Voters unhappy with their Iowa legislators asked some very pointed questions Saturday at forums held in Adel and Guthrie Center, with the legislature’s underfunding of Iowa’s public schools and defunding of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland coming in for especially sharp criticism.
Republican House member Ralph Watts of Adel faced a passionate and sometimes hostile audience of about 60 in the Adel Public Library meeting room. Watts claimed the turnout was “ginned up” by his Democrat opponent in the 2016 general election, Bryce Smith of Adel.
Watts referred repeatedly to his Smith as “Red Ryder” — Smith has red hair — and as “my opponent, who lost the election, by the way, and doesn’t have the sense to shut the hell up.” Watts said Smith should “quit being a gutter snipe on Facebook and other social media, and that’s all it is. It’s being a gutter snipe.”
Watts, 72, is a retired engineer from MidAmerican Energy Co. He was elected to his eighth term in the Iowa House of Representatives in November with 61 percent of the vote. Smith, 24, is a 2010 graduate of Adel-De Soto-Minburn High School and a 2014 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, where he studied political economy.
Smith did not attend the Saturday forum but posted a video of the 75-minute event on his Facebook page. He said he found Watts’s “comments and name calling very offensive. I have thick skin and realize that I might be singled out for my sexuality, but my state representative should never talk to any person like that, especially a constituent who is active.”
Watts also seemed to antagonize some audience members when he defended the proposed 1.1 percent increase in public school funding, claiming more money will not solve the problems in Iowa’s public schools.
“You’re saying that the only way we get good schools is to give them more money. I don’t believe that,” Watts said. “There is a reason why our education system, as you have pointed out, has gone from number one to number 26. What is it? I don’t really know.”
“How long have you been doing this?” asked a man in the audience. “How long have you been doing this and you don’t have any idea?”
“We’ve put over $600 million into schools over the last four or five years,” Watts said.
“And with that $600 million, you haven’t asked why it’s not working?” the man said. “I’m sorry but it boggles my mind that you cannot come up with three things for why you think education has gone backward in the state of Iowa.”
“I would ask the educators,” Watts said, as the room grew noisy and some order was lost, with another man in the audience asserting loudly that money does not buy intelligence.
A teacher in the audience — a reading interventionist — challenged Watts and the rest of the state’s legislators “to come to the schools and spend a week in different classrooms, and I think you will have a very clear idea then of the state of our schools and what we need.”
“I’d be happy to spend a day with a teacher,” Watts said, “but what point does that make? That’s what we pay the administrators for.” His comment was met with groans and other signs of disapproval from some audience members.
Watts expressed his support for the creation of educational savings account (ESAs), a plan to let families keep the tax dollars they now pay to fund the public school districts and put it toward private school tuition, tutoring costs, home-school curriculum or other educational expenses.
Gov. Terry Branstad and other Republican politicians voiced support for ESAs during last month’s celebration of National School Choice Week. Critics of ESAs say the diversion of tax revenues would further starve Iowa’s already underfunded public school districts.
Watts said ESAs are “one of the issues that I think is going to be on the table this year to talk about. I support the idea of educational savings accounts but like I’ve told many people who have written to me, the devil’s in the details. What do you mean by an educational savings account? How much is it? What’s it going to cost? How will it be used? Those kind of details haven’t even been fleshed out yet.”
Iowa spent $10,668 per pupil in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Figures from the Iowa Department of Education show about 483,000 students attended public schools in Iowa in the 2015-2016 school year, and another 34,000 — about 7 percent of all students — attended non-public schools.
The state no longer requires families to register home-schooled children but in 2012-13, the last year the state kept track, about 11,000 students were home schooled.
“I support the idea of a parent being able to take some of the funds for education for their children and put them where they want them to be, whether that be in some other school district or whatever,” Watts said. “I support that. I support school choice.”
In the course of the meandering discussion, Watts referred at one point to “Obamacare” and was met with a loud chorus in reply: “It’s called the Affordable Care Act.”
“I think I see the tenor of the crowd,” Watts said.
The crowd’s tenor was also shown by a woman who said, “I do not understand Senate File 2 coming to the House that says we’re going to give up $2.9 million in federal Medicaid assistance, and it’s going to be substituted by $3.4 million that’s going to come from the state. You’re giving away that money and going to make it up in the state budget.”
“Okay, you’re talking about Planned Parenthood,” Watts said. The Iowa House is expected this week to approve its version of Senate File 2, a Senate-passed bill rejecting federal funding for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and creating a state-run family planning program that excludes funding for organizations that perform abortions.
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland has 12 clinics in Iowa. The organization served about 26,000 patients 2016. No federal family-planning money currently funds abortions.
“I have talked to my senator and asked him this question,” the woman said, “and we talked for a long time, and he came down to ‘It is my personal religious belief.'” Here the speaker was interrupted by shouts in disagreement. She continued, “He was a co-sponsor because of his personal religious beliefs because it makes no economic sense. It makes no sense for the women of Iowa. It just makes no sense.”
“Senate File 2 is coming to the House,” Watts said. “Am I going to support it? You bet.”
Cheers and clapping greeted Watts’ declaration. He then told a story about a female prison inmate who was beaten and nearly killed in prison by other inmates. The female inmate and her boyfriend had been convicted of killing her 2-year-old child, Watts said.
As groans and shouts drowned him out, Watts could be heard asking, “Who is it that provides the voice for those babies when the abortionist reaches in and rips a hind leg off a fetus?”
As passions clouded reason, several points emerged clearly. Humans do not have hind legs, and Ralph Watts does not have a uterus, as he affirmed in reply to a female who asked a rhetorical question.
Several speakers noted that females appear to have a more immediate stake in questions of reproduction.
“When Senate File 2 comes to the House, I will support it,” Watts repeated. “I will race to the button to support it.”
A male defender of Watts’ morals then spoke up.
“This is why I voted for him,” the man said. “It is because he does stand by his moral issues and his moral things. And if you think the rest of us or if somebody has the right to do that because you have a uterus, then your mother should have taught you how to keep you legs closed.”
Slut shaming was less in evidence at the Saturday forum in Guthrie Center hosted by Sen. Jake Chapman (R-Adel) and Rep. Clel Baudler (R-Greenfield), but the same two issues — education and abortion — exercised the indignation of some of the 25 citizens who met the lawmakers at the Guthrie Center Farm Bureau offices.
Like Watts, Baudler and Chapman seem to favor abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Baudler, 77, won his 10th term in the Iowa House in November with 50 percent of the vote, and Chapman, 32, took 65 percent of the vote in the 2016 general election, winning his second term in the Iowa Senate.