraw, wild chervil, enchanter’s nightshade, and Virginia stickseed, honewort plants have tiny white flowers and thrive in shady wooded habitats.

Deer don’t care for honewort plants, but according to the website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas, “Its young leaves and stems may be used as a seasoning like parsley or as a boiled green; the roots may be cooked and eaten like parsnips.” However, “Caution is advised because many similar species of the carrot family are deadly poisonous.” I have never attempted to eat any part of honewort plants. I’ll leave them for the many kinds of insects that are attracted to the flowers or feed on the foliage.

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When public health gets political

Richard Lindgren: The “commonweal” of public health has taken a back seat to political resentment and anti-science myths propagated by social media. -promoted by Laura Belin

Despite a strong start at vaccinating its populace against COVID-19, my former home state of Iowa has begun to slip in the national rankings in its percentage of vaccinated residents. In Texas, some hospital workers have taken their management to court to fight suspensions for refusing the vaccine, despite experiencing over 52,000 deaths of Texans from COVID in those same hospitals.

What is going on here? Sometimes a simple scatter-graph tells a great story:

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IA-01: How Liz Mathis might match up against Ashley Hinson

Democratic State Senator Liz Mathis told Iowa news outlets on June 14 that she is “seriously considering” running for Congress next year and will announce her plans in late July.

Mathis won her first race in a 2011 special election for Iowa Senate district 34, covering much of the Cedar Rapids suburbs. She has since been re-elected three times. Republicans did not invest in Senate district 34 in 2012, made an unsuccessful play there in 2016, and opted not to field a candidate against Mathis in 2020.

My Democratic contacts in Linn County expect Mathis to run in the first Congressional district. I am inclined to agree. If she weren’t leaning toward running, she would probably not disclose her plans until after Iowa adopts new maps, which is unlikely to happen before September.

Mathis retired last month from Four Oaks, which provides services to children in the Cedar Rapids area. So she could devote full-time efforts to a Congressional campaign whenever the state legislature is not in session. Since her Iowa Senate term runs through 2024, she doesn’t need to give up her current office to compete for IA-01.

My Republican contacts expect U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson to run for U.S. Senate if Chuck Grassley retires. For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming Grassley will seek an eighth term, and Hinson will seek re-election in IA-01.

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They only have to win once

Jim Chrisinger sounds the alarm about the Republican Party’s efforts in at least fourteen states to rig elections in their favor. -promoted by Laura Belin

The thing is, we who believe in democracy have to win every election. The Trumpers, who don’t believe in democracy, only have to win once. Here’s why.    

Take Georgia for example, a red state trending purple. Democracy held in 2020 because of people like Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, his staff, and local election officials across the state, most of whom are Republican. They did the right thing.  

But now, juiced by Trump’s Big Lie, the wheels are in motion for a new reality. The Georgia GOP passed a new round of voter suppression against minorities and other Democratic-leaning groups. They are preparing to gerrymander for 2022 and the coming decade. They recently enacted authority for the legislature’s appointees to overturn local election results. Raffensperger, the state’s chief election official, and other officials who faithfully fulfilled their duties in 2020, are being challenged in 2022 by Trumpers who believe the Big Lie.  

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One more glass ceiling broken at the Iowa capitol

Iowa House Democrats elected State Representative Jennifer Konfrst as the new minority leader on June 14. She is the first woman to lead the House Democratic caucus, which now has 21 women and 20 men. (That’s down from the record number of 24 Democratic women among the 47 Iowa House Democrats who served in 2019.)

Konfrst had served as House minority whip since late last year and appeared to be the only contender to succeed Todd Prichard, who announced early this month that he would soon step down as caucus leader.

Women have now held the top positions in each party’s caucus in each Iowa legislative chamber. Mary Lundby became the top Iowa Senate Republican in 2006 and served as co-majority leader in the chamber, evenly split 25-25 at the time. She also served as Senate minority leader in 2007.

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Refunding Des Moines

Brandi Webber is a local artist, volunteer, mother, and candidate for Des Moines City Council in Ward 3. -promoted by Laura Belin 

A community’s priorities can be made visible by looking at the breakdown of the city budget. Looking at Des Moines’ city budget, you see that our largest single priority, at roughly 39 percent of spending, is policing.

With such a large portion of our budget devoted to policing, examining the effectiveness of police and their role in our community should be non-controversial. When we talk about “defunding the police,” many will conjure an image of a city in disarray as the pillars of society crumble to the ground. The reality is, our society relies too heavily on a policing system.

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Iowa Republicans have abandoned executive branch oversight

Governor Kim Reynolds has been lucky at key points in her political career. Terry Branstad passed over more experienced contenders to select her as his 2010 running mate, allowing a little-known first-term state senator to become a statewide elected official. Six years later, Donald Trump won the presidency and named Branstad as an ambassador, setting Reynolds up to become governor without having to win a GOP primary first.

Most important, Reynolds has enjoyed a Republican trifecta her entire four years as governor. Not only has she been able to sign much of her wish list into law, she has not needed to worry that state lawmakers would closely scrutinize her administration’s work or handling of public funds.

During the legislative session that wrapped up last month, the GOP-controlled House and Senate rejected every attempt to make the governor’s spending decisions more transparent. They declined to hold even one hearing about questionable uses of federal COVID-19 relief funds or practices at state agencies that disadvantaged thousands of Iowans.

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Iowa Republicans opposed bill on pay equity for women

Every U.S. Senate Republican, including Iowa’s Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, blocked debate last week on a bill designed “to provide more effective remedies to victims of discrimination in the payment of wages on the basis of sex.”

Like most Senate actions, a motion to proceed with debate on a bill requires at least 60 votes to pass. The 49 to 50 party-line vote on June 8 was Republicans’ second formal use of a filibuster this year. The first blocked a bill authorizing a bipartisan investigation of the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

The Paycheck Fairness Act “has been on the Democratic wish list since 1997,” Jonathan Weisman reported for the New York Times. When Democrats controlled the U.S. House, they approved similar legislation in 2008, 2009, and 2019.

For nearly 60 years, federal law has banned employers from paying men and women differently for “substantially equal jobs.” But the Equal Pay Act of 1963 has failed to adequately address gender-based wage discrimination. A 2019 study found “Women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations.”

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Next up: Democracy Defenders of America

Julie Stauch is a longtime Democratic campaign staffer and candidate consultant. Democracy Defenders of America is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. -promoted by Laura Belin

The Annenberg Institute timed the publication of their 2020 Civics Knowledge survey to coincide with Constitution Day on September 17. Only 51 percent of respondents could name the three branches of government. It’s appalling news, because knowing that there are three branches of government is like knowing a building has four walls and a roof. It’s all much more than that basic knowledge.

I’ve had more years than I want to admit to working in the governmental, business, and political arenas. No matter where I worked or volunteered, there have always been people who don’t know how our various governments work. Time and again I’ve explained things ranging from how a given state’s city council system operates to why states have different constitutions to “No, ma’am, the Attorney General can’t represent your son in his divorce. The Attorney General represents the state, not individuals.” But it is much worse today.

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Former DHS director files wrongful termination lawsuit

Jerry Foxhoven asserts in a new lawsuit that Governor Kim Reynolds and her senior staff forced him out as Iowa Department of Human Services director “because he refused to engage in illegal activity” and to prevent him from seeking legal advice about possible misuse of federal Medicaid funds.

The petition filed in Polk County District Court on June 9 closely tracks allegations Foxhoven made in a wrongful termination claim soon after he resigned under pressure in 2019. Reynolds, her chief of staff Sara Craig Gongol, and her former senior legal counsel Sam Langholz are named defendants in addition to the state of Iowa.

Foxhoven’s court filing says the events leading to his ouster centered on a dispute over payments from DHS for work done by Reynolds’ deputy chief of staff Paige Thorson. The DHS director agreed in early 2018 to have the agency pay 69 percent of Thorson’s salary and benefits, as she assisted Iowa’s new Medicaid director Mike Randol. Foxhoven signed a similar agreement for the next fiscal year, which ran through June 2019. (Several of the governor’s staffers are mostly paid by other state agencies; the longstanding practice helps Reynolds keep more staff on payroll than her budget appropriation could support.)

Foxhoven says that in February or March 2019, he told Craig Gongol in a telephone conversation “that Randol was now adequately familiar with Iowa’s health care network,” adding that “Thorson was no longer performing duties that furthered the mission of Iowa Medicaid and that he did not believe DHS could legally divert federal Medicaid dollars to pay her salary.”

In the spring of 2019, Republican lawmakers approved an extra $200,000 for the governor’s office, supposedly for health and tax policy analysts. Foxhoven says he “believed that the issue was resolved,” and spoke with Craig Gongol in early June “hoping to confirm that DHS would not continue paying any portion of the Thorson’s salary with Medicaid funds in the next fiscal year.”

However, the governor’s chief of staff indicated that she expected the agency to keep compensating Thorson. Foxhoven “questioned the legality of such an arrangement” and asked Craig Gongol to consult with legal counsel Langholz, but she refused.

According to Foxhoven, he told Craig Gongol “that he intended to ask the assistant attorney generals assigned to DHS for a legal opinion” on June 18, after the expected conclusion of a federal trial they were working on. But he wasn’t able to send that email, because Craig Gongol and Langholz asked for his resignation on June 17. Foxhoven says during that meeting, the governor’s senior staff “demanded the immediate return of all of Foxhoven’s state issued equipment and told him not to return to his office.”

