A ‘sinister agenda’ and tax cuts: Iowa Republican leaders announce their legislative priorities

Senate President Jake Chapman begins his speech on the Iowa Senate Floor, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.

It’s standard practice for the presiding official in each chamber of the Iowa Legislature to use their first speeches on the opening day of the new session to lay out the majority party’s agenda, but Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman’s speech on Monday was far from standard.

The Adel Republican spent the bulk of his time denouncing “the sinister agenda” of the media and unnamed others to undermine all that is good, and “some teachers” tricking children into reading “disgusting sexually obscene material.” Prior to his speech, it had been expected Chapman would largely focus on tax cuts. He did mention cutting taxes, but only briefly and at the end of his speech.

The Senate president didn’t provide any evidence of the sinister agenda, and apparently didn’t feel he needed to since it is “occurring right before our eyes.”

The Republican leadership of the Senate had already broken with approximately 140 years of tradition and closed the press area that borders the Senate floor. Reporters are now supposed to confine themselves to a seating area in the back of the public galleries high above the Senate floor. Before the session began, Senate Secretary Charlie Smithson, who serves as a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, said the change was due to the Senate’s inability to determine who should have access to the usual press area as “non-traditional media outlets proliferate.”

Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel. — official photo

If that confusion is the reason for the change, it only exists on the Senate’s side of the Iowa Capitol. The Iowa House of Representatives still has its press area bordering the House floor.

In his speech on Monday, Chapman said he always enjoys opening days because it is a time when “hope and excitement flourishes, and optimism for the future resonates.” He then immediately moved on to the sort of speech more typically found in overheated segments on Fox News.

“Colleagues, the time has come to take a stand,” Chapman began. “It has become increasingly evident that we live in a world in which many, including our media, wish to confuse, misguide and deceive us – calling good evil and evil good. One doesn’t have to look far to see the sinister agenda occurring right before our eyes.”

Chapman’s speech was a litany of baseless accusations and dishonest distortions — but it is worth quoting at length, as he is the president of the Iowa Senate and was laying his priorities for the session.

The attack on our children is no longer hidden. Those who wish to normalize sexually deviant behavior against our children, including pedophilia and incest, are pushing this movement more than ever before. Our children should be safe and free from this atrocious assault. Our students should be learning about science and mathematics. They should be learning about engineering and innovation. Instead we have some teachers who are disguising sexually obscene material as desired subject matter, and profess it as artistic and literary in value. [sic]

Although Chapman and other rightwing Republicans have recently focused on banning books dealing with the experiences of LGBTQ young people, it wasn’t those books at issue when he first started talking about making it a crime to provide students with certain reading material.

In November, Chapman attended a school board committee in Johnston, which was addressing complaints filed by two parents about two young adult books,The Hate U Give by Angie Johnson and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The first deals with the experiences of a Black student, the second with the experience of a Native American student.

According to the Des Moines Register, the parents’ complaint “centered on sexually explicit content in ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ and explicit language and what they deemed ‘anti-police sentiment’ in ‘The Hate U Give.’”

At the meeting, Chapman said, “As the father of five children, I can tell you that if this material was in my school, I’d be going to law enforcement. I would be asking for criminal investigation and I would be asking for every single teacher who disseminated that information [sic] to be held criminally responsible.”

Neither Chapman nor the two parents persuaded the school district, and books were not removed.

After the meeting, Chapman said in a Facebook post, “I have legislation being drafted to create a new felony offense,” if a teacher or librarian provides a student with a book he deems “obscene.” Chapman wouldn’t leave it up to county attorneys to decided whether to prosecute under his new obscenity law: “There will also be additional mechanisms to force prosecutions or allow civil remedies.”

Chapman made it clear on Monday he still wants to make it a crime to provide students with certain books: “We must hold those who distribute this repulsive and criminal content to minors accountable.” But he also appears to want to use the manufactured outrage to change state law to allow tax money intended for public education to be directed to private schools, a longtime goal of some Republican lawmakers.

“When students are subjected to this violating content we need to ensure parents have the ability to protect their children by removing them from that district,” he said. “We can and must tear down the financial barriers that prevent parents from making that decision.”

After he finished the “sinister agenda” part of his prepared remarks, Chapman turned his attention to the possibility of passing new restrictions on abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade or severely restricts reproductive rights, as it is expected to do in the near future.

The Senate president said “we stand ready to take whatever steps necessary” to stop abortions in Iowa.

At the very end of his remarks, Chapman briefly expressed his support for tax cuts.

Speaking on behalf of Senate Democrats, Minority Leader Zach Wahls called on Republicans to abandon their approach of “more attacks on LGBTQ Iowans, more gasoline on the culture war fire and more attacks on the First Amendment,” and instead work on bipartisan legislation “to make Iowa an inclusive and welcoming place to get our state growing again.”

Things were different in the Iowa House when it opened its session on Monday. After updating his colleague on what his family has been doing since last year’s session, Speaker Pat Grassley focused his speech on tax cuts. At the end, Grassley changed topics, telling lawmakers they must “push back” against the Biden administration.

“We’ve already seen the lengths that this president’s administration is willing to go to infringe on the rights of individual Iowans, parents and businesses,” he said. “We cannot let that happen here in Iowa.”

Grassley did not single out vaccination requirements or other COVID-19 regulations, but he did mention COVID during the update on his family at the beginning of his speech. The speaker said he was grateful his father had recovered from the virus. He did not say if his father had been vaccinated when he contracted COVID last fall.

Grassley has not publicly discussed his own vaccination status since an appearance on Iowa Press in March 2021.

“I’ve chosen not to at this point,” he replied when asked if he was vaccinated.

Grassley didn’t explain his choice not to be vaccinated, but pressed on whether he would get vaccinated, he said he probably would if his unvaccinated status impinged on his lifestyle.

“At some point, I’ll probably,” Grassley said. “Assuming it’ll get to the point where we’ll all be required to do it if we want to do any sort of traveling.”

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