“We tried to get all three of the Zachs in the front row next to each other, but they didn’t go for it,” Zach Wahls says with a laugh.
Wahls is standing inside the Iowa Senate Chamber on the top floor of the capitol building, proudly pointing to his desk near the front of the room. At 27 years old, he’s the youngest senator in this, the 88th General Assembly, and one of the youngest senators in the state’s 173-year history. He is also, indeed, one in a trinity of Zachs in the Iowa Senate, along with Zach Nunn of District 15 and Zach Whiting of District 1. He is the only Democrat of the three — and one of only 18 Democrats in the Republican-dominated Senate.
Wahls is a little giddy four days into his new job as state senator for District 37, which covers Cedar County and parts of Johnson County. Sen. Bob Dvorsky held the seat for 24 years, but announced in August 2017 he would not to seek reelection. On Dec. 21, 2017, Wahls launched his campaign. He secured the Democratic nomination the following spring, and in November, Wahls scored 78.5 percent of the vote over Libertarian opponent Carl Krambeck.
“I appear to be the first person ever elected to an American state legislature to have been raised by openly LGBTQ parents,” the senator-elect wrote in a statement on election night. Wahls was has two lesbian moms, Terry Wahls and Jackie Reger. “As a state senator, I will fight for everyone who, like my family, has been left out or left behind or used as a political target.”
The rookie politician has already buried himself in the work. He steals away from the chamber for 10 minutes and takes a seat on a bench outside in the rotunda. In that time, Wahls is approached by his Senate aide twice, interested in “conferring” about whatever is in a crisp green envelope, and once by a Farm Bureau lobbyist trying to meet with Wahls.
In this legislative session, Wahls will be serving on the standing committees of Ways and Means (taxes), Appropriations (spending), Agriculture and Education. He is also the ranking Democratic member of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which approves the yearly education budget.
This first week has been all about setting up this legislative session, but he says there has already been “some drama.” In the first two days of the session, Senate Republicans made changes to the rules surrounding public testimony before the legislature by eliminating the 24-hour notice before the initial meetings about the bills occur. They had also removed the following language from the rules: “All subcommittee meetings shall be open to the public.”
“Subcommittees are the only place where you can have public comment. There was a lot of grassroots engagement in the last two years,” Wahls says. “My sense is that these rules will make that sort of engagement harder.”
This is, of course, anathema to Wahls, who has forged his reputation on community activism, beginning nearly eight years ago to the day at a public forum about 20 feet from where he is sitting now. In 2011, a 19-year-old Wahls spoke before the Iowa House of Representative to oppose a resolution that would have outlawed same-sex unions in Iowa. His articulate and impassioned testimony became a viral video.
“When I walked into that chamber to give that speech, this was not the path,” he admits. “I was an engineering student. I had been interested in politics in high school, but I had gotten a little disillusioned … After I gave that speech, it opened some doors.”
These doors led to the publication of an autobiography, My Two Moms, in 2012; invitations to speak at colleges and the 2012 Democratic National Convention; lobbying for expanded LGBT rights in the U.S. Congress; and co-founding Scouts for Equality and The Woman Cards, the latter with his younger sister Zebby. He completed his UI degree in 2016 and graduated from Princeton University with a master’s in public affairs on June 5, the same day he won the primary election for state Senate.
When he walked into the Senate Chamber to be sworn in on Jan. 14, Sen. Bill Dotzler, who was in the room when Wahls gave that now-viral testimony back in 2011, congratulated Wahls.
“He said, ‘I want you to know how proud of you many of us are.’ That’s a really full-circle — or really half-circle — moment,” Wahls notes, referring to the half-circle walk around the rotunda from the House of Representatives Chamber to the Senate Chamber where Wahls’ desk now sits.
The speech also changed Wahls’ personal life as well. His girlfriend, journalist Chloe Angyal, was one of the first online Zach Wahls fans.
“After I gave my speech to the legislature, she was on blog duty that day for Feministing.com, and she wrote a blog, and the headline was ‘Marry me, Zach Wahls,’” Wahls says. “I thought it was hilarious so I sent her an email and I said ‘I won’t marry you but I’ll happily do an interview.’ We did an interview and we stayed in touch over the years … And now she lives with me in Coralville.”
The change to state senator makes Wahls’ personal schedule look like this: On Sunday nights, Wahls commutes to Des Moines, where he stays in a nearby hotel until Thursday afternoon. He starts his day at 5 a.m., and assumes that time will only get earlier as the legislative session progresses.
“I have so much respect and almost disbelief for people who have small children and do this. Like, how do you do this job?” he asks, almost incredulous. “My personal email hasn’t stopped, and that’s the real problem. I try to keep as close to zero [unread messages] in the email, but that’s hard to do.”
He gets to the capitol around 7:30 a.m. There is always a reception of some kind, Wahls says, and he has to practice discretion towards the free food always lying around.
“The ‘freshman 15’ is for real,” he said, laughing. “You’ve got to be careful how many donuts you have.”
That day, he was a little late in getting to the capitol.
“I was going to go to this Bible study in the Senate this morning. I’m not super religious but I figured I’d go in and say hi,” he explains. “As soon as I started to leave, I had a bloody nose. I figured that was maybe a sign.”
From there, the day is full of what he called “marathon sessions” with his respective committees and within his own Democratic caucus. Every day, the caucus meets to discuss their “talking points.”
“Some people like to use the team talking points. Some people do their own thing and some people don’t really talk,” Wahls said. He says he is fully in the first category.
Sitting on the bench, he prompts facial recognition from passersby — not a very common occurrence for first-time politicians. There is also a distinct sense that I’m sitting next to the high school quarterback in the lunchroom, which Wahls was during his time at Iowa City West High School.
He aims to transition his established celebrity into a transparent presence in local government. He takes a moment to cite the declining percentage of public trust in government over the last century, and says it is his mission to “rebuild that trust.” He’s arming himself with all the 21st century tools at his disposal to do the job; recently, he live-streamed himself reviewing paperwork from his home office in Coralville.
But Wahls’ Instagram story on his first day in Des Moines included many of his thoughts leading up to his swearing in. “It’s happening!” he typed under a selfie with the capitol building in the background; “New office, who dis,” he posted once under the dome. He added photos of himself with his campaign manager and former West High teacher Mitch Gross, as well as his moms, his girlfriend and state Rep. Mary Mascher in the Senate Chamber, or “The room where it happens,” a phrase he borrowed from Hamilton.
The next day, he was more active on Twitter, excited to hear the Condition of the State address from Gov. Kim Reynolds in which she proposed a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to ex-convicts. He discussed his first meetings with lobbyists, and retweeted a tweet acknowledging the newly elected Rep. Abby Finkenauer from Iowa’s 1st District as the youngest woman in history to pass a bill in the U.S. House. Wahls added the hashtag “#IowaStrong.”