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants terminated Foxhoven:

  • “in order to prevent him from enforcing his statutory right to disclose information he reasonably and in good faith believed constituted a violation of the law, mismanagement, a gross abuse of funds or abuse of authority […]”;
  • “in order to prevent him from disclosing information he reasonably and in good faith believed constituted a violation of the law, mismanagement, a gross abuse of funds or abuse of authority […]”;
  • “because he refused to engage in illegal activity; that is committing Medicaid fraud and misuse of federal monies by continuing to pay Thorson’s salary despite the fact that she was no longer providing any duties relating to Medicaid or otherwise furthering the mission of DHS […]”; and
  • interfered with and prevented him from consulting with the Iowa Attorney General’s office about his agency continuing to pay Thorson’s salary.

Foxhoven told journalists in 2019 he would not have objected to using Medicaid funds to support Thorson’s compensation if legal experts determined the practice was still allowable. But he wanted a letter from the Attorney General’s office. That way, in case state or federal auditors questioned the payments later, “There might be a difference of opinion between the auditor and the AG’s office, but it isn’t a matter of Foxhoven diverting funds.”

State agency directors are at-will employees, who serve at the pleasure of the governor. But one exception to the at-will doctrine is firing someone in violation of public policy–for instance, because they refuse to engage in illegal conduct. Foxhoven’s lawsuit alleges that his “termination violates well established public policy of the State of Iowa as defined by statute, regulation, and judicial decision.”

The court filing notes that Foxhoven has suffered “substantial loss of earnings, insurance benefits, retirement benefits and other employee benefits” as well as “emotional distress and damage to his reputation.” It also argues that he’s entitled to punitive damages against Reynolds, Craig Gongol, and Langholz, because their termination of his employment “was willful and wanton and done in reckless disregard of his rights.”

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to Bleeding Heartland’s request for comment on the lawsuit. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office had no comment. Langholz has worked there since late last year, representing the Reynolds administration in several high-profile cases.

Reynolds said in 2019 that “many factors” influenced her decision to ask for the DHS director’s resignation. (The agency has faced lawsuits and investigations over its management of the State Training School for Boys and the Glenwood Resource Center for the intellectually disabled.) In early 2020, the governor told reporters “she was ‘not happy’ with the response she received” about an increase in deaths at Glenwood.

Reynolds also claimed Foxhoven “never raised concerns with me or my staff about the salary agreements in question, and he never asked my staff for a legal opinion or said he would be reaching out to the Attorney General’s office for one.”

Final note: Records I received while investigating the governor’s office spending indicated that DHS did not end up paying any portion of Thorson’s salary during fiscal year 2020, which began in July 2019. However, DHS did pay 100 percent of the salary and benefits of the governor’s new health policy adviser Liz Matney from July 2019 through mid-March 2020. Thorson and Matney were among 21 permanent staffers in Reynolds’ office who had about 62 percent of their compensation from mid-March through June 2020 covered through federal COVID-19 relief funds.


Appendix: Petition filed in Polk County District Court on June 9

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Revised lawsuit challenges Iowa's newest voter suppression law

Plaintiffs challenging Iowa’s manifold new restrictions on voting amended their complaint on June 9 to incorporate provisions in a law Governor Kim Reynolds signed the previous day.

The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa (LULAC) filed suit in Polk County District Court in March, charging that Senate File 413 violated Iowa constitutional provisions on the right to vote, free speech, free assembly, and equal protection. Their revised petition asks the court to invalidate two sections of Senate File 568 as well as thirteen sections of the law enacted earlier this year.

NEW RESTRICTIONS ON HELPING VOTERS RETURN ABSENTEE BALLOTS

Senate File 568 was described as a “technical” election bill. Although Democrats did not support the initial version of the legislation, which the Iowa Senate approved in March, that bill did not burden the right to vote, as Senate File 413 had done.

State Representative Bobby Kaufmann introduced a lengthy amendment to Senate File 568 on May 19, the final day of the Iowa legislature’s 2021 session. State Senator Roby Smith, the leading figure in recent efforts to disenfranchise Iowans, ran the bill in the upper chamber. Republicans approved the amended bill on party-line votes in the House and Senate.

Section 43 of the new law replaces language in the earlier law about who can help a voter return a completed absentee ballot. Under Senate File 413, only the voter, someone living in the voter’s household, an immediate family member, or someone serving as a “caretaker” was authorized to return a ballot by mail or by hand-delivering to the county auditor’s office.

Senate File 568 makes it even more difficult for Iowans who request absentee ballots to ensure that their votes will be counted. For Iowans who are not blind or physically disabled, only the voter, someone living in the same household, or an immediate family member to the fourth degree of consanguinity can collect and return a completed absentee ballot.

Voters who are blind or physically disabled have an additional option: they can designate a “delivery agent” to return their ballot. The delivery agent must be a registered voter and can return at most two ballots per election. The agent can’t be anyone representing the voter’s employer, union, or a “person acting as an actual or implied agent” for a political party, candidate, or political committee. In other words, Republicans outlawed “ballot chase” operations, which Democrats have used effectively in some parts of Iowa.

It appears that voters who are not blind or physically disabled cannot designate anyone to collect and return their completed ballot, even if they need help for some other reason (they don’t drive, they are busy with caretaking responsibilities, they live with an abusive partner).

Mailing a completed ballot increases the chance that an Iowan’s vote will not be counted. Under the law Reynolds signed in March, the early voting period is shorter, county auditors have fewer days to mail absentee ballots, and ballots returned by mail must arrive by 8:00 pm on election day. (Previous law allowed late-arriving ballots to be counted if they had been postmarked no later than the day before the election.)

MORE OBSTACLES FOR IOWANS WANTING TO VOTE EARLY IN PERSON

Republicans already prohibited county auditors from scheduling satellite voting locations where Iowans could cast early ballots in person. Satellite voting doesn’t happen in most small counties but is popular in the larger counties where many Iowa Democrats live.

Under Senate File 413, voters could still petition for a satellite voting site in their county. But the late amendment to Senate File 568 put up more roadblocks. Section 40 of that bill gives county auditors four justifications for rejecting an “otherwise valid petition” for a satellite voting site:

  1. “The site requested is not accessible to elderly and disabled voters.”
  2. “The site requested has other physical limitations that make it impossible to meet the requirements for ballot security and secret voting.”
  3. “The owner of the site refuses permission to locate the satellite absentee voting station at the site requested by the petition […]”
  4. “After reasonable efforts, the commissioner is unable to sufficiently staff the satellite absentee voting station to ensure compliance with the law of this state.”

Under those standards, the newly appointed Republican auditor of Scott County–the third largest in Iowa–could find pretexts to reject every request for early voting sites other than the one at county elections office. Or, she could approve satellite voting sites in neighborhoods where many Republicans live but declare she is “unable to sufficiently staff” stations requested in Democratic neighborhoods.

“AN UNDUE BURDEN ON THE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO VOTE”

Here’s the full text of the revised petition filed on June 9 by Iowa attorneys Gary Dickey and Shayla McCormally and attorneys from the Washington, DC-based law firm Perkins Coie.

The petition notes that Iowans voted in record numbers last year. “The record turnout was reflected across many demographics but was especially notable among the 15 percent of Iowans who are members of minority groups, including Iowa’s Latino community, which constitutes around 6 percent of the state’s population.”

Instead of celebrating “historic levels of direct engagement in the democratic process,” “one of the Iowa Legislature’s top post-election priorities was to pass omnibus election bills that restrict nearly every form of voting that Iowans—particularly minority voters—relied on in 2020.” The newly enacted “Voter Suppression Bills” contain the following provisions:

  • Reduce the opportunities for voters to register before elections (Section 22 of SF 413);
  • Significantly reduce the number of days when voters can request absentee ballots (Sections 43 and 45 of SF 413);
  • Shorten the absentee voting period by more than one week (Section 47 of SF 413);
  • Reduce the number of days when county auditors can send out absentee ballots (Sections 45 and 47 of SF 413);
  • Reduce the number of days for most voters to return their absentee ballots and apply ballot-receipt deadlines unequally (Sections 1, 52, 54, and 66 of SF 413);
  • Inhibit or eliminate the ability of election officials to establish convenient opportunities for absentee voting at satellite voting stations, county auditors’ offices, and drop boxes (Sections 50–51 and 53 of SF 413 and Section 40 of SF 568);
  • Criminalize the act of assisting voters with returning their absentee ballots and prevent voters from using a person of their choice to return their ballots (Section 43 of SF 568);
  • Shorten the length of time when polls are open on election day (Section 36 of SF 413); and
  • Reduce the amount of time that employers must provide to certain employees on election day so they can vote (Section 41 of SF 413).

Moreover, the bills

lack any cognizable justification for these burdensome effects on the franchise. The Bills are largely a grab-bag of amendments and new restrictions that lack any unifying theme other than making both absentee and election day voting more difficult for lawful Iowa voters.

Although Republicans have claimed the bills are about “election integrity,” the system doesn’t have any problems “that would call the integrity of the state’s elections into question or require remedial action from the Legislature, let alone these extreme measures that will impose significant burdens on voters.”

Nor would the new restrictions make elections more secure. “Instead, the Voter Suppression Bills are cynical manipulations of the electoral process that create problems—burdens for both absentee and in-person voters that do not serve any articulable state interests—without solving any.”

“Because these unnecessary voting restrictions independently and collectively impose an undue burden on the fundamental right to vote and violate multiple provisions of the Iowa Constitution,” LULAC is asking the court to declare them unconstitutional and permanently block them from taking effect.

