Rep. Jennifer Konfrst
Iowa Press | Episode
Oct 1, 2021 | 27 min
Rep. Jennifer Konfrst discusses the upcoming special legislative session and the redistricting process, the pandemic and various policy issues.
(music) A special legislative session is only days away. We gather perspective from the Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst 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 IowaBankers.com. (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 1st edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. (music) Henderson: Democrats have been in the minority in the Iowa House for the past decade. Last week our guest was the leader of the 59 republicans currently serving in the House. Our guest this week is the leader of the 40 democrats who are serving there. Our guest was elected House Minority Leader in June. This month, October, there is a special election for an open House seat in the Newton area coming up. But next week on the 5th the legislature will reconvene in special legislative session. They’ll be voting on redistricting plan 1, it is that once every decade reconfiguring of the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts. House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, who is in the middle of her second term in the Iowa House, lives in Windsor Heights. And by the way, that is in current House District 43. At a point in her career, as full disclosure, she did work for this network, Iowa PBS. But since 2013 she has been a full-time professor at Drake University teaching courses in journalism and communications. Representative Konfrst, welcome to Iowa Press. Konfrst: Thanks for having me. I'm happy to be here. Henderson: Also at the table, Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Lee Enterprises newspapers. Murphy: Representative Konfrst, when those maps were published you were very quick to say that you were ready to approve of them and vote yes on that first proposal. What was it about them that you liked them and were able to make that pledge so quickly? Konfrst: They were fair. They were drawn using Iowa's fair redistricting process. I said I would vote for them before I even saw it because a map that is drawn using Iowa's gold standard redistricting process is a fair map and that is one that is good for Iowa. It is the most important thing is to not consider politics, but to consider fairness when we're making this really important once a decade decision. Murphy: Last week on this show House Speaker, republican Representative Pat Grassley said something pretty similar. Do you take him at his word that House republicans in the majority feel the same way as you do about these maps? Konfrst: As you might imagine I watch Iowa Press and so I did watch that episode and saw him say that and was heartened to see that because he and I agree on this. We don't often agree, but in this we do. Not using politics as a determining factor on how to vote is really important to the integrity of our system and so I was thrilled to hear that he wants to move forward and have this as our map. Henderson: But what does your gut tell you? What is your prediction? Will these maps pass on Tuesday? Konfrst: It's a fair question. So I have gotten out of the predictions business after 2016. But I will tell you that on Monday morning I made a bet with my husband that this is going to be the map. So I don't have a lot of intelligence, the republican caucus doesn't give me their information very often, but I do feel like this is going to be a map that everyone can live with and that preserving the process is too important to mess with. Sostaric: Some democrats have previously raised concerns that the republican majority would want to take this to a third map at which point they can then amend the boundaries that are drawn by the Legislative Services Agency. If this map doesn't pass, the Iowa Supreme Court set a deadline for December 1st for that redistricting process to be done. Do you think that the legislature could even get to a third map in that timeline? Konfrst: I think it's hard to get to a third map with a December 1st deadline. The LSA needs to go back and start from scratch. We have a second map in between. So we need to get to that map and then go through the process again and then we would need to get to a third map. So I think if we're talking three or four weeks between maps I don't know that there's a lot of time to get to a third map. And frankly, if our interest is, and we have heard from republican leadership their interest is in preserving Iowa's system then there is really no need to get to a third map. Sostaric: If there is ultimately a second set of maps up for a vote, what would get you to vote no on that set of maps? Konfrst: If it was amended in some way or if it didn’t match the Constitution or Iowa Code. So, if for some reason the compactness wasn't there, if for some reason there were too many considerations that are laid out in Iowa Code that were not met we would consider voting no. But it will not be that people thrown together is a reason to vote no or a district gets less friendly is a reason to vote not. That would never be our reasoning. The reasoning needs to be because it doesn't hold up to Iowa Code muster. But because it is drawn by LSA it will meet Iowa Code. Murphy: I know it's not your party our even your chamber. Do you have any sense of what Senate republicans have in mind for this map? Konfrst: Senate republicans talk to me even less than House republicans. But I can tell you that we're hearing that there is a little bit of consternation in the Senate about what they want to do with the maps. But this can be a bipartisan vote if people are willing to take democratic votes and we can