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Freshman Iowa lawmaker Zach Wahls reflects on first session in Des Moines

Zach Wahls was first elected to the Iowa Legislature in November, but his path to Des Moines begins much earlier

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Freshman Iowa lawmaker Zach Wahls reflects on first session in Des Moines

Senator Zach Wahls sits in his home in Coralville during an interview with The Daily Iowan on May 7,2019. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan)

Senator Zach Wahls sits in his home in Coralville during an interview with The Daily Iowan on May 7,2019. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan)

Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan

Senator Zach Wahls sits in his home in Coralville during an interview with The Daily Iowan on May 7,2019. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan)

Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan

Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan

Senator Zach Wahls sits in his home in Coralville during an interview with The Daily Iowan on May 7,2019. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan)

Emily Wangen, Politics Reporter

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First-year Sen. Zach Wahls, who first gained fame after a speech in the Iowa House of Representatives went viral when he was a college student, compared his first year in the chamber as a lawmaker to a college semester.

“In some ways it almost felt like you were back in school,” Wahls, D-Coralville, said, describing his freshman year in the Legislature. “Just learning all the time, every day something new.”

Since the state Senate gaveled out for the session, the 27-year-old said he has caught up on sleep, went through his full email inbox, and finished the video game Red Dead Redemption II. Wahls also runs a business with his sister, Zebby Wahls, in which they create and sell playing cards designed around influential women in the U.S.

Until the next legislative session starts in January, Wahls said, he plans on meeting with Democratic presidential-nomination candidates as they come through the area, attending weddings, and meeting with fellow lawmakers to discuss legislation for next session on such issues as food sources and affordable housing.

Wahls won his first election in the 37th state Senate District, which includes parts of Cedar, Johnson, and Muscatine Counties, after leading a four-candidate primary and winning against a Libertarian in the general election. But Wahls’ path to the Legislature begins earlier.

In 2011, when Wahls was a University of Iowa sophomore studying engineering, he spoke in the State Capitol about growing up with lesbian parents. At the time, he condemned a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which was legalized in Iowa in 2009.

RELATED: 2019 Iowa legislative session gavels in with focus on bipartisan cooperation

The morning the video went viral online, Wahls woke up to calls from various TV networks that wanted him to appear on their news programs and talk shows. The official video posted by the Iowa House Democrats currently has more than 3 million views on YouTube.

“You realize that this is beyond your control,” Wahls said. “Even if you wanted to stop this, you can’t — the train has left the station, and you just have to hold on.”

Terry Wahls, Zach Wahls’ mother, said when Zach and Zebby were growing up, she struggled with multiple sclerosis. The experience of having a parent who was becoming increasingly disabled helped shape Wahls into the person he is today, she said.

“It gives me a great deal of joy to watch him to continue to blossom,” she said. “I think that’s true for every parent — we love seeing our children move into their adult lives.”

Years later, Zach Wahls, when he was attending graduate school at Princeton, received a call from former high-school teacher Mitch Gross, who told him then-state Sen. Bob Dvorsky would retire from the seat Wahls now holds. Gross said he was considering a run for the seat but asked if Wahls was interested if he decided against running.

“We were excited about the possibility of his coming back to Iowa,” Terry Wahls said. “But I also clearly knew he would have to sort out what resonated best with him.”

Once Zach Wahls decided to run, he said, he encountered the logistical challenges of running for the seat in Iowa while finishing up his final semester of graduate school.

He loaded all of his classes on Thursdays and flew back and forth between Iowa and New Jersey every other week. On the weeks he stayed in Iowa, he Skyped into classes.

During his campaign, Iowa City School Board President Janet Godwin said she first sat down with Wahls one cold morning in Iowa City to discuss his positions on issues.

RELATED: Win for Zach Wahls in Iowa Senate race

“He struck me as someone who could bring our party together,” Godwin said. “I see big things for Zach, and I hope in his political future he looks at other roles, whether in state government or representing Iowa in D.C.”

Wahls eventually completed his graduate degree in public policy, but he was unable to attend his graduation ceremony, which fell on the date of Iowa’s June primary election.

“All my classmates are in the fancy gowns and robes throwing their hats in the air, and I’m like running around Coralville desperately on the last possible door I could find,” Wahls said and laughed.

In trying to see the future, Wahls said, he isn’t completely sure where his path in politics will lead him, and he will continue to evaluate each opportunity as it comes. For now, he said, he is looking forward to having time to breathe after campaigning and serving in the Legislature.

Editor’s note: Zach Wahls is a former columnist for The Daily Iowan.

 

 

 

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About the Writer
Emily Wangen, Politics Reporter

Email: [email protected]

Emily Wangen is a politics reporter at The Daily Iowan. She is a second-year student at the UI majoring in political science.

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