Podcast

This edition of Iowa Press convenes a panel of Iowa political reporters to discuss upcoming elections, the Iowa Caucuses, Statehouse issues and more. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, Dave Price, political director for WHO 13, and Linh Ta, reporter for Axios Des Moines.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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As winter's grip begins to wane, political issues percolate at the Statehouse and around Iowa. We sit down with Iowa political reporters to explore the issues on this Roundtable 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. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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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, February 26 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: Iowans welcomed a late February thaw in recent days and political issues across our state are also warming up as we head into March. To discuss some of the top issues in Iowa we're joined by our Reporters' Roundtable today. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. Linh Ta is a Reporter for Axios Des Moines. Dave Price is Politics Director at WHO-TV 13. And Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Welcome everybody. Thanks for joining us. Linh, before we get started, tell our viewers what Axios Des Moines is.

Ta: Yeah, so thank you for having me on here today. So, Axios Des Moines is a daily newsletter that has launched here in the Des Moines Metro where we cover everything from politics to business to your favorite foods that are going on right now.

Yepsen: Great. This is your debut performance and we're glad you've joined us.

Ta: Thank you.

Yepsen: Well, I want to go around the table. Big story for everybody is the pandemic. Events like that change the way people do things, the Civil War, Great Depression, World War II are good examples. So, Dave Price, I'll start with you. How will Iowa be different after the pandemic?

Price: I was thinking about food, but since Linh is the foodie here I'll deflect to her for any comments on food. So I might just say, one of the trends seems to be this concept about how many people can work from home. And I want to see what the legs are on this in that I heard a realtor talking about she hadn't seen this much interest from people who don't live here to want to move to the Des Moines Metro and as we know the housing supply is tough to come by right now. But it just seems like this transformation and people realizing, including in some of these older, more established companies that might have been hesitant to allow workers to work from home, it just seems like it's more accepted now. It may be a way that some of these smaller communities can bring back some population too.

Yepsen: Kay Henderson, how will we be different?

Henderson: Well, the coffee klatch has certainly changed. People aren't buying coffee in the urban areas as they were before the pandemic hit. By some estimates Americans are saving on average $2000 a year because they're not buying coffee through the drive through, if you will. But one of the things I'm hearing from friends who have young children is that they're not coming home to spread colds. So maybe one of the outgrowths of this need to clean every surface will be that the common cold will be less common.

Yepsen: Linh Ta, how do you see us as different?

Ta: Yeah, one of the things that I think will be interesting is especially front-facing jobs. So I was going and getting my hair cut the other day and my hairdresser said, you know, someone said that they would maybe want me to wear a face mask every single time that I go and get my hair cut, even if it's years out from the pandemic. And so I think that will be interesting to see, especially in the restaurant and dining industry where people are coming up to your table, where it's in a closer proximity where you can't social distance. I think it will be interesting to see people's comfort levels and whether they're still expecting other people to wear masks and go through some of these stronger hygiene practices.

Yepsen: Erin Murphy?

Murphy: I want to say first to Kay's point, there's always exceptions to every rule clearly, because if you had been in the drive through or seen the drive through lines at Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts this morning in Ankeny, clearly the folks there are still buying their coffee.

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Murphy: I can't switch off the political button, I just can't do it. What's going to be interesting to me moving forward is we had such a unique campaign in 2020 and how much of those changes become permanent. We saw fewer of the bigger rallies for obvious reasons. Do campaigns -- was there maybe value found in that and maybe resources are better devoted to the grassroots organizing level instead of gathering hundreds if not thousands of people together? So that is one thing I'll be looking forward and we'll start to see it here sooner than later here with the midterm coming up next year is what kind of changes are made in the way campaigns operate post-pandemic.

Yepsen: And I think issues, we're going to have preparedness issues. Politicians will be asked, how do we prevent another pandemic? What do we do to clean up after a derecho? Should the walls at the Des Moines Water Works be built even higher? That's my take on how we'll be different. Let's turn to the COVID vaccine issue. Kay, how is Iowa doing?

Henderson: It's doing better in getting that first dose into people's arms. It's still lagging most other states in getting the doses, both doses from the Pfizer and Moderna drugs in arms and completed.

Yepsen: Linh, what do you think? How do you think Iowa is doing on getting the COVID vaccine into people?

Ta: Yeah, so just like Kay said, nationally Iowa is still ranking lower than some of the surrounding states but the Governor recently said that she is hopeful for future distribution and that things will be able to move more quickly, especially once the FDA approves the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, that once we're trying to get through the 1B tier hopefully we'll be able to move more quickly and not have to wait the 28 days or more for the second vaccine for those people.

