Iowa Senate Minority Leader

Iowa Press | Episode
Oct 29, 2021 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Senate Minority Leader Sen. Zach Wahls (D-Coralville), discusses redistricting, as well as various policy issues. 

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, and Katarina Sostaric, state government reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

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


(music) A special Iowa legislative session now wrapped up. We gather perspective from Iowa Senate democrats and Minority Leader Zach Wahls on this edition of Iowa Press. (music)                   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. 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 (music)              For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, October 29th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.  (music) Henderson: Regular viewers of this program have been listening to guests over the past few weeks talk about a special session and redistricting. Well, the special session happened Thursday. The legislature has adopted Plan 2 for redistricting. They also passed a bill regarding vaccine mandates. Our guest here today is going to talk about those two issues and others that may be on the agenda for 2022. Senator Zach Wahls is a democrat from Coralville. He is the Minority Leader in the Iowa Senate. Welcome to Iowa Press, Senator. Wahls: Thanks, Kay. Henderson: Also at the Iowa Press table are Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy who writes for the five Lee Newspapers in Iowa. Murphy: Senator Wahls, as Kay mentioned we have our maps now, we have our political boundaries for the next 10 years. Democrats through this process had raised the alarms and possible concerns about republicans pushing this another step further and gerrymandering. You in particular had some strong concerns and warnings about it going there. It never did. Republicans voted for a map that democrats also voted for. Were democrats guilty of playing the role of Chicken Little in this situation? Did you raise alarms that weren't necessary? Wahls: Well, first Erin, let me just say that my thoughts and prayers go out to the UAW member who was killed on his way to a picket line in Moline earlier this week. The UAW strike has been one of the most important stories in the country and my caucus and I stand in strong solidarity with those workers who are on the picket line. When it comes to redistricting, I think I first want to say how excited I am that we have the second plan. I think all of you were actually there earlier this year when Senator Whitver and Speaker Grassley both refused to say that they would not go to a third map and potentially amend it. And so I think the concerns that we had were very legitimate. I think all the credit goes to the people of Iowa who spoke up through this entire process and made their voices heard and made sure that we protected Iowa's non-partisan process of redistricting. And so, while there certainly were some ups and downs throughout the process, I think that we did a good job of educating the public about what was possible and making sure that we held republicans accountable, to make sure that they didn't go down that unprecedented path. Murphy: I wanted to ask you specifically about after the first vote where the republicans rejected the first map, your statement included, you said, breaking with decades of non-partisan redistricting tradition, which isn't true because that has happened before, the first map and even the second map has been rejected. And I guess it's just a similar question, but did you go too far in your signals of warning? Wahls: I don't think so at all. I think there was a lot of concern about what would happen. And because republicans refused to take gerrymandering off the table, and we asked them to repeatedly starting at the roundtable before the start of the 2022 session, it was an unprecedented circumstance because of the fact we were operating under the Supreme Court order. This was a new process for all of us with this December 1st deadline rather than the traditional September deadline. I think, again, all the credit here goes to the people of Iowa who spoke up and made their voices heard and made sure that republicans understood that if they did go down that unprecedented path going to a third map and amending it, there would be very severe consequences. Murphy: Republicans always said to that they thought it was unfair to be asked to approve a map that they hadn't seen yet. Isn't that a fair response to that concern? Wahls: Well, it would have been a lot easier if they had just said that they weren't going to gerrymander. And I don't think they said that at any point. Believe me, I would have slept a lot easier these last several months if they had said that and they refused to do so. Henderson: Well, folks who watch this program saw Jack Whitver say, we can't gerrymander, the law doesn't allow us to do so. Wahls: Look, we had a different reading on what was going to happen if we got into the amending process. The third map has never been amended and so we don't really have a clear understanding constitutionally of what kinds of amendments would or would not have been allowed. That's why we were so concerned. If we thought that there was no way republicans could gerrymander like I said, I would have been sleeping a lot better over the last several months. Sostaric: So these new maps are going to have big political implications for Iowa over the next decade. Are they good for democrats or republicans? Wahls: Look, we certainly have seen a lot of movement of democrats into urban areas, we've seen a lot of