Iowa House Minority Leader

Iowa Press | Episode
Jul 1, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa House Minority Leader Rep. Jennifer Konfrst (D-Windsor Heights), discusses the 2022 legislative session, the Iowa Caucuses, the upcoming election and other recent news. 

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Stephen Gruber-Miller, politics reporter for The Des Moines Register, and Katarina Sostaric, state government reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

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

Recorded: June 28, 2022



Iowa democrats hold little power at the State Capitol. What is their message to voters this fall? We sit down with House Democratic Leader Jennifer Konfrst 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. 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, July 1st edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: In June of last year, the democrats in the Iowa House of Representatives chose Jennifer Konfrst as their leader. She is a democrat from Windsor Heights and she is joining us today on this edition of Iowa Press to talk about a lot of politics that's happening right now. And to accommodate production schedules and travel, we are taping this program on Tuesday, not on our traditional Friday. Just a note for our viewers.

Henderson: Joining the conversation are Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio and Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register.

Gruber-Miller: So earlier today, Governor Kim Reynolds announced that she is asking the Iowa Court to lift the injunction blocking a so-called fetal heartbeat law from taking effect. She had signed that law in 2018 but it was blocked by the courts. And in light of last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, she is asking for that to be reinstated. I'm curious if that does go into effect, what do you feel like the impact will be for Iowans?

Konfrst: Well, I think first and foremost it's important to notice that this decision came down from the Supreme Court less than a week ago and we're moving pretty quickly here at the legislature. And we know for a fact that Iowans are overwhelmingly pro-choice. 57% of Iowa are pro-choice in the latest Ann Selzer poll and that is up 8 points from the year before. So it's trending in the direction of favoring a woman's right to make her own health care decisions. Iowans are tired of politicians making decisions for them and they're tired of political games. And I think when they hear this news, they are going to think it's another example of trying to work the system instead of adequately addressing and really getting input from everyday Iowans.

Henderson: One part about this announcement, were you surprised that the Governor is not immediately pursuing a special session this summer to enact some sort of legislation?

Konfrst: I think I was and I think it still remains to be seen if we're going to have a special session. We'll see what the courts decide. And if she doesn't get her way I imagine she'll call us back in for a special session. Again, not taking into consideration the fact that most Iowans don't want this because they want the ability to make their own decisions. And so I think it's pretty frustrating for a lot of Iowans who are seeing games being played with a pretty serious issue, an issue that just changed in seismic ways a few days ago. Let's take some time here. Let's make sure what we're doing is in the best interest of all Iowans, not politics.

Gruber-Miller: As we're hearing a little preview of your kind of pitch to voters on this, so to speak, or your message about this issue, there is an election coming up this fall and there are obviously a lot of high emotions around this topic and democrats want to be mobilizing people who are upset about the Supreme Court decision. How do you go about taking those emotions and doing the organizing that would turn that into people supporting you?

Konfrst: Well, a couple of things. First of all, it would be great if there were 57% of Iowans who are democrats. So I know this is not just a democratic issue. 57% of Iowans like to have a woman have her own, the right to make her own health care decisions, that is more than just the democrats. So we know this isn't just partisan. However, we also know that it's important to mobilize people and let people know what is at stake this fall. If Iowans want the ability to continue to make their own health care decisions, a pro-choice majority in the Iowa legislature is key to making that happen. And so we're going to be making that case loud and clear. On a few of these abortion rallies, anti-abortion rallies, anti-choice rallies that have happened around the state I got the sense that it was a lot like the Women's March. The people who were at these rallies are fired up, they're angry and they're ready to vote. They see that their votes matter and they're going to use this issue as one to make their voices heard, I'm sure of it.

Sostaric: I covered one of the protests in support of abortion rights in Des Moines last week and there were some of the speakers saying, democrats won't save you, we need to save ourselves. What are you doing other than just asking people to vote for you and fundraise? Are you promoting any sort of resources to try to maintain abortion access if this six-week ban does go into effect?

Konfrst: For sure. We've heard the criticism too, right. I would argue that it has been republicans who have been consistently undermining a woman's right to make her own health care decisions for years. But sure, I can see that argument and I can see the frustration people have. So yes, we're reminding Iowans right now that abortion is still legal in this state, it is still your right to have an abortion in the state of Iowa. We're reminding Iowans of where they can go for resources. And we continue to ask Iowans to tell us what they think. And so we've had plenty of outreach to people just to say, tell us where you are on this issue, let us know what you think. Right after the decision came down, Deidre DeJear, her first post was about I want to hear from you. We want to listen to Iowans as much as we want to talk to them because it's them who are going to make this big decision in November.