Yepsen: Erin, how is the Governor doing? How is her performance? Governors all over have taken poll hits.

Murphy: Yeah, it's -- and of both political stripes, republicans and democrats have been criticized. It's, I think it's fair to acknowledge that it's a difficult spot that state executives have been put in. It's interesting right now in Iowa they're kind of dealing with, one of the things we hear a lot of as reporters is there is a craving out there from the public of people wanting to know when they can get the vaccine and when they can get it scheduled. And the state is attempting to address that very recently here. They have made live a new website where people can at least get the information. They still won't be able to sign up and make their appointment through this website but they can maybe at least get a little more information, which is one of the things that is driving people nuts right now out there is as this vaccine rollout continues to ramp up and for now supply continues to be outweighed by demand as people just wanting to know when they can get in and get that shot.

Yepsen: Dave Price?

Price: The one thing with the Governor over the past month is that one day she was standing in front of the cameras doing her weekly briefing and announced that they were going to put out bids essentially for a statewide website and a call center. What we did not know was that was already live at the time and it was limited to a 24 hour bidding process. So that obviously limits what can happen. Then the next week it was we've selected Microsoft, we're going to figure out the call center later and we need Microsoft because all of our stuff is old and antiquated and doesn't work together. Then the following week it was, our stuff is old and doesn't work together but we can't use Microsoft because it can't work with them and we're not so sure about the call center. To Erin's point, then this past week then it is well we're going to do a limited website, it doesn't address what people really want and that is to schedule an appointment, but it's sort of a clearinghouse of information where it can direct you to your local county if you don't know how to do that on your own, the call center will be sort of done through 211 on a very limited basis5 once that is set up later on in March and it's only for folks 65 plus who really can't have any other way to do it. So they have never been able to come through with what the initial expectations that they set were.

Yepsen: Kay, the Governor has been criticized by many for this notion, we're kind of making this up as we go along. Is she finally on top of this game now with this last round?

Henderson: Several weeks ago I asked the Governor during one of her news conferences if the expectation had been that this would be handled by the federal government and we've never gotten that answer. As you may recall, President Trump before the election said hey, these vaccines may be here before November 3rd.

Price: Months before the election.

Henderson: Months before the election. And so I think there is part of the governance in many states, why would I spend money setting up a system if I'm counting on the federal government to do it for me? And especially in republican states like this one where she has been reluctant to release many of these funds that the state received through the CARES Act last spring, we got to the end of the year and I think there was still $41 million that hadn't yet been expended, she was sort of holding onto that to figure out how to deploy that. And so I really think there was an expectation that the federal government would figure this out.

Price: But you asked her that and did not get the response that we probably assumed would be the reason. Because the public was asking, to Kay's point, we all knew the vaccines were coming, why not get something set up months ago so it was ready to go when the supply was there?

Murphy: And to your broader point about the Governor being criticized on how she has handled the pandemic at times, Dave, it's going to be interesting and I suspect this will be litigated in her re-election campaign which is coming up in 2022. From my personal experience, my inbox is full of people on both sides of this. I get a lot of emails from people who are ready to ship Kim Reynolds on the first cattle train out of town and there are just as many who are thankful for the way she has handled the pandemic at various stages with the mask mandates and the lifting of restrictions on businesses. So that is going to be -- I have no doubt that that is going to be a central point on the campaign. It will be interesting to see how Iowans, voters respond to that.

Yepsen: Linh, any thoughts on that?

Ta: One of the other interesting things is with this new 211 program for people who are 65 and older, the Governor had said that they will direct people towards Hy-Vee pharmacies to get the vaccine. One of the criticisms since early on with the long-term care facility pharmacy program has been that there is just too few pharmacists and technicians to go out and vaccinate people. So I think especially local pharmacists, rural pharmacists will also want to be a part of that program and be able to more quickly help vaccinate people.

Yepsen: Yeah, it's tough for any policymaker. You're having to shut down the economy, which is tough for a conservative republican to do, but at the same time you're getting all of these demands to keep people safe. So it's not an easy position for any Governor to be in. I think that Governor Ned Lamont, a liberal democrat, got applause from the Wall Street Journal. He doing it just by age. We take the oldest first. 90-year-old resident of Connecticut, you're first, 89. There will be different ways that come out of this and we can be ready for the next time.

Price: Can I just say once sentence to what Erin was saying? Her supporters will point out though that big picture, not any individual issue, but she's getting it from the right, her right, which didn't want any kind of restrictions, and she's getting it from her left in that people thought she didn't do enough. So some have said that may mean she's doing exactly right.

Yepsen: Yeah, right where she needs to be politically. We'll come back to this in future shows. Let's switch gears to the session. Big news last week, the election law bill. Kay Henderson, what does it do?

Henderson: Well, I think the thing that will be the most impactful is the idea that if you vote by "mail-in ballot" that ballot has to be in the county auditor's office by 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. If you may recall in this past election if you mailed your ballot in, as long as it showed by postmark, or the intelligent barcode, if you will, that it had been mailed on Monday then it was counted as long as it was in by the following Monday after the election. So this will be a big change, especially in rural Iowa. I have relatives who live in rural Iowa who have seen their mail service really, really drag. And it takes a long time for a piece of mail to get even from Des Moines to Davenport as we learned during the House debate on this bill. So I think that is the main change that legislators are making.

Murphy: And that becomes an even bigger change when it is combined with the fact that they also shortened the earliest date that an auditor can send out a ballot to the voter, that was also reduced to 20 days, so they can't mail that out until 20 days before the election so that has to go out, be received by the voter, get mailed back, received by the auditor by Election Day. There are election officials of all political stripes, this was not a partisan debate among election officials, who expressed some concern with the tightness of that window and any error at all in that multiple step process could endanger the ballot getting back to the official on time.

Yepsen: Dave, is the law of unintended consequences in danger of being invoked here? Republicans could be shooting themselves in the foot if they're doing things that harm turnout in rural Iowa.

Price: In rural Iowa, and you go back a couple of years when it used to be a 40 day early voting plus you had the postmark decision, so that maybe gets you another 4, 5, 6 days, if you will, so you're looking at a 45 to 50 day process and then now you're looking at 20. So you mail them all out here and they have to be received here so it's not really 20 days. So the time you can have it sitting on your kitchen table while you're thinking, that is going to be greatly shortened.

Yepsen: I want to switch to another bill. They call it the big tech free speech bill. Erin, what are the issues in that one?

Murphy: Yeah, so this is a bill that is kind of continuing a theme we've seen throughout the legislation of conservative legislators who feel slighted in some ways by various entities out there. We've seen legislation that addresses tenure at public universities, for example, legislation where republicans want political affiliation to be protected classes and this kind of continues that theme of conservatives who feel they have been, had their free speech suppressed by social media companies. It's a very interesting bill though in that it puts a target on some pretty big companies that have made some nice investments in Iowa in recent years and are receiving tax breaks from the state for that, which is what this bill gets at. So it creates some very interesting political affiliations lobbying for and against a bill like this.

Henderson: One thing that happened this past week was a reporting in the Des Moines Business Record that indicated that Iowa State University's business incubator, research park, whatever you may want to call it, was in the running for a company that was considering also Illinois and Purdue and got out of the running because of the discussion about tenure and because of some of the other conservative issues that have come up in the legislation including the "bathroom bill". And folks may remember that several years ago North Carolina enacted a bill that required students to use the bathroom that aligns with the sex on their birth certificate and they eventually repealed it because the NCAA and the National Basketball Association said we're going to pull major events out of North Carolina.

Yepsen: Again, Dave, is Iowa in danger of shooting itself in the foot? We bend over backwards to get Facebook and Apple and Microsoft to come to Iowa and then there are bills like this floating around and you have the North Carolina --

Price: I want to see if this actually goes through here. The Governor seemed non-committal when that was brought up, it might have been your question, during the briefing this week and because it would, and Kay illustrated it better so I don't want to steal her thunder, but --

Henderson: Go right ahead.

Price: No, you tell the story better. But about the visual of Kim Reynolds and Tim Cook.

Henderson: The head of Apple and Governor Kim Reynolds walked down the steps of the Iowa Capitol Complex to have a news conference to announce that Apple is building a huge megalopolis in the Waukee area, Waukee, Adel area and the lead sponsor of this bill that would withdraw the $200 million in state and local tax breaks that Apple got for that project is Jake Chapman and that project is in his district. That's how mad conservatives are about taking Parler off of Apple and Google stores so that people could not buy Parler, which is sort of a competitor, a conservative competitor of Twitter.