FOUR VIOLATIONS OF THE IOWA CONSTITUTION

The lawsuit filed in March cited four sections of the Iowa Constitution which guarantee the right to vote, free speech, free assembly, and equal protection. The new court filing still makes four constitutional claims but has revised them.

Count I: Right to vote

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, Iowa’s constitution specifically protects the fundamental right to vote. The two new laws burden that right in many ways. “None of these provisions serves a compelling or even a legitimate government interest,” plaintiffs argue.

When courts apply “strict scrutiny” to a law being challenged, the government body must show the statute serves a compelling government interest. If judges apply a less stringent “rational basis” standard, the state would need to show only a “legitimate” interest in the provisions.

Count II: Free speech and association

These provisions come into play because LULAC has helped many voters return completed absentee ballots. The new restrictions on who can help return ballots, which plaintiffs call a “Voter Assistance Ban,” prevent LULAC and its members “from engaging in constitutionally protected conduct.”

Courts typically subject infringements on speech and association to strict scrutiny. The lawsuit notes that the limits serve no compelling state interest, because “other Iowa laws already criminalize any undue influence or voter fraud that the Voter Assistance Ban might be intended to address.”

Count III: Equal protection

Plaintiffs argue that the new laws “treat ballots cast by similarly situated Iowans differently, denying some their fundamental right to vote.” Most ballots that arrive at county elections offices after 8:00 pm on election day will not be counted, even if they were mailed days or weeks earlier. But ballots cast by some Iowans (those living abroad, military voters, and those in the Safe at Home program for domestic violence victims) could be counted if they arrive up to six days later, as long as a postmark demonstrates they were mailed before election day.

“Absent relief from this Court, the Voter Suppression Bills will impose an arbitrary and disparate mechanism for determining whether Iowans’ votes—including the votes of Plaintiff’s members—will be counted […].”

Count IV: Viewpoint discrimination

This new claim in the revised petition argues,

The Voter Suppression Bills target individuals who are more likely to vote for Democratic Party candidates, including Latino voters and other voters of color. The Iowa Legislature, with intent to achieve a partisan advantage, has manipulated the state’s election mechanics in ways that restrict or eliminate methods of voting that are disproportionately used by Plaintiff’s members and the communities they serve because of their perceived political views— and, in doing so, imposed unjustified barriers on Plaintiff’s members’ ability to participate in the political process.

Regardless of how the Polk County District Court resolves this lawsuit, the case will surely be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court before the 2022 election. No one can be sure of how the justices will decide any case, but my post on LULAC’s initial lawsuit included some speculation about whether the court will find Iowa’s new voting restrictions too burdensome.

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GOP auditor will manage Scott County elections through 2022

Scott County’s newly-appointed Republican Auditor Kerri Tompkins will serve through 2022 after county Democrats failed to force a special election for the office.

Scott County Democrats leader Elesha Gayman announced on June 8 that activists collected 6,211 signatures during the previous two weeks, about 3,000 short of the threshold for calling a special election to fill a vacancy at the county level. Unusually high turnout in 2020 raised the bar for collecting signatures equaling at least 10 percent of those who cast ballots in the previous presidential election. Adding to the organizing burden, a law Republicans enacted earlier this year shortened the time frame for such petition drives to only fourteen days.

Gayman said Democrats will not “lay down” in light of what she described as “voter suppression.” The next focus for volunteers in Iowa’s third-largest county will be contacting some 10,000 voters whose registrations were recently moved to inactive status, under the same law Governor Kim Reynolds signed in March.

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Iowa's Medicaid enrollment up 17 percent during pandemic

Approximately 702,800 Iowans were enrolled in some version of the Medicaid program last month, up by roughly 100,000 since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, according to analysis by Charles Gaba at the ACA Signups website.

The biggest increase was in the Iowa Health and Wellness Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Gaba’s analysis indicates that some 225,300 Iowans were participating in that plan as of May 2021, up from about 177,200 people fourteen months earlier.

Enrollment in traditional Medicaid increased by a smaller rate from about 425,000 in March 2020 to some 477,500 last month. The federal government recently released statistics on state level Medicaid enrollments from July 2019 through December 2020. Gaba’s estimates for 2021 are based on monthly reports published by the Iowa Department of Human Services, adjusted to compensate for how closely the state’s numbers tracked with the federal figures for 2020.

Gaba commented on his website,

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Green dragon

Marion County Naturalist Marla Mertz presents an unusual plant native to most of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains. You can view Marla’s past contributions to Bleeding Heartland’s wildflowers series here. -promoted by Laura Belin

There be dragons out in our Iowa woodlands! Many of us who like to walk the woodland trails and explore are probably familiar with Jack-in-the-pulpits. Jack has a lesser-known cousin. The Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium) appears to be a tropical, exotic plant with its bloom hidden with surrounding foliage. This fragile plant has been known to be quite rare, but I feel that is changing within our landscape.

