Ankeny residents have had enough. A boisterous crowd of well over 400 packed the room at a legislative forum hosted by the local chamber of commerce at a community education building in Ankeny. Many spilled out into the hallway as they watched the panel of Senator Jack Whitver, Representatives John Landon and Kevin Koester and County Supervisor Steve Van Oort give their reports and take questions.
The attendees were made up of many teachers, parents and public workers who were there to speak out against the changes to collective bargaining and the underfunding of public education. The Legislature passed the third-lowest education funding increase in four decades last week, and is in the process of fast-tracking a bill to gut Iowa’s collective bargaining law this week and next.
Few people in support of the Republican policies were there. When one attendee asked the crowd who was in favor of the collective bargaining bill, not a single hand went up.
But while those issues took up the majority of the forum, people were plenty angry about a host of other topics as well. The all-Republican Iowa government has been busy the past three weeks, and Landon hit on the minimum wage preemption issue in his opening speech.
“There’s been five counties – Polk is one of them – that’s taken the steps to set their own minimum wage. We are declaring that that was not right,” Landon said to loud boos from the crowd. “Folks, it has nothing to do with setting a minimum wage. It just simply says the state will do that. And that is our job.”
Landon explained that Republicans merely wanted a uniform minimum wage so businesses could operate more easily. Many counties had acted on their own because the Statehouse hadn’t raised the statewide minimum wage from $7.25/hour in years. The “preemption” bill that Landon is spearheading would essentially lower wages for Polk County residents.
Shouts of “local control!” at Landon caused the moderator to step in for the first of what was about a half dozen times to calm the raucous crowd.
A long line of speakers approached the microphone to ask questions – about 3/4 were on the topic of collective bargaining and education.
“If you are willing to make public workers as well as teachers subject to annual termination without cause in this bill, would you permit to making your legislative positions subject to annual elections to determine your job status?” asked Molly Buck, a local teacher.
She was referring to one of the most contentious aspects of the Republicans’ collective bargaining bill – the removal of the requirement for firings to be for a “just cause.”
“I have heard a lot of concern from people about the ‘just cause’ language,” replied Whitver. “We’ve taken that back and I think that’s something we’re going to be able to change in that bill. We’re working on that right now. We’re trying to take those concerns and take them back there.”
That drew some applause, but later speakers noted that Senate Labor Committee Chair Jason Schultz had indicated they weren’t open to any changes and the bill was fast-tracked for passage in a few days.
“I am really, really concerned about this divisiveness that is going on,” commented Jodie Butler, Terry Branstad’s former education policy adviser. “When I was there, I worked with both parties … When you talk about putting this back and you’re reforming it, I want to go back to that ’73, ’74 time – that took two years of discussion after some very divisive strikes. This week I heard that ‘no, we’re not making any change.’ That is exactly what Senator Schultz said.”
Others spoke out on the limits the bill puts to public workers’ ability to negotiate on much of anything in their jobs.
“You’re regulating my first amendment rights,” said Bob Power, a school bus driver. “I can no longer negotiate anything except wages. Except I can’t even negotiate wages. You say I can, but in your bill, you’re dictating exactly what I can say … You bill says that the very best I can do is consumer price index or 3%, whichever is lower. So the very best I could hope to do with my hard work and good job is maintain pace with inflation. The worst is I get a lot less than CPI … the average is I’m going to lose ground.”
But the most emotional moment came late in the forum when an Ankeny teacher challenged the legislators to explain to his 17-year-old daughter why she should still go into teaching.
“What you have done in a week has taken away her desire to teach and she no longer feels that is a path for her,” Jay Hudecek told the panel. “So if you believe in your heart you are helping her join the education profession, you are extremely incorrect.”
The crowd chanted “shame” at the legislators, and only Whitver said anything in response. It was mostly a recitation of his talking points, and Hudecek’s daughter sat down and cried afterward.
As for the three Republican lawmakers, their varying style of response to the overwhelmingly hostile crowd was notable. Landon’s demeanor was completely forgettable – he largely retreated to technical budget numbers talk that failed to connect with the crowd, but also keep him from getting booed at most of the time. Koester’s approach was downright bizarre. He seemed to act like he was at a usual chamber of commerce forum with a bunch of friendly businessmen, and his meandering style only enraged the attendees more.
Whitver, to his credit, stood his ground throughout the forum, only looking a tiny bit rattled at the very outset. He answered nearly every question first in the group, taking some heat away from the representatives. He made no excuses about his support for the various pieces of legislation and didn’t try to wiggle out of anything.
However, he did miss a big opportunity in responding to Hudecek’s daughter. Yes, no answer was going to be sufficient to the hostile crowd. But his response wasn’t even really directed at her on a personal level, and it seemed like she honestly wanted to see what they had to say to persuade her.
“Teaching is an admirable profession,” Whitver said. “I trust that the local school board cares about the schools and they care about quality teachers. And they’re going to provide the benefits and pay to bring the best teachers to Ankeny.”
For a young woman who’s wavering on her life dream of becoming a teacher, a line like that just doesn’t cut it. And it showed Whitver lacked a certain touch in connecting on a more human level with people who has policy disagreements with him.
How all of this plays in future elections is still an open question, and it was a topic not far from anyone’s mind.
“Bozo’s on the ballot every other year, and that’s one way you hold me accountable,” Koester said at one point, referring to himself. “I will be a listener and I will not be back if you don’t like how I perform.”
That led to cheers from the crowd and a few cries of “2018!”
by Pat Rynard