Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Dec 24, 2021 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press we convene a panel of Iowa political reporters to look back on 2021 and preview 2022, including the upcoming legislative session.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Clay Masters, Morning Edition host and lead political reporter for Iowa Public Radio; Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises; Kathie Obradovich, editor for Iowa Capital Dispatch; and Dave Price, political director for WHO-TV in Des Moines.



2021 was a tumultuous year for legislation and policy at the federal, state and local level. We sit down with Iowa political reporters and look ahead to 2022 on this reporters' roundtable edition of Iowa Press.


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


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, December 24th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: The year 2021 will soon be history. When the calendar flips to 2022, a legislative sessions starts on January 10th, in March there is a filing deadline when we really find out who is running for what in Iowa. So it is a political year ahead. We have assembled a group of political reporters to talk about what is going on in Iowa. And just as a note for you, because of our schedules and to accommodate that, we are taping this conversation on Friday, December 17th. Joining us today are Erin Murphy, he is the Lee Enterprises Bureau Chief, there are five Lee Enterprises newspapers in Iowa. Dave Price is the Political Director at WHO-TV in Des Moines.

Price: There's just one of those.

Henderson: Okay. Clay Masters is a Political Reporter and you hear him on Morning Edition on Iowa Public Radio. And joining us, Kathie Obradovich. She is the Editor for the Iowa Capital Dispatch. You see that in some of the state's newspapers and online. Henderson: Folks, let's begin with a discussion about something you covered this year that you expect to cover in 2022. Let's start with you, Clay. What do you see?

Masters: Well, I guess we'll just start with water quality issues. I've been in Iowa now almost 10 years and it just continues to be an issue, concerns over nitrates, there was that big Des Moines Water Works lawsuit that is now ancient history it seems. I don't know how much of it is going to be talked about during the 2022 campaign for congressional offices or the Governor's Office, but it is something that is only becoming more and more of a concern for many people across the state. Henderson: Dave Price, what are you looking at?

Price: I'm going to say this and immediately there will be eye rolls, not from this table, but from people out in the communities because I just feel like we have to talk about COVID-19 still. This will be the third year of this to some degree just because some of these numbers are going in the wrong way again. This was a focus you'll recall earlier this year, the Governor had made the focus about get vaccinated, get vaccinated and I think for about 12 seconds they had Adam Gregg going around the state to try to reach out to men who were resistant to some of this, and I say that sort of sarcastically I guess. But it was announced one day and I don't really know what all kind of happened with it. But it seems like some of the transition has been going against mandates, but we're kind of stuck, and we're seeing these hospitalizations going the wrong way here. It is primarily unvaccinated people and it impacts things. You have people who will refuse to get back into the workplace, some perhaps who have retired early. But it is really holding back where the state can go because there are myriad reasons and fears that people have.

Masters: Especially with the rise of the Omicron variant. I don't mean to jump in, but there's still a lot that we don’t know yet and 2022 we're going to learn a lot more.

Henderson: Erin Murphy, what have you covered in this calendar year that you expect will bleed over into 2022?

Murphy: Well, everybody brace yourselves for the most exciting topic, taxes. We have a republican majority in the Iowa Statehouse and we have a budget surplus in Iowa. So we are going to without a doubt here continue discussion on cutting Iowa's taxes. They have done some pretty significant tax reductions in the last few years, including in the 2021 session. But that conversation is going to continue in 2022. What exactly it looks like, what gets cut, is still to be determined, but without a doubt that debate is going to take place once again.

Henderson: Well, in just a few minutes let's talk about some of the details that are sort of percolating.

Murphy: Save more for later.

Henderson: Exactly. But let's get Kathie in this conversation. What did you cover in 2021 that you expect to cover in 2022?