help get this done. Murphy: The other thing about this special session is it doesn't have to be limited to just the redistricting. Technically legislators can bring forth any kind of bill that they want. What is your sense, again, from leadership from the other party, but what is your sense or what are you hearing, are we going to also be looking at other bills maybe about abortion or vaccine requirements, face masks? Or is it going to be a get in, do the redistricting and get out kind of special session? Konfrst: I sure hope next Tuesday is boring. I sure hope that all we do is consider maps and move forward. It's not really, we have January, it's not that far away, we can bring up all these issues then. I don't get the sense that there are a lot of members who are thrilled about coming back for day after day after day. It's harvest, we have people who are -- we all have day jobs that we need to get back to. So my sense is that we want to make this a day-long session and go about our business. So that is my hope and expectation. Henderson: Representative Konfrst, earlier this week we learned that the state of Iowa finished the last fiscal year on June 30th with a $1.24 billion dollar surplus. What should be done with that money? Konfrst: Well, I think first of all we need to acknowledge the fact that Iowa's economy is strong in many ways because of the work that President Biden has done to help Americans get out of the pandemic and to help Iowa's economy recover. So I think that is a really important acknowledgment that this surplus can sort of represent. I think that I've heard a lot about tax cuts with this surplus. Certainly if there are tax cuts they need to be going to working families. We need to make sure that tax cuts aren't again going to wealthy families or to corporations or special interests and I also think we need to acknowledge the fact that our schools have been underfunded for a long time, Iowa's mental health system needs more funding and health care and prescription drug costs still hurt Iowa family budgets. So whatever we can do to help alleviate that I think is a really good use of that money. Sostaric: As you mentioned, Governor Reynolds has said she wants to cut taxes more in the next legislative session. Specifically what kind of taxes should be cut? Konfrst: I think if we're going to cut taxes they need to be on working families so that the people who have been bearing the brunt of the economic hardship are the ones who are able to benefit a little bit from fewer taxes and more money in their pocket. If we're going to do this let's make sure that we focus that on working families. Additionally, let's make sure that these families are getting the benefits of state services that they have been promised by making sure that we're fully funding the endeavors that we promised to voters. Sostaric: And then Governor signed a tax cut bill just in June. What is the impact of that? Konfrst: We don't know yet, of course, this is always the answer is that it depends. But what we're seeing is that the Governor really likes to make sure that, and republicans in both chambers like to make sure that their donors and their wealthy special interests get the tax cuts and get the benefits that they ask for. We want to make sure that that tax cut makes it to people who need it. Henderson: Did you as a caucus among House democrats vote for that bill? In the Senate they did vote for it and the former Senate democratic leader said one of the reasons that she voted for it was because it got rid of the inheritance tax. Konfrst: Right, we did not vote for that. I don't remember if we all voted no but we did not vote for that bill because while the inheritance tax is an issue that certainly we can talk about, we felt that the bill overall was too costly for Iowa and was not heading to the right people. Henderson: So what was the most egregious, in your view, section? Konfrst: I believe if I'm remembering correctly this was the bill that was at the end of session. I know there were concerns about where the money, where the tax cuts were and that they weren't going enough to working families. Murphy: So, one tax that affects working families and really all, but especially working families, is the income tax. And Governor Reynolds has said that one of her goals ideally would be to eventually completely eliminate the state income tax. Is that something that House democrats are wiling to sign off on? That is a big chunk of the state budget. Konfrst: Not really willing to commit to getting rid of a large source of revenue for state services. So that's not something that I can see us getting fully behind. Of course we recognize that there are tax burdens and tax responsibilities that we have as Iowans but we also have revenue responsibilities so that we can serve Iowans who need it. Iowa needs state government and Iowans need the services that we offer. Let's make sure that we're prioritizing things that people can really benefit from like public education, like health care, like the environment, make sure people can use the tax, can receive the benefits of the tax dollars they are giving. Murphy: How do you, because republicans obviously will come in with a goal of cutting taxes and I know, and I asked Speaker Grassley this last week about agencies, state agencies and departments that will say hey, for the last ten years we've been tightening the belt because you've asked us to, how do you break through with the current leadership at the Statehouse and maybe try to accomplish both of those things and reduce some taxes but also get some funding to some areas of the state budget that has been needing it in their view for a few years? Konfrst: Yeah, and I think that's a great question. It