Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Dec 25, 2020 | 27 min

2020 was the year of global pandemic, racial unrest and an unprecedented presidential election. So what does 2021 have in store for us? We gather a reporters' roundtable to preview the political and legislative issues on the horizon 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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at (music) 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, December 25 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: As the final days of 2020 tick down, it seems that much of America is anxious to flip the calendar to '21. 2020 was a year best described as unprecedented and left Americans in a seemingly constant state of asking, what's next? We'll post that question and many more to our Iowa reporters joining us for a roundtable to preview 2021. Yepsen: We're joined by Dave Price, Political Director at WHO-13 in Des Moines. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. And Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. Well, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, everybody. I hope you got more than a piece of coal. Dave Price, let's start with you. I want each of you to weigh in on this question. What is going to be the big political story in Iowa in 2021? Price: I'm going to do a two-fer here. I'm going to do one leftover and one new, one new slice. My leftover is COVID. How are we going to get on the other side of this? Is the vaccine going to help as much as the optimists hope here? Will this slow things down enough to help with the health crisis so that the economic situation can improve? Politically I'm focused on two people, Chuck Grassley and Cindy Axne. What are their political decisions going to be? Yepsen: Erin Murphy? Murphy: Yeah, I'm going to steal a little bit from what we're going to talk a little bit about more in depth later on this show. But the biggest thing I'll be watching in 2021 is how do Iowa democrats prepare for 2022. A couple of big races coming up in the state in two years for the Governor's Office and the U.S. Senate. And who is going to step forward to run for those races for democrats? Iowa democrats have not had a lot of success in statewide races in recent years. Who is going to move? What will the party do to put themselves in a position to maybe win one of those races and change their fortunes? Yepsen: Kay? Henderson: I agree with the fellas that those will be big stories. There is the potential for a big story and it is something that Reynolds ran on in 2018. She told people that it was important for her to be elected because she would be picking members of the state court system. That really worked for Trump in 2016. And if you look at the makeup of the Iowa Supreme Court, four of the justices are people that she appointed. If you look at the makeup of the Court of Appeals, five of those judges are people that she appointed. There are some big issues that are going to come before the courts and it will be really interesting to see how she has remade the courts in the image that republicans really wanted them to be and if 2021 is the year in which they sort of break out. Yepsen: Erin, elaborate on your point about democrats. Democrats recently released a report on their audit of what went wrong on Caucus Night and they made all of you work on Saturday afternoon by releasing it shortly after Noon. Erin, why was that? Was that a Friday night dump to keep it away from big news stories? Or what was going on here? Murphy: Yeah, well and why did it take so long in the first place, which is something we asked. The Caucus felt like about two decades ago, it was a good eight months ago and we're just now getting the report. I don't know if they were trying to hide it. I think part of what happened here was the Iowa Democratic Party's report puts a significant share of the blame on the National Democratic Party. They say they tried to get the National Democratic Party to participate, they were unable to, so I don't know if that was part of the delay was trying to get the national democrats involved. But it was interesting to see this report. And they did point some blame at Iowa democrats as well. But the biggest mistakes they pointed towards the national party's involvement in the process. Price: Can we be as jaded to say that they wanted to wait until after the election since they were going to put so much blame on the national folks? Yepsen: Exactly. Because A, they're trying to raise big time money from national democrats, so you don't want to make them mad. And two, this is a very divisive issue inside the Democratic Party between progressives and Bernie people. So yeah, that is why it makes sense why they would sit on it. Price: And look at they were so suspicious of Tom Perez, the head of the Democratic National Committee to begin with that he was not a true fan of the caucuses and had been talking this for months and months and months and months and with the way it all went down and the way he trashed the process -- Henderson: But the one thing that I will point to in this document is it said the ultimate responsibility was the Iowa Democratic Party. So even though we learned new things about how the Democratic National Committee had insisted on some new software on the back end reporting, it's very technical and I'm not going to talk about it anymore. It was the Iowa Democratic Party that did not have a good backup of the good old fashioned dial it up and call in your results. And that was outlined in the report, number one. Number two, another really fascinating thing about this report is that it was written by the former Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. You covered her in the 1980's when she was the Chair, Bonnie Campbell and a couple of other attorneys. They recommended that the party have a big debate about the future of the caucuses and seriously consider running the next caucuses on the democratic side the same way that republicans do. Come in, have a straw poll vote, you can leave if you want