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First Day Of Iowa's 2021 Legislative Session Marked By COVID-19 Pandemic, Aftermath Of U.S. Capitol Insurrection

Katarina Sostaric
The Iowa House of Representatives gaveled in for the start of the 2021 legislative session.

Iowa lawmakers, their staff and members of the public gathered at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines Monday for the first day of the legislative session, less than a week after pro-Trump extremists attacked the U.S. Capitol, and as the coronavirus pandemic continues to claim lives in the state.

A large crowd of maskless Iowans protesting mask mandates streamed into the Statehouse—a building with no mask mandate in a state with an extremely limited mask mandate—and spoke against vaccines, masks, virtual learning, public health emergency powers, and other COVID-19 mitigation measures. Their chanting could be heard from the Capitol rotunda as lawmakers took their oath of office and leaders gave first-day speeches.

Capitol security guards took the temperatures of those entering but did not appear to be asking health screening questions detailed in the COVID-19 protocols announced by Republican leaders last week.

More state troopers patrolled the Statehouse than what is typically seen there.

“We have significantly increased uniform and non-uniform presence,” Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens. “And we’ll do that for a period of time until we’re satisfied that there’s not ongoing issues.”

Bayens said it “would be foolish to ignore” the U.S. Capitol insurrection, and said DPS intelligence analysts are working to identify any potential threats in Iowa.

Political tensions arising from the U.S. Capitol insurrection and the state’s handling of the pandemic showed up in legislative leaders’ opening speeches, which are typically quite tame remarks about working together for Iowans.

Democratic leaders brought attention to the more than 4,000 Iowans who have died of COVID-19, and called for a stronger state response to the pandemic.

And House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said state leaders should not turn a blind eye to the events and conspiracy theories that led up to the U.S. Capitol insurrection.

“I am disgusted by the reaction, or rather the inaction, of many of my Republican colleagues here in Iowa,” Prichard said. “For too long, politicians have not only enabled, but served as a willing partner in the spread of misinformation about election fraud.”

He said when leaders like Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds defend people who question the legitimacy of our elections, “a crack develops in the pillar of truth” that holds up the country’s democracy.

“Be honest to constituents,” Prichard said. “Deal in truth, not the politics of fear or internet conspiracies. Help turn the tide. Do your part to strengthen our democracy.”

Republican legislative leaders respond

Before starting his session-opening speech, House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, responded.

“Violence and anarchy of any kind is unacceptable,” Windschitl said. “It doesn’t matter what the political ideology is. So let me as majority leader of the Iowa House stand here today and say I denounce it was what happened in DC or the riots that happened over the summer. So, you’ve got a leader standing here to say it’s not okay.”

His response echoed what many other Republican Statehouse leaders have been saying. They have condemned violence in general, often lumping the insurrection in with the small percentage of protests against racial injustice that turned violent. But they have declined to mention President Trump and his role in the insurrection, or to denounce his false claims that the election was stolen.

At the Republican Party of Iowa’s fundraising breakfast early Monday morning, none of the nine Iowa GOP leaders who spoke mentioned Trump, even as they celebrated their wins up and down the ballot in the 2020 election. This comes after top Iowa Republicans have projected loyalty and closeness to Trump throughout his presidency.

On Iowa Public Radio’s River to River Monday, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, and House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, both said Democrat Joe Biden will be sworn in as president next week and they want to move forward. But they refused to directly address Trump’s unsupported claims of widespread voter fraud and related conspiracy theories.

“I would say what’s going on with continued attempts of filing articles of impeachment, things like that are probably stoking the flames of division in this country,” Grassley said.

Asked if state political leaders have a role in fighting conspiracy theories and disinformation, Whitver said he has stepped back from social media because of those very things.

“That’s not how I like to waste my time, reading conspiracy theories on either side,” Whitver said. “And so I like to deal in reality, and that’s we are going to do here at the Capitol this year.”

In response to Republicans lumping the insurrection in with the protests against racism and police brutality, Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said the difference between the two is as clear as night and day.

He said the protests last summer were a response to the police killing of George Floyd and all the needless police killings of Black Americans before that.

“The insurrection we saw in D.C. last week and the violence that has taken place in other parts of the country is happening because of a president who…has lied to his supporters about a rigged or stolen election, and a party that has refused to condemn that language,” Wahls said. “So I don’t think this is a both sides issue.”

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter