Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Sep 10, 2021 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press we convene a panel of Iowa political reporters to discuss the latest in Iowa politics and other news. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table for Yepsen’s final show are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa; Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises; Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for The Des Moines Register; and Dave Price, political director for WHO-TV in Des Moines.

Program support for Iowa Press is provided by Associated General Contractors of Iowa and Iowa Bankers Association.


Yepsen: Fall 2021 brings a special legislative session, political maneuvering ahead of 2022 elections and policy questions swirling around the COVID pandemic. For insight, we gather a reporters round table on this edition of Iowa press Voiceover: 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: [Music] Voiceover: 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, September 10 edition of Iowa Press. And now, for the final time as moderator, here is David Yepsen. Yepsen: Fall 2021 is not a traditional election year for president, governor or the legislature, but that doesn't mean politics have disappeared. Key decisions on legislative redistricting maps, a special session on the horizon and political maneuvering ahead of 2022 are all swirling through the political coverage of today's guests. Joining our reporters round table are Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register. Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, Dave Price, political director, for who-13 in Des Moines. And Kay Henderson is news director at Radio Iowa. Welcome everybody. My last dance here. Dave Price, I'll start with you. The big story...And I want to hear from everybody. The big story in this state right now is COVID. What are the different political ramifications of that? What kind of fallout are you seeing? Price: I might just focus on the governor here. Let's see what happens. She's not made any changes as the Delta variant in particular has moved across our state. If you, if you just start looking at the numbers, we have more people in the hospital than we've had with COVID since January. More in the ICU since December. You have far more kids getting sick, than got it on the alpha version that went around. So you have nearly three in 10 of these infections would be children. So it'll be interesting to see how she maneuvers this going forward. Last year, she did mandates and requirements about certain things. Now it's all about do the right thing. Yepsen: Erin Murphy, what's your take on the politics of COVID. Murphy: Yeah. And to just expand on that, I'll be interested to see. I've said in the past that maybe even on this show, that the first big wave of COVID last year, I didn't know that that would hurt Governor Reynolds in her reelection next year. I thought it'd be kind of too disconnected from when it was happening from last year to November of 2022. As you've noted, things are going in the wrong direction again. If we have another really bad wave this winter with the governor who has in all measurable circumstances taken a kind of a feathered approach to mitigation, that could then play against her in, in a reelection race. If we have to go through again, and those numbers look terrible again all throughout the winter, that could, I believe drag on Kim Reynolds' reelection campaign. The other thing I just want to add is you ask about the political fallout. It's just sad to me that it's political at all. It it's been unfortunate that this became a political issue. And I know the, the, the Republican conservative line is all about individual freedom and choice, but unfortunately that's not how public health works. What Dave Price decides in this pandemic affects me, regardless of what I do. And it's unfortunate that we've kind of lost track of that. Yepsen: Yeah. Your freedom ends at the tip of my nose and that's the argument. Brianne Pfannenstiel... Great job there at the Register, the political writer great job. You do a lot of the poll coverage for the paper. Talk, talk about what you see as the political fallout of this. What's happening with public opinion? Pfannenstiel: Well, you know, as Erin was saying, it's, it's amazing how long this has been going on. And that seems obvious to say right now, but I think we've seen public opinion really shift over that time. You know, it started out, we were all in this together and there was some willingness to extend, you know, courtesy to, to those around us. But I think as it's progressed and you see this, when you get out to campaign events, both, both sides politically have become really entrenched in the way that they're seeing this. And even more polarized. You know, we, we see the governor say this is here for the long haul. Everyone's got to make the best choices for themselves. And, and that in itself is very polarizing. And so that's really going to color the way the electorate is viewing these candidates going into the midterms and how they see it. The last time we pulled on Governor Reynolds, her approval rating had ticked up a little bit. But that was in June. That was when vaccines were being distributed. That was when, you know, the summer was happening. We were going back outside. Things were happening again. That had ticked... Cases were going down. So her approval rating had ticked up a little bit overall. It had ticked up on how she was handling the pandemic. But as we're moving into Delta, I'm very curious to see whether those hold. You know, both sides are really entrenched. Democrats see her as doing very, very poorly. Republicans, pretty broadly think she's doing a good job handling this pandemic. Yepsen: Kay Henderson. You'll be in this chair next week, but what's your view this week? Henderson: Well, David Yepsen. Well, David Yepsen, former Des Moines Register Columnist, former chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register and host of this program. Let me just say that this is a big weekend. Your final show and a big game up in Ames between Iowa and Iowa State. And that's just part of this context of this discussion. People want to get back to normal. They're very excited about being in the stadium, cheering for their team, whichever one it may be. And when you go online and see the commentary about it, you have people who are very concerned about having that many people in the same space, yelling and screaming. Whereas you have other people saying, we want to get life back to normal. We're going to celebrate this day. So you see that conflict in almost every venue that people are experiencing in this state. Yepsen: Well, but Kay...given the trajectories of this latest outbreak, the Delta variation do you see schools shutting down? The numbers of kids getting COVID now are going up. Uh schools shutting down, restaurants closing up again? Henderson: There was only one school that I know of that shut down. And that was a school district in Western Iowa that actually started the school year a week late because during a teacher in service day, some of the staff contracted COVID and so they pushed back the start of school. I don't know, currently of any school that has said, okay, we're not going to have school today or next week. Yepsen: Dave Price. Let's talk about backlashes. Is there going to be a backlash against the unvaccinated? You know, early on in this, when there was no vaccine everyone was very sympathetic to what was going on. But now you're seeing that 90% of the people who are in the hospitals, have not been vaccinated. Some evidence of pushback from the healthcare community about putting them at risk. Are we going to see a backlash against people who don't have the vaccine? Price: Now, we have two groups here. You have unvaccinated by choice, and then you have the younger who are not able to be vaccinated. So I think kind of two different things that we have to look at here. For the second group, the children, that's what I think could be different this time around. Going back to the governor's discussion about, as we see... I might be answering this more as a parent of two young children who can't get vaccinated yet. But as hospitalizations have gone up in children and more kids are getting sick and the governor not requiring anything and taking away the ability of local administrators to have that ability for mask mandates or what have yo. Contact tracing that's changed too. So that's a whole other wild card that I think we have to watch that if those continue to get worse, let's see if that forces her to do something. But as far as punishing the un-vaccinated, that would be perhaps the push back against president Biden here as he is requiring vaccinations. And we'll see if he is now overstepping here with some folks. If that's going to be too much for them. Private businesses have been pushing for some of this. Now, the president of the United States is doing that. Yepsen: Erin, do you see more private businesses saying mandatory, you've got to get a shot or no job? Murphy: You're starting to a little bit, especially as Dave said in the healthcare there's more and more hospitals. Um and, and clinics that are requiring their employees to be vaccinated. And even the ones that aren't requiring a vaccine are coming up with creative ways to you know, basically incentivize being vaccinated. So if you're not vaccinated, then you have to get regular testing, which is a pain that nobody wants to endure. Price: Or pay more for your healthcare. Murphy: Yeah. Or if you have to take off time off for COVID and you're unvaccinated, then, then it's unpaid time off. So you're starting to see that creep a little bit more forward. Now, the question with President Biden's recent rules is the legality of that and has he overstepped, and that's going to be decided in the courts. But on their own, you're already starting to see that taking place. Yepsen: Go ahead, Kay. Henderson: The governor issued a statement as, almost as Biden was making this announcement criticizing it. And one of the really interesting phrases in that was that this is going to lead to an exacerbation of the workforce shortage in Iowa. And what she's referring to, is people in a business, in a hospital, in a clinic who say, I'm not going to get vaccinated. I'm either going to quit or I'm going to retire early. And so that is a group of people who have very strong views about this. And so it will be interesting to see what happens if the president's edict sticks in some