doesn't have to be all or nothing, we can have some reductions while also making sure we're funding state agencies. I think that comes down to constituents and people saying these are the services that we need that we're really not getting from the state government. We've been waiting for a long time, it takes a long time to get unemployment, it takes a long time to get services from state agencies because they have been cut so much. Let Iowans let these legislators know their constituents, we're not getting the services we need from the state, even though they're doing the best they can, let's give them a little help. Murphy: What are some services that you think are falling short right now? Konfrst: So I think that we certainly have seen some issues with the Department of Human Services and their difficulty. They have had a pandemic to deal with but they have also, we have trouble getting responses to people who call in with problems. This is not a criticism of the department, this is just a criticism of the fact that they're understaffed and overworked. We have seen this with Iowa Workforce Development. We have had people with unemployment challenges that they have not been able to get a call back. I had a constituent who didn't receive his unemployment check during the pandemic for three months and that was not because somebody wasn't doing their job, it's just because there aren't enough people to help do the job. Henderson: Right before the pandemic started, Kim Reynolds, the Governor, unveiled this Invest in Iowa plan, which would have cut income taxes and raised the state sales tax and part of that new revenue would have been dedicated to water quality. In retrospect, should democrats have said, thumbs up let's do it? Konfrst: It's hard to know in retrospect because everything changed. But I think that this water quality issue is one that I do agree needs to be addressed and it's a billion dollar problem, it has been ten years in the making, funding the trust is certainly something that we should be looking at. And I know a lot of the problem is about the penny and where it goes. But I think we need to be taking this issue seriously and really looking into it instead of just nodding to water quality saying it's important and then moving on and not doing anything about it. Henderson: You mentioned the trust, and for the benefit of viewers who may not know what that is, a decade ago voters said they wanted to create this trust fund for environmental projects and namely water quality improvement and the caveat was the next time the sales tax is raised a percentage of that sales tax will go into it. Do you foresee at any point in the future where a republican trifecta in state government would ever raise taxes? Konfrst: I think when we're talking about water quality -- I don't, I don't know that I do see that to be honest with you. But I do think that, I know that water quality is not a partisan issue. So at some point we have to address this issue. And so if that means doing what Iowans asked to do at the tune of 70% ten years ago, then maybe that's what we need to do because Iowans deserve and expect high quality water and they're not getting it all the time. Henderson: Just one other issue that legislators talk about all the time, the bottle bill. Do you foresee the 2022 legislature actually taking action and changing the bottle bill in some meaningful way? Konfrst: Wow, did I not know about the bottle bill being such a dramatic thing when I came into the legislature. It is quite the thing. I've been on a state government committee so I've seen many iterations of it already. I don't see that we make a lot of progress on that in 2022. It seems to me that the people at the table just are very apart in what they want. There are some who just want to get rid of it all together and some who want to expand it and it seems like if we could sit down and have a conversation and find a middle ground that would be great. I have not seen that happen yet. And the way the bottle bill happened last session was kind of a mess. And so I don't know that we're going to get a lot cleaned up before January. I would love to see something done with the bottle bill to improve it, I don't want to see it go away. Sostaric: The Governor has endorsed an Ankeny School Board candidate who has pushed for requiring in-person school during the pandemic. Are you planning to endorse any school board candidates this year? Konfrst: No, I don't think it's appropriate for the Governor to endorse in a non-partisan race and I don't think it's appropriate to get involved. This is a school board election and these are supposed to be non-partisan races. We've heard a lot, we should stay out of these races, these shouldn't be partisan. So for the Governor to show up and endorse at an event was quite concerning to me frankly. Sostaric: Isn't there school board and local officials, isn't that kind of a bench for a political party? Why aren't you focusing on building that bench for democrats? Konfrst: I would argue that not endorsing and not focusing on it are different things. So just the fact that we're not out there touting certain school board candidates doesn't mean we're not focused on building the bench. There are a lot of organizations, democratic organizations, who are working hard to build that bench. I just don't think it's appropriate as leader to go in and put my thumb on the scale in a non-partisan race in that fashion. Murphy: There was a special election recently to fill a Statehouse seat in Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines. Democrats won that by a close -- or I'm sorry, republicans won that in a race that was close in a district that had been traditionally republican