Seeing red: Republicans take control of Iowa Legislature, Democrats vow to fight

By Lauren Shotwell and Eleanore Taft
The Iowa State Capitol. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

With the gaveling in of the 2017 Iowa Legislature, Republicans took control of both chambers. With control of the Iowa House, Senate and the Governor’s Office, Republicans stand poised to take action.

“Today is a new day, a day that we embark on a new direction in Iowa,” said Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix (R-Shell Rock) during his opening remarks.

The Republican agenda, as laid out Monday, includes introducing school vouchers, defunding Planned Parenthood, cutting government spending, tax reform and “embracing second amendment rights like never before,” according to House Speaker Pro Tem Matt Windschitl (R-Missouri Valley). Last week, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, announced a voter ID proposal, along with other measures aimed at protecting the integrity of Iowa’s elections, which have come under fire as potential barriers to voting.

Democrats swore to fight back against some of the measures, especially limitations on women’s access to reproductive health care, school vouchers, voter ID measures and restrictions on collective bargaining for state employees. Democrats also said they would work to improve Iowa’s Medicaid system, which was privatized last year.

The ability of Democrats to fight against measures that have broad Republican support will be limited.

“As the minority party in this chamber, the might that we bring to this body at this time is our voices, our ideas and our commitment to a better Iowa,” House Minority Leader Mark Smith (D-Marshalltown) said.

Smith said that if Republicans choose to take up issues that impinge on women’s rights, voters’ rights or workers’ rights, they should “be prepared for a fight.”

Rep. Linda Upmeyer (R-Clear Lake) took the oath of office after being re-elected as house speaker. -- photo by Lauren Shotwell
Rep. Linda Upmeyer (R-Clear Lake) took the oath of office after being re-elected as house speaker. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

In their opening comments, leaders from both parties reflected on the divisive election and expressed hopes that both parties could work together to avoid gridlock and partisan bickering.

“I am confident we arrive here with common goals,” House Speaker Linda Upmeyer (R-Clear Lake) said, admitting that there were some differences of opinions that would be difficult to overcome. “We must not lose sight of the fact that we are here in an effort to move our state forward.”

In his opening remarks, Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) said he believed the legislature has the power to “make life better for people on the bread and butter issues Iowans face every day.”

He cited a number of potentially bipartisan issues, including public safety measures like making texting while driving a primary offense and bringing people into the state through investing in communities and small businesses.

Rep. Liz Bennett (D-Cedar Rapids) also said that there are some issues that the two parties can agree on, like reforming civil forfeiture — in which law enforcement can seize an individual’s assets if they are suspected of illegal activity, without charging them with a crime.

“Really one of the things I do wish people knew is that there are probably a hundred bills that go through every year that just aren’t the sexy, hot-topic issues, and where we really have hammered out things in a way that would be more helpful to people,” she said.

Both Republicans and Democrats mentioned the need to focus on issues like increasing wages and improving water quality — but with very different means for achieving those goals.

Following the opening session, a variety of activist organizations gathered together in the capitol to voice opposition to some of the Republican platforms and to urge Iowans to take action by contacting legislators and taking part in protests and other calls to action. The groups spanned a broad spectrum, including Planned Parenthood, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, Iowa State Education Association, Iowa Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), the local branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME Iowa Council 61) and the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa.

“We are using our progressive voices together,” said Connie Ryan, the executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. “We are standing together and we are fighting back.”

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