The first part of the scientific name comes from the Greek words aris, a kind of arum, and haema, meaning “blood”. Dracontium is from the Latin meaning “of the dragons,” probably because of the deeply divided leaves.  

Green dragon is a native perennial herb and can be found throughout Iowa, except in the northwest. The plants grow in fertile, slightly acidic, and moist soil within shady woodland areas that are protected from livestock.

The photos enclosed below were taken at Cordova Park, on the north side of Lake Red Rock in Marion County along the Karr Trail.

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Whitewashing history

Jim Chrisinger: The bottom line from a new law’s whitewash of history appears to be protecting the feelings of white people, particularly white men. -promoted by Laura Belin

Add Iowa to the growing list of GOP-dominated states trying to prevent an honest historical reckoning on race and sex. While attention has focused on race, sex gets equal billing in House File 802, which Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law on June 8.  

A BAN ON “SCAPEGOATING” AND “STEREOTYPING”

Along with definitions, the law adds three new sections to Iowa code: one for state and local governments, one for public universities, and one for school districts.  

Training in state and local governments and school districts cannot teach or advocate “race or sex scapegoating” or “race or sex stereotyping.”  

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Iowa campaign regulator may discuss pre-checked recurring donations

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board may discuss whether to regulate campaigns pre-selecting recurring donation options, according to executive director Mike Marshall.

In May, the Federal Election Commission unanimously recommended that Congress ban the practice, which Donald Trump’s campaign used to raise enormous sums in 2020. Many of Trump’s supporters did not realize they were committing to recurring gifts and later asked for refunds or filed fraud complaints.

At least three Iowa Republican office-holders–Governor Kim Reynolds and U.S. Representatives Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks–adopted the tactic this year. Some of their fundraising pages on the WinRed platform have two boxes pre-selected: one for a recurring monthly donation, and one for an additional contribution on a specific date in the near future.

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Will poll-tested language sway Iowa voters on abortion amendment?

During the closing days of the Iowa legislature’s 2021 session, Republicans accomplished one task that eluded them in 2020: getting a constitutional amendment on abortion halfway toward appearing on a statewide ballot. I expected the House and Senate to approve the measure quickly, emboldened by a larger majority in the lower chamber, where the proposal stalled last year.

Instead, Republicans spent months haggling over how the amendment would be phrased, hoping to make this effort more palatable to Iowans who currently oppose it.

FOUR PATHS TO SAME DESTINATION

Republicans want to overturn a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, which held that women have a fundamental right to abortion under the state constitutional provisions on equal protection and due process rights. Two dissenting justices, Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman, warned that the majority’s reasoning “would make any abortion restriction very difficult to sustain,” and could become “a stepping stone toward a ruling that Iowa’s Medicaid program must fund abortions.”

The first version of the constitutional amendment, introduced in early 2019, read simply, “The Constitution of the State of Iowa does not secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.” The Senate State Government Committee passed the joint resolution along party lines, but Senate leaders never brought the measure to a vote on the floor that year.

In early 2020, the Senate State Government Committee advanced a longer version of the amendment.

Sec.26. Protection of life. To defend the dignity of all human life, and to protect mothers and unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the day of birth, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this Constitution shall not be construed to recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or to require the public funding of abortion.

The Iowa Senate approved the amendment along party lines. But it never came to a vote in the House, where Republican leaders couldn’t find 51 votes to pass it among the 53 members of their caucus.

Republicans expanded their House majority to 59-41 following the 2020 election. Soon after this year’s session convened, the House Judiciary Committee took up a streamlined version of the constitutional amendment, which read,

Sec.26. To defend and protect unborn children, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this Constitution does not recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion.

House members approved the proposal before the end of January on a mostly party-line vote. (Republicans Jane Bloomingdale, Lee Hein, and Dave Maxwell joined all Democrats in voting no.)

I thought Senate Republicans would quickly pass this legislation and declare victory. But Senate leaders waited until early April to bring up the measure. A floor manager’s amendment from Senate President Jake Chapman restored the wording the upper chamber had approved in 2020:

Sec.26. Protection of life. To defend the dignity of all human life, and to protect mothers and unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the day of birth, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this Constitution shall not be construed to recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or to require the public funding of abortion.

Six weeks passed with no action on the amendment in the House, as Republican lawmakers negotiated behind the scenes. The fourth and final version was unveiled in an amendment offered by the House floor manager, State Representative Steve Holt. Its phrasing closely tracked the Senate’s preferred language, without the reference to mothers and replacing “protection of life” with simply “life.”

Sec. 26. Life. To defend the dignity of all human life and protect unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the point of birth, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this Constitution does not recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion.

Following a contentious debate on May 18, House members approved the constitutional amendment by 54 votes to 38. Again, Republicans Bloomingdale, Hein, and Maxwell joined all Democrats present to oppose the legislation.

