Freshman State Rep. Jeff Shipley returned to the Iowa Legislature in early June after its months-long pause due to COVID-19, making his presence known by immediately questioning on the Statehouse steps the virus’ death toll while satirizing Iowans who wear masks.
“It doesn’t matter that this vaccine doesn’t exist. It’s probably impossible to develop a safe vaccine. It’s hardly going to work anyway, and this virus isn’t even killing anybody,” said Shipley, a sentiment he later partly walked back in an angry follow-up speech.
The Republican from Fairfield spent the next two weeks in session largely getting in fights with people on Twitter. He called one of the state’s leading epidemiologists “a sniveling coward,” mocked men for crying in public, called a gay candidate from Western Iowa “a walking public health crisis,” likened a 9/11 truther conspiracy theory to government’s coronavirus precautions, and engaged in a long series of tweets critical of the trans community.
“I’m fine with LGB whatever, but giving kids hormones and surgeries makes me really cautious of T,” Shipley wrote in one tweet.
In all, Shipley sent 249 tweets during the twelve days session resumed, all while greatly consequential bills on racial justice and voting rights were debated and passed.
The sauerkraut salesman and stand-up comic closed out his first term as a lawmaker by speaking on the House floor in support of his amendment that would legalize Psilocybin, or certain species of magic mushrooms.
“Why do we allow prescription heroin but not a naturally occurring substance? When did nature become criminal?” he asked on Saturday before a 17 to 76 failed vote, adding that mushrooms promote “genuine healing from the inside out.”
Condemned by critics and overlooked or celebrated by supporters, Shipley’s comments and tweets have garnered significant attention during the past two weeks.
The scrutiny will likely influence the millennial official’s attempt to secure a second term in the Statehouse this November against his opponent Democrat Phil Miller, the legislator he narrowly defeated in a surprise upset in 2018. Some Fairfield residents also warn that any attention can be potentially positive for Shipley. His unconventional constituency has been swayed before by the use of controversy.
“I think people in Fairfield are of mixed mind … If the election were held right now, I would be surprised [if Shipley was reelected],” said Erin Smith, a Fairfield resident who has mutual friends with Shipley. “However, one thing he’s extremely good at is waiting and both changing his views or micro-focusing on certain views that are palatable to extremes … I would say that he is a lot more intelligent than people give him credit for. And that’s probably where he’s built momentum in the past. And I also believe that he is a skilled manipulator. Whether it be for good or bad is his choice at the time.”
Donald Revolinski, a food manufacturing employee and former Shipley supporter who also shares mutual friends with the lawmaker, agreed that Shipley is currently vulnerable but could pull off reelection.
“I think he is probably more vulnerable now than he ever will be again if he gets reelected,” said Revolinski. “But I think I think it’s going to be a very close race. I would bet it comes down to less than 200 votes if I had to guess. I know that he sort of has this game-time strength.”
Conversations with more than a half-dozen Fairfield residents who know Shipley in capacities varying from social acquaintances, a mentor-mentee relationship and political circles revealed that in-person Shipley comes across as endearing and sometimes clueless. He represents House District 82, which includes residents ranging from rural, generational farmers to international transcendental meditators, covering most of Jefferson County, along with all of Davis and Van Buren counties. It’s been a swing seat in recent years.
“Jeff is unassuming and friendly, and he has a clear awareness of how little influence he could have in the legislature as a newbie,” said Anil K Maheshwari, a professor at Fairfield’s Maharishi International University, a school founded in the mid-1970s by a famous neo-Hindu practitioner and spiritual adviser to the Beatles.
Maheshwari interacted with Shipley at meetings for 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign.
“I enjoyed meeting with and working with Jeff Shipley … on the Tulsi Gabbard campaign, whom he also supported as a peace-oriented candidate and on the Alliance Smart Meters issue which is a big issue with meditators like us,” he said.
An energetic campaigner who becomes hyper-focused on issues like the dangers of smart meters, vaccines and 5G internet when interacting with Fairfield’s famed transcendental meditation community, Shipley then highlights his practice of Catholicism or prays when talking with members of the Farm Bureau. Other times, he’s performing often incendiary and sometimes offensive comedy at local coffee shops.
He shows up personally to a lot of the community’s events — like his recent attendance of Fairfield’s Black Lives Matter Protest, where onlookers said they saw Shipley trying to shake protesters’ hands and then sitting under a tree with no mask but a bandana around his neck after being denied the opportunity to speak.
Shipley’s first term in the House was characterized by his voting along with the Republican majority on most legislation and his introduction of a record amount of around 100 bills, most of which died. The bills were often on topics never before seen at the Capitol, like one requiring students to read and demonstrate comprehension of excerpts from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book “the gulag archipelago” as a condition of high school graduation or the legalization of some naturally occurring drugs.
“He had some and still has, in my opinion, some very positive positions on specific issues. I think that kind of a voice in the Republican Party is badly needed if the Republican Party is going to continue to get new voters from the younger generations,” Revolinski said. “People thought that he was speaking for them, but now they’re hearing him saying these very outlandish things about vaccines in particular. And I think that is making people question more like, hey, what are you doing?”
But one vote on a more traditional topic — funding for rural schools’ bus transportation — may be the one most politically costly to Shipley. Despite representing a rural district, Shipley was the chamber’s single “no” vote in 2019 on the House’s landmark school transportation fairness bill that was aimed at finally helping rural districts cover their disproportionate busing costs. His vote against the bill shocked local school leaders.
Shipley And Miller’s 2018 Battle In Fairfield’s Unusual Political Scene
The current media buzz is not unfamiliar to Shipley — who in the 11th hour before his 2018 election stirred up word that his competitor, then-incumbent Phil Miller, had taken a contribution from Monsanto, an agrochemical company disavowed by many Fairfield residents in the transcendental meditation community.
Shipley passed out flyers right before the election on Maharishi International University’s campus penning Miller as “Monsanto Miller.” He also pledged to champion many meditators’ desire for legislation on single issues related to health and technology, making his way into the House by just 37 votes in a surprise upset.
“He was running on the issue that I was taking a lead in … I have my own mailing list, and I encouraged the people that were concerned about smart meters, and now 5G. So now it’s kind of extending and the same groups of people are still supporting him,” said Kathy Matara, a Shipley supporter and one of the lead interveners in the Iowa Utility Board hearings regarding the smart meters.
Many in the transcendental meditation community around Fairfield and Vedic City supported Shipley, including those who typically vote for Democrats. Matara said they were excited about his promise to take a strong lead on their issues.
“I very much support him on the vaccinations because they have produced autism and there are a lot of problems with vaccinations. The reason that Jeff is very popular in Fairfield and Vedic City is that these towns, more than probably any other towns that you’ll find in the United States, are dedicated to a higher level of health, a higher level of developing consciousness, just living a higher quality of life,” Matara said.
Erin Smith agreed that many of Shipley’s voters were excited about his emphasis on the dangers of things like smart meters and vaccines, which don’t have a lot of well-documented validity in the scientific community.
“Fairfield has a lot of people, both meditator and not-mediator who believe in pseudoscience. And who are absolutely excited and almost desperate to grasp onto any hope that they might have a cause to stand for. There’s a lot of passion in opposing popular or proven opinions or science,” Smith said.
Democrats spent little on the 2018 District 82 race, as Shipley didn’t seem to initially pose an imminent threat to Miller, a well-known veterinarian who had just won a hard-fought special election. Raised in Naperville, Illinois, Shipley first came to the area in 2011 after going to school at the University of Iowa. He got in the race just ten weeks out from the election and, as such, didn’t file campaign finance reports for most of the year, making it appear that he was completely unfunded. It wasn’t until less than three weeks out from the election that Shipley filed a report showing him raising just under $17,000.
It was revealed later that a libertarian-aligned group associated with Ron Paul helped knock doors for Shipley and fund his campaign. The lawmaker later said that without their help, there not only would have been no victory but no campaign.