to. Price: Yeah, a lot simpler process. Henderson: Exactly. Yepsen: It is. But New Hampshire has heartburn. Will anything happen on this subject in 2021? This is just going to be around for a few years isn't it? Will there be anything resolved? Price: Conversations will happen for sure. Right? Yepsen: Switch to the republicans. They're going to have a caucus -- in 2024 I'm talking about -- is Trump going to clear the field though if he's acting like he's going to run again? Or are we going to start seeing republicans around this state next year? Price: He is acting like he is going to run, sure. But is he going to run? His legal defense fund has been a nice money maker for the operation as a small fraction of the money they raised actually went for this ill-fated legal defense. So he came up with a big old chunk of money there. But as he looks at whatever he is going to do in the future, is he going to run this own Trump network or whatever it's going to be -- how old is he? 74, is that right? So add another four years to that. Can we really be 100% sure that he is going to run in the first place just because he says he is? Maybe he's going to do something to mess with Biden's inauguration, maybe he's not. But I think you look right now as we speak the way Mike Pence is distancing himself a little bit with this whole what's ahead thing. Yepsen: So all of you would expect us to see republican wannabes coming through here in 2021? Henderson: Well, we sure already have. Pompeo and Pence has been here multiple times. Nikki Haley has been here and made it clear that she is putting a stake in the ground here. The other thing for the Trump family is maybe Donald Trump doesn't run but maybe Donald Trump Jr. runs and Jr. spent some quality time in some nooks and crannies of Iowa that people may have not -- he went to Treynor, Iowa, which is in Southwest Iowa, to campaign for his father. Those are the kinds of things you do when you're sort of testing out your message. Yepsen: Dave, I want to turn to something you mentioned. What is Chuck Grassley doing? His term is up in 2022. What does Cindy Axne do? We've got redistricting. What is your speculation on what happens? Whatever you're going to do in 2022 as a candidate you've got to start now. So this is going to be a factor in our politics. What do you think Grassley is going to do? Run again? Price: Let's see with Grassley. I don't know what everybody else feels like but it does feel like there is more uncertainty this time about whether he would actually run again as he will be in his late 80s. As far as Axne, I just talked to her this week and obviously she's not committing to anything at this point. So the best I could get from her is that she's looking at three different jobs. She can run for re-election, she can run for Governor, she can run for Grassley's seat. So the best I could get out of her is that, yes, she is going to run for one of those three things and expects maybe toward maybe the first third or so of 2021 to make that decision. She has a lot of things to try and figure out. Murphy: One of the lines of thought you hear, and this is kind of a reading the tea leaves sort of answer, this isn't anything concrete, but that Chuck Grassley may think about running for re-election, he would be considered a strong likelihood that he would win that race and then two, three, whatever it would be years into that term he could retire, then that allows the republican Governor, assuming Kim Reynolds wins re-election, to name his replacement and then make it easier for that person then when they would ultimately come up on the ballot in '28. So that is one school of thought out there. Yepsen: Kay, go ahead. Henderson: Grassley has always said I'll run if I can run a couple of miles today, however many, four or five times a week. So literally running may determine on if he can literally run, number one. Price: Which he did with COVID. Henderson: Exactly. Number two, there is a discussion in the U.S. Senate right now about how old many of his colleagues are and about whether they are capable of fulfilling the duties of a U.S. Senator. Grassley's age has been mentioned but his abilities have not heretofore been mentioned in those stories about the likes of Dianne Feinstein and others. But that has got to be part of his calculation. Do I want my legacy to be attached to some of these others who have stayed too long and have been infirm and been unable to do their duty? Yepsen: I imagine his thinking has been, is going to be influenced by the outcome of the Georgia Senate races. If the democrats are controlling the Senate then he is not, doesn't have the power that he has. But Kay, what about Cindy Axne? You get the impression that she really would like a Governor to get more done than she can in Congress and there's every possibility in 2022 that the democrats will lose control of the U.S. House. So what does your gut tell you? Is she going to run for Governor? Henderson: Well, David, we can have this conversation -- remember Fred Grandy? He ran for governor because he thought he could get more done as a governor, as an executive, than he could as a member of Congress and by the time he ran he had been a member of Congress for a few terms. Tom Vilsack has always been reluctant to run again to be part of a legislative body, i.e. the U.S. Senate, because he is an executive branch kind of guy. And so I think that is really something to watch about Cindy Axne. Yepsen: But trying to run for Governor while you're holding a seat in the U.S. House, wow, that's tough, especially since we lost the direct flight from Des Moines to -- go ahead -- Price: All I would say is that about the Governor, I just thought it was interesting that after the current Governor relaxed some of those restrictions, Axne put out a statement pretty quickly. So to me watching the Governor's race is the one to watch. Murphy: When a member of Congress weighs in on a state issue it raises questions about -- Yepsen: Erin, weigh in on that. Is Reynolds in trouble? She had all this controversy over the pandemic, job