Zach Wahls is best known for his passionate speech to the Iowa Legislature, which went viral, in 2011 about growing up with gay parents. Since then, the one-time DI columnist has been an advocate for LGBT rights, working with One Iowa and founding Scouts for Equality. Now running for the Senate seat in Iowa’s 37th District, the 26-year-old Iowa City native’s top priorities if elected include health care, education, and workers’ rights.
The Daily Iowan spoke with Wahls as the June 5 primary inches closer to find out his thoughts about the issues facing the 37th District and Iowa as a whole. Wahls faces three other Democrats on Tuesday for the seat, which is not contested by a Republican.
DI: What made you want to run for the 37th District Senate position?
Zach Wahls: I think like a lot of people after 2016 happened, I just woke up the morning after Nov. 9 and was just devastated, you know. It took awhile for it to really sink in and also to watch what happened here in Iowa specifically and around the country generally.
The other thing I always tell people is there is no state in the country that had a bigger swing [than Iowa] from Obama to Trump in 2012 to 2016 of the states that Obama won, it was a 16-point swing, and when Republicans here in Iowa kind of rode that wave to full control of the state government, it was the first time in decades that you had a conservative Republican control of our government.
When you look at all the changes that have happened in the last 18 to 20 months or so, most recently the fetal-heartbeat bill, these massive and irresponsible tax cuts, the cuts to funding for higher education, the privatization of Medicaid, the inability to meaningfully reform the mental-health system, there are so many changes that have happened. My deep concern is if we don’t, if Democrats don’t restore full control of the government in this election cycle, all of those changes are going to get baked into the status quo, so I think this moment is going to define the future of our state for generations to come. Either we will go along that path to becoming like Kansas, or we will rebound to our Upper Midwest tradition of more progressive values.
And this is a long way of answering your question, but when Sen. [Bob] Dvorsky announced in August that he would retire, I kind of expected at first that other people would run, you know, potentially Rep. Dave Jacoby or Coralville Mayor Pro Tem Mitch Gross and when neither of them chose to run, I said, you know what, if not now, when? If not me, who? And so I decided to get in and that was six and a half months ago, and I don’t know where the time went. So to answer your question succinctly, I think this is an all-hands-on-deck moment that’s going to define the future of our state.
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DI: You’re looking at going into a Statehouse that is dominated by Republicans at this point. How do you think that your voice is going to change the rhetoric that has been coming out over the past 18 to 20 months as you were saying. Do you have a specific plan for that?
Wahls: So the state House of Representatives currently a strong Republican majority, but every single one of those seats is up, and so I think there’s actually a decent chance that Democrats have, like Congress in the U.S. House of Representatives, to retake full control of the Iowa Statehouse. The fundraising reports came out a week and a half ago, and Iowa House Democrats raised a good chunk of money, so I think that they’ll actually have a pretty good shot at getting a majority in the state House. And on the Senate side it’s harder, because we’re at a 20/30 disadvantage, and we have a bunch of Democrats who are playing defense … But part of why I’m running is that I know I will be an effective campaigner trying to help elect some of those Democrats who are running in some of those moderate or swing districts. You know this is a Democratic seat, whether I win the primary or someone else, a Democrat is going to win this, barring an act of God, but I think if we have the right candidate, in this case I think that’s me, I think we can help other senatorial candidates run and win in some of those tougher seats. Then, hopefully, we’ll actually get to that full majority in the state Legislature. It’ll be tough, for sure, but I think it’s possible, and I think it’s at least as likely as not that we’d get full control of the Statehouse.
In terms of the changes that can be made, I think one of the things that’s really important to note is that the conservative Republicans are really driving the agenda in Des Moines right now, but there are a lot of moderate Republicans who are looking around like, “I don’t know if this is what I signed up for.” So I think if we have a Democratic Party that controls at least the House and maybe even the Senate, I think a lot of those moderate Republicans are going to be much more willing to join with Democrats on changing some of these more radical things that have passed the Iowa Legislature in these last 18 months.
DI: Going off that, what do you think are some of the biggest problems facing our district specifically and Iowa as a whole?
Wahls: In District 37 specifically, because we have UI Hospitals and Clinics, health care is such a central issue. Specifically, the privatization of Medicaid is hurting a lot of health-care providers, including physicians at UIHC and all the services they provide there, even at Mercy, which isn’t technically in 37, but it’s adjacent, basically. It just went through a round of layoffs because its cash flow is in a huge problem because the Medicaid managed organizations aren’t paying on time. So Medicaid privatization is a huge issue.
The continued deterioration of our mental-health system is having a huge impact at UIHC as well. I’ve spoken with people over there telling me that UIHC is basically becoming a mental-health institution like some of these big facilities that we used to run and that have been closed down in large part, and that’s not what UIHC is supposed to be, so that’s a huge issue, health care.
