Ernst: Renaming military bases that honor Confederates is ‘the right thing to do’

Iowa Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad (left) and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (right) speak at Creative Visions in Des Moines Friday morning. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said Friday she supports renaming military bases that pay homage to Confederate generals, saying the Civil War and slavery was a “horrible” time in America’s history.

“I could care a whit if we keep those names because those were Confederate generals,” Ernst said.

Ernst met Friday with local Black leaders at Creative Visions, the nonprofit organization operated by Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines.

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad (left) and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (right) speak during a round table discussion at Creative Visions in Des Moines. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Al Womble, president of West Des Moines Democrats, said some of President Donald Trump’s comments have been harmful to the Black community, such as his support for the Confederate flag and denouncing Black Lives Matter activists.

Womble said white Republicans like Ernst need to stand up to the president and be allies to the Black community.

Despite criticism from other Republicans, Ernst said she supports Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to rename Confederate military bases. Warren, D-Massachusetts, proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would require the Pentagon to change the names of 10 Army bases named for Confederate generals. Trump has said he will veto the amendment if it passes.

“I’ve been getting heck from my own party. I’m willing to take that from my own party because it’s the right thing to do,” Ernst said.

Black leaders address inequities in health care, PPP loans

At Creative Visions, Black community leaders shared their policy priorities with Ernst, including equal access to education, health care, criminal justice reform and supporting local Black-owned businesses.

The Rev. Rob Johnson, a minister at Corinthian Baptist Church, said Ernst needs to acknowledge “COVID-1619,” a nod to when the first African slaves arrived in the United States.

Johnson said the Black community is disproportionately hurt by COVID-19 because of systemic health disparities. Affordable health care and transportation to medical offices are barriers for Black people, who disproportionately suffer from diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

Black community leaders gathered at Creative Visions to speak with Sen. Joni Ernst, who is on her 99-county tour. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In Iowa, Black people have made up 9% of the state’s positive COVID-19 tests and 5% of related deaths, according to the state’s COVID-19 data on Friday.

However, Black Iowans only make up 4% of the state’s total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

“When people are choosing between health care and a light bill, we believe that’s a problem,” Johnson said.

Teree Caldwell-Johnson, a longtime Des Moines school board member, said the Paycheck Protection Program is another example of how systemic barriers can hurt Black people. Getting a loan from the federal program relies on a relationship between business owners and a bank.

For Black business owners who don’t have an established relationship with their local banks, receiving a PPP loan has been more difficult, which excludes them from federal aid when they need it most, Caldwell-Johnson said.

“PPP is a great placeholder to understand the impact of banking on small and minority-owned businesses,” Caldwell-Johnson said.

Ernst, who is a member of the Senate’s SBA committee, said Congress is considering passing a fourth phase of PPP funding soon. With $100 billion left to allocate, she said she’s open to helping neglected businesses get access to the remaining funds.

Ernst says she supports improved police accountability

Beyond business policy, Ernst also told the group that she is open to criminal justice reform, such as encouraging police departments to end the use of chokeholds through federal funding.

She also said she supports improving police accountability and examining qualified immunity, which protects police officers from liability for constitutional violations. However, she said she also doesn’t want to go so far as discouraging recruits from joining law enforcement agencies or penalizing an officer who causes an “accident.”

She did not have a specific proposal on how to balance the two, though she said she believes George Floyd’s family deserves accountability.

Iowa Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst hug at Creative Visions following a roundtable discussion. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Ernst acknowledged the Black community has gone through systemic hardships and she said she wants to open dialogue and ask questions.

“Sometimes as a white person, we’re afraid to ask because we don’t know the right way to ask a question,” Ernst said. “It’s important that we learn about each other and that’s how we move forward.”

Abdul-Samad encouraged her to continue conversing with local Black leaders and told her that as a white senator, power for change rests with her.

“We need you to sit down with Abby (Finkenauer) and them and cut the crap of politics and say what’s good for Iowans?” Abdul-Samad said. “What’s good for African-Americans?”