approvals have been a little bit weak. All Governors are taking some hit. What is your sense? Murphy: So, the thing I would say about the pandemic, and I assume that will be a huge part of that campaign, it's a bubble point. To all the people who would say she gets so much criticism over the pandemic and that is really going to hurt her, I Would counter that there's just as many people out there who are very happy and strongly feel that she has handled the pandemic the right way. So we may not hear about them when we're on Twitter as much, but there are people who are very supportive of the way she has handled the pandemic too. So I suspect that will be a big part of the campaign. I don't know that it means something one way or the other on her chances. Henderson: And to amplify that, to the devoted viewers of this program, a couple of weeks ago we had Dennis Goldford who is a Drake University Professor who lives in Des Moines talking about how Reynolds was being excoriated on Twitter and then that seat where Dave Price is sitting now we had Mike Mahaffey who lives in pretty much rural Iowa in Montezuma saying, well I'm not hearing that same thing about our Governor in my neck of the woods. And so that is exactly right. I think that people who live in rural Iowa don't hear what the people in urban Iowa are saying about the Governor and vice versa. Yepsen: Dave, the old saying in politics is you can't be somebody with nobody. So Reynolds may be weak in some places, but who have the democrats got? Price: Yeah, and I think it would be premature to write off that she can't win for so much of what Kay is saying. There may be a very vocal segment that strongly opposes the way she has handled this, but there may be a Trump-like the silent majority, is that his thing, silent majority -- I think there are plenty of people who support the way she has handled things. The bigger problem for democrats is that, first of all, we've only mentioned one person so far, but the Democratic Party is a mess. So they finally got out this caucus report, which we already talked about. But who is going to lead the party? Where is the excitement about coming up with the next chair? Cindy Axne, the fact that we're talking about her as she is now going into her second term in Congress as the dean of the party with Loebsack retiring in the second district, where's their bench? Where is their future? How are they going to reconnect? Joe Biden became President but Donald Trump easily carried this state. Joni Ernst easily won this state. Yepsen: And the democrats re-elected Todd Prichard as their minority leader in the House. It's not very often that a minority leader gets re-elected. You either become the majority or you go take a hike. Murphy: Especially after a year in which they thought they had a chance to overtake the majority and the results went in the exact opposite direction. Henderson: And I want to circle back to something, the comment was made that Cindy Axne issued a statement responding to something that Governor Reynolds did. We've gone through 9 months of a pandemic and we could probably count on both of our hands the times a democrat has directly responded to something, a democrat elected official has directly responded to something Kim Reynolds -- so there has just been this silence from that party to set up an argument against Reynolds in the minds of voters. Yepsen: Okay, we watch the democrats and see how they recover. Let's switch to the republicans, Kay, in the legislature. What do you expect them to do with their trifecta? Henderson: I think they may be hamstrung at the starting gate by the pandemic. They need to figure out how they can meet in person, which they intend to do, number one. Number two, there is a debate among republicans about tax policy whereby the Senate republicans, a 32-seat majority, want to go much farther than other parts of that trifecta, republican Governor Kim Reynolds and the House republican caucus. Yepsen: Dave, what do you make -- what are the republicans going to do with their trifecta? Price: The one thing that is interesting to me is that the one thing maybe perhaps that will help Iowa republicans would be something that national republicans don't want to do in the sense that if national republicans in Congress are concerned about the spending let's say now after that has gone crazy the last four years, what would help Iowa republicans most would be getting a nice pot of money again for the budget next year so that they don't have to come up with ways, budget cutting, whatever it is, to try to pay for the pandemic. So maybe I've twisted this in my head a certain way, but they could then benefit and have a much easier time if they get a nice chunk of federal money that is going to come in, a CARES Act II. Yepsen: It's always easy for state legislators to spend federal money. Erin, isn't it true that a lot of republicans are conservatives. They don't believe in activist government so that this legislature won't do a whole lot. They don't have a lot of money, they've got the pandemic, it's kind of going to be a chaotic session. What do you think? Murphy: Yeah, so to that I think the budget does constrain maybe a lot of things they might otherwise want to do. I'll be interested to watch the policy side of things. The last two years republicans had a very comfortable majority in the Senate but a much smaller majority in the House, only 53-47. And I think that at times made them have to pump the brakes on some things that you lose a few members and now you don't have your majority. That is back up again, as I mentioned earlier, they have a much bigger majority now in the House. So are they able to be more aggressive with some policy items? One that jumps to mind that they have been working on in the Senate but the House hasn't taken up is welfare reform, Medicaid work requirements. Do things like that that the House has been hesitant to tackle in the last couple of years come back up and get a better chance now that that majority is wider in the House this time around? Price: May I just