Henderson: Let's say in November there is a seismic shift and Iowans elect Deidre DeJear, the democrat for Governor, and majorities for democrats in the House and the Senate. What would be the policy in regards to abortion rights that democrats would pursue?

Konfrst: Well, I think first of all we have to restore some rights that have been taken away. So we'd have to go in and make sure that some of the limitations, depending on what happens with the six-week ban, what can we turn over? And then I think we also want to make sure that we're solidifying the right to an abortion in Iowa Code in some way. We don't have a codify Roe v. Wade situation here in Iowa, but we have the ability to ensure and enshrine in Iowa Code the right for a woman to have an abortion.

Gruber-Miller: Let's say that republicans maintain their control of the government. How far do you expect them to go to restrict abortion? Are you prepared for a full out ban? Or what are you expecting from them?

Konfrst: Well, first of all, I like Kay's scenario better. But fine, let's just say that there are still republicans in the legislature in the majority in the House and Senate, but make no mistake, this decision is coming down to the Iowa legislature. This decision on whether or not we'll have a total ban on abortion is in the hands of legislators in Iowa and we have a sneak peek at what they want to do. When we had the amendment, when we passed the amendment to make sure that there is no right to an abortion inferred in the Iowa Constitution last year, democrats put up several amendments for exceptions. So an exception for the life of the mother, an exception for IVF or birth control, an exception for rape and incest. Those were all voted down on party line votes. So make no mistake, republicans want a total abortion ban without exceptions in the state of Iowa. They've shown us that already.

Sostaric: You say this is in the hands of the Iowa legislature, but there's also some calling for federal action. Do you want President Biden to take any action on abortion rights?

Konfrst: Absolutely, but I'm looking at the reality I have right now and where we can control in our world and right now that decision has been sent back to the states. And so while national policy is amazing and great, I have to focus on what we can do here in Iowa and I think we can make some real strides to protect a woman's right to choose and we know that is what Iowans want.

Henderson: Well, let's focus on Iowa, something different, the Caucuses. You were recently in Washington, D.C. making the case to the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee that the Iowa Caucuses should remain first-in-the-nation. You were I guess arguing we're a competitive state, we're a so-called purple state. Really?

Konfrst: Yes. Would I joke about this? No, absolutely, Iowa is without question a purple state. This is not something I even have a hard time justifying. We have numbers that show, first of all voter registration, a third, a third, a third pretty much. We right now in the legislature and the Governor's Office it feels red, but it wasn't too long ago that we had majorities in the House and Senate, we had the Governor's Office. And it's not that long ago that we were within a couple of votes in the Iowa House. Since I've been there, and I've been there four years, so this is certainly, we are not a lost cause and I absolutely refuse to accept that we are. We also know that Iowans are frustrated with all of us, with all parties right now, they're frustrated with democrats yes, but they're frustrated with republicans too. And Iowans want people who are just going to step forward and do something and democrats have a case to make for that.

Gruber-Miller: This DNC committee is considering stripping Iowa of its first-in-the-nation status. So if that were to happen, what do Iowa democrats do? Do you go rogue and still go first? Is that something the party should do?

Konfrst: You know, I don't know exactly what we're going to do. The case that I made in Washington was that republicans are still going first and so every time a presidential candidate comes and campaigns on the republican side, if democrats aren't also first we're at a competitive disadvantage because they're organizing, they're excited, we don't have that chance. So there is a real political argument to be made for keeping us first. But when my colleague Scott Brennan was asked this question that day he said, Iowa intends to be first. But I do think that we're taking it one step at a time here. I think let's see what the Rules and Bylaws Committee says in August. We made the case there is this early window and now that we have some sort of extended voting days and there's some wiggle room there I think with regard to what is considered first and as long as we're in that early window I think we're still making the case that Iowans are helping to pick the next President.

Sostaric: What do you say to democrats who say, just give up on trying to keep Iowa first and focus on winning elections in the state?

Konfrst: I would say that those two aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they are connected. So, having the Iowa Caucuses here is a critical organizing tool for us. So the fact that I was in Washington and I met with people who have worked in Iowa because of the Iowa Caucuses and they're able to help us make connections, help us find candidates, help us raise money, those are connections we made because of the Caucuses that we wouldn't be able to make if we weren't first. It's not because we like it when political reporters come to Iowa. They're lovely. But we really like the fact that we can organize and that we have a say in the future of our party and the future nominee of our party. It is an organizing tool that is critical to keeping this state purple and bringing it back to blue.

Sostaric: Does the time and effort being invested to try to keep Iowa first, does that detract at all from trying to win elections or from campaigning?

Konfrst: Not if we're doing it right. I think that if we're going, if a candidate comes into Red Oak and does a campaign event there, if we're not there registering democrats to vote and getting folks excited about the local legislative candidate then we're not doing it right. But we have been doing that and we've been organizing because of those presidential campaign visits.

Henderson: Okay, you were in the room as they say in Hamilton where it happens, at the committee level where they're going to make this decision. Are you laying odds?

Konfrst: No. I'm really not. Scott Brennan is also on the Rules and Bylaws Committee, a lot of those conversations happened behind closed doors that I'm not privy to. But I will tell you that I was prepared for a grilling and a lot of pushback because of this sort of anti-Iowa sentiment and I was pleasantly surprised by the responses we got, including someone who said, I'm really impressed by the way you've pivoted and tried to adapt and make caucuses more accessible. So I felt like the response was better than I anticipated.

Henderson: Where is President Biden in this?

Konfrst: Yeah, I don't know that question. I'm here to fight for Iowa. In fact, we got asked questions about why aren't the four early states coming together in things. I've got to tell you, I was there to fight for Iowa to be first and that is really what I had to be focused on.

Gruber-Miller: I want to change the subject now to education. Democrats were opposed this year to Governor Kim Reynolds' plan to give families taxpayer-funded scholarships to pay for private school and now the Governor is making that a centerpiece of her re-election campaign. She is saying parents deserve more choice over their children's education. How do you go out and talk to voters who might be sympathetic to the Governor's message?

Konfrst: I think we, first of all, remind then that it wasn't just democrats who didn't want vouchers in the Iowa House, in the Iowa Senate, it was a majority of the Iowa legislature and it's a majority of Iowans who don't want public money going to unaccountable private schools in ways that would help 2% of Iowa kids and in ways that don't actually, that actually hurt the rest of kids across the state. So we would have these conversations, let them know -- I've had these, I just did this in Montgomery County, someone said, but why can't we do this? And I was able to explain to them that the money comes from public schools and goes to private schools, that not everyone qualifies and that the kids who are left behind have fewer resources in the public school and that that's not who we are as Iowans and that's not our tradition. This is an easy one for me, Stephen, because I know that Iowans oppose school vouchers, they oppose more public money to private schools. And so this is a case I'm happy to make anywhere across the state because it's one where the majority of Iowans are.

Sostaric: Congress recently passed some gun legislation that Biden signed into law. In terms of Iowa, what gun policies do democrats think are right for Iowa?

Konfrst: Iowans are so sick of playing politics, they are so sick of sort of the legislative games that go on. All they want is to make sure their kids are safe when they go to school and make sure they're safe when they're out in public at a mall or a movie theatre. So they want common sense gun reform. So we have proposed things like enhancing and strengthening background checks, we've proposed things like extreme risk protection orders that can help people in a crisis not have access to a firearm. We're not looking for anything broad and across-the-board, we're just looking to find some common sense gun safety measure that Iowans can agree with and the direction the legislature has been going is away from those measures. Now you can have a gun without a permit, which means in many cases you can have a gun without a background check. Why in this environment is the majority party pushing for more open gun access instead of looking at ways that we can restrict the risk of violence in our everyday spaces?

Henderson: Three weeks ago on this program Deidre DeJear, the democratic nominee for Governor said, bring back the permit process. Is that something democrats would do?

Konfrst: I think we can definitely make an argument for it, at least the permitting process. This is you need to go to the drivers license station to get a drivers license, there is no similar process through which you have to go to get a gun and it's just incredibly frustrating that you can't drive a car without a license but anyone can have a handgun without a license. And everyday Iowans, gun owners tell us this is too far, this is more than we want, we want to be safe, responsible gun owners and it's not asking too much to have to get a permit, it simply isn't.

Gruber-Miller: One of the next big decisions Iowans are going to have to make on guns is this fall there is a ballot initiative to decide whether to add to the Iowa Constitution the right to keep and bear arms. Republicans are saying, this is simply the Second Amendment. The language is different though. How do you go about making the case, as you've said, that this is too extreme without sort of, in a way that convinces people who want to vote on this right that they have?

Konfrst: I think at the end of the day it's important to let Iowans know that it isn't the Second Amendment. We as democrats offered the exact same language as the federal Constitution's Second Amendment and Iowa republicans voted it down because it didn't go far enough. And this is extreme legislation, it is not done much around the country because of the risks that exist, the fact that there could be any sort of common sense gun safety measure in the future could be at risk or found unconstitutional because of this amendment. There are real risks with this constitutional amendment and it is our job and it is others' jobs to make sure that Iowans know what they're voting on. It's a big deal to amend the Iowa Constitution. It's an even bigger deal to amend the Iowa Constitution to make common sense gun safety efforts almost impossible.

Henderson: There was a primary election on June 7th in Iowa and there were more republican voters than democratic voters participating. What do you say to your republican friends who have been crowing about the enthusiasm on their side and the lack thereof on yours?

Konfrst: Well, I guess I'd say a couple of things. I wouldn't measure it as a lack of enthusiasm. We didn't have a contested gubernatorial primary and we knew who our nominee was going to be there. We didn't have as many contested legislative primaries across the state. We didn't have a statewide elected official interfering in our primaries, for example. And so we feel confident that we've got a great ticket going forward. And I'm, I don't know, if my inbox is any indication there are plenty of people who are real fired up to vote this fall. So I'm not at all worried about turnout from the primary.

Henderson: Last week on this program, Mike Franken, the U.S. Senate nominee for your party talked about how do we open the wallets of people outside of the state to invest in races here? How do you do that when his race, the Governor's race, three of the four congressional races are sort of maybe on the national map and getting national attention? How do you raise money in that environment and get resources for legislative candidates?

Konfrst: Of course that's what I'm trying to do every day and I am thrilled that there are three competitive legislative races, or congressional races, in the state of Iowa and that those are getting some national attention. But look, at the end of the day we have a case to make. We can show that the more democrats we can get in the Iowa House of Representatives, the less likely school vouchers are to pass. The more democrats we can get in the Iowa House of Representatives, the less likely extreme abortion legislation will pass. And so we're making a case that each and every seat gets us closer to the majority and makes them have to go find one more vote for their extreme agenda and we know that Iowans value organizations and legislators and candidates who put people over politics and we've got a bunch of those all across the state.

Sostaric: Republicans at the national and state level seem to just be running on inflation though. So what is Iowa democrats' plan for either trying to help lower prices or minimize the impact to Iowans?

Konfrst: I get it, right, I didn't like having to fill up recently because they were pretty high gas prices and I am in no way pretending that that's not a concern or a problem. I certainly think that more could be done across the country to address gas prices. I will say that I was proud to support an amendment that democrats put forward that would have given gas cards to Iowans if gas reached a certain price level. That was voted down on party lines. We also had several other initiatives that would have -- we voted in a bipartisan way on biofuel that helps to have more homegrown energy and so that we're less reliant on foreign oil and this sort of volatility of the market. But at the end of the day I would also look at some corporate profits that are going on from some of these oil companies. I would point out that gas prices are huge across the world and that oil company profits are record-breaking right now. So somebody is getting rich off of these high gas prices out of me filling up my car on the way here and I think a lot of that is going right to oil companies and Iowans should be right to question that.

Gruber-Miller: Governor Reynolds this year, she has finished signing bills for the year, so all of the legislation that was passed she has now signed into law or taken some action on. And there were several pieces of really far-reaching legislation. I'm curious, is there a single piece of legislation you think is going to have the biggest impact on Iowans going forward into the future?

