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King's Northwest Iowa Constituents Weigh In On His Recent Controversy

Clay Masters/IPR file

After Iowa's 4th District Congressional Representative Steve King defended the terms “white nationalist” and "white supremacist" in a New York Times interview,  Republican leaders loudly criticized him.

The House voted nearly unanimously on Tuesday to condemn King’s remarks.

Now, King’s constituents in western Iowa are thinking about his political future.

Sitting at a table at the J&J Cafe in Le Mars, there’s a group of friends who meet daily to “settle the world’s problems.” Today, they’re talking about their representative in the U.S. House, Steve King.

All three are supporters. Dennis Asche and Dennis Toel say King has been treated unfairly.

“You know, there’s no freedom of speech anymore,” Toel said.

“That’s why they started this country: Freedom of speech, freedom of religion and all that stuff, and now you can’t talk anymore,” Asche said.

The Des Moines Registerand the Sioux City Journalhave called on King to step down, but Asche says King should keep his seat.

“Why? Because the voters, they put him in there, that’s why,” Asche said. “We voted him in there.”

But Asche and Toel’s friend Walt Kleinhesselink is not so sure.

“I think he’s been in there plenty long,” Kleinhesselink said.

King has represented this corner of Iowa since 2003, easily winning re-election every time, until last November. That’s when his history of making inflammatory remarks caught up with him and he eked out a narrow win.

About 20 miles away from Le Mars is Sioux County where King got some of his strongest support last fall, taking home more than 73 percent of the vote. At the Town Square Coffeehouse and Kitchen in Orange City, co-owner Steve Mahr says he voted for King in 2004. He has not supported him since.

“He’s made comments about my immigrant neighbors, he’s made comments about the freedom of black people. He’s made comments about the superiority of western civilization over other cultures and civilization,” Mahr said.

Mahr says he wants King to resign over the controversy that the quote in the New York Times article has caused.

“I am not content with him being my representative. The reality is that I live in District 4 and District 4 voted for him,” Mahr said.

A couple of tables away, Bre Ellis, who voted for King in the 2018 election, disagrees.

“I don’t think he needs to resign,” she said. “I think he needs to be sorry for those things that he said…but we’re only human.”

Ellis says she agrees with King's strong anti-abortion positions and support for gun rights. But she doesn’t like the terms he defended, like “white supremacist”, “white nationalist,” and “western civilization."

“I think that one time, western civilization was an okay term to use but I think that now times have changed and when times change you also need to change the way that you say things and do things and support things,” Ellis said.

King was quoted in the New York Times asking, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King said. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

After the story ran, King said he condemns white nationalism and supremacy although he insists he’s still a defender of western civilization.

He spoke before the House floor last week to address his side of the conversation he had with the newspaper. The conversation, he said, was about “how those words got plugged into our dialogue, not when the words became offensive…”

“I’ve never sat in a class at any time and heard any merits about any of those other names, including, I’ve never heard a merit about racist, I’ve never heard a merit about Nazi or fascist or white nationalist or white supremacist,” King said. “But western civilization has merit and I remain a defender.”

King was removed from his congressional committees on Monday, including his agricultural, small business and judiciary assignments. The House voted nearly unanimously on Tuesday to condemn the terms “white nationalism” and “white supremacy”. King voted for the resolution. Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois voted against it because he wants to see a censure resolution passed against King.

In a sign that King’s support in Iowa’s 4th District may be ebbing, state Sen. Randy Feenstra from Hull, a prominent local Republican in the state Senate, has announced plans to challenge King in the GOP primary next year. Feenstra said he has opened a federal campaign committee, a step toward officially entering the race.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.