Obradovich: One of the issues that sort of underlaid a lot of the things that we're talking about is our ability to report on issues through the Governor's office and state government and I dare to say this is something we have all experienced, which is the non-compliance of the Governor's office with Iowa Open Meetings and Records law. There have been a number of lawsuits filed, there have been at least two lawsuits filed, my organization is involved in one of those that was filed this month along with the Freedom of Information Council and some other media outlets. We will see, of course, how that plays out in the courts. But I just want to put in a plug for the Open Meetings and Records law, it is very important to democracy. If people do not, if people can't reliably get records from state government, not just media, not just us, people that are maybe could be considered insiders at the Capitol, but just people walking off the street to their local school board or to their local city council, if they cannot get access to public records in a reliable way they have to rely on what their elected officials are telling them about what they're doing. And that is really difficult for democracy.

Murphy: And to add to that point, it's not just the Governor's office, we've got a case where an eastern Iowa school district is trying to charge an online reporter $600,000 to fulfill a public information request, a public records request. So we're seeing more and more cases lately, it's a troubling kind of trend of government being less and less transparent here in Iowa and that's just not a good way to operate in my view and I would hope most people's view that want good governance.

Henderson: Well, republicans hope to release a tax plan early in January. Dave Price, what are your sources telling you will be in that plan?

Price: I think the question is, how low can they go? So the ultimate goal that they have been it seems to be more vocal about, especially the last couple of years, is let's try to push this down to nothing, so no personal income tax. And they're talking about it that it could be a competitive advantage for the state. As we all know, this is a slow growing state, two-thirds of our state roughly speaking the population is going the wrong way here. So this has been something that has been discussed, but to me it seems like they're being maybe more forward, like the Governor is talking about it that that is her ultimate goal. I'm not sure I remember her talking about that a lot when she first got into office. And they have a ton of money sitting there now that they can use to try to get this going. There was so much, I looked on the Department of Management's website the other day and if I'm following the numbers right, which could be maybe something I'm not doing right, it could be math which is dangerous, but I think it said that just the COVID-related money the state has received something like $9.2 billion, something like that, which is essentially what the budget is give or take a few bucks. So that is a ton of money and I think they have said that $2 billion or so is sitting in there.

Henderson: That is the taxpayer relief fund you're referencing.

Price: Yeah, that in particular.

Henderson: By the end of the fiscal year, and the state runs on a fiscal year that ends on June 30th, we learned earlier this month that it would have probably $2 billion dollars in it.

Price: Right, and so that was discussed during that Revenue Estimating Conference. So that is a good chunk of change and it seems like they could be on their way. Now, I don't think in '22 the plan would be to get down to nothing. But it seems like they want to make some sizeable progress there and focus on personal rather than corporate.

Henderson: Erin, do you think they will do both personal and corporate?

Murphy: Excellent segway because that is the point I was going to raise. I monitored a public hearing on the state budget this week and there were some business groups and interests that talked about hoping that they could lower that corporate tax rate as well. That hasn't been part of the discussion I've heard yet from legislators. But with a budget surplus like this I imagine all options will be on the table and they'll at least have that debate. The one thing I should note about that though, and we have talked about it and you mentioned the federal funds, there is some talk, some calls for hesitance from some groups that are saying yeah, the budget is healthy right now but it is being artificially propped up by those federal funds. We had an unusual year coming off the pandemic where receipts were still higher than we expected. But actual revenue growth out of that recent meeting that you noted, Kay, and correct me if I'm wrong, I believe actual growth was only like 1% to 3% --

Henderson: 1.7%.

Murphy: Thank you. So actual budget growth is not significant, so what are the long-term impacts of making a huge revenue reduction?

Henderson: Well, and the director of the Department of Revenue makes the point that the 1.7% growth is on top of a year that was double digit and then they have raised the revenue estimate for the current state budget year that they're in to 3% and then growth on top of that would still be healthy but defined by their calculations as 1.7%.

Obradovich: Yeah, I'm not sure there's going to be one plan, Kay. As we have seen with other issues the House and the Senate may not be playing from the same playbook on this issue. There are some senators who are saying, we need to hold out for eliminating the income tax. There are some prominent House members, House republican members who are saying, this is a moon shot year, but they're not talking about eliminating the income tax, they're talking about maybe a five-year plan to get it down to 3.99%, something like that instead. And there's also people talking about rebates, some other types of maybe one-time tax rebates until we get out of this pandemic and know where we are, similar to what Erin was just saying. So I think one thing I'm going to be watching for is to see how close republicans and democrats are at the beginning of the year and then we'll see where they are at the end.

Masters: And that's an important point to bring up is how close the republicans and the democrats are because this is a trifecta, the House, the Senate and the Governor's office are all controlled by republicans. I think during the debate we're going to see a lot of democrats talking about having more tax relief for lower and middle class income Iowans wherever you kind of draw the line on that. But this is how many years now that republicans have had the trifecta? It will be interesting to see how they are able to square off on some of these differences.

Obradovich: Yeah, and I meant to say how close the republicans and the republicans are, not the republicans and the democrats because I know they won't be. Price: They probably appreciate you mentioning that.

Obradovich: I know they won't be close.

Masters: Bipartisanship?

Obradovich: House, Senate and Governor are all separate entities and they don't all work together, people don't realize that sometimes.

Murphy: Yeah, I think you were kind when you said House and Senate republicans may not have the same plan to start with. I will be shocked if they do.

Henderson: Well, let's shift gears and talk about some of the ballot names that we may see in 2022. We have learned, Clay, in December that we will not see Rob Sand running for Governor in the primary.

Masters: Yeah, Rob Sand, the Auditor, I think he was first elected in 2018 to this office and as soon as Rob Sand was elected to the Auditor's office republicans were saying, oh he's going for the Governor, like this is the job that he wants to get. And then he released this video of him walking his dog and saying, I've decided that I'm going to run for re-election as Auditor, which leaves Deidre DeJear and Ras Smith. Ras Smith from Waterloo, a Representative from up there. Deidre DeJear a businesswoman from Des Moines. But yeah, I think a lot of people were waiting to kind of see what he was going to do and of course we're all I think waiting for Governor Kim Reynolds to announce that she is going to run for re-election, but it is assumed that she is going to run.

Henderson: Dave, what are you hearing about that primary?

Price: On the democratic side I think you're still hearing the whispers about somebody else though, right? So Chris Hall, the State Representative from Sioux City, Pam Jochum, the State Senator from eastern Iowa.

Henderson: Who said she is not going to run.

Murphy: She has ruled it out.

Price: Right, but she still had people who were well maybe we can get one more person in here and I'm not sure there are some in the party that are content with the field as it is right now, not necessarily an indictment on the two who are in there, but just still exploring options here. And I don't know how you pick a favorite out of the two. DeJear has run for office before.

Murphy: To that, I think that is an interesting aspect about this democratic field right now because I get that sense too that maybe they're not totally thrilled about the completeness of this primary field. But on the other hand, who is left out there now that would make you feel any better? Rob Sand is ruled out, Cindy Axne is ruled out, Tom Vilsack isn't walking through that door. I think there is a good chance that this is our field with maybe the exception of another name like Chris Hall you mentioned. The thing about Deidre DeJear and Ras Smith are they are both very popular and well-liked within democratic circles, I think a lot of democrats have a lot of respect for them, they're just not well-known outside of their own kind of political bubbles and that will be the challenge taking on an incumbent.

Price: And I think if they were sitting here they would be candid about this. There is a lack of confidence in the party that 2022 is going to be a good year. They're looking at the polls thinking that Reynolds could be challenging to beat. They have to convince their donors to donate. DeJear just got Emily's List involved so maybe that is going to open up a little out-of-state money perhaps. But they have to show that they are and convince people that this is a race that is winnable, at least competitive, and that is a hurdle right now.

Henderson: Kathie, you and I covered a gubernatorial race back in the last century in which Tom Vilsack was an unknown Mount Pleasant mayor who at the time was a state senator and wound up beating a fairly well known congressperson. Does that race have any lessons for what is going on right now?

Obradovich: Yeah, I mean, you just don't count people out I think is the important thing. It's a little different when you're running against an incumbent and Tom Vilsack was running against Jim Ross Lightfoot who was a Congressman who was leaving Congress to run for Governor. So you can't, it may not be a direct lesson, but you absolutely can't count anybody out just because you think people across the state don't know who they are. And thanks for making me feel really old there.


Murphy: I'll add to that, if you've been around Tom Vilsack for longer than about five or ten minutes you are aware that he was down in that race by about 30 points very late and came back to win that one. I believe I've heard that story once or twice somewhere.

Henderson: Well, let's shift to a different story we have all written and will continue to write, congressional races in Iowa. Let's start with the first district. Clay, we now know who is running in the first district.

Murphy: The new first district.

Henderson: The new first district.

Masters: The new first district. Yeah, so we're talking about the southeastern part, I'm trying to train my brain to do this. Mariannette Miller-Meeks who was on last week on this program, she lives in Ottumwa but she's looking for somewhere to live in the new first district. She is going to be running for re-election in this new district. Price: Air quotes. Masters: Yeah, exactly. And then the most high-profile democrat who has announced is State Representative Christina Bohannan and it is going to be another competitive district it looks like by all means.

Henderson: Well, let's shift to the second district. Erin?

Murphy: The old first, new second. The first and second essentially, yeah northeast Iowa, essentially switched spots for the most part. And we've got the race of the former KCRG Cedar Rapids area TV reporters in Ashley Hinson, who is similarly running for "re-election", she's a first-term Congresswoman right now and she'll be running again in a new-ish district. And she'll be challenged, the most prominent democrat in the race is Liz Mathis, state legislator, non-profit leader and again, also a former TV working for the very same station oddly. I keep waiting for Dave Price's campaign announcement. Maybe that's 2024?

Henderson: We've got time now.

Price: I'm still waiting for a coworker to join me so we can do it.


Murphy: But that will be another highly competitive race, a lot of national resources will be poured into that. Again, it's a district that came out of redistricting with some political balance. The voter registration numbers are really close. So both of those races are going to be highly competitive.

Henderson: Kathie, let's turn to the third district. What's going on there in 2022?

Obradovich: The third district did not change its number but it did change some of its profile, some of the territory is different. Cindy Axne, a democrat, the only democrat left in Iowa's congressional delegation, is expected to run for re-election. She has got a three-way primary on the other side. But interestingly this district lost part of its urban area. So by far the biggest part of this district is Polk County. But it also had an urban area in Council Bluffs that was part of the district. They lost that part to now Randy Feenstra's district in the fourth. So that may exacerbate the urban versus rural nature of this race.

Murphy: But it did, correct me if I'm wrong, Kathie, they did pick up Dallas County, right?

Obradovich: Yes, right.

Henderson: Which was in the current --

Obradovich: Yeah, it's a big population area but it's also a little bit, there's a lot of rural area in there as well. There is a West Des Moines farmer, for example, Gary Leffler, who is running on the republican side, Nicole Hasso of Johnston and State Senator Zach Nunn is a recent entry into the race. He is looking at his statehouse and military background. Nicole Hasso is an African-American candidate who has been talking a lot about critical race theory and supporting police. So those kinds of issues, a lot of that race may also be kind of directed against Joe Biden, the republicans are running against Joe Biden with Cindy Axne as their proxy.

Murphy: We're seeing that across all of these races already.

Henderson: Dave Price, we turn to the fourth where Randy Feenstra is the incumbent and doesn't look like we have a democratic primary featuring J.D. Scholten this time around. But rather than talking about a district that has beaucoup number of republican voters, let's just shift back and talk about the attention that will be paid to the other three districts.

Price: Yeah, I don't get to sum up the fourth district?

Henderson: If you'd like to, go right ahead.

Price: There will be a race in the fourth district next November.


Price: Just to piggyback a little bit, and we're still waiting to find out, we're not even hearing rumors about democrats running in the fourth there because the lopsided disadvantage they have there. But when you step back and just listening to each one of you talk about the first, second and third, those look like three competitive races, right? Maybe you would think Axne would have an advantage here being an incumbent and the way the third district is drawn up, but who knows what 2022 is going to be about. Is it going to be a tougher year for democrats looking at the President's poll numbers right now? But the first, second and third, the new first, second and third here, it does look like those could be three closely watched races for a variety of reasons and could have some national attention looking at especially as they start doing the numbers game in Congress for control of the U.S. House. All three of those could be heavily watched because of that and we could see a lot of outside money, we've already seen it in the Axne race in the third. Murphy: To that point, depending on if and when and how the needle moves, those races could be more interesting and more relevant than the top of the ticket which is the senate race.

Henderson: Which, as most of our viewers if not all of them know, Senator Chuck Grassley has announced he'll be seeking re-election and there is a primary for the chance to face him. Let's shift and talk about the legislature just briefly, Erin. In late October, the legislature approved the redistricting plan and reconfigured these congressional districts, but they also reconfigured all 150 legislative districts. And people are just sort of self-sorting themselves, right?

Murphy: Yeah, almost like it has been a coordinated effort, which I suspect in part there has. So you can't tell a legislator without a program these days, there has been a lot of movement all the way up the ladder. Senator Majority Leader Jack Whitver, a republican from Ankeny, will now be a republican from Polk City or Alleman or some other town in the northern rural area of the district because he's moving into a new Senate district to avoid a district that has become a little more balanced politically, more and more democrats in that, and he was going to face a tougher challenge had he stayed than he will in this new district.

Henderson: We have just a couple of minutes left. We have a legislative session coming up, as I mentioned at the beginning, on January 10th. What sort of issues do you expect to percolate and capture the attention of people, Kathie?

Obradovich: Well, beyond the tax issue, which I think will overlay everything they do, I think there is going to be continued talk about workforce, the Governor has ever year come with some sort of workforce agenda. Iowa continues to have difficulty attracting people to work, employers say that that is the biggest thing holding them back, that has been the case for a number of years. So I think that looking at, for example, infrastructure money that is coming in from the federal government, other money, she has been using other money like COVID money for things like child care and I expect that discussion to continue. This is, by the way, an issue that democrats generally also support investment in Iowa's workforce, they just tend to have different goals than the republicans do.

Henderson: Dave, about a minute and a half left. What are you seeing?

Price: I think all those things, but I think quick stuff. Tax cuts, that's a quick thing, right? It's easy, you're going to remember that in November when you're going in there and voting. And I think they're going to lean in on some of these cultural issues. We saw so much more attention on these school board races. So what do these books that are available for kids, the CRT thing which is overblown and doesn't even exist in our state, but the books that is a tangible thing that some people have been offended and furious about some of the content of those books and I would think that will be a juicy debate this session.

Masters: And it will be interesting how much that is talked about as we're seeing -- to your original point with the Omicron variant and coronavirus, are we going to be talking more about cultural issues than the ongoing pandemic that is filling hospitals right now?

Obradovich: Sure was the case last year.

Masters: Sure was last year, yeah.

Henderson: We've got about 30 seconds left, Erin. When people tune into this program in January they will notice that you have a new employer.

Murphy: Yeah, and I was going to use it as my example of what I'm expecting in next year's session and that will unfortunately be the absence of Rod Boshart of the Cedar Rapids Gazette who is heading for a very well-earned retirement and so starting with January I am filling in trying to replace Rod's sizeable shoes and I will be the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Cedar Rapids Gazette again. So, new job same as the old job.

Henderson: Well, and we expect all of you back here in 2022 to tell us what you are learning from legislators and the campaign trail. Thanks to you at home for watching. You can always watch Iowa Press at or you can join us at our regular broadcast times at 7:30 on Friday nights and at noon on Sunday. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, Happy Holidays.


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