Reynolds says she ‘trusts’ Iowans. Will she trust them with her agenda?

March 14, 2022 10:26 am

Gov. Kim Reynolds launches her campaign on March 8, 2022 in Des Moines and March 7, 2018 in Osceola. (Photo by Katie Akin, inset by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Four years ago, I drove down to Osceola to cover the kickoff for Gov. Kim Reynolds’ first campaign at the top of the gubernatorial ticket.

She gave a roughly 10-minute speech that was focused almost entirely on her small-town roots and the accomplishments of the Branstad administration. (She served for over seven years as lieutenant governor before Gov. Terry Branstad resigned in May 2017 to be U.S. ambassador to China.)

The lack of substance didn’t bother me much, despite the 90-minute round trip to hear the speech. It was a message appropriately designed to fire up her base, introduce her to a broader segment of voters and maybe establish a theme for the campaign. Detailed policy plans would have seemed out of place. There would be plenty of time for that as the campaign progressed.

Or so I thought. But as the months went on, through the GOP primary and into the fall, Reynolds rarely got around to talking about what she wanted to do as governor. Her campaign remained so firmly centered on her likeable, relatable personality and so devoid of any specific agenda that some Republicans even remarked on it.

“She is not a lightweight. And we know she is a nice person and good cheerleader for the state. But where does she want to take us and what does she want to do?” wondered Doug Gross, a long-time GOP activist and former Branstad administration leader, who supported Reynolds. Gross made that comment in a Des Moines Register interview published in October 2018, a month before Election Day.

Obviously, the approach worked. Reynolds was elected by a wide margin over a solid, well-funded opponent whose wonkiness exceeded his charisma. Since then, her agenda has included some surprises, such as expanding the use of taxpayer money for private schools, raising the sales tax for environmental programs and mental health (that plan also surprised GOP lawmakers, who didn’t approve it), and banning transgender girls from playing on girls’ and women’s sports teams in schools.

I certainly didn’t anticipate her increasing disengagement with the Statehouse media, including eliminating weekly news conferences except during the height of the pandemic, refusing most requests for interviews and ultimately engaging in flagrant violations of the state’s open records law.

As she launched her campaign last week for 2022, her message was again free of any specific talk about what she would do in another term. She never mentioned Iowa’s chronic workforce shortage, which threatens business growth, or the increasingly costly environmental degradation of the state’s waterways. She offered no clue how she’ll pay for state programs such as mental health for kids and Medicaid after federal COVID aid dries up and her tax cuts take hold.

She did, however, make it very clear she intends to continue pushing the far-right culture wars that have particularly characterized the past two legislative sessions.

Reynolds and GOP lawmakers have restricted voting, marginalized LGBTQ Iowans, undermined the teaching of racial justice and equity, and enacted new criminal penalties for public protests. They’re in the process of pushing costly school “transparency” laws aimed at stifling any curricula or reading material that some parent might find objectionable.

Here’s what she said Wednesday night: “In Iowa, we said no to a world of cancel culture, where an elite few tried to tell us what we can and cannot say, what we can and cannot believe. Because despite, despite what you hear from President Biden and liberal elites, the threats facing this nation aren’t from Canadian truckers, Joe Rogan’s podcast or parents who care about their child’s education.”

Yes, she actually invoked Joe Rogan, the guy whose national podcast was so riddled with the “n-word” that dozens of past episodes were removed by the online streaming service Spotify. Apparently, Reynolds wants Iowans to be free to use racially hateful speech (not to mention spreading dangerous misinformation and lies about the pandemic), without fear of being “canceled.”

Despite early polling that showed Reynolds with a surprisingly narrow 8-point lead over her virtually unknown and underfunded Democratic opponent, she has a better-than-even chance of being reelected. One would think that even her supporters would want to know what she plans to do with another term.

During Wednesday’s speech, Reynolds repeated her mantra that she trusts Iowans. “I want to use the next four years to show how much further we can go when we trust Iowans …” she said.

Here’s how she can show her trust: Let Iowans know during this campaign what, specifically, she plans to do if she’s reelected.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.