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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — After nearly a quarter of a century of serving in the state Senate, Joe Bolkcom will walk away from what he calls the best job in Iowa politics.
Bolkcom, 65, who has decided not to seek a seventh term in 2022, is leaving on his own terms, explaining that it’s time to pass the baton.
“It sounds trite, but I’ve been doing this a long time and it's just time for new, younger people,” Bolkcom said. “There's a whole generation of younger people that want to be involved in this civic life. It’s just time to time to free it up for a younger person with more energy and some new ideas about how we solve some of these problems.”
If he has any regrets, the Iowa City Democrat wishes more progress could have been made in addressing the problems Iowa faced when he entered the Senate in 1999 — and still faces today.
“Climate change was an issue. It's still an issue. Funding education was an issue. It’s still an issue. The achievement gap for Iowa’s Black and brown kids still is an issue,” Bolkcom said.
The other regret he says he has is seeing the decline in civility in the Legislature and that, on occasion, he may have contributed to it.
“I can occasionally be kind of harsh when I've gotten up and made comments,” Bolkcom said during an interview with The Gazette at an Iowa City coffeehouse.
One of the most progressive members of the Legislature, Bolkcom has never been bashful about speaking his mind in committee meetings, during floor debate and, especially, during points of personal privilege that have often been pointed discussions of legislation and politics both state and national.
“But I don’t think I’ve never made it personal,” he said. “I've tried to keep it on topic (but) I get under their skin sometimes when I make a point or two.”
Though the 2022 session will be his last, Bolkcom promises not to let up.
“I'm going to keep going. I'm going to work until the last day,” he said, warning the Republican majority that “at this point in my tenure, I'm unplugged. I'm going to go out hot.”
For part of his tenure, Bolkcom has been in the majority — including a time that Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office. In his final year, Bolkcom and his party will be playing defense against a GOP trifecta that, in large measure, has told Democrats’ their input isn’t necessary.
“They seem to believe that as Republicans, they know what the truth is and know the best way to handle the problem,” Bolkcom said. “There’s a hubris and arrogance around what's right that seems to be in play here.”
But the Legislature’s best work is accomplished when lawmakers compromise, Bolkcom said.
“There's 3.1 million people in Iowa, so we've got to figure out a way to bring every voice into the solution,” he said. “Nobody's going to get their way. Compromise has got to be at the core of passing things.”
He points to the expansion of the state Earned Income Tax Credit that helps low-income working Iowans. It’s a Reagan-era policy that Democrats and Republicans supported to lift working people out of poverty. It’s now one of Iowa’s largest tax credits, along with the Research Activity Tax Credit for large corporations.
Another compromise from his time as chair of the Ways and Means Committee was agreeing to Republicans plan to remove the sales tax on car washes in exchange for a solar tax credit that has generated more than $400 million in private investment, 1,000 permanent jobs across Iowa and the development of thousands of new solar power systems on Iowa homes, farms and businesses.
Often pigeonholed as “the liberal from Iowa City representing all the all the hippies and dope smokers … the academics and professors,” Bolkcom says he’s fine with that.
“It's been that way forever for people who represent Iowa City,” he said, reminding Republicans that “Iowa City is in Iowa.”
He’s never shied away from the “liberal” tag and makes no secret of his progressive approach to legislating, counting among the highlights of his career efforts prevent car title “loan sharks” from gaining a foothold in Iowa as well as his unsuccessful attempts to rein in payday lenders.
Now in the minority, Bolkcom has worked, not always successfully, to block what he describes as Republican attacks on abortion and worker rights as well as health care and public education.
He was a leader on expanding access to medical marijuana and extending civil rights protections to LGBTQ Iowans. Bolkcom also worked to strengