Attorney General of Iowa

Iowa Press | Episode
Sep 9, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, our guests are candidates for attorney general of Iowa Brenna Bird (R - Dexter) and Tom Miller (D - Des Moines), incumbent attorney general. 

Both candidates campaigning for office answer questions from reporters and discuss their platforms, concerns and future plans. Moderator Kay Henderson is joined by Iowa political reporters at the Iowa Press table.

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



The candidates for Iowa Attorney General have very different views on the role of that office. We'll discuss those differences with incumbent democrat Tom Miller and republican challenger Brenna Bird on this 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. 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


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, September 9th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: Our guests today are the two candidates listed on your 2022 General Election ballot under the race for Attorney General. Tom Miller is a democrat who has held that office for nearly four decades. He was first elected in 1978. He ran for Governor in 1990 so there is a four year stretch where he wasn't Attorney General, re-elected in 1994 and has been in office ever since. Welcome to the show.

Miller: Well, thanks for having me. You always do a great job with this show for the public.

Henderson: Thanks. Also to introduce our republican candidate, Brenna Bird. She is currently the Guthrie County Attorney. She was elected to that post in 2018. She is a former Chief of Staff for former Congressman Steve King. She worked as Governor Terry Branstad's legal counsel from about the end of 2010 until 2015. These two folks also ran against one another in 2010. Brenna Bird, welcome to the program.

Bird: Oh, thanks, good to be here.

Henderson: Also joining the conversation are Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Tom Miller, we'll start with you. As Kay mentioned, roughly four decades in office. You're seeking another four-year term. What can you offer Iowans? What services can your office offer that you have not already accomplished in roughly 40 years on the job?

Miller: Well, we have a lot of unfinished business that we want to focus on, first of all. One is in the opioids area. We've worked a lot with the other states, we've sued the opioid companies and we're going to recover about $225 million for Iowans and we want to see that through in terms of how it is used to really help the people that suffered and their families through that epidemic. We want to do some prevention work, we want to do some drug treatment, particularly MAT, medicine assisted treatment. So that is part of the unfinished agenda. And then we've done a lot of work in the big tech area. We have two major anti-trust cases against Google and Facebook with the other states. We want to finish that through. And then we have other things we want to do, particularly focus on media and the kids, the abuse that has taken place in Facebook and other areas of the kids. And want to do more in drug treatment generally beyond the opioids and do more in mental health. We want to focus on that as well. So just a lot of unfinished business, new business and this is an amazing office. You don't know what is going to be the big issue, the big challenge or big priority next month. So we're prepared for that. But most of all, we feel we have served Iowans well. We have used the law to serve the interests of ordinary Iowans in consumer protection, opioids, the farm area and criminal prosecution and as a very independent Attorney General. We think that is important to continue that and real value to Iowans.

Murphy: Okay. Brenna Bird, as Kay noted you ran for this office in 2010 as well. In what ways is your message maybe different this time? And why should this, in your mind, why should this election go differently than it did in 2010?

Bird: Yeah, well we still need a new Attorney General, one who will do the job and will fight for Iowans. One of the things that I will do is support our law enforcement. The Attorney General is the top law enforcement official in Iowa and as Attorney General I will back the blue. Our current Attorney General has been radio silent when it comes to law enforcement issues. But I work with law enforcement every day as County Attorney and I appreciate them and I will stand up for them in the AG's office. I'll also hold the Biden administration accountable by taking them to court under federal law and the Constitution when they overreach and that is also something that our current Attorney General has failed to do. He endorsed Joe Biden in the Iowa Caucuses and he is a big supporter of his.

Murphy: When you say back law enforcement, what are you talking about? In what ways should the AG's office back law enforcement in ways that you feel is not happening right now?

Bird: Yeah. Well --

Murphy: And then, Mr. Miller, I'll give you an opportunity to respond.

Miller: Oh, good.

Bird: One thing, I campaign across the state working hard in all 99 counties. And one thing I do is meet with law enforcement. Regardless of their party affiliation, I meet with sheriffs, police chiefs and others involved in law enforcement and public safety. And uniformly they tell me they have never met the Attorney General. In fact, I was in Appanoose County and the sheriff here, Sheriff Anderson, has never met the Attorney General, even though he was first made sheriff in 2001 and he has been in Iowa law enforcement his whole career. He was head of Sheriffs and Deputies, he was head of ISAC, which is all the county officials, and he has never met our Attorney General, not even once, not in Des Moines. And that will change when I'm Attorney General. I'll work with law enforcement.

Murphy: Tom Miller, is that important for the AG to be out and meeting with local law enforcement officials?