places. I'm not sure, you know, I think we have to look at this in a different way. How is the court going to rule on, you know, the president's authority over federal employees and contractors and the president's authority in spaces like hospitals, where they get, where they get Medicaid and Medicare money, federal money goes there. Does he have authority there? The other question is, does he have authority to tell private businesses what to do? Yepsen: Brianne. How does this play? How does the Biden move play in this state? And doesn't Iowa have a workforce shortage problem already that's exacerbated by the fact that a lot of people, a lot of women with little kids can't, or won't, don't want to go back into the workforce because they want to stay home and protect their children? Pfannenstiel: Yeah, there's a lot to unpack here. I mean, as, as Kay mentioned, there's a workforce shortage that we've explored at length, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Among them is access to childcare and a pandemic. So that's a big thing that we'll be watching. .ut Again, just the polarization here, I mean, going into an election season when everything is going to be used as messaging, you know, regardless of the actual effects on the ground. This as a message is really going to be energizing Republicans who feel that the president is already massively overstepping his ground. Who feel that, you know, Democrats in Congress are massively over overstepping. And so you're going to see this play out again, where both of these sides are coming to a head. Murphy: And to that issue of workforce, you've already seen. I recently reported a story where the statewide organization that represents nursing homes and assisted living facilities like that are against a mandate for workers. They are very much for the vaccine. They're, they're very much encouraging as many people as possible to get the vaccine, including their workers. But as the people who run those businesses, they're concerned that that will drive people that will, if you mandate it, they will, you, you will have a percentage, whatever it is, number of workers and we'll decide, well fine. I quit then. Yepsen: But who's going to want to put grandma in a nursing home. If there's, if there's a reason to believe that there's somebody carrying the Delta variant around. Murphy: Especially in those places where we all know by now how dangerous it is to have a virus running through those places. Yepsen: Stay tuned to this. Something for you guys to talk about a lot next year. Let's switch gears. Texas abortion law. Kay Henderson, what's the effect of that new law gonna mean, and the court ruling on it, gonna mean in this state? Henderson: Well, this is energizing for Republicans who looked at president Trump's appointments to the Supreme Court and they're very hopeful that the Supreme court may change federal abortion policy and that laws like this could go into effect. So it's likely that you'll see some Iowa legislators introduce a bill similar to this number one. Number two, I mean, Republicans in this state have passed a 24 hour waiting period before an abortion. They passed a 72 hour waiting period before an abortion. Those have been overturned. The governor is now asking the Iowa Supreme Court to undo its ruling that said under Iowa's constitution women have a right to an abortion. So there's a lot going on in this state about abortion policy. Yepsen: Brianne, what are the political winners and losers of this? You've got the pro-life community energized. You've got the pro-choice community energized. Anyone come out ahead in this? Pfannenstiel: Well, it's really hard to say, you know. As Kay mentioned the Supreme Court was a huge motivator for Republicans going into the last election cycle. And this is seeing the fruits of those labors. And so in some sense, it's saying to Republicans, look, you mobilized, you voted and we're giving you what you asked for. So that's very motivating for a group of voters. But I'm, I think we're all looking to this proposed state constitution amendment that would say the Iowa, the Iowa constitution does not secure a right to an abortion. That's got to move through the legislature again in the '23 or '24 legislative sessions, and then be put to a ballot where it's going to be voted on by Iowans. So there's there's efforts that they're trying to move forward as well already here in Iowa. Price: We talked to one of the leaders of Planned Parenthood this past week, and they're cognizant of where the national trend is going on this. So if you start, you know, going backwards here as the, as there have been successful efforts to stop abortions earlier and earlier, Texas is roughly six weeks or so. They're very cognizant of that and have to make plans for the future based on that. That that could happen here in our state. They're part of a region really now, but. So they may start focusing on other parts of what they, the services they provide. They're realizing that a woman's right to an abortion may be a different policy now. Yepsen: Erin, we've got one of the big battles that's coming up on Tuesday is a special election for Iowa House seat that's vacant due to the death of a former member. Ankeny...A suburb, just north of Des Moines. What's, what's that going to tell us? Murphy: It's going to be a really interesting thing. You, you always want to be a little careful about projecting too much out of a special election. It's such low turnout. It's such a localized race, usually, that you don't want to make any grand predictions based on something that happens. But there are some really interesting factors that play in this race. You mentioned the growth of Ankeny. It has been trending a little more Democratic lately. Some of those Republicans have faced smaller winning margins and one even got knocked off a couple of years ago. But on the other hand, we've also seen some conservative movement in the district at the local level, in some school board issues and elections recently as well. So it's just kind of, if nothing else a little litmus test of, of where things are in the suburbs right now with everything that's going on in this world. Henderson: I defer to the Ankeny expert here on some of this stuff. But one of the things that I've noticed in this race is that you know, socialism and communism is something that's talked about by Republicans as messaging. And on the Democratic side, it's safety in our schools and mask policy and the, and the pandemic. So I think on a, on a local level, you're seeing perhaps what may be playing out in 2022 in a lot of races around the state and around the country. Yepsen: Brianne, what's your take on this? It isn't just another special election to me. I mean, this is, it's the, I think the second largest district now in the state, because of redistricting. It's going to get broken up. Suburban, we're watching what suburban women are doing. What, what do you read into this? Pfannenstiel: Yeah, absolutely. We're, we're continuing to watch how the suburbs are performing. And as you mentioned, redistricting is really going to change the way the suburbs look in the legislature going forward. You know, we've seen the population really shift in this state. You know, dwindling in more rural areas and kind of concentrating in these suburban areas outside of Des Moines. Dallas county, Polk county places like that. And so I think this is going to be a hotbed of activity in 2022. And as we start seeing people campaigning even into 2024, how these suburbs perform is going to be key to how the state looks overall. Yepsen: Dave Donald Trump carried this district by a couple of points. So it's close. We talk a lot about suburban women and how they're being courted by by Democrats. But the fact of the matter is that in Iowa, there are a lot of social conservative, a lot of evangelical women who live in those districts. So is this going to tell us something? Price: Well, we'll have to see. And there's a Republican voter advantage in the district to begin with. And these Independents, these non-party folks, are they even going to show up in a special election like this. Or is this built-in advantage for Republicans going to play out? For Democrats, like you mentioned, they, they want to show that they have something going on here. Now they're running a candidate who is, who has run twice before and been unable to get that district. But is this going to show that Democrats have found something really sort of, as something they can use as marketing and messaging statewide to show, hey, we're trying to come back here. Yepsen: But if they lose this special election, aren't they going to have a lot of trouble...Democrats, have a lot of problems recruiting candidates to run for other legislative seats? Price: Doesn't help. Murphy: And the only thing I'll say that...maybe a little bit, but as we sit here and talk about this, so this person, whoever wins this special election is going to serve for one year, fill out the term, and then the next election, it's not going to be that district. It's going to be completely redrawn. So it depends on what happens with redistricting, which I think we're going to talk about a little bit here. Yepsen: All right. Well, Kay. Let's talk about redistricting. Henderson: Fruit basket upset. Yepsen: Well, there'll be a lot of turnover in legislators. In the past, it's been as many as a third of lawmakers don't come back for one reason or another. Henderson: And you covered some of the most interesting redistricting battles back in 1981. Yepsen: But those are ancient history now. I mean, back then the feeling was you had to get the district written drawn quickly so you could attract...both parties could attract a candidate. Now partisan differences seem to make a lot more importance to people. Henderson: Well, it will be interesting to see what happens because I think recruiting for Democrats, as Dave may have alluded to, is sort of up in the air. We don't know how successful they're going to be because of the overwhelming majorities that you see in the Iowa Senate and in the Iowa House of Representatives for Republicans. Yepsen: Brianne, do you think that the Republicans are going to take this first plan? The way Iowa law works, they get a plan vote it up or down. If they vote it down, they get a second plan, vote it up or down. If they vote it down, they go to a third plan, which they can amend. So what are the Republicans going to do? Pfannenstiel: This is the parlor game dujour in the political world right now. Are they going to take the first map or will it keep moving forward? Iowa