Iowa Senate Minority Leader Pam Jochum

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 21, 2024 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Senate Minority Leader Pam Jochum (D-Dubuque), discusses the 2024 legislative session, the upcoming election and her retirement after serving more than three decades in the Iowa House and Senate.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Stephen Gruber-Miller, statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register.

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



Iowa democrats will try to win back State Senate seats this fall after republicans gained a super majority in 2022. We'll visit with Senate Democratic Leader Pam Jochum of Dubuque 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.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite's 1,600 employees are our company's greatest asset. A family run business, Elite supports volunteerism, encourages promotions from within, and shares profits with our employees.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. 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, June 21st edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest was first elected to the Iowa House in 1992. In 2008, she was elected to the State Senate. She served briefly as the Senate President when democrats were in control and she is currently the Senate Minority Leader in the Iowa Senate. Senator Pam Jochum, a democrat from Dubuque, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Jochum: Well, thank you, Kay, it's a pleasure to be here. Hopefully this won't be my last one.


Henderson: As some of our viewers may know, Senator Jochum is not running for re-election this year. Joining our conversation today are Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Senator Jochum, the Iowa Supreme Court is poised to issue a ruling on republicans' six-week abortion ban. We're going to get into the politics of that, but I actually wanted to start with a policy question for you on that. If the court upholds that law and abortions become illegal after roughly six weeks of pregnancy, what is the democratic plan for once they pull the legislative levers again for adjusting that issue?

Jochum: Well, I think the most important issue right now, Erin, is that voters in Iowa are very much aware of that issue and what that means to their freedom for the future. And I believe that in my travels across the state, and believe me I have traveled about 18,000 miles in the last half of '23 and this part of '24 already, and that is top of mind for many, many voters. They really believe that they need to have the freedom to make their own health decisions and they don't think that politicians or the Governor should be in the doctor's office. So, I believe that voters are going to turn out at the ballot box and make their voices heard very strong and clear that they want the freedom to make their own health care decisions. So, I am really relying on Iowa's voters to take note of what is happening and then make sure they use the power of the ballot box to make a difference.

Murphy: And voters will have that opportunity this fall. But again, if the court rules to uphold this law there could be some legislative work for democrats to do, is that correct?

Jochum: There could be. I would suspect that if it went the other way, I would suspect the Governor may even call us back into special session again. Who knows. But certainly, the democrats in both the House and the Senate have released a full package of different reproductive rights that we believe meet the needs of Iowans and what Iowans expect from their state government that includes a constitutional amendment that would make sure that reproductive freedom is a constitutional right. It included over-the-counter birth control, it included post-partum care for women for 12 months after they give birth, it guaranteed the right to contraception and there was a couple of other issues involved in that. But yes, I think that you will see democrats be very active in trying to pass that package through in the next general assembly and make sure that voters are very aware of what we're attempting to accomplish.

Gruber-Miller: So, we were just hearing from you a moment ago about how this is an election issue for democrats. I know that the party is doing organizing around this to get activists engaged, to get people educated about this as the Supreme Court ruling is coming down soon. How do you -- there's lots of issues that people might vote on this year -- how do you convince people who maybe agree with you on this issue to make it a voting issue for them?

Jochum: I think that quite frankly Iowans believe in their freedom and I think that we are out there saying that this is about your freedom to make your own personal decisions. I truly have been at town hall listening posts and we listen and we hear what people are saying. That is one issue that consistently has come up across the state of Iowa no matter where I've gone whether it has been Osage, Iowa, Villisca, Council Bluffs, Urbandale, didn't matter, it is always the one issue that everyone brings up. The second issue that consistently comes up is public education. And the rural areas are more concerned about that issue than probably any other issue right now because they see that as an issue that says, if my public school closes it's our identity and if we lose our identity our little town is going to also go away. So, they are very worried about what is going on with public education, the underfunding of education, the voucher law and now on top of that the Area Education Agencies. So, I consistently hear those two issues no matter where I have gone. And people, quite frankly, are quite angry about the direction the state is going right now.

Henderson: The Iowa Senate has historically been more supportive of Iowa's medical marijuana law than has the House. This past session a law has become, a bill has become law that puts limits on hemp products. And some people who have used medical marijuana have also been supplementing it with hemp products. What is your advice to them?

Jochum: To continue to speak up and make sure that their legislators know what this means for them. I know that I was very involved with then Senator Joe Bolkcom when we got the medical marijuana bill finally passed through the legislature. And I remember so vividly, Kay, sitting in the Health and Human Service Committee and moms with their children sitting in that room, children who had seizure disorders and they had tried everything they could that is on the market in terms of prescription drugs, none of which were working for those children, and they actually took the risk of going to Colorado at that time and getting medical marijuana for their children and immediately those seizures began to subside and those children began to catch up developmentally. I had a daughter with disabilities who also had a seizure disorder. So, I do know firsthand how that seizure disorder really does disrupt a child's developmental stages of life. And so, when these parents were coming back and saw their children’s' seizures subsiding and that they were beginning to catch up again, how could we say no? So yes, I think --

Henderson: But the legislature has said no to some levels of hemp --

Jochum: That's true and I think that the legislature was wrong and I think that the voters in those districts need to speak up very loudly and clearly to the people who voted for that if they happen to be their legislators to let them know what is the real impact of changing these kinds of laws on their families and their children.

Murphy: Another issue that voters are going to be hearing a lot about is immigration and I know that is typically federal policy, but republicans passed a state law here that is now being challenged in the courts. We've seen polling that actually this topic is important to voters across political boundaries. Democrats opposed the state law that passed. If that wasn't the answer, what is? And what will democrats say to those voters who want action on this issue?

Jochum: Great question and I will say that I have always been and so have democrats have believed that we need to make sure our borders are safe. And we have for years believed that we need a very comprehensive law in immigration that gives people a safe pathway to citizenship, something that is expedited and that is going to be very safe for American people. Every one of us, or at least most of us, come from immigrants. And thank God our family ancestors decided to come to this country and that we have been citizens now for many, many years. So, we have always believed that this is truly a federal issue and that the ownness sits on the members of Congress to make sure that they pass a bipartisan bill, it was democrats and republicans in the United States Senate that came up with that legislation, and it is sitting on the table of our federal legislators. And I would say get ahold of Chuck Grassley, get ahold of Joni Ernst, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Zach Nunn, Randy Feenstra and of course, Ashley Hinson, because the power to make that decision rests with them. I also know local law enforcement have also said very clearly that they do not have the training or the guidance or the wherewithal to be able to enforce that law. It is a federal issue.

Murphy: So, when your candidates are knocking doors this fall and if a voter asks one of your candidates that question and if the answer is that is the responsibility of the federal government, not me at the Statehouse level, will that resonate with voters? Will that be okay to punt the issue, so to speak?

Jochum: I think that it's part of our job to also educate the voters on who is responsible for immigration law. I would also encourage our candidates to say we want a clear pathway to citizenship that is expedited and that means the federal governments needs to invest in the judges and others who need to be part of that system to expedite that process. It's nuts that this takes seven to ten years for someone to actually get through that system. I often wonder how many of us would even pass an immigration test to become a citizen of the United States. But they do and we need immigrants in this country because we certainly have a workforce shortage, but we want to make sure that they are truly here legally and safely.

Gruber-Miller: We're going to talk about education issues for a few minutes here. As you mentioned earlier, republicans this year passed a law changing the AEA system, changing some of the funding and responsibilities. What are you hearing so far about how that is going? And what issues do you think a future legislature may need to come back and take a look at?

Jochum: So, let me start -- thank you for asking that, Stephen, because that is actually an issue that has been near and dear to my heart personally. Again, having had a child with disabilities, I know firsthand how important the Area Education Agencies are to families, especially families who have children with special needs. What I believe -- first of all, you're right, there's about a $75 million cut that has happened to the Area Education Agencies, exactly what we predicted would happen is happening. We have hundreds of people, professionals, who are now leaving the AEA system either because they lost their job or because they decided to quit and go to another state and practice their profession or that they have been able to find a job within the school system in another manner. I believe that as democrats we're going to fight like heck to make sure that we can restore some of those funding cuts and to get those AEAs back up and running like they should because it doesn't just benefit children with special needs, it benefits all children whether it's media services or educational services. That AEA law, honest to God, we got more phone calls and emails on that than probably anything else in the last few years. Parents support them, teachers rely on them and our students benefit from the AEAs. And again, I have gone to events where people who I've never seen before showing up at political events who have been involved in some manner, shape or form whether it's a parent or a person who works for the AEA or a teacher who has benefited and relied on that AEA service who has shown up at events and have been talking very loudly and clearly to us how important they are and asking us to do whatever we can to try and restore it. So, I think the legislature next year needs to take some very swift action on it.

Gruber-Miller: Another law that we're just about a year into is the private school scholarship, education savings account law that the Governor passed. We are seeing some private schools around the state raising tuition prices. Is that something that is happening in your area?

Jochum: Absolutely. Already last fall the private schools in my area, in the Dubuque area, increased tuition between 30% and 40% as soon as that law went into effect. So yes, what we're also seeing is that some of the private schools have increased their tuition even above that $7,600 threshold that private school students are now going to get from the taxpayers of Iowa. And so, to me that means that those parents need to now figure out how to make up that difference between what the state is going to spend to educate that child in a private school and the difference on that tuition. So, that very well may mean that a whole lot of people aren't going to have choice. And wasn't that the basis for doing this? I think it was the wrong move and I believe that there is truly a separation of church and state and I truly disagree with what the Governor has done with this passing through the voucher law.

Henderson: It was an issue in several legislative races last time around. The Governor made it an issue in her re-election campaign and was re-elected overwhelmingly. Why do you think it will be an issue in this legislative race?

Jochum: Because people are now seeing the real impact of what it means. And what I've also -- again, I'll go back to what I have heard when I go into towns like Osage, Iowa who said, this is going to end up consolidating more of our rural schools and some of them are going to close. We also have 42 counties in Iowa that don't even have a private school, so those parents and those children have no other choice. Again, this is not the right way to go, especially when we have chronically underfunded public education for the last eight years. It is definitely having a direct negative impact on our state. I remember the day when our reputation as having one of the best public school systems in the country attracted young families and new teachers to move here. That is not happening right now. We see them leaving. I've also had roundtables with children and students who happen to be LGBTQ and they actually sat there with tears saying, I grew up here and I no longer feel safe or welcomed here. And they're planning to leave.

Henderson: One of the laws that took effect this year gives school boards authority to let staff be armed on the school campus during school hours. Are schools in your area doing that?

Jochum: No, they are not.

Henderson: Why?

Jochum: Our school board and our superintendent said no, they will not do that. So, they are going to use that money in other ways to make the school safer like a difference in the doorways and alarms and that kind of thing, making sure there's resource officers in the school buildings. Excuse me. Dubuque has actually had those school resource officers in our high schools for quite some time already and the students actually get to know them really well and they actually become friends with them and they are able to really help dissipate any kind of fights or whatever might be going on in that school and make sure those students are safe.

Murphy: Senator Jochum, for the second time in your tenure in the legislature the state is redesigning its mental health delivery system. That starts in earnest this summer, it will obviously take some time to implement. As that is happening, what should and what will democrats be monitoring and watching for?

Jochum: We'll be monitoring to make sure that the funding, especially for children, is going to actually be there and to provide the level of services they need. Quite frankly, our maternal health, our mental health system is pretty much in the tank right now across the state of Iowa. And we have to make sure that the funding is there and that it's actually providing the services those kiddos need, especially in the school system. So yeah, we'll be monitoring it very closely to make sure that what we said was going to happen is going to happen.

Gruber-Miller: We're going to talk for a few minutes about the upcoming election. The new Des Moines Register Iowa Poll found Donald Trump beating Joe Biden by about 18 percentage points. About two-thirds of Iowans disapprove of Biden's job performance, just 28% approve. With Biden at the top of the ticket, how do you overcome that deficit for your Senate democratic candidates around the state?

Jochum: It's a good question. So, here's what I'm going to say to that, Stephen, and that is this. All politics is local. And that goes back to the old adage of Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and we're finding that to be very, very true, that the down ballot races have always outperformed the top of the ticket. I almost call it reverse coattails. I have always outpolled the top of the ticket from anywhere from five to ten points depending on the election cycle and who is at the top of that ticket. Our candidates right now have already knocked 25,000 doors of persuadable voters. They have had over 5,400 conversations with those voters. And I can tell you among persuadable voters they are breaking our way on down ballot races. I said earlier that we are at town hall meetings, our labor roundtables, all of those things that we have been doing for the past year are building up to a point where people look at us very differently than the top of the ticket. And they need to because we are the ones who are out knocking the doors, we're going to the community events, we're the ones that people back in our home districts get to know personally and trust us. And that pushes turnout. We know that down ballot races can push turnout anywhere from a half a point to two and a half percent for the top of the ticket. So, again, I believe that there is a definite separation between the top of the ticket and the down ballot races and we're going to continue to fight that way. We have recruited candidates who are electricians, who are school board members, who sit on city councils, who are true community leaders and actually fit their district. And so, we believe that we're going to make a real difference by who we have recruited and the work that they are doing and the work that we have been doing up until this point.

Henderson: Prior to the 2022 election you thought about running for Governor and then announced that you were not. Since you're not seeking re-election to the Senate, you may have some spare time. Will you be running for Governor in 2026?

Jochum: No, I'm not. There are plenty of other younger people, quite frankly, that I think have already expressed some interest in running and I think they would do an absolutely superb job of they decide to do that.

Henderson: What is the prototype candidate that needs to be at the top of the ticket as your candidate for Governor in 2026?

Jochum: I think it's someone who knows how to listen to people, that really listens to people, that is willing to get out there and talk with people and not necessarily with any kind of a partisan label necessarily but to talk about the real issues that are affecting their everyday lives whether it happens to be affordable housing or child care or the public education system. The bottom line is people want us, they want to hear us talk about freedoms and opportunities and accountability of government. And in this last session we have seen how the republicans have undermined some of that government accountability when they took away some of the resources and power that the State Auditor had, for example, in order to have clean audits and to gather the kinds of information that that office needs to be able to give taxpayers a real picture of what is happening financially at the state level and at the local level. And when you undermine those kinds of laws and start stripping away our freedoms and making it harder for people to cast votes and exercise one of our most fundamental freedoms and rights, then I think that that's the kind of thing we need to be talking to voters about and being out on the trail.

Murphy: Is that an early endorsement for Rob Sand for Governor?

Jochum: It's not an endorsement for anybody right now. I'm not even sure if Rob has made up his mind on what he's going to do. But I know that there are others who are thinking very seriously about running and I wish them the very best and I will be there to help in whatever manner, shape or form I can.

Murphy: Earlier this month we had a primary election here in Iowa and we saw in some Statehouse races and maybe even one of the congressional races the influence that a candidate's position on carbon capture pipelines and the use of eminent domain can have. Some candidates who took the side of property rights maybe outperformed what you might have otherwise expected. What are you counseling your Senate democratic candidates on how to talk about that issue this fall?

Jochum: Sure, and that is great because you're right, there was varying results from the different primaries that we saw play out and some of those primaries were using that specific issue on the carbon capture pipeline and eminent domain. What I have told candidates is this is a very local issue and so if it's one that is resonating well in your district you need to talk about it. But the bottom line is this, I would welcome, we would have welcomed a very robust debate in the Iowa Senate on that issue in this last session, even the previous one. And for whatever reason, the republican leadership in the Senate chose not to even bring it forward into even a subcommittee meeting. I think that shortchanged the voters and it shortchanged us as legislators on having a real discussion on it. We had so many issues, culture war issues coming at the 16 of us in the Iowa Senate that we focused on what was before us then and now. That issue because it wasn't even going to go into subcommittee and have any kind of discussion, we did not spend time on our caucus to come to consensus and to have a real discussion internally on that in and of itself. I do know it is an important issue across the state of Iowa and I know eminent domain is a critically important issue that of course deals with the taking of property, private property. And yes, it's a big issue. And I think people need to talk about it if it's the issue in their district and not be afraid to talk about it.

Gruber-Miller: So, as we mentioned you're retiring this year. There are currently 16 democrats in the Iowa Senate. You came in as leader last year after Senate democrats decided to oust former leader Zach Wahls. What is the plan after you retire for who the next Senate democratic leader will be?

Jochum: So, I can tell you right now we have an outstanding leadership team in the Iowa Senate with Nate Boulton, Senator Weiner, Senator Knox and any one of them, and Senator Giddens, any one of them could take over the leadership post of running the Iowa Senate right now if they wanted to. I also know that we have a number of young candidates running for the Iowa Senate and I look at them as our rising stars whether it's a Matt Blake or a Nicole Lowe or whoever it might be. But we truly have some shining stars that I believe are going to get elected to the Iowa Senate and they will have a very good future in the Iowa Senate as leaders.

Henderson: About a minute left to give you a chance to reflect. You've been in the state legislature since 1993. What has been the most profound change? And how has that impacted policy?

Jochum: Wow, there's a lot of things that have changed. You know, I think that when I first got elected, we were able to talk across the aisle much more freely and we were listened to regardless of whether we were a democrat or a republican. It was much more civil, much more respectful. And I think that at that time at least when the campaigns were done, they were done and we were focused on governing and what we thought was best for Iowa. That has changed to very sharp partisan edges. Part of it of course is some of the social media, it certainly is. Some of it is the changes that were made in 2010 with the Citizens United ruling where we have seen just massive amounts of dark money from corporations coming into our state and every state, with very negative ads And I can tell you the more negative those campaigns get, the harder it is to set that aside when we walk into the legislature to actually govern. And we're seeing more and more of those culture war, extremist positions coming into the legislature. I remember being able to talk to Chuck Gipp, for example, on different ideas on transportation that would benefit not just Dubuque but other communities as well. He listened. He said, great idea, go get it drafted as an amendment, I'll support it, and he did.

Henderson: And I need to say, we are out of time for this discussion today. I appreciate your time.

Jochum: You're welcome. Thank you.

Henderson: You may watch every episode of Iowa Press at 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.

Elite Casino Resorts is a family-run business rooted in Iowa. We believe our employees are part of our family and we strive to improve their quality of life and the quality of lives within the communities we serve.


Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at