this kind of natural sorting. And so I think that both parties are still trying to figure out what the political advantage will be. For us, as we looked at the first map compared to the second map we certainly saw that the competitive seats that were going to be kind of on the battleground got probably a little bit more competitive. But we think that the path to the majority is actually a little bit clearer in the second plan than in the first plan. So I would say it's a mixed bag at this point if you're comparing the first plan to the second plan, but the path to a majority for democrats remains the same as it was in the current maps as they are now on the map 2 that has been approved, although I don't know if the Governor has signed it yet but I expect she will soon. And that is really straightforward. We have to make sure that we're winning all of the urban districts, we have to continue the progress that we're seeing in the suburban districts. We've got to start figuring out how we win again in some of those more blue collar metropolitan communities that we used to win regularly in Eastern Iowa. And then we have to defend a few of the key rural districts that we currently hold and we have to keep doing that in the future. Henderson: Well, you are the guy that is sort of in charge of recruiting candidates to run as democrats for seats in the Iowa Senate. There are 10 opens seats, according to the early analysis, there may be people that choose not to run or move. I'm just wondering, you mentioned this strategy of winning in rural Iowa. There are democrats who argue we should just take that off the table and focus on places and over performing in places where democrats are living, urban and suburban and exurban Iowa. Where do you land on that debate? Wahls: I don't think those people have the same job that I have, which is to win a majority in the Iowa legislature. So, when you look at the House and at the Senate it's not like the statewide races where a vote is a vote is a vote is a vote where it doesn't matter if it's coming from Johnson County or Cerro Gordo County or Clayton County. In the legislature, we need to have a majority of the vote in a majority of the seats, not just a majority of the vote statewide. And so for us if we want to get to that majority in the Senate that requires us to have a more expansive view of the playing field, of the electorate, and that means that we have to make sure -- we look at Senator Amanda Ragan up in North Central Iowa, Senator Kevin Kinney, a neighbor of mine over in Johnson County -- we have to make sure that we're holding those seats and that is no secret and making sure that as we look to expanding from 18 back up to 26 or more that we're winning in some of those exurban communities you mentioned too. Henderson: How do you convince democrats that it's a good year to run in an off-year election when the party of the President Joe Biden, democrats are historically, the prediction is they're not going to do very well? Wahls: Well, I don't think that the concern for us is about what is happening in D.C. or the national environment. When you look at what is happening in Iowa, in 2018 we saw obviously a very strong performance in an off-year for democrats, we saw Cindy Axne, Abby Finkenauer both elected, Dave Loebsack re-elected, Fred Hubbell came up a little short but I think especially given where the economy was in 2018 did very well. And so I think that when we're looking at what is going to happen in 2022 we've seen college educated voters move into the Democratic Party. We know that college educated voters vote more regularly in off-year elections. And so I think there is a case to be made that this is going to be one of the first times that we've seen this new democratic coalition in an off-year election without Donald Trump on the ballot. So we're really excited to see what is going to happen in 2022. Murphy: So we have our maps. The other bill that was taken up during this special session and approved and actually just signed into law Friday morning by the Governor, as Kay mentioned, has to do with vaccine mandates and requirements. And one of the things it does is makes sure anybody who is fired from their job for refusing the vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccine, can collect unemployment benefits. This had a fairly strong bipartisan support. You yourself voted for it. Why did you vote for this bill? Wahls: Well, democrats have been very consistent through the entire pandemic that unemployment benefits should be there for families who need them. And so it is republicans actually who have been very hypocritical on this issue, they have been all over the map, they have sometimes supported unemployment and sometimes they have supported the Governor trying to strip unemployment away from families. Our position has been really clear, families who need unemployment should be able to get those benefits. And so I didn't like the process around yesterday's bill, it was dropped at the 11th hour, there wasn't really the opportunity for public input, it's not the bill that Senate democrats would have written if we had the majority, but given all the various circumstances that we were dealing with, and again our consistent support for families that depend on that unemployment -- I had a few colleagues on the democratic side who voted no because of some of those process concerns -- but from a big picture perspective around supporting those families who need it, we've always been there, we're going to still be there. Murphy: Another part of that bill creates a so-called medical waiver for the COVID vaccine, an exemption. And I say so-called because it essentially allows any Iowan to declare a medical exemption from the COVID vaccine without having to get approval for that or a signature from a doctor or another healthcare professional. Did you have any reservations about that element of the bill? Wahls: Sure. Look, I want to be very clear, if you're watching at home and you're not vaccinated and you're able to do so I strongly encourage you to get vaccinated. That being said, for folks who do have a medical or religious reason to not get vaccinated, we do want to respect that. Now, I would have liked to see language that maybe included a doctor's note or something like that, but again -- Murphy: That's how we ask for children's exemptions right now, right, you have to have a physician sign off on that. Why is this different? Wahls: Well, I don't think it should have been. Again, if I had the ability to snap my fingers and change the majority position on this that's what I would have done. But again, when it comes back to that issue around unemployment, we have been really consistent on that and we wanted to continue that. Murphy: And you just mentioned the vaccines, democrats have been pretty consistent in that and wanting Iowans to get vaccinated. Do you have any concerns that this carve out, this exemption makes it easier for fewer Iowans to get that vaccine? Wahls: I think it's a little too soon to say what exactly will happen there. But I think that there are folks who are clearly very opposed to getting a vaccine and I don't think this is going to have an impact on their thinking on this issue. Sostaric: Some business leaders were opposing this bill, or this new law, because it puts them in the difficult position of choosing to follow state or federal regulations, and they're saying it also attempts to fix a mandate with another mandate. What is your response to those concerns? Wahls: Yeah, look, this is certainly an imperfect and an evolving situation. I know that we're still waiting on the federal government to promulgate their final rules on this matter, employers certainly have had a fairly rough go of this entire situation. And so, again, the thing that I would encourage folks to do is to get vaccinated. It's a safe vaccine, it's effective. And so that is I think the number one thing that we need to do. But the reality is that the best way to defeat COVID is going to be with vaccines and continuing other mitigation measures. And so I think that is where the focus should be so that we can finally defeat COVID and kind of get back to life as normal. Sostaric: During the special session, some republican lawmakers said they want to go further on this issue in January when the full session begins. What do you expect they're going to do on that? And will you vote for it too? Wahls: It's hard to say if I'm going to vote for something I haven't seen and I can't even begin to speculate on what they're going to do in January. Henderson: Well, no speculation, the Governor recently announced that the Iowa Workforce Development agency will have some new job search requirements and weekly check-ins for people who are receiving unemployment and also that there will be some sort of proposal in regards to unemployment. We've seen in the Senate proposals to limit who may qualify for unemployment. What are you expecting there? And again, what will be the democrats' position on that? Wahls: Well, Kay, the Governor's recent announcement on unemployment I thought was pretty concerning. I think that there is definitely a workforce shortage issue, but I don't think that the republicans actually have any ideas on how to solve the workforce shortage issue. It was an issue that existed before the start of the pandemic and it has only gotten worse during the pandemic. And Kay, that is why there are actually fewer Iowans working today than there were a decade ago and that is a huge problem for our economy and it's a really ominous sign for the future of our state. Republicans have not shown any ideas that actually will get this turned around. Democrats on the other hand, at the federal level and I think at the state level too, we had our own agenda this past session and we're working on it for 2022, we have supported bills that would increase the size of Iowans' paychecks, would make sure that we're trying to actually fix Iowa's broken child care system and try to make sure that at the federal level we're making investments in infrastructure that are critically important in Iowa, certainly in my district where we've seen in Cedar County, which I represent, a huge number of bridges and roads that are literally crumbling. Henderson: So, previously proposals on unemployment involved an assertion from republicans that some businesses are abusing the unemployment system during the winter months by people go on the unemployment roles as a means of supplementing income that they otherwise would get from their business and there have been proposals to sort of scale that back. Are you supportive of or opposing those? Wahls: Well, seasonal workers is a very real part of our economy, there are certain parts of, certain industries where you're not able to work in winter months, but the whole point of our unemployment system is that you can provide support to people when they're not able to work. And so I would have to look a little bit more closely at whatever the specific proposal would be, but trying to pretend that the weather doesn't exist in a state like Iowa doesn't seem like a good strategy to me. Murphy: Senator, this week Iowans will be voting in some local elections for mayors, city councils, school boards, those sorts of races. I wanted to ask you specifically about school board races because some state level issues, especially