Miller: It has some importance. I just had a very good visit up in Dickinson County at the Dickinson County Sheriff's Office and found out that they're going to use the opioid money to have a drug court in conjunction with Clay County, which is just exactly the kind of use and we're going to do a statement supporting that and asking others to do it. Recently I was out in Carroll County and had a terrific visit with the whole law enforcement community and talked about opioids and Fentanyl and the dangers of that. But the real relationship that is important and that we have with law enforcement is the criminal prosecution and criminal appeals work we do. We have just a terrific group of area prosecutors that go out and try cases with county attorneys and with law enforcement. We did the Molly Tibbetts case, we're doing with the county attorney the case down in Fairfield concerning the teacher and that has become a very professional relationship, a lot of respect that we have for law enforcement, law enforcement has with us. That's the real important relationship with law enforcement and we've done it incredibly well.

Masters: I want to move on, the landscape has changed quite a bit when it comes to abortion rights in the country with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Brenna Bird, you have said that you will be on the front lines on the fight to protect the so-called unborn. How so? And would that involved jailing women who have abortions or doctors who perform them?

Bird: Well, I am 100% pro-life and it will be my job as Attorney General to defend the law that the legislature would pass. And in fact, our current Attorney General refused to defend the heartbeat bill when it was challenged in 2018. He didn't do his job there. I will defend our laws. And that heartbeat bill certainly did not have any criminal penalties in it nor did it jail anyone. It did not do that and our Attorney General did not defend it back in 2018. But in 2021, he defended the waiting period for abortion law until he changed his mind partway through and decided not to defend it anymore. When I'm Attorney General, I will do my job and defend the law.

Masters: Attorney General Miller, how would you respond to that?

Miller: Well, I believe the Supreme Court made a big mistake in overturning Roe. I think Roe was the right formula to deal with abortion in our country. And I think that a lot of women feel incredible threats in terms of their liberty and in terms of their freedom to take care of their own medical conditions. And I support them in that. I'm particularly opposed to the very extreme kinds of actions concerning rape and incest in that area. So, in terms of the case that Brenna talks about, I've represented the state in many ways in cases where I generally disagreed with the policy. But twice I got to the situation where I thought that given the situation that I couldn't zealously represent the state two times out of 40 years and so I stepped aside. I think that was the ethical thing to do, the right thing to do and I stand by that.

Masters: So what was different about 2021 then, what she brought up when your office did represent the state?

Miller: Well, we represented the state on a number of abortion cases. But when Roe was being challenged directly I stepped aside. Where the Iowa version of Roe is being attacked very directly, I stepped aside for the same reason.

Henderson: But your, the attorney you assigned to argue that case before the Iowa Supreme Court said that 2018 ruling from the then Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, which said Iowa women have a constitutional right to an abortion, your representative in the courtroom said that that decision was, should be overturned, it was the wrong decision.

Miller: That issue was not directly before the court at the time. The court sort of diverted to sort of the next step and posed a question and he answered it consistent with I think what we did before. But the real question is not that decision, it was Planned Parenthood one, that really established in Iowa basically the Roe kind of formula. That is still in place. That is what is being contested now. And that goes to the heart of this issue so that I stepped aside.

Henderson: Brenna Bird, would you recommend to legislators a particular abortion policy that you see in place in other states?

Bird: Well, I'm 100% pro-life but it will be up to the legislature to work through the issues and decide what law they are going to pass. When they did pass the heartbeat bill there were exceptions for rape and incest in that bill. But it will be up to the legislature to make the law and then it is my job under the laws and Constitution to defend it.

Murphy: And you mentioned the fetal heartbeat, Governor Reynolds has asked the courts to lift the injunction on that, which if the courts grant that, that law would go into effect. And I want to make sure I heard you right, you said you don't believe that that law has criminal charges for women or doctors? Is that right?

Bird: Right, it does not jail women or doctors, absolutely. And I would defend the heartbeat law that was passed by the legislature in 2018, unlike our current Attorney General.

Murphy: So what is the enforcement mechanism in that if it's not penalties for women or doctors? Essentially that's not really a ban then is it?

Bird: Well, there are no criminal penalties. It does go before the Board of Medicine for the doctor at issue.

Henderson: Brenna Bird, you have said on the campaign trail that you would sue the Biden administration were you elected to this post. Tell our viewers what issues you would sue over?

Bird: Well, there are quite a few. So I would sue over the COVID vaccine mandates, of which there were many, the COVID mask mandates, what the EPA is doing to farmers through things like Waters of the U.S. and I would have joined other AG's from other states to stop the Biden administration from not using Title 42 to turn back people at the southern border during the time of COVID. Those are some examples. And there were times with those issues that our Governor and legislature forced the AG's office to file a lawsuit on those issues but General Miller's name wasn't on those lawsuits.

Henderson: Tom Miller, you have agreed with the Governor, sort of a handshake agreement, that you will join state, other state's Attorneys General in multi-state lawsuits if she approves, in other words, to challenge some federal policy. Why did you do that? And democrats think that that was the wrong step, that you sort of hamstrung your office.

Miller: Well, I didn't have much of a choice. The legislature enacted a statute that would have restricted any of those cases that I could bring, would have restricted any comment I would make to the federal government or elsewhere. It was a very broad statute and impacted the powers and duties of the office. So I was very concerned about that. I went to the Governor and advocated for her to veto it. She came back with a compromise, a limited compromise, that the comment period and all those other activities would go forward, that on litigation I would have to need her approval as I would if she signed the legislation and also since there was an agreement between the two of us it didn't go into the statute, it wouldn't affect the future. So it seemed to me to be a good compromise at the time and still does.

Henderson: I covered that legislative debate. They were critical of you for suing the Trump administration.

Miller: Indeed they were, yes. That was the whole point of the legislation, that they didn't want me to sue the Trump administration.

Henderson: So what is your response to their argument that you were overzealous?

Miller: Well, everything we do we call them as we see them. We didn't join every lawsuit against Trump but we joined some of them and tried to make our best judgment. But it was never a big priority or big focus of our office. We worked with other states, other states did quite a bit of the work. We believe that the work that I do in terms of ordinary Iowans, as I mentioned before, consumer protection, violent crime, opioids, the farm division, that is the core of the office. This litigation at the federal level is not the core of the office.

Henderson: Brenna Bird, if you are elected, will you continue this policy of giving the Governor sort of a sign off on any multi-state action you might choose to join?

Bird: No, I would not. And the reason that that legislation had to be enacted is because, and the Governor ended up vetoing it, was because they were having to force the Attorney General to do his job. And when you have a lawyer who won't do their job and you have to force them to do their job, definitely need a new lawyer.

Miller: That's just not true. It wasn't that they were forcing me to do my job, they were objecting to the job I was doing, they were objecting to the litigation against the Trump administration.

Bird: Well, that's not true either because for things like Waters of the U.S., Terry Branstad had to do that lawsuit, not you. Your name wasn't part of who was suing there. It was done in the name of the Governor of Iowa and there is a long record of that where you wouldn't put your name on it or you would take your name off of lawsuits.

Miller: In certain cases I would do that and have the right to do that and was proper to send that message to the court. We always do our job based on what we think are the principles and the ethics and the policy for our state. I don't think anybody in the country has been as sincere and as dedicated to the Office of Attorney General and the rule of law as I have and I'm recognized by my peers in that regard.

Murphy: Brenna Bird, Governor Reynolds on the campaign trail multiple times has told crowds and supporters that she wants her own Attorney General. If she is re-elected and if you are elected to this office, will you serve as the state's attorney regardless of partisan and political issues? Or would you be the Governor's essential personal attorney in that office?

Bird: I think what Governor Reynolds was saying was that she wants an Attorney General who will work hard and do the job. And I will certainly do that. Iowa needs an Attorney General who is working for Iowa, not just occupying the job and not somebody who is retired on the job. I will work with law enforcement and I will push back against the Biden administration. But let me tell you this, I will call things like I see them, the balls and the strikes, not according to politics, just like I do as a prosecutor, as a county attorney. I don't know the politics of the people that I charge with crimes and if I did it wouldn't make a difference to the law and the outcome.

Murphy: Tom Miller, you have in the past been, I don't know if supportive is the right word, but maybe defended the vaping industry. At one point you were an advisor for Juul. Can you explain why last year you issued a statement saying that you oppose the FDA's crackdown on vaping products, why you thought that was the right announcement, the right stance to take?

Miller: Yeah. Well, here's the situation. I've spent 25 years fighting the disease and death from cigarettes, from combustible cigarettes. It's 450,000 a year in America. And the vaping product is a product that is far less harmful, is a public health, a harm reduction substitute for combustible cigarettes. We could save hundreds of thousands of lives if people switched. And that's what I'm in favor of. I've never been in favor of kids using e-cigarettes because they're addictive. We don't want kids using that. I've done a lot of programs, I've supported a lot of efforts to do that. So it's a public health harm reduction. What we want is for adult smokers to switch and save perhaps millions of lives and we don't want kids vaping, we want to work on both ends.

Henderson: Clay?

Masters: I want to move to something else here but first I want to ask a quick question with a quick answer. Do you both, well first, Brenna Bird, do you accept the results of the presidential election from 2020?

Bird: I do believe that Joe Biden is our President. I have a lot of concerns though about election integrity.

