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The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Resolution to denounce JoCo attorney for protester arrests fails after heated debate

In a 13-34 vote, county Democrats voted against the resolution, drawing jeers and boos from the resolution’s supporters.
Members+of+the+Johnson+County+Democratic+Party%E2%80%99s+Central+Committee+meet+at+Carpenters+Local+in+Iowa+City+on+Thursday+Feb.+1%2C+2024.+The+committee+was+voting+on+whether+to+censure+the+Johnson+County+Attorney+Rachel+Zimmermann+Smith.
Madison Frette
Members of the Johnson County Democratic Party’s Central Committee meet at Carpenters Local in Iowa City on Thursday Feb. 1, 2024. The committee was voting on whether to censure the Johnson County Attorney Rachel Zimmermann Smith.

In a packed room at the Carpenters Union Local 1260 at 1008 William St., the Johnson County Democrats Central Committee voted against a proposed resolution Thursday night to censure county attorney Rachel Zimmermann Smith for charges against seven protesters.

Supporters of the resolution held their fists up in solidarity, chanting “drop the charges,” before leaving the meeting. 

A total of 47 members voted, with a 13-34 result against the resolution after a heated back-and-forth discussion.

The resolution was brought to the commission by Johnson County Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Jon Green, who first revealed the resolution on Monday in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Green’s resolution was in response to charges of disorderly conduct and interference with official acts against seven people who identify as transgender who protested the conservative speaker Chloe Cole’s lecture at the University of Iowa in October. 

Charges for the protesters were filed roughly a month after the protest.

Green told The Daily Iowan on Tuesday the resolution gave Democrats an opportunity to talk about the values they want to adopt as a party. 

But the resolution drew mixed reactions, he said. Yet, on the night of the vote, several residents came in support of it, cheering those speaking in favor of it and booing those against it.

Although the vote failed, Green said he was happy to see the involvement on Thursday, particularly as committee meetings didn’t typically draw so many attendees.

“This is something that everybody in the party is always saying we want more of this — we want more engagement, we want people to be involved,” Green said. “I came into this knowing that it was going to be an uphill battle, and I’m prepared to deal with that move ahead, and I hope my colleagues are as well.” 

Zimmermann Smith attended the meeting and afterward said she found the “whole thing” sad but was glad it was over.

Supporters talk importance of protecting marginalized groups

At the meeting, 16 people in total spoke, eight in favor and eight against. Speakers were a mix of current and former elected officials in the city and county, as well as members of the public.

Notable names among the speakers of those in favor of the resolution included Mandi Remington, who last month announced her campaign for a Johnson County supervisor seat, and Laura Bergus, who was elected in the November election to the Iowa City City Council District A seat. 

Bergus said the county attorney’s duty is to justice, but the law gives prosecutors discretion to pursue cases, and that the county attorney has no obligation to prosecute cases if the facts and circumstances suggest it’s unjust.

Despite this, Zimmermann Smith pursued the cases, which Bergus said meant the county attorney must believe the charges were “just.”

“I hate that this is personal, I hate that this is infighting,” Bergus said. “I think it’s incredibly important as a party that we talk about justice and the fact that that is a value we share. So let’s hold that common ground and hold each other accountable.”

In her remarks, Remington said it was important for the party to listen to young voters, particularly LGBTQ+ issues.

As she concluded her remarks, Remington compared the issue to gun violence, specifically pointing to the fatigue of hearing people offer thoughts and prayers instead of taking action.

“We’re tired of hearing thoughts and prayers, but the platitudes that I’ve heard tonight and online leading up to this meeting about, ‘Yes, we care about trans folks,’ but that doesn’t really amount to anything more than thoughts and prayers, and we can do better,” she said.

A common theme across the remarks in favor of the resolution was the need to better protect a marginalized community like the transgender community, particularly as bills in the Iowa Legislature target said community.

Nicole Yeager, Campaign to Organize Graduate Students Political Action Committee Chair, said the charges were targeted against transgender people, with some claiming that out of the over 100 protesters, only the LGBTQ+ protesters were charged.

Opponents say resolution focuses on the wrong thing

The first to speak in opposition of the resolution was former Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, who said the protesters violated the law not for protesting, but for blocking the street. Lyness was county attorney for nearly two decades before not seeking reelection in 2022. 

She said there was no evidence the police specifically targeted LGBTQ+ people and that Zimmermann Smith was upholding the law through her actions. Both statements drew boos from members of the crowd, several of whom gave Lyness a thumbs down.

Lyness continued to defend the county attorney and pointed out that if Zimmermann Smith didn’t do her job, the attorney general of Iowa could step in to prosecute the protesters instead.

Former Iowa City City Councilor Pauline Taylor said the job of the county attorney is to enforce the laws, and that both elected officials and the committee shouldn’t tell Zimmermann Smith how to do her job.

Also speaking in opposition was Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel, who said it was frustrating that the committee was even discussing the resolution. He said the Democratic Party should be focusing on moving the party forward and turning the state purple instead.

“We’re distracted and bogged down by a resolution that’s predicated on incomplete information and while being directed at the wrong piece of the system,” Kunkel said. “But what’s most troubling to me is the lengths that elected officials have gone through to exert influence on the judicial system is some of the most unethical behavior I’ve ever seen in local government.”

He said if the Republicans had done something similar, Democrats would have been quick to call out such behavior.

Community’s reaction to charges

The reaction to the charges against the protesters has been controversial since they were announced. On Dec. 9, UI students and Iowa City residents marched through Iowa City to protest the charges, stopping at the building housing the office of the county attorney and reportedly graffitiing it.

Then on Jan. 24, the Iowa City Human Rights Commission issued a statement condemning and calling for the dismissal of the charges. The commission’s statement also made references to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which includes a provision stating people have the right to protest without interference.

Johnson County Supervisor V Fixmer-Oraiz also released a statement on the charges Tuesday, in which they said they had met with Zimmermann Smith, asking her to drop the charges. 

Zimmermann Smith reportedly refused this request, and in their post, Fixmer-Oraiz called on Johnson County Democrats to stand by its commitment to people over politics and vote in favor of the resolution.

There have also been petitions and fundraising campaigns to protest the charges. A petition on Change.org to have the charges dropped had received 787 signatures out of a goal of 1,000. 

The petition included a link to a fundraiser to help pay the legal fees of the charged protesters, having raised $10,250, a little over half of the $20,000 target.

Tara McGovern, one of the people arrested, will have their trial begin at the end of February after rejecting a plea deal.

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About the Contributors
Alejandro Rojas, News Editor
he/him/his
Alejandro Rojas is The Daily Iowan's news editor. He previously worked as a news reporter covering Johnson County and was the summer executive editor in 2023. He is a senior, double majoring in journalism and political science.
Madison Frette, Photojournalist
(she/her/hers)
Madison Frette is a second-year student at The University of Iowa double majoring in Business Analytics and Information Systems and Cinematic Arts. This is her first year working as a photojournalist for The Daily Iowan.