Konfrst: Well, I think it depends negative or positive impact, right. So I'm very concerned about the tax scheme that the republicans passed and the Governor signed because it is not funded all the way out and because it gives all of the tax benefits to the wealthiest Iowans and to corporations and it does so at the expense of middle class Iowans and 500,000 Iowans won't even see a tax cut. This is going to have significant impacts on our budget and very miniscule impacts on most Iowans' pocketbooks. And so I'm very concerned about that. There were other things that we did this year that seemed small but I think will have a good positive impact. We were able to get rid of the sales tax on menstrual products and diapers. That is huge for families. That is a big benefit that we could pass in a bipartisan way. We were able to pass radon testing in schools, which is something we've been working for, for a long time. So there were some good things that happened. But I'm very concerned about the impact of this tax scheme.

Henderson: Do you think the bottle bill passage will come back to bite legislators once grocery stores quit accepting bottles and cans?

Konfrst: Yeah, I think the bottle bill proposal was not exactly what Iowans want when they say they want to see the bottle bill expand. And I know a lot of us voted for it because we want to keep it around and see if we can't continue to improve it. But surely the bill we passed was not what Iowans are looking for. They want to see expansion, they want to be able to return those water bottles and Gatorade bottles. None of that was in this. In fact, all that was really in it was you can't go to your grocery store, you might not be able to go to your grocery store and redeem your bottles and cans anymore. So I do think that there is a risk when Iowans start to experience what a revised bottle bill looks like and they have to find a distribution center and things like that. I think some Iowans are going to be pretty surprised about what that bottle bill did. And all I can say is that I think there is a lot more work that can be done on it.

Henderson: You mentioned the tax plan that Governor Reynolds signed into law March 1st I believe. It appears that the next phase of the republican plan to reduce taxes will focus on property taxes. Will democrats out on the stump this fall have their own proposal for taxes and specifically property taxes? You had some amendments this year.

Konfrst: Yep, I think we've got ideas and we just had a briefing with our candidates about some of our potential policy proposals. We want to hear from them too of course, from our candidates and our new legislators. But look, we have history to show what they're going to do. Which properties will get the benefit? The biggest properties, the ones that cost the most. Where will middle class families fall in this? If past is prologue they're going to be left behind again. So as with any tax cut proposal that we're hearing, we are all for the idea of cutting taxes, we want to make sure the people who have been left behind on those cuts year after year after year finally see the benefit. And I'm not hopeful that republicans will find that benefit with property taxes, but we'll see what they propose.

Gruber-Miller: Is there a point at which you're concerned about the state's ability to make ends meet with some of these tax cuts? Obviously the state has gotten a ton of federal money over the past couple of years and the Governor has been using that to fill needs in various areas. But is that a real fear for you?

Konfrst: Yeah, of course I can't let that go without saying that the Governor, who has lobbied against all that federal money who then is happy to take the federal money and take credit for distributing it, yes we've had a lot of federal money come into the state of Iowa that we're glad that President Biden has been able to provide for us. I am concerned. We've used some surplus money, we've used some one-time money to justify this tax scheme for the rich and I am very concerned about how it is paid for two, three, four years down the road. These were the concerns that we raised, this is why we asked for the order to be flipped so that middle class families would get the tax cut first so that we could be sure that they benefited from it. Yeah, I'm concerned. We don't know what the revenue outlook looks like, what is the economy going to be like? Yeah, I have some concerns to make sure that Iowa continues to provide the services that its citizens expect, for sure.

Henderson: The Governor used $100 million of federal pandemic relief to create something called Destination Iowa and this week she has announced that the Field of Dreams television series is going to get $6 million dollars. Is that a good use of that money?

Konfrst: It does seem to me, I think it's great that we're trying to get people to come to Iowa. I have been a part of this effort for a long time, since my first job I worked to try to get people to move to Iowa. I'm not sure that $6 million towards a TV show is really the best use of those dollars. I think that we could be doing things like passing legislation that makes teachers want to live here, that makes families want to move here. I think that we could be doing a lot more on economic development when it comes to making Iowa a welcoming state for all, not just raising awareness of one tourist attraction in the state. However, I love Field of Dreams, I love Dyersville and I think it's a great place and should be supported. I just don't know that in this environment tax dollars should be going to something like that at that level.

Henderson: Jennifer Konfrst, thanks for joining us today. And just as a reminder to our viewers, we taped this program on Tuesday to accommodate production schedules and travel. You can watch every episode of Iowa Press at or you can join us at our regular broadcast times, Fridays at 7:30 and Sundays at noon. For everyone here at the Iowa PBS network, 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. 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