but it started to trend democrat. What is the democratic view of that outcome? Is there concern that the democrats' performance in the suburbs may not be as strong as it has been in recent cycles? Konfrst: There are no moral victories, would have loved to have won that. However, there were some really encouraging signs in that election. We lost by 377 votes, we had a higher turnout than republicans in that district in terms of a percentage of our voters, we got 90% of our early vote in, the ballots back in before the deadline and that is with the new voter suppression law. So we really feel like we saw some promise there in Ankeny. The candidate there divided her loss in half, cut it in half, she lost by 3.5 instead of 7 points like she did in 2020 and she outperformed Joe Biden in the district how he performed in 2020. So, we see it as trending toward us and with a new map with smaller districts, this is a huge district, the second biggest district in the state right now, that will be shrunk when we get down to new maps and we see some really good opportunity there. Murphy: And there is another one coming up very soon here that is in a district over in Newton just east of Des Moines here. It was a democratic incumbent who retired but he won in a district that went pretty decisively for Trump in the presidential election. How big a challenge is that for democrats to hold onto that seat in this special election? Konfrst: I'm going to be honest with you, it's going to be tough. We need to get all hands on deck and we need to get out -- also the deadline, the election was set very soon because of a special session. The Governor set it within a very small window so there is even less time. Absentee voting probably won't be an option for people because ballots won't be printed until the Friday before Election Day and so this is all going to be about in-person voting. But we have a great candidate, Steve Mullan, he is a city councilman. When we were recruiting there everyone knew him, everyone was coming into the cafe and knew him. So I do feel like we have a really strong candidate. We're going to do all we can but it's going to be really tough. Sostaric: Typically redistricting maps are approved in the spring but there has been this delay in census data because of the pandemic. How far behind are candidate recruiting and fundraising efforts because of that delay? Konfrst: That's a great question. We have been recruiting by precinct so that way we know where someone lives in a certain precinct so if they get thrown together we can kind of shift things a little bit. But it certainly made it harder to get commitments, to get people to announce. I first announced in August of 2015 for a 2016 election and I felt behind. So certainly we need to get moving. It's a universal problem I think at least. The thing I've said most since becoming leader has been we don't have maps yet so let's not make decisions until we get final maps. Not everyone listens to that, but it's true that we shouldn't be putting for sale signs in yards, we shouldn't be announcing candidacies for districts that don't yet exist. As Kay mentioned, I'm in 43 right now but that's not the district I'm running for in 2022. We'll see if it's 32 or not. So we need to make sure we know where we're running. But we have done our best to try to get people who are interested -- we know there are going to be districts we're going to target, it's just a matter of pulling the trigger once they are approved and we can go. Sostaric: Speaking of 2022, history tells us if the President is a democrat those midterms are going to look pretty good for republican candidates. How are you going to counteract that and try to win for democrats? Konfrst: Right. We've got 403 days until election, not that anyone is counting. But a lot can change in a year and a few months. And so we're really working on keeping our message local, talking to Iowans in the district about what it is that we stand for, what Iowa democrats stand for and what is happening at the Capitol. I feel like we have a responsibility to do a better job communicating in 2022 and that includes letting people know a lot of times I see republicans, we all see it, republicans who campaign in moderation and govern in extreme and they get to the Capitol and they do different things than they promised. My job is to go out there and make sure people know that. Murphy: You said you're going to try and keep the campaign local. I get the sense that republicans are going to try and nationalize all these races. Can you combat that? People see the ads on TV and it's almost always about the President and Senate. Can you break through that and make these local races actually about local issues? Konfrst: Well, that is what we think is most important is that Joe Biden isn't going to be on the ballot anywhere in Iowa, neither by the way Nancy Pelosi. Though we hear their names a lot, they're not the people who people are electing to represent them. So it's really about finding great candidates who represent their districts well and then talking about issues that matter most to people. It's hard to combat, it's not going to be easy, but we don't have a choice and we have to do it. Henderson: When you were elected Minority Leader by your peers in the House in June you said your message to them is we need to learn from 2020 and not live in 2020. What did you mean? Konfrst: Right, what I mean by that is that it can be -- the 2021 session and the 2020 election night period was not great for democrats. We didn't love our lives, we didn't feel great about what we were doing. It's really easy to get discouraged. My point was we need to learn and see what we can do better based on 2020, but we can't