The Senate vote on May 19 fell along strict party lines, 30 Republicans for the legislation and 18 Democrats against.

During that day’s debate, Democratic State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott denounced the “needless back and forth” between the chambers over “minute word choices.” She characterized the changes to the amendment as “posturing” by “a bunch of men trying to assert dominance over each other.”

That dynamic may have been in play, but there was another reason GOP senators insisted on their preferred wording. Anti-abortion advocates believe the phrasing will make an apparently unpopular idea into an electoral winner.

POLLING SHOWS LITTLE SUPPORT FOR CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT

Introducing the revised amendment on the Iowa House floor, Holt said he believed the new language was better than what either chamber had initially proposed. Chapman told Senate colleagues lawmakers had been working to agree “on language that can be proposed to the voters of Iowa.”

To amend Iowa’s constitution, both chambers of separately elected legislatures must pass identical wording. The proposal then goes on a statewide ballot, where a majority of participating voters must approve the language.

The last two public polls on the subject indicated that while Iowans may be divided over whether abortion should be mostly legal or mostly illegal, a clear majority oppose this Republican project.

Selzer & Co’s latest statewide poll for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom found that just 31 percent of Iowa adults support amending the constitution “to say it does not recognize a right to abortion or require public funding of abortion,” while 58 percent oppose that idea. Selzer’s March 2020 Iowa poll produced similar results: 33 percent of respondents supported the amendment, while 54 percent opposed it. Iowans describing themselves as political independents were against the idea by a nearly two to one margin.

As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, Selzer’s random sample of Iowa adults may not reflect the views of registered voters or those who participate in elections. So one can’t assume these poll numbers match the views of Iowans who will cast ballots when this proposal might appear on a statewide ballot (no earlier than 2023 or 2024). But even in a low-turnout environment, a constitutional amendment backed by only a third of Iowans would likely have trouble winning a majority of votes.

The solution for Republicans is to change the focus of the debate.

CONSERVATIVES BATTLING STRAW MAN: ABORTION EXPANSION

While the constitutional amendment was in limbo, I had heard that Senate Republicans maintained their approach was backed up by private polling. Chapman and Holt did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries about the negotiations or any survey research that may have influenced the phrasing.

Drew Zahn, communications director for the influential conservative group The FAMiLY Leader, confirmed via email that his group has advocated for language “we hoped would be appealing to the voters who ultimately must ratify it.” (emphasis added)

We did conduct polling on proposed language for the amendment and found, contrary to other publicized polling, that when Iowans understand what the amendment is actually about – restoring the voice of the people in the legislative process after radical, unelected judges attempted to silence the abortion debate without any input from voters – the majority of Iowans actually favor the amendment. Iowans overwhelmingly do NOT support the taxpayer-funded abortion or expansion of abortion to the point of a baby’s birth that the 2018 decision paves the way for. Furthermore, Iowans overwhelmingly agree that the little child in her mother’s womb – she’s a baby, and her value and voice should be heard in this debate, too.

Zahn declined to provide details about the group’s polling, such as the dates surveys were in the field, the question wording, or partisan breakdown of respondents in the sample. But he did confirm the polling “was of likely voters, not all Iowa adults.”

According to Zahn, “Legislators we talked to took our advocacy under advisement,” but The FAMiLY Leader “was not privy to” recent negotiations between House and Senate Republicans.

How close was the final version of House Joint Resolution 5 to what the conservative group had suggested? Zahn told me,

As for the final language, it was a long process, not really possible to compare language A to language B. But we are pleased that the final language is clear and should effectively return proper, constitutional government on this issue to We the People, rather than unelected and overreaching judges.

Republicans mostly stuck to that script during the last House and Senate debates on the amendment. For instance, State Representative Sandy Salmon told House members on May 18 that the proposal is intended solely to address a judicial “power grab.”

This amendment does not outlaw abortion. It only restores the legislature’s authority, and therefore the people’s authority, to regulate it. And we need that authority. That is what this amendment will do, and that is all it will do.

Holt made the same claim: “This is about letting the people of Iowa decide this issue through their elected representatives, and not the Iowa Supreme Court.” He quoted from the Iowa Supreme Court’s dissenting opinion by Mansfield and Waterman, asserting that the 2018 precedent would make “any abortion restriction very difficult to sustain,” and could lead to public-funded abortions up to the day of birth. To hear Holt tell the story, without this amendment, Iowa could join the list of states where abortions can be performed at taxpayer expense at any time in pregnancy.

That scenario is ludicrous. Iowa has banned third-trimester abortions for decades. No one proposed changing that law during the four years pro-choice Democrats controlled both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office (2007 through 2010). In addition, Republicans enacted a law in 2017 that prohibits almost all abortions after 20 weeks gestation. Even if some politicians sought to legalize abortions later in pregnancy, Republicans who oppose abortion now control Iowa’s legislative and executive branches.

