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We've passed the halfway mark of 2020 with Iowans and the rest of the country barreling toward a November election amidst a pandemic, racial justice protests and economic uncertainty. We check in with our reporters' roundtable on this edition of Iowa Press. 

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, July 10 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: 2020 has been a year unlike no other. For Americans, what was destined to be a contentious election year, added a global pandemic and widespread racial justice protests. For the reporters covering politics and issues here in Iowa they can mark their calendars here with less than 4 months to go until the election. Some of those reporters that join us here at the Iowa Press table, Caroline Cummings is Politics Reporter for Sinclair Broadcast Group. Brianne Pfannenstiel is Chief Political Reporter for the Des Moines Register. Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa. And joining us for the first time on Iowa Press is Ty Rushing, Managing Editor for the Northwest Iowa Review newspaper in Sheldon, Iowa. Ty, welcome to the show. It's good to have you with us.

Rushing: Thank you, I appreciate the invitation.

Yepsen: I want to hear from everybody on an opening question and I'll start with you, Ty. What is the political fallout in Iowa from all these protests in the wake of George Floyd's murder?

Rushing: It's kind of interesting. We got the racial justice bill passed in the legislature. But what I'm seeing in my corner is that a lot of people are tired of the protests. And I'm in a predominantly white, rural, conservative area and so that's what I'm seeing on social media posts, when we report about it people are getting upset that we're still continuing to report about these things because there have still been some local connections. For example, one of our reporters did a story yesterday that went online about a family in Spencer, a biracial family, white dad, black mom, two little girls who are biracial and they did Black Lives Matter chalk art and that reporter got some hate mail that said that these little girls don't know what they're doing, they called it a disgusting article and just went on and on and on. And I had a gentleman who was upset about a guest column from Ryan Smith the other day because he was like, they didn't put that noose in Bubba Wallace's garage on purpose so why would you let him say that in the article and you should put a note in there and correct that and he went on for 30 minutes about that. And you're just seeing more and more of that. It's kind of, you're kind of seeing the blowback.

Yepsen: The backlash.

Rushing: Yeah.

Yepsen: Brianne, same question to you. What is the political fallout from these protests?

Pfannenstiel: Well, the Register polled the state about a month ago asking how Iowans feel about the President right now and his approval rating has fallen a little bit, but particularly when we ask about how he has handled these protests it's much lower, just 36% of Iowa adults say that they approve of the job he is doing in handling these protests right now and that is 55% who disapprove. And so that shows you that there is some discontent, even among republicans, people who generally approve of what he's doing, of the way that he's handling this particular issue. So we're seeing some discomfort there among Iowans with the way the President is handling this. We'll see how that plays out as the general election continues.

Yepsen: Caroline Cummings, what do you see out there?

Cummings: So as much as there is, as Ty referenced, perhaps there is some exhaustion with the protests, as Brianne mentioned there is some discomfort among people the way the President has handled issues, I think an important facet of this is also the awakening perhaps long overdue about some of these disparities in our country and certainly in our state. Iowa makes black people in Iowa 4% of the state's population, a quarter of the state's prison population. We have a permanent ban on felons from voting and there's some estimates that say that impacts about 60,000 Iowans and 10% of black people in this state are disenfranchised because of it. So these statistics aren't new but I think this moment has certainly opened people's eyes to that reality that we're facing. So I'm seeing people who otherwise might not dip into social justice, racial justice issues speaking out and acknowledging it for the first time and I certainly haven't seen that in the past few years when we've had these deaths of black people at the hands of police.

Yepsen: Kay, what do you sense as the political effect of this? Is there a backlash coming? Or are you seeing democrats, younger voters inspired to be active in politics? What is your sense of the fallout from this?