Masters: And Attorney General Miller, do you believe in the results of the 2020 election for President?

Miller: I do. I do. And I just want to do a brief shout out to our auditors, our county auditors in this state, the election officials. They do a terrific job. They're independent. When the numbers come from those county auditors, those are the right numbers.

Masters: So should the judicial branch, there could be some controversy surrounding the 2024 election results, should the judicial branch continue to be the arbitrator of election results? Or as some have advocated for the Supreme Court, for state legislators to be overriding any of that? Brenna?

Bird: Well, the way I see it, election integrity in Iowa is so important. And Iowans are really concerned about that. And we have done some good things in Iowa to make our elections more secure, like voter ID, something my opponent opposes. But I believe that the system we have now in Iowa works well and I would enforce that. And I of course, the legislature would make the law in that regard and it's my job to uphold it and enforce that law.

Masters: Tom Miller?

Miller: Yeah, like I say, I think Iowa has a terrific system largely because of the county auditors, the elected officials. When those numbers come up, they're real numbers. And those numbers shouldn't be overturned except for in incredibly extreme circumstances. And the courts can do that but would rarely do it. And I think the legislature stepping in and selection electors is a very dangerous practice that I don't think will happen in Iowa, could help elsewhere. That would be the means to overturn a legitimate election and at our core democratic principles that is a very dangerous set of problems that are present in other states but I don't think in Iowa. But as a nation we need to be worried about that.

Henderson: The legislature has made some changes to the judicial nominating commissions in Iowa. Brenna Bird, do you think more changes should be made to the process of nominating candidates for openings in the courts?

Bird: Well, as somebody who regularly tries cases and appears in court, I know how important it is to have good judges. And I think that it's important that that process is open and that the people understand how judges are chosen and that the best people can be chosen because often when somebody has a case, whether it is a criminal case or a custody matter, those decisions by that district court judge will be what happens in their life and to their family. So I take that very seriously.

Henderson: So do you think the system is working well?

Bird: I think there are still some ways that it could be improved. And the number one way is I bet if we asked an Iowan how are judges chosen they might not know the answer to that. And that shows the importance that we need for transparency to that process so they understand how judges are chosen, how that process works.

Henderson: But you're not advocating electing judges, right?

Bird: I'm not in support of electing judges at all. I do think there is some wisdom to having judges be appointed and confirmed by the legislature. We need that check and balance and that transparency. But I oppose judicial elections.

Henderson: Tom Miller?

Miller: I oppose judicial elections as well and think that the current system works basically well. I think it was changed somewhat to give the Governor more power in the process. I think that was a mistake. I think the previous system of having the judge be the chair of the selection and nominating commission made sense. So I was opposed to that. But generally I think we're in the right area. And we have good judges. We're before them all the time in the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and the District Court. Generally we have I think really good judges that we can be proud of.

Murphy: We're down to our last about two minutes here. I wanted to ask you both, and Tom Miller we'll start with you, Iowa voters this fall are going to be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that would add strict scrutiny to gun regulation laws, the Second Amendment as it's being called. I want to hear from each of you, and again Tom we'll start with you, do you have any thoughts on that proposal, that proposed constitutional amendment? And in what ways do you see it impacting the Attorney General's office and work?

Miller: I recognize and support the Second Amendment. I think that is an important part of our Constitution, state and potentially federal. But as a law enforcement person, the strict scrutiny that you mentioned is really pretty troubling. It would be very hard to get common sense gun control legislation by the Constitution with strict scrutiny. We would be one of the few if not only places to have strict scrutiny. And from the law enforcement point of view I think that law enforcement needs some control, some reasonable control on guns and also of course the public. So the strict scrutiny is troublesome because of the law enforcement consequences.

Henderson: Brenna Bird, we'll give you the final minute.

Bird: Yeah, I support the Second Amendment and my opponent has gotten an F in the past from the NRA. When I'm Attorney General I will defend our laws. But one of the most important things that we can do with regard to guns is to increase and beef up the penalties for a felon in possession of firearms. As a prosecutor, I think that that penalty is far too lenient and it should be a lot stronger. 

Henderson: What is it today?

Bird: It's a D felony and most judges will give probation for someone who is convicted of that when we're arguing a sentence. And I don't think that's right.

Murphy: And on the ballot measure specifically, do you support or oppose that Second Amendment proposal?

Bird: Yeah, I support our Second Amendment, I support the ballot measure.

Henderson: We are out of time, folks. Thank you both for joining us on this edition of Iowa Press. And for you watching at home, you can join Iowa Press at any time online at or you can watch us at our regular broadcast times, Friday at 7:30 p.m. and at noon on Sundays. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.


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