Remember what Zahn said about The FAMiLY Leader’s polling: “Iowans overwhelmingly do NOT support the taxpayer-funded abortion or expansion of abortion to the point of a baby’s birth that the 2018 decision paves the way for.”

And note that the final version of the constitutional amendment refers to protecting “unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the point of birth.”

Republicans appear to believe this sleight of hand will bring Iowa voters to their side, taking the focus away from their real agenda.

“THIS IS ABOUT AN ALL-OUT BAN ON ABORTIONS WITH NO EXCEPTIONS”

Iowa House and Senate Republicans approved legislation in 2018 that would have banned almost all abortions after about six weeks gestation. (A Polk County District Court judge struck down that law, citing the Iowa Supreme Court’s precedent.) The obvious goal of amending the constitution to overturn that Supreme Court ruling is to clear a path for future abortion bans with few or no exceptions.

In January, House Republicans voted down several Democratic amendments to House Joint Resolution 5, which would have preserved some aspects of Iowans’ reproductive rights. (A procedural trick on May 18 knocked the same amendments out of order, so House members would not have to vote on them again.) The upshot is that the proposed constitutional amendment has:

  • no wording to clarify that it “shall not be construed” to prohibit the sale or use of any contraceptive (proposed by State Representative Christina Bohannan)
  • no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest (proposed by State Representative Marti Anderson)
  • no language to clarify that it does not prohibit the disposition of embryos produced for vitro fertilization (proposed by State Representative Kristin Sunde)
  • no exception for a woman “certified by a physician to be in danger of death unless the abortion is performed” (proposed by State Representative Mary Wolfe)

Many Democratic legislators spoke passionately against the constitutional amendment, and several pointed out that the Republicans’ compromise wording removed any reference to mothers. Here’s part of one speech by Bohannan, whose day job is being a University of Iowa law professor.

While Republicans have claimed their proposal is about stopping late-term abortions or public funding of abortions, Bohannan said,

That’s not what this amendment does. It completely eliminates the right to abortion altogether, under any circumstances. You don’t have a right for rape, you don’t have a right for incest, you don’t have a right to save the life of the mother, clearly. And now, it’s very explicit with this secondary amendment that eliminates mothers from the equation all together.

When questioned by Bohannan, Holt denied that Republicans are “not interested in protecting mothers.” He said they were only “trying to make the language as concise and understandable as possible.” He again cited concerns two Iowa Supreme Court justices had expressed in 2018 about late-term abortions and taxpayer-funded abortion.

“And did mothers need to be deleted from that protection in order to accomplish that goal?” Bohannan asked. Holt didn’t have a good answer but repeated his talking points about judicial overreach.

On the final day of the legislative session, State Senator Janet Petersen highlighted the danger of putting “the bodies of women and girls on the ballot” at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to strike down or eviscerate the 1973 Roe v Wade precedent.

“This is a dangerous moment,” Petersen said. “Americans and Iowans may very well see what it is like to live in a world without protections for the bodies of women and girls.”

Like several other House and Senate Democrats, Petersen noted the irony of Republicans promoting the idea of “bodily autonomy” when passing legislation to forbid mandatory face masks or COVID-19 vaccinations. “You protected your nose, your mouth, and your arm. I am simply saying, a woman’s body deserves protections as well.”

Previewing the case pro-choice advocates will make if the amendment comes before Iowa voters, Petersen said, “This constitutional amendment takes away personal decision-making power from women, taking away our freedom to make a personal decision about what is best for our bodies, our future, our families, and our pregnancies. This is about an all-out ban on abortions with no exceptions. This is about oppression–the oppression of women and girls.”

P.S.–Most politics-watchers assume that if Republicans keep control of the House and Senate after the 2022 elections and approve the abortion amendment again the following year, Iowans would vote on the language in November 2024. While most constitutional amendments have appeared on general election ballots, the state constitution allows the legislature to schedule such a vote on any date. At least two times, votes on proposed amendments to Iowa’s constitution have coincided with a June primary (the 1916 vote on women’s suffrage and the 1962 vote on replacing judicial elections with a merit-based selection system).

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What Iowa Democrats can learn from 2020 down-ballot candidates

A deep dive into the experiences of down-ballot candidates provides much food for thought for Iowa Democrats hoping to improve on last year’s dismal performance.

The authors of “Playing to Win,” released last month, are three activists with professional backgrounds in marketing. Dave Miglin was a candidate for the board of trustees for Polk County’s public hospital, Broadlawns. Kathryn Kaul-Goodman chairs the Mahaska County Democrats and ran for supervisor in that rural southeast Iowa county. Jean Kaul-Brown helped with both Miglin’s and Kaul-Goodman’s campaign and (along with Miglin) is communications co-chair for the Polk County Democrats.

I recommend downloading the full report. It’s a quick read:

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