is really unique in the way that it redistricts. And it has a system set up to kind of limit the influences of partisan politics. Limit some of that gerrymandering that we see in other states. And so there really is an incentive for people for legislators to accept some of these early maps, because, you know, there's no guarantee that the next one is going to be better for them. And they don't get to go back. It's not like they get to see three maps and pick their favorite from them. They either decide this is okay, it's fair. You know, we, we may get better, we may not. It's a gamble for them. Yepsen: Well, and the courts have said, you can't turn over the second card unless that card beats the first one in terms of population variances. So the devil, you know, maybe...Erin. Murphy: I'll say this. We'll see soon enough cause they're gonna have the first map within the next week or so here. So we'll start to see this process play out. Iowa Republicans, since they've gained the trifecta, the full majority of the Statehouse have been asked about this issue specifically and have pretty consistently said we respect, Iowa's nonpartisan process. They fall short of saying they won't take it to that spot, where they could amend it. But they've been saying the right things. On the other hand, this group has not shown much interest in pumping the brakes when they've seen a political opportunity at the Statehouse in these last, what is it? Four or five, six years that they've had the trifecta. It's been full speed ahead with every possible agenda item they've wanted. So if deep down they want to play with these things, they've shown in the past that that they've had no reason to stop themselves. Price: And that would be the difference. This is what we have that we haven't had for several of these cycles. Yepsen: Dave, talk about Cindy Axne. A lot of speculation she might run for governor. Latest speculation, maybe not. Run for reelection. What do you think is going to happen? This map is going to determine a lot of, I don't know, the dominoes that fall in Iowa politics. Price: And the third district. I think that thinking is that it will probably be pretty similar to what it is now. Maybe it gets a little bluer, maybe it doesn't. But she has been assessing this decision that she's officially said she wasn't running for Senate and she's endorsed Abby Finkenauer for that role. But all signs would seem to indicate she will run for reelection and not governor. Yepsen: We've only got a couple minutes left. Brianne. It's never an official Iowa Press show these days unless we talk about whether Chuck Grassley is going to run for reelection or not. You had a, you had a big interview with him. What do you think? Pfannenstiel: Yeah. I spent some time on the road with him recently and you know, tried to kind of pry it out of him. See if he'd tell me, you know, which way he's leaning. And it's still really tough to say. He set himself a November 1st deadline, he said. He's going to make it public by then, giving him or whoever else might run a full year to campaign. Um. But you know, going into this thing, he's one of the oldest members of, of the Senate. He would be 95 at the end of another term. But he still loves the job. You know, you ask him what, what he might do if he retires, and it's kind of a, well, you know, I might like to teach. But he doesn't have a list of books he wants to read. He's told me he doesn't fish or play golf or play tennis. It's not like he has a big list of things he wants to do afterward. But you ask him what he wants to finish in the Senate. He's got that list. Yepsen: Well, Kay...what do you think? I said once I thought he was going to hang it up. But now I'm beginning to wonder. It's likely the Republicans hold onto the Senate. That makes him president of the Senate again. He's probably back as chairman of the finance committee. That's worth a lot to Iowa in terms of tax policy. What's your guess on what happens? Henderson: Well, I think she hit on it. He's got a list of things he still wants to do. And he's not ready to hang it up in my opinion. That's just my opinion. He says that there will be a family meeting in October to sort of digest this decision and make it. But he said he and Barbara have an equal vote here. Yepsen: Erin, real quickly. Ashley Hinson has been mentioned as a possible candidate if Grassley quits. But now she's running for reelection. So doesn't that tell you you cover that area. Doesn't that tell you he's gonna run? Murphy: It does seem to indicate that, you know, if she was certain that he was not going to run again, that she may have held her water on that announcement a little longer. Yepsen: Got to leave it there gang. It's been great working with you over the years. Thanks. Murphy: Congratulations. Henderson: Thank you. Pfannenstiel: Congratulations. Price: Quite a career. Murphy: Been great working with you. Speaker 1: And Iowa PBS will be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night and noon on Sunday. As I said, this will be my final program as host of Iowa Press. It's a journey I began more than four decades ago, and I leave it in very capable hands. So for all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today. Music: [Music] Voiceover: 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