The second year of Republican dominance at the Iowa Statehouse kicked off today, but not without some sharp words of warning from Democratic lawmakers. Legislative leaders gave their start-of-session speeches in their respective chambers this morning after gaveling in the new session, with Senate Democratic leader Janet Petersen delivering a particularly direct message to her Republican colleagues.
“Last session the Legislature did a lot of bad things to good Iowans,” Petersen said. “That was a mistake, but it has been a wake-up call for Iowans. As I travel this state I see more energy than I have ever seen before. Iowans are paying close attention to what their legislators are saying back home and how they’re voting at the Statehouse.”
She laid out many of the priorities that Democrats would push for this year, including water quality, a more stable healthcare system and better public school funding, as well as the Republican plans they would push back on. But she left her toughest words for Senator Bill Dix and his party until the end of her speech, keying in on the sexual harassment scandal that dominated Iowa news headlines last year.
“It is disgraceful that Kirsten [Anderson] endured sexual harassment and a toxic work environment by her Republican colleagues in this very chamber,” Petersen said. “It is also disgraceful that Iowa taxpayers were forced to pay $1.75 million for the bad behavior of the Senate Republican caucus.”
She pointed to the Republicans’ own internal report that showed that staffers are still afraid to report inappropriate behavior, adding that it’s “not surprising when the only person fired in this whole scandal was the victim.”
The national conversation on sexual harassment doesn’t seem to be losing steam anytime soon, heightened last night by the Golden Globes and Oprah Winfrey’s highly-publicized speech. Petersen cautioned Republicans that there would be a price to pay if they don’t better address the problem.
“There is a reckoning in our country on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace,” she said. “The Senate has a choice: do something serious and address this problem or be on the wrong side of history. The Iowa Senate can no longer be a sanctuary for predatory behavior.”
This was Petersen’s first official speech in the chamber as the senate minority leader, following a mid-year switch in Democratic leadership last October when the caucus voted to replace Rob Hogg.
Democrats and many others have been sharply critical of Dix’s handling of the ongoing fallout from the Kirsten Anderson sexual harassment trial and settlement. Although the Senate brought on former ambassador Mary Kramer to advise them on workplace sexual harassment issues, Dix’s continued insistence that Anderson was fired for her work performance and seemingly misled the public on the internal report hasn’t produced much confidence that they take the matter seriously.
by Pat Rynard