add a quick P.S. The one thing that maybe hasn't been talked about a lot is will there be any kind of push and will it become public rather than just private conversations so far about maybe limiting some of the Governor's authority, her emergency authority? There are some members who have been uncomfortable with some of the decisions and how much authority she has used. Murphy: That's a really interesting point, Dave, because he's right, there are some that have been vocal about they think they yield too much authority to the Governor, to the executive branch. But you also get the sense that there are some republicans who were happy to wash their hands of all of that and all those decisions too and maybe don't want that authority. Yepsen: Kay, we do redistricting in Iowa in 2021. We had a census this year. What is going to happen there? Henderson: Well, I think one interesting subplot of this is that the census numbers may not arrive at the same time they normally do because of things that have happened here at the last moments of the Trump administration so there may be a delay in actually getting a map out. So let's just say that republicans enter this session and they want to have an abbreviated agenda because of the pandemic, maybe they recess and just come back and deal with the redistricting in sort of a little tiny session, which would be really fascinating because it's always interesting to watch the day the first map comes out and see people's faces blanche because they find out that they're matched with some other legislator in the same district. And if that were to occur in a special session that was only dealing with redistricting it would just be a really fascinating dramatic play. Yepsen: We've got this special law in Iowa, Dave, it has worked for both parties. Jeff Kauffman, who was a state chair, was on this program and said he didn't think the republicans would want to change the law. Why change the rules of a game that we keep wining? But there will be people who say you don't have to change the law to drive a redistricting plan to a third choice where the legislature does get to mess around with district lines and congressional district lines. Dave, what do you expect? Price: That would end this cherished tradition of this nonpartisanship that has been part of this that they always point to. Perhaps that would be telling I guess if they go down that path about where they think their future would be. Yepsen: I don't hear any talk but I wondered if anybody else had. Erin, election laws. Paul Pate has said he's got some ideas of things he wants to change. Mariannette Miller-Meeks said there might be some changes. What are you hearing on tweaks to Iowa's election laws as a result of what we had this last -- Murphy: That's a great question because that's another huge one when you talk what do we expect the trifecta to do. This is another huge one. Senator Roby Smith in particular from Davenport is the one that has in past years come with some pretty big proposals, some of that has made it, some of that received some significant backlash and was knocked out. We had, you mentioned the second district race that was decided by 6 votes and there was some confusion in the recount process and so that may require some clarification. I wouldn't be surprised to see something there. The other thing I'll be watching for is President Trump and his campaign against early voting and the way absentee voting happens in some states. Do some Iowa republicans want to make changes to the state's process there? We may see a bill -- I don't know what it would be, whether it would be reducing the window or trying to put in a hard deadline of arrive by election date -- Yepsen: We've just got two minutes left. Henderson: The other thing we're going to see is we're going to see perhaps a primary of Paul Pate because some republicans in that party were not happy with the way that he handled the primary in the spring. Yepsen: He has managed to make everybody mad, not a good position to be in. We've got just a few seconds left. I want to hit a couple of issues. Schools, Dave Price, schools and declining enrollments in Iowa. Is the legislature going to do anything? Price: I don't know what they would do with that. But there's no question it's a concern. Here in the Des Moines district talk about all the schools they have lost. But having this whole push and the Governor wants something done here, as far as giving families the right, right now they have the right to not go to class, to have their kids to no go to class. She wants them to make sure they have a right so they can go to class. Yepsen: But if schools are running out of money because they don't have as many students and they can save fixed costs I would think -- Erin, what about constitutional amendments that are sitting out there? They've got to talk about a few of those. Murphy: There's a few of them that are going to come up in the second step of the process, so they have been approved once, they have to be approved a second time. There is one that puts a second amendment into the state constitution, one that clarifies the state constitution and does not grant the right to an abortion and then another one that they kind of clarified the line of succession from the Governor to the Lieutenant Governor, which was an issue, some confusion was raised when Kim Reynolds succeeded to the Governor and they weren't sure about whether her appointment would have all the authority of a lieutenant governor. Yepsen: We've got just a few seconds left. We'll talk about criminal justice reform, felon voting and sales tax increases in another show. Thanks all of you. Good luck in the New Year. Thank you. Happy Holidays! Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and again at Noon on Sunday. We'll dive into issues around Iowa's bottle bill as we head into the new legislative session in Des Moines. So for all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today. (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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at