Iowa Democrats decry GOP lawmakers’ ‘failure of leadership’ on pandemic response

Protesters oppose mask mandates in a shoulder-to-shoulder gathering at the Iowa Capitol as the Legislature reconvened on Jan. 11, 2021. (Photo by Jim Obradovich for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Democratic legislative leaders focused their opening comments in the Iowa Legislature Monday on what they see as a GOP failure to properly address the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. 

Republicans continue to control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office. 

Before the House and Senate reconvened, a crowd of about 200 maskless protesters from a group called Informed Choice Iowa gathered shoulder to shoulder in the rotunda. They carried signs to oppose state mask mandates and other limits intended to help control a pandemic that has sickened 297,278 Iowans and has left 4,139 dead so far.

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said GOP lawmakers’ response to the pandemic showed a “failure of leadership.” He called on the Legislature to address the economic fallout.

“The first priority this session must be working to get the pandemic under control. A failure of leadership at both the federal and state level has already left over 4,000 Iowans dead and our state’s response has been greatly inadequate,” Prichard said.   

He called on lawmakers to create a “robust” package focused on long-term efforts to aid the state’s economic recovery. “We need aggressive plans to help families recover, get kids back in school safely, reopen small businesses, and support our dedicated health care workers who are the front line of this pandemic,” he said.

Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville, who wore both a mask and a shield before removing the shield to speak, led a 30-second moment of silence for those who have died of COVID-19 around the world. 

Wahls noted, as unmasked observers sat in chairs at the rear of the Senate chamber, that the 1918 flu pandemic was the last time the Iowa Legislature convened in this type of global health crisis. 

“Unfortunately, when disaster struck (this time), we missed our opportunity to stop the spread,” Wahls said. “As a result, the virus is tearing through our state, and thousands of Iowans are dead. Some of us have lost family and loved ones. Many of us have lost friends and neighbors. All of us have lost constituents.” 

Wahls directly contradicted Republicans’ view that the state’s reserves should be protected. 

“We must help those who are hurting by using federal monies, our budget surplus, and the economic emergency fund to help everyday Iowans,” Wahls said.

“We can give frontline health care workers a raise, even if they can’t take a day off. We can ensure other essential workers have access to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and (personal protective equipment),” Wahls added. “We can continue to support struggling small businesses on Main Street. We can help our cities and towns, which have borne the brunt of this crisis. We can give food banks the aid they so desperately need, because since last March, the number of Iowa families with children experiencing food insecurity has tripled.”

Part of the recovery means improving child care, adding affordable housing, improving broadband access and continuing to address racial issues, Wahls said.

Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, honored “everyday Iowans you see working hard to provide for their families. They are the men and women who over this past year have been at the front lines fighting a global viral enemy.”

Chapman said Iowans have yearned to be “back to normal” as they dealt with “universal disruption.” 

“But today we have a choice; today we can choose to go back to life as normal, or we can choose to work, sacrifice, and endure for a better life, a better tomorrow, a better Iowa,” Chapman said. “My hope is that this chamber does not wish for life to return to normal, but that we set our sights on the brighter tomorrow.”

Chapman said that means looking for more tax cuts and continuing “sound fiscal policies of budgetary restraint have insulated Iowa in our weathering of COVID.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said last year was “extraordinary by any measure.”

His only other mention of the pandemic was an appeal to get more students to in-person classes and a call for “principled leadership.”

“Despite the pandemic, we must not sacrifice the future of our children,” Whitver said. “We cannot let a generation of kids fall behind in school. Kids learn better when they are in school, in classrooms, in person, instead of in front of a screen. Challenging times call for strong, principled leadership and the Iowa Senate will continue to deliver results for Iowans. I believe our state is ready to look towards the future, start moving forward, and start our recovery. Now, let’s get to work!” 

— Kathie Obradovich contributed to this report.