continue to sort of sit back and say, oh we got kicked, we're down. We need to fire up, get ready to go and look forward to 2022. Instead of grousing about 2020. We need to focus on the future and that is what I mean, we're going to look forward. Henderson: I covered the Polk County Democrat Steak Fry a couple of weeks ago and one of the things that struck me was the Chairman of the county party said, it's going to take a decade to crawl back. Is that how long it's going to take democrats to sort of regain any equilibrium here, make this a purple state again? Konfrst: Absolutely not. Iowa was a purple state in 2018. So things aren't, it's not that long ago. And I disagree with Sean on that. I think that we're going to get back quicker than that because I do think that we have swung a little far one way and I do firmly believe in my heart that Iowa is a purple state. I'm not going to sit here and say Iowa is a blue state. But I do believe Iowa is a purple state. Murphy: So one of the ways you'll need to accomplish that is by having a message that resonates, especially statewide, with voters. Republicans seem to have built one around liberty, personal freedoms, that seems to have resonated with a lot of Iowans, especially in rural areas. How do you combat that message or counter that message, I suppose I should say, and maybe even more specifically to the point, what is Iowa democrats' message in general to voters, especially statewide? Konfrst: I think our message to Iowa democrats, well to all Iowa voters, is that Iowa democrats are here to be together to represent Iowa values and the values that we grew up with. So that means helping each other out, looking out for each other, the same values that mean you come help somebody whose car is stuck down the road or the values that we say when we say you should wear a mask to keep each other safe. It's all about collective action, working together, being a community and being families together. It's really important to us that we remind Iowans that is who we are and that is what we represent. So let's let our laws and our policies reflect that. Murphy: One of those areas where that seems to have resonated is in the pandemic response efforts. There seems to be a little bit of a disconnect between democrats who have been critical of the Governor and her response in many ways, but the Governor's approval rating overall has actually increased this year in consecutive Iowa Polls. Is there a disconnect between what Iowa democrats see as the right way to combat the pandemic? And if there is does that concern you in any way? Konfrst: I think what I would say is that leadership is about making decisions that are right, not popular. So making popular decisions, sure, that helps to increase your popularity but it doesn't mean that you're doing the right thing for the state of Iowa to help us get out of this pandemic. 24% of the cases of COVID this last week were kids. That is because we have essentially thrown in the towel and said, we're just going to have normal life back. We've got 24% of the kids out there, or the cases of COVID, are kids. And that was not the case, we should not be here in October of 2021 still having these conversations. It is because the Governor made popular decisions, not necessarily ones that will get Iowa out of this pandemic faster. Sostaric: A recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll showed that a majority of Iowans say they think abortion should be legal. What is your plan for connecting with those potential voters? Konfrst: I think it's really important to make them understand the true impact of the legislation that is being proposed. This Constitutional amendment that needs to pass another General Assembly would make it very difficult for any woman in Iowa to get an abortion, but certainly also to potentially do In Vitro Fertilization, some forms of birth control, abortion in any case. We need to really sound the alarm bells about what the impact of this will be and also draw connections between what has already happened and what the impact has been because you can fear monger all you want, but we've seen the impact of defunding and hurting abortion access in the state of Iowa, we've seen the impact, we need to make sure Iowans know it's already bad, it's going to get worse. Henderson: We have about a minute left. Given the challenges that we have covered in this conversation, why ever would you want this job? Konfrst: I love this job. I believe strongly in the state of Iowa. I absolutely love the House of Representatives. And I think that House democrats are the people who are out there looking out for everyday Iowans. I love this state. And this is a blast. I have a great time with these people, I even like my republican colleagues. We have a good time up there. Henderson: You are the leader of a majority female caucus, I believe. Why did it take so long for a female to be elected to be the leader of that caucus? Konfrst: I don't know. And to be honest with you I'm sort of embarrassed that we haven't had one until now. But I'm honored to be that first leader. I think that we truly do represent values and represent more women than men that really serve Iowa women and we need to reflect that in our caucus and I'm glad we finally do. Henderson: Representative Konfrst, thanks for joining us for this conversation today. Konfrst: You bet. Henderson: Also, we want to say thank you for watching this episode of Iowa Press. Join us again next week at our regular broadcast times, 7:30 on Friday and Noon on Sunday or anytime on iowapbs.org. On behalf of everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching. (music) (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 IowaBankers.com.