regarding the pandemic and face masks in schools and requirements, have kind of seeped into those local school board races as well. Republicans who we've had on this show and we've talked to will often say that they feel that they have a message that is resonating at that local level and they feel that it has helped them in Statehouse races and will help -- those races are technically non-partisan but candidates with similar ideologies in these school board races too. I'm curious about your perspective on this. Do you feel like the democratic message is resonating at the local level? And will you have candidates with similar ideologies be successful in these elections this week do you think? Wahls: Well, I think the most important thing is for folks to vote and to be involved in their local school board elections. And I think getting more people involved in city and school board elections is a good thing regardless of what party you're involved with. I know that at least in Eastern Iowa I saw an AP story earlier this week about hundreds of folks who were trying to vote by absentee ballot, had those requests denied because their absentee ballot requests were submitted a little too late, and unfortunately that's a clear indication that the republican voter suppression bills are working exactly as intended. So, I just hope that people are going to be able to participate. When it comes to the specific question about ideology affecting people's decisions, I think it's really unfortunate that the republican attempts to politicize the pandemic is continuing on now here some 18 months into the pandemic and for that to be happening at the local school board level, I understand there are very strong disagreements when it comes to various policies around masks or vaccines or whatever the case may be, but I don't know if that necessarily is going to help us understand what is happening at the Statehouse. Murphy: So you're saying we shouldn't watch for those results and take anything out of that and what that means more broadly politically? Wahls: I just think it's a little hard to say when it comes to a direct line. I know that here in the Polk County area things have gotten pretty heated. I'm interested to see what happens around the state. But I don't know if there's a direct line one way or the other. Murphy: You touched on something -- is there a way or are we too far into this thing, the politicization of the pandemic and issues and people are really entrenched on both sides of this, meanwhile we still have a public health crisis and people are still dying -- is there a way to break through that anymore at this point do you feel and reach people and find a common ground to help get more people to be vaccinated and be safe in public squares or are we beyond the point of no return for that? Wahls: I don't think that we're ever beyond the point of no return, but I think fundamentally it's a political question that the Republican Party has to decide. Early on in the pandemic I think that both parties did a decent job of staying focused on kind of what the mitigation measures were and why they were important. Governor Reynolds, even to her credit in the first early weeks and months of the pandemic I thought did a decent job of steering us in those early days. But there was a trip that she took to the White House and she met with the President in the Oval Office and when she came back her approach was just fundamentally different and I think much more political. And so when we talk about the political polarization of the pandemic we should be very clear, I think democrats from the beginning have been pretty focused on following the science, following the public health experts who know how to bring the pandemic to an end and unfortunately it has been our republican counterparts who have decided to play politics with the pandemic. Sostaric: You visited the Anamosa Prison last spring after two workers were killed there by inmates. Are you confident in how the ongoing reviews of that incident are being conducted? Wahls: What happened in Anamosa was I think a preventable tragedy. It was the result of years and years of underfunding and unsafe work conditions, in part because of what happened in 2017 and the removal of state workers to bargain over their workplace conditions when the republicans gutted Chapter 20. In terms of the ongoing revisions, I would still like to see an additional external review. I know we called for the Department of Labor to get involved with an external review. I know that the Governor brought in some outside, so-called outside experts. But I think more review from the federal government would have been beneficial. So I think we'll wait to see what the final report is before we offer any kind of final remarks on what happened. But obviously it was a tragedy and it should never happen again. Henderson: The Governor signed the tax bill that cleared the 2021 legislature and as she did so she announced that she is going to propose more tax cuts in 2022. How will democrats react to additional reductions in income taxes? Wahls: I think it was on this show maybe just a few weeks ago that my republican counterpart, Senator Whitver, called for the abolition of the income tax in the state of Iowa altogether. And I should be very clear, Kay, that is a radical idea. That would just further benefit the richest and most powerful people in our state. Of course, it's no surprise coming from the Republican Party that that's their idea of tax reform. But I think just another example of how republicans are more concerned about the special interests who fund their campaigns than they are about the realities of everyday Iowans. Democrats are going to be really focused on a single piece in the tax debate, which is what is fair. When we talked at the beginning of the program about what is happening with the UAW strike, that's all about fairness. Our tax code has to be fair. And slashing income tax rates for the wealthiest people in our state is not a fair way of balancing our state budget. Instead we need to be focused on actually solving the real problems that we have in our state. Governor Reynolds I know has talked about the budget surplus, which was made possible by President Biden and Congresswoman Axne, and we should be focused on using that surplus to invest in things like increasing paychecks, fixing our broken child care system and getting our infrastructure working again. Henderson: When Senator Whitver was talking about taxes he identified, as you say, a reduction of the, I guess elimination of the state income tax as a long-term goal. As maybe a stopgap measure he discussed a flat tax. Do you think that would be fair? Wahls: Well, despite the name flat tax, there is actually nothing that is "flat" about it. The reality is that when you pay -- by the way we currently have a flat tax, it's called the sales tax -- and when you pay a sales tax we know that the folks who wind up spending a larger part of their paycheck on the sales tax are those who are working class and middle class families, not the folks who have the most income. And so, again, our focus as democrats has always been on making sure that we have fairness in our tax code, that will continue to be our watchword going forward. Murphy: You said earlier that the national issues don't necessarily affect the way you look at things here at the state level. But I did want to ask you, national democrats are trying to pass President Biden's Build Back Better agenda, his budget and infrastructure package. Does the success of those packages, first of all, whether they even get passed and then what voters think of them, does that not tie into Iowa democrats' fates in next year's elections? Wahls: Yeah Erin, they certainly may. And to be very clear, I would like to see those packages passed. I think that Build Back Better and the bipartisan infrastructure deal are both going to be signature pieces of legislation for President Biden and I think it's terrific that we actually have a bipartisan infrastructure deal that has passed the Senate rather than four years of infrastructure we actually have a deal that will hopefully get over the finish line under President Biden's watch. So I think that those are important pieces of legislation. But I think they also contrast, Erin, to what the republicans are offering, which is nothing. They have no ideas, they don't have any solutions to the problems that are actually ailing our country. And so we need to make sure that whether it's in D.C. or here in Des Moines we have an agenda that is actually working for people. And I do think that Build Back Better and the infrastructure deal will be helpful. But I think that Iowans are really focused on seeing what is happening here in our state and if we're able to get some of those benefits from Build Back Better and the infrastructure deal down to Iowa before 2022 I think Iowa voters will notice that. But I don't necessarily think it's the only thing that people will voting on. Henderson: But wouldn't it be catastrophic for democrats in Iowa and across the country if democrats in D.C. can't pass something? Wahls: Well, I would like them to pass something and I certainly hope they do. Sostaric: Senator, you have spent a few sessions pushing for more protections for people who live in mobile homes and some of the policies that you have proposed didn't pass, even though there was some bipartisan support. What are you hoping, do you have hopes that those will pass this session? Wahls: Well, early in 2020 we introduced a bipartisan bill in the Senate that actually had 30 co-sponsors, 15 republicans, 15 democrats. Senator Jake Chapman, Senator Roby Smith did not allow that bill to even come up for a public hearing. Unfortunately it's another illustration of Senator Roby Smith being in the pocket of special interests rather than everyday Iowans who would have benefited from that specific piece of legislation. So I think that we saw some progress in the House. In fact, it was I think this morning behind Representative Steve Fulton at the drive-thru at McDonald's and Steve Fulton brought that bill forward in the House Judiciary Committee. I would like to see them actually advance it out of committee and bring it to the floor certainly in the House and I would like to see it move forward in the Senate. But ultimately that goes back to the person who is signing the bills to committees and the person responsible for the subcommittees. Last time that bill was before us it was Senator Roby Smith. Henderson: So, in your view what would move the marker? We have about 10 seconds left. Wahls: Unfortunately you'll have to ask the republicans. We had a bipartisan compromise bill that would have done a good job moving it forward. They wouldn't let it come up for a vote. Henderson: I can't move things forward, I have to bring things to an end. Wahls: Fair enough. Henderson: We're out of time. Thank you, Senator Wahls, for joining us today. Wahls: Absolutely. Henderson: Thanks for watching this edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back next week at our regular broadcast times, 7:30 on Friday and Noon on Sunday. You can watch the show anytime on For all of us here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching. (music) 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. 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