Henderson: I think you could answer yes to both of those questions, David. As my colleagues have indicated there is some part of the electorate that is growing weary of constant attention on this particular issue. One thing that has been interesting to me is that there is a great focus on action not only at the state level but at the local level. And so you see local protests seeking action from a city council, for example, or you see a city council speaking with its police department and talking about reforms at the local level. And I think that is sort of remarkable in this era in which you have seen, for example, the Tea Party was really focused in the 2010 election on Congress and federal issues and to a large extent this has become sort of a bottom up movement which is a lot different than what we've seen recently in terms of movements nationally.

Yepsen: Any permanent effects?

Henderson: Well, I think one of the permanent effects is it is keeping the issue of felon voting rights resonant with the public in a way that wouldn't normally happen because the legislature is not in session, that issue is dormant in terms of the legislature until January when they reconvene and it is now solely focused on whether the Governor actually when she will follow through on her promise to issue an executive order and in what form that order will be issued.

Yepsen: Brianne, same question to you. What is -- is there anything permanent you can sense that we can look back a year from now and say this changed in Iowa as a result of George Floyd's murder?

Pfannenstiel: Well, to me it feels, this feels a lot like the Me Too Movement did in changing the way that people think about the issue and the way that they talk about it in public spaces. Just as women were having all of these conversations privately and Me Too brought them public, I think black Iowans, black Americans have been having these conversations for a very long time and this movement has given space for them in a more mainstream audience. So I just came from an event this morning where Senator Joni Ernst was speaking with Representative Ako Abdul-Samad and other leaders in the black community and I don't know that that conversation would have happened a year or two years ago and if it did I don't know that it would have happened with that same frank language because there was some very honest conversations that were happening, people speaking openly about white privilege and what it means for a white Senator to speak on behalf of black Iowans. So I think that is something that will continue, that the way people think and talk about this issue will last.

Yepsen: Caroline, talk about what happened in the legislature on policing issues.

Cummings: So obviously the George Floyd death happened and sparked a national outcry and very soon after legislative democrats came forward with a plan to say these are actions we can take right now to make policing more fair in our state and within a week and then culminated on one day and both chambers of the legislature passed a bill that would ban chokeholds in all but very few specific instances, allows the Attorney General to investigate police misconduct if the county attorney doesn't take it up himself or herself, and the real sticking point or the real highlight for people on both sides of the aisle is this piece of this legislation that prohibits law enforcement that has been fired for serious misconduct from being rehired and this would hopefully diminish this idea that bad cops float from community to community and perpetuate this bad behavior. So that is what they did, all again in a day, passed unanimously, the Governor signed it, hailed as a real victory. But looking ahead the Governor has a criminal justice reform committee that she formed last year before all of this and their big task, even before this happened, was to look at policing, prosecution and corrections reforms in the next 2021 session as Phase 2 of their work. And so they are really seriously taking a look at how can we ban racial profiling in this state, an issue that the NAACP and the ACLU of Iowa have been advocating for years and it has just languished year in and year out in the legislature and now it's really getting a fresh, serious look and that will be something to watch going into next year.

Yepsen: Kay, the Governor has been talking about signing this order. She is under a lot of pressure to just sign a blanket one as Governor Vilsack and Governor Culver did. What is the hang-up here?

Henderson: Well, it became clear when she introduced this concept in January of 2019 that Senate republicans were reluctant to do essentially what you're saying, give a blanket restoration of voting rights without addressing some of the tangential issues like how do we address the repayment of restitution? How do we address the repayment of fines? There has been some court action vis-à-vis what has happened in Florida which had this sort of early debate on this and so it is the sense of I think all of our reporting that what she is trying to craft is something that incorporates those ideas in it and that would then become in the 2021 session the proposed constitutional amendment that would not only restore voting rights but define what it means to complete your sentence and also define which released felons would perhaps never have their voting rights restored.

Yepsen: Ty, I want to turn to you. You're an editor in one of the most rural, whitest, conservative areas of the state and of the country.

Rushing: Right.

Yepsen: How have you been received?

Rushing: Honestly it has been positive for the most part. There's a lot of good people in Northwest Iowa. But the folks who are negative and nasty are incredibly so. I've got some messages, I've gotten some emails, I've got some correspondence that has just been incredibly nasty and negative that people were kind of stunned when they see some of this stuff. I wrote a story last year for one of our Take 5's, which is our reporter blogs, with 5 weird emails I've gotten over the years including some were some from people denying the Holocaust, a lady who was upset that Popeye's Chicken in Sioux City didn't have the same lemonade as the Popeye's Chicken in another community, and things like that. And so I'm laughing about these, not the Holocaust obviously, but I'm laughing about some of the other ones listed in there and people are like, oh these are so bad. And I'm like, no these aren't bad, I'm not sharing the bad ones. The most recent example someone sent two letters, they sent the first one and they close it alluding to a black agitator who was educated in the Kansas City public school system who is imagining racism to cover up for his own wicked sexual sins. And so that is how the first one went. But he retracted that and sent another one two days later to clarify that it was indeed me, the black agitator from Kansas City, who was covering up for his own wicked sexual sins by alluding to racism.

Yepsen: But, for the most part though, you feel like you've been treated pretty well?

Rushing: Yeah, absolutely, I would say I've been treated well for the most part, with the exceptions. But the exceptions are extreme.

Yepsen: Ty, you mentioned you come from Kansas City, but you have worked in Newton before and you worked in Sioux City. And you have been in Sheldon for how many years?

 Rushing: Both tenures 4 years.

Yepsen: Okay, so you've been around Iowa a little bit.

Rushing: Yes.

Yepsen: What don't Iowans understand about African-Americans?

Rushing: I think a lot of Iowans just -- I think a lot of Iowans don't understand racism or the differences between how a black person is treated in America and how a white person is treated in America. And a lot of people are just like, they think being not racist is just enough versus being actively anti-racist. A lot of them just kind of view it as it's a black person's problem to end racism and it's not, we need help with that. We can't continue to educate people and being the only ones educating people and standing up for rights and explaining why this is unfair and why a person shouldn't be pulled over just because of what they look like and why a person shouldn't have to change their name on a job application just to get an opportunity. My full name is Tyron but I couldn't get an internship until I started going by Ty, which is why I've been Ty ever since. And so a lot of people don't understand those things and they don't understand those troubles. And so I think more people need to be open to hearing about them. I think at the beginning of the process you saw people who were willing to listen and willing to learn, but they have become well now they're blocking people from going to Hy-Vee and they destroyed a police car and now they're getting rid of my great uncle's racist statue who is a Confederate and so they're getting upset by those things instead of the issues of people being killed in the street by law enforcement members. And so I think you've got to be more understanding and more empathetic and be willing to listen and just cut through the noise.

Yepsen: What else do you think Iowans, white Iowans need to know or do about racism?

Rushing: Talk to a black person, straight up talk to a black person. I think that is what has helped me out in Northwest Iowa and a lot of people just get a better perspective of things because they, I tell them all the time I'm very open about having a conversation with anyone about anything and I make myself available and I've had a lot of those conversations with people behind the scenes, in the pages of my paper with the publisher, Peter W. Wagner, and so I think you've got to be, you can't be scared to talk about race and racism in America and so many people consider it an impolite conversation. And it's like, it shouldn't be, it should just be a standard conversation, it should be one that you should be willing to have. You want everyone to feel the same and love America the way you love America, so show them that and then try to understand why they may have some grudges against the country that you love so much.

Yepsen: So what should a white person do when you hear somebody use the N word, telling a racist joke? What do you do?

Rushing: Correct them, stop them, explain to them why that is wrong, explain to them why they shouldn't be doing that. Explain to them just because you're listening to a rap song doesn't mean you can recite every lyric. Talk to them. Don't just let it slide by.

Yepsen: Changing gears, Brianne. Another big issue in front of us right now is COVID and a lot of different angles to that story as well. How is Governor Reynolds handling this? You guys have done some polling.

Pfannenstiel: Right. The polling that we've done was from about a month ago so this was in June. Her approval rating had actually ticked up about two percentage points to 56%. So we were really curious going into this whether she would face backlash for her handling of the coronavirus, either because people felt that she didn't go far enough in instituting a statewide stay-at-home order, or from people who felt that those restrictions were too aggressive. And actually she held pretty steady from 54% to 56%. So I think right now Iowans look at this situation as an evolving crisis and they are willing to say our Governor is doing the best that she can, I think they see her as weathering the storm. Again, this was from a month ago those three months kind of covered the first rise in Iowa of all of these cases and the first really amassing of all of these cases and they started to level out for a little bit. And as we start to see them ramp up again we'll see whether that still holds.

Yepsen: Caroline, what do you think?

Cummings: Well, I think Brianne noted an important point here is we kind of saw that uptick and then cases were kind of not bottoming out but they were pretty steady and we're starting to see that uptick again and the Governor said this week that that uptick is largely concentrated among young adults from ages 18 to 25. And we have seen the clearest indication from her yet that she is willing to reinstate restrictions if necessary. She has been asked about this for months, since she started to reopen, but she always kind of said we'll take a look at that, what is our data showing and not giving a clear answer. And this week she said, if we're seeing the upticks linked to bars maybe we have to look at curbing bar hours, rolling back, as she said, some of those mitigation efforts onto bars. So I think they're taking it seriously in that there is an uptick and they are going to going to unfortunately have to face that like other states across the country are having to do.

Yepsen: Kay, what is the political fallout for President Trump in Iowa and the away he has handled this COVID?

Henderson: I think Brianne's poll took sort of a snapshot of that.

Pfannenstiel: Right. I think how we'll see the President handling this, again, has yet to play out. But Iowans are looking at the way he is handling it, they're looking at the way the Governor is handling it, they're looking at their local leaders. This is so, split in so many different ways, the ways that local leaders are handling these issues. And so I'm really curious as a reporter to see how that does play out politically, whether people will blame the President or whether they'll blame their local leaders. These issues affect so many different spheres of public life.

Yepsen: One of the hottest issues all over the state right now, Ty, is the opening of schools and what should schools do. It seems to be chaotic. What are you sensing in Northwest Iowa?

Rushing: It's kind of the same way, districts they have been working on their plans, they've got special committees and they've got these sorts of things. But then you had Secretary DeVos say the other day, we want everyone in buildings and then you have the President double down on that on Twitter. And so that's kind of like, do we stick with the plans that we've been making or do we take the advice of the President and the Secretary and do what they're saying? And so I had a superintendent reach out to me via social media the other day asking me, what does this even mean? And I'm like, I don't know. So when Senator Ernst was in Sheldon on Wednesday I asked her about that and she told me point blank, I can't really speak for the Secretary, but I can say from my own personal experience that I think kids need to be in school, I think it gives them a safe environment, it allows parents to go back to work and make sure the kids are getting fed because so many are on free and reduced lunch and she raised all these great points, but she also concluded that if we do see some anomalies she would be very open to seeing the districts come up with a different plan and she also thinks it should be up to local leaders.

Yepsen: Kay, republicans seem to all be for local control until some unpopular things have to be done and then they're for statewide control. Why are they coming down? What is the Governor going to do about it?

Henderson: Well, the first set of guidelines that were released by the Department of Education were really sort of do what you will and pay the consequences, local school boards and school administrators. And there was great pushback from the state teacher's union advocating on behalf of teachers and staff members who, by the way, may be in some of those groups that you want to protect from COVID-19, arguing that everybody should wear at least a mask, maybe a face shield. The other unanswered question here that really people aren't addressing in these plans is the inequity in this. You have a lot of -- schools are coming up with three plans. Everybody is in a classroom sitting in a chair. We're going to have some people at home some of the time or they're going to be in a classroom sometimes. Or everybody is going to be home on their iPad. Well, if everybody is home on their iPad, not everybody is at home on their iPad. Some people have to get in a car and drive to school so they can use the Wi-Fi in the parking lot. And that is an inequity that these plans are really not addressing to ensure that every kid has equal access to education in the fall.

Yepsen: We've got just a few minutes left. I want to go back to politics, Ty. I want to hear from each of you on this. How does the race for President look? Do you sense in Northwest Iowa that Trump is facing any erosion in his support because of tariffs and what is happening to the farm economy?

Rushing: Not at all. There's a little bit, don't get me wrong, there are definitely some farmers out there, especially those who are involved in ethanol who are very upset about the waivers and who they are ready to break off and try something else. But so many people are like so hardcore in their beliefs with the GOP that they just can't pull the trigger on the dem. Some would even consider a third party before going dem. And Trump is just, his base has grown there. I've talked to farmers and manufacturers who are like, you know what, we're willing to eat these costs just to get that change and to get that trade package done.

Yepsen: Brianne, how does a candidate campaign in the COVID era?

Pfannenstiel: Carefully.

And on Zoom.

Pfannenstiel: And on Zoom. So many Zoom calls. And I think that's going to be the real challenge, right, is to separate yourself when everyone is on Zoom and on a computer screen. In Iowa we really pride ourselves for retail politics and that goes for presidents, for congressional candidates, for local candidates, and that's just not going to be possible right now. So we are seeing Zoom calls but we're starting to see some of these in-person events pick up a little bit. I said I came from this Joni Ernst event and that was on the official side, but you get the idea. And she arrived in a face mask, her staff was wearing face masks, the event was limited to a handful of people and reporters and there's only so much you can do like that.

Yepsen: Caroline, I'm struck by the fact Trump is out trying to campaign all over the country and his poll ratings are going down. Joe Biden is stuck in his basement doing everything by TV and his poll numbers are going up. What do you make of this campaign?

Cummings: Well, I think it kind of highlights this political divide that coronavirus has stoked in a way that perhaps we didn't anticipate because it's a public health disaster, everyone could be impacted by this, presumably of course we've seen data to show the disparities there along racial lines of course. But the President is willing to go to have an in-person event and his supporters are willing to go there. They see it as my freedom, I don't have to wear a mask, whereas as polling shows the mask is a political dividing line. So if you're someone who feels as though I'm unsafe, I'm not wearing a mask and I don't want to congregate in these large spaces it makes sense why there is a dichotomy between how they are campaigning right now.

Yepsen: Just a few seconds left. Brianne, is Iowa a toss-up state, a swing state again?

Pfannenstiel: Iowa is a swing state. I don't know that it ever was not a swing state. We're seeing it swing back. The presidential race our polling shows within a point, the Senate race is within 3 points, both of those are within our margin of error. In congressional districts we see Iowans choosing democrats in 3 of 4 seats. I don't think you can say Iowa is not in play when you look at those numbers.

Yepsen: Kay, talk about that Senate race. We've got a minute left. Is Joni Ernst truly vulnerable?

Henderson: The polling would suggest so and if you look back in 2014 when she won, $87 million spent on that race, like $1 out of $5 were spent by the candidates, if this doesn't top $100 million I would be really surprised. This is one of the races that democrats need to flip if they're going to win the Senate.

Yepsen: Isn't the presidential race tied to the Senate race? Do any of us expect to see somebody vote for Donald Trump and Theresa Greenfield?

Henderson: No. Or vice versa. And the other thing here in regards to the presidential race is last time around you had some sort of well-known third party people. This is a two party race. This is you're either a Trump person or you're a Biden person and I don't think it's that surprising that Iowa is a swing state again.

Yepsen: So given the numbers maybe Joni Ernst will have to help carry Donald Trump across the line.

Henderson: Could be.

Perhaps.

Yepsen: To be continued. Thank you all for being here today. And thanks, Ty, for making that trek down from Sheldon.

Rushing: It was a long one.

Yepsen: Appreciate you being here. And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times with Iowa's Junior Senator Joni Ernst. She is locked in that tight re-election bid. Senator Ernst on Iowa Press next Friday night at 7:30 and again at Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

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