Fairfield resident Holly Manon Moore, an active volunteer in the county’s Democratic Party, said she would often hear from her canvassers some of the unsubstantiated promises or attacks on Miller that Shipley would make on doorsteps.
“Shipley was all over the place with his half-baked, anti-science statements and outright untruths about our candidate. It was so scattershot it was hard to respond. But now we know his MO,” she said.
Constituents React To Shipley’s Recent Antics
Bob Ferguson, a Fairfield-based entrepreneur said he first met Shipley around town, where he became a sort of mentee.
Ferguson said the now-lawmaker was just “kind of a confused young man around town” with a growing interest in libertarian ideas. Ferguson is now a vocal opponent of the lawmaker, especially on social media.
“When he was elected, I knew it would be a disaster because of my clear impression from multiple conversations that the guy was all over the place in his thinking and clearly didn’t actually understand the issues, though he cultivates the impression that he does,” Ferguson said. “It turned out to be the horror show that many of us expected. When he was elected, I was just hoping that the guy would be laughed out of the Legislature, but he has turned out to be an exceptionally dangerous person because he is in the majority party and has voted consistently against what I consider the best interest of Jefferson County and Iowa.”
Concern has also arisen with some of Fairfield’s residents about the lawmaker’s past racially or sexually insensitive comments, made especially in social settings or during his standup routine.
“A lot of my privileged lifestyle depends on these cheap Chinese peasants, so it’s very important that we love them,” Shipley said during one of his 2018 comedy routines. “I’ve also said a lot of politically incorrect things about whores, and I stand by those remarks.”
“I’m a practicing Catholic, so for me it’s normal for young men to have sex with your spiritual leaders,” Shipley joked in another part.
Fairfield resident Phoebe Haerr used to work at the Cafe Paradiso coffee shop, where the lawmaker would often perform. She said he’s said a number of inappropriate things, including on one occasion asking a lesbian couple who was the “butch” in the relationship.
Haerr said she pushed Cafe Paradiso to implement policy on political correctness during performances after one Halloween when Shipley was riffing off of a couple who came in the coffee shop dressed like Native Americans.
“It was the talk of the town of how ridiculous this man is,” she said. “Since his recent transphobia, I think a lot of the people who were in the anti-vax community are thinking that this guy is a huge problem. Ever since he got put on blast, his name is really out there in a negative way.”
Matara said she wasn’t aware of his recent engagement with issues like transgender rights as she doesn’t often view his social media, but has been encouraged by his unwavering stance on topics like vaccinations.
“He puts the issue before his own reputation. And sometimes that hasn’t always won him the popular vote. But when he believes in something, he will go after it,” Matara said.
Shipley’s Critics Plan For November
The upcoming general election against Miller has proven to be a toss-up as a coalition of locals are working hard against Shipley.
Ferguson and a group of Jefferson County residents are planning on strategizing against Shipley ahead of November 3. This includes the creation of a website that would serve to be a “District 82 fact-check for public policy.”
“There are many people working to make sure that Phil Miller gets elected and [Shipley] doesn’t. And that’s across the board, from relatively conservative to very liberal,” Ferguson said.
Democrats are also encouraged by Shipley’s continued commentary on social media, especially surrounding the topic of coronavirus, in hopes that people will notice his use of misinformation.
“I think the majority of people understand the need for continuing caution. I think he’s really hurting himself by saying what he’s saying [about COVID-19]. So I consider that a gift handed to the Democratic Party because he’s shooting himself in the foot with all of his actions on social media,” Manon Moore said. “We’re going to work very, very, very hard to de-seat Representative Shipley.”
by Isabella Murray
Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.
The Biden administration on Wednesday announced that it approved the cancellation of nearly $5 billion in additional federal student loan debt for...
Amy Bingaman knows first-hand how anti-abortion clinics push disinformation and fear in order to prevent people from getting abortions. Now an...
By Katie Mills Giorgio, Starting Line contributor Spooky season is officially here, and if you’re the type of Iowan who likes a good scare, we’ve...
The nights are getting longer, and the days chillier, and there’s never a better time to get lost in a new book (except maybe the dead...