Second one is education, obviously, with so many both students and faculty, professors, living in District 37, these cuts to the Board of Regents system that are affecting the University of Iowa, ISU, community colleges are a huge problem. I strongly oppose those cuts and would absolutely vote to restore funding for the Board of Regents. The statitsitc that always blows my mind when it comes to higher education and affordability is for the boomer generation, the cost for a four-year degree from a public school like Iowa was equivalent to about 300 minimum-wage hours of work. It’s a summer job to afford your tuition for this four-year degree. That same degree today for our generation, this is a national average not specific to Iowa, 4,500 minimum-wage hours of work. Fifteen times greater in inflation-adjusted dollars. Affordability is a huge issue on the higher-education piece, and I would say also on the K-12 level. I grew up here, I went to elementary school, junior high, West High School, in District 37, and the chronic underfunding of our schools is a huge problem.
The final one I’d say, especially in our area, is workers’ rights, the changes to Chapter 20, collective bargaining is a huge issue. I hear about that a lot when I’m knocking on doors. It affects teachers, it affects instructors, it affects people who are providing medical care, I mean it has a huge impact on the community and also the fact that the Republicans in Des Moines who are ostensibly the party of local control told us, Johnson County, you can’t raise the minimum wage, is just incredibly hypocritical, and something I found deeply disappointing.
DI: When that happened, the University of Iowa actually got out of even raising it to $10.10 because it’s a state institution. So do you see yourself advocating for a statewide raise in minimum wage?
Wahls: Absolutely. No doubt. So I think that you absolutely have to raise the minimum wage statewide, not just here in Johnson County, and I think that is slowly starting to happen on its own, the market is moving in that direction.
But the minimum wage would be $10.10 if it had just kept up with inflation. And this is what always happens. We raise the minimum wage, but then prices continue to go up, and unfortunately, the minimum wage isn’t tied to inflation. So not only do I think we should raise the minimum wage to $10.10, but we should index it to inflation so that it continues to rise as inflation, and we don’t get stuck in this pattern that we’re currently in. I don’t think that makes any sense. I mean if you look at all of the problems facing our state I would stay low wages and poverty are among those key problems, so I think it has to be the responsibility of the state to raise wages. We have an unemployment rate under 3 percent at this point, but we have a significant amount of underemployment, so people have jobs, but they can’t get jobs to work in what they’re qualified for, they have to work two or three jobs part-time. So I think that we absolutely can afford a minimum-wage increase.
DI: What is your overall response to the fetal-heartbeat bill?
Wahls: It’s unconscionable, and if elected I will do everything in my power to repeal it.
DI: What would be a comprehensive plan, if you have one, for getting that achieved?
Wahls: So thankfully, the courts have put in place an injunction, and it will never go into effect, it is blatantly unconstitutional. This was all about scoring political points trying to fire up their conservative, religious base. I think it’s going to end up backfiring. If you look at young women, especially, who are really concerned about this issue who may not necessarily be likely voters in a midterm-style election, I think a lot of people are going to be fired up and engaged about this issue. I certainly hear it when I’m out knocking on doors, and it is something that shouldn’t be on the books, regardless of the fact that it will never take effect, it shouldn’t be on the books. I don’t think it needs a comprehensive plan, I think it could be a very simple bill.
DI: State funding for Iowa’s higher-education institutions is dwindling while tuition is rising. What are you going to to relieve the pressure on students?
Wahls: First, we have to reverse the cuts that have been made. We have to get back into a full-funded track. The argument that Republicans keep making is the reason we have to cut funding is that we don’t have enough revenue. We do not have a spending problem in this state. Public education in Iowa for decades was part of what made Iowa, Iowa. Great public schools from K-12 through the higher-education system. The University of Iowa has an international reputation as being an incredible institution of higher learning. And when we eroded that, that is a disservice not just to everybody who’s currently at Iowa and who wants to enroll at Iowa, but to anybody like myself who attended Iowa. So that to me is incredibly frustrating as an Iowa alumnus and as somebody who hopes to represent this district in the state Senate. So full funding for the University of Iowa is incredibly important.
I would say there are two additional pieces that are incredibly important. The first is I do think it is very important that we figure out ways to positively discuss what the University of Iowa does for the entire state, because there’s often a perception that it’s the University of Iowa City. But of course it’s not, it’s the University of Iowa, and the work that gets done here has such an important effect economically, culturally, and in people’s day-to-day lives that often just goes unseen. And I don’t have a clear thought of how to do that, but I think it’s a good point that there are a lot of people who feel disconnected from the University of Iowa when it’s not Saturday. So I think it’s an important thing that we rebuild that trust.
The second thing goes back to the revenue, because the Republicans have been relentlessly cutting the revenue, taxes in this state for the better part of a decade now. In 2013, the state had a $900 million surplus and decided to reform our property-tax codes, and now we’re borrowing $150 million from the state rainy-day fund when unemployment’s under 3 percent. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this stuff out. So I think that revisiting the 2013 property-tax reform, repealing wholesale the changes that just got passed that we just saw from the governor would be the first step in the right direction. Once we have that revenue back, it’ll be much easier to fund our higher-education programs.
DI: One of your opponents has 30-plus years of experience working with this community, and even though she has more experience than you, why are you a better candidate?
Wahls: So I think you need to be careful, she doesn’t have 30 more years of experience in this community. She had a long, distinguished career in the State Department, and I don’t have a single bad thing to say about that, very grateful to her for her service to our country. I think we have very different kinds of experience. I could absolutely see a scenario having a diplomat and a negotiator in the state Senate would be a huge advantage. In fact, it’s not totally dissimilar to Bob Dvorsky. There aren’t a lot of deals left to be made, is the honest truth right now. If you look at what happened in this last legislative session and in 2017, there weren’t a whole lot of deals being cut between Democrats and Republicans. And that’s where I think that my experience as an advocate here in Iowa. And I have been for the last seven years working as an advocate for the LGBT community that started right here when I was a student at Iowa.
But then after my speech to the Iowa Legislature went viral, a lot of people have seen the video or heard about the speech, but they don’t know that afterwards, I joined on with One Iowa, our statewide civil-rights group for the LGBT community. I went all over Iowa, went on multiple tours about why marriage equality mattered. These are very different conversations outside of Johnson County, and you get into some of these small towns, we had town-hall meetings, roundtable discussions, and we kind of hashed this stuff out. It was definitely an eye-opening experience to me. I learned how you effectively make your case and try to win people over, and some people aren’t going to be won over. Understanding that is really important. So unfortunately, I think the Democratic Party sometimes forgets how important it is to fire up your own base and mobilize your supporters when it comes to winning election, because politics is kind of its own thing.
So that’s something where we have very different kinds of experience. I would say I’m someone that has a proven track record of leadership. In 2012, I cofounded Scouts for Equality, which is this national campaign to end discrimination in the Boy Scouts of America. I’m an Eagle Scout, and with a small group of other scouts, I wrote the strategic plan of the organization, I had to raise money, I had to hire staff, I had to manage staff, I had multiple direct reports, I had to present the campaign to the national media, the international media, it was absolutely an incredible experience for me. And I also got to see what could happen if you sit down with a group of people who are committed to changing the world and actually go out and do it. So I think that’s exactly the kind of leadership and advocacy background that this district needs.
DI: In recent news, Nate Boulton has suspended his campaign for governor after sexual-misconduct allegations and David Jamison, who was the director of the Iowa Finance Agency, was fired after sexual-harassment claims came up against him. So what do you think can be done to prevent sexual misconduct in institutions?
Wahls: When I launched this campaign, it was November 2017, so the MeToo movement was just getting off the ground. I said, when I launched the campaign in my first speech that night, I said I will hold my fellow Democrats accountable. I agree with Gov. Reynolds, this should not be a partisan issue. I think we should be willing to call a spade a spade and that when this happens that we nip it in the bud right away.
I think part of the challenge is that this culture can often get so ingrained in people that people are like, it happens, but people don’t see it, it’s like a fish in water, you know, it’s so deeply ingrained in the culture. So I think it starts with when this happens, calling it out, making sure that men are telling other men this is not acceptable, this is not appropriate. And that accountability has to start with men. That was something I said in the beginning. In this campaign, I’ve been willing to call this behavior out, and that’s something I’ll absolutely be willing to do in the state Senate.
And this is sort of a broader thing, too, in society. But I think because of the role that politics plays in terms of leadership it’s something that’s very important.
I think there are policies that have to change specifically, but I think that happens in the broader context of cultural change, not just in Iowa but I think all over the country and, frankly, the whole world. I think that is starting to happen, and I don’t have any illusions of this happening overnight. This is going to be a long process, and I think something that’s really important, too, is that we are thinking really critically about the messages that we are sending young men in particular, because I think so much of that behavior stems from a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies that is just baked into the cultural messages that are sent to boys at a very young age that kind of continues through adolescence and into adulthood. So I think until we as a society are ready to have that critical assessment of the messages that we are sending to people at a very young age, I worry that this won’t change overall. So yeah, I would say it’s absolutely a broader cultural change, and I think that will continue to happen.
DI: Our readership at the DI is largely students at the University of Iowa so thinking about that population in particular, why are you the best candidate?
Wahls: For what it’s worth, I’m the one who’s most recently been a student. I just finished my master’s degree at Princeton in public policy, and graduation day is the same day as the primary election, so the joke I’ve been telling people is that I won’t be able to walk, but I’ll be able to run. And so I think that’s once piece, but I think students, young people need a voice. We are the ones who are most deeply invested in the future of this state. Unfortunately, some people in this race have tried to attack my age and say, “Oh, he’s not ready, it’s not his turn, he’s not experienced,” but I absolutely see my age as a plus. The Democrats in particular have really been lapped by the Republicans in terms of building our bench and getting that pipeline of leadership in there. So I think it’s important that we elect young people, and we elect people that have recently gone through the same challenges that students have gone through. And we should acknowledge that the experience of millennial students is different fundamentally than the experience of past generations, for better and for worse. So just being conscientious of those changes is something that’s really, really important.