Murphy: To Twitter -- and Governor Reynolds' response to our questions illustrates that as well. She pretty clearly tried to sit on the fence on this and if anything lean towards expressing sympathy to the conservative concern on this point. She didn't lean towards we've got to be careful about what we're doing --

Henderson: And there is an alternate plan in the House that would levy fines if companies are judged to be stifling free speech. What was interesting this past week in a Senate hearing about this particular proposal was that an attorney affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is a conservative group that proposes model legislation for republicans to pursue in legislatures all across the country, said this is a bad idea.

Yepsen: Even a conservative is saying this is a bad idea.

Henderson: Right, you can't tell private companies they are unable to enforce contracts they have with users.

Yepsen: Linh, you talk to business leaders and young people here in Des Moines. How does all this stuff come off to them? What are you picking up? Anything?

Ta: Yeah, if I was a city official or an economic development director a bill like this would definitely make me give a second glance, especially if we think about where data centers are built at, especially in the metro area, a lot of them are built in areas that cities want to develop in the future and it really helps to have a data center out there because you have to build sewer lines, you have to build streets, it just starts building the infrastructure and the skeleton to later then have houses, local businesses, all of the amenities that we're used to on a daily basis. So on that sense I would be, if I was a city official, I would be really looking at this. But from just an everyday Iowan perspective, I think some Iowans are saying yeah, I'm upset by how Twitter has reacted by taking down former President Donald Trump's account, this is a way that we take back power. And for some others they don't really bat an eye at it.

Yepsen: The law of unintended consequences is always at work. Dave, you know the legislature this early, in this stage of the session is passing bills and floating things, trial balloons, these things usually get caught up in the funnel at the end. But tenure, bathroom bill, and now this, the state of Iowa is going to propose to tell Microsoft and Facebook and Apple how they can run their, how to run their business. It could backfire.

Price: Perhaps, but this could be a way to tell the voters who just firmly established republicans in control here that we're listening to you. This stuff may not get through, but we're listening to you. And this could be a warning shot, for big tech here, we're serious about this, think about this.

Yepsen: Fire up the base. Let's hope it doesn't detract from economic growth. Switch gears, one last issue here before we have to go, redistricting, Erin. That issue is going to be around for a while. Tell us what's happening.

Murphy: Yeah, and we're in uncharted waters and we're not leaving those waters any time soon. We're not going to get census data until probably this fall and that complicates matters in Iowa because of the way the Constitution is written and when that redistricting process has to take place. So they just had a panel meet for the first time this week to discuss and not a lot was decided, it was kind of just a first meeting to start to set the wheels in motion here. But they have to figure out are legislators going to be able to be involved at all? Is this going to go straight to the courts? Does the court enlist the LSA, which is the state's kind of legal analysis agency? There's a lot of unknowns and we're still going to be learning and figuring things out in the coming weeks and months here.

Yepsen: Kay, could this be good news for democrats? All of a sudden it's the court that is going to be doing redistricting, not the republicans controlling the legislature.

Henderson: It's hard to know. The court is mum on this. They say they're not going to give us any clues at this moment because it's a potential case on which they will be required to rule. So they're not telling us that, number one. Number two, I think what democrats are looking at is the growth in the suburbs around Des Moines and Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and seeing that as places where there will be new districts drawn that democrats may do well in.

Yepsen: Last subject, we've got just a minute left. Is Chuck Grassley going to run or not? What is your guess? Dave Price?

Price: I find it curious that he's now saying he may not decide until September or October.

Yepsen: Why?

Price: If he were running he could say that right now. It's just the timing is interesting.

Yepsen: Linh Ta, what do you think?

Ta: You know, the Senator had COVID-19 last year but he said he is still up and ready and feeling healthy. I mean, I think it will be definitely interesting to see what happens in these next few months.

Murphy: Dave's right about the late announcement. I see that as it could go the other way too because if he knew he wasn't going to run now he may step out of the way so more republicans could jump into the primary. So, the short answer is I have no idea.

Yepsen: Kay?

Henderson: Who knows. What do you think?

Yepsen: I'm the one that asked the question.

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Yepsen: To that point, I think he's not going to run but I don't think he wants to turn himself into a lame duck, so he says, I'm going to wait until later so people still think he's in the mix. Why would he want to --

Price: The earlier he does the more people in a primary, the uglier it can get.

Henderson: You've got to think that Mitch McConnell though is pressuring him to run.

Yepsen: We've got to go. Thank you all for being here today. And thank you, Linh.

Ta: Thank you.

Yepsen: We'll be back in two weeks with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular time at 7:30 Friday night. Next week our program will be on hiatus during the Iowa PBS fundraising effort known as Festival and our network's broadcast of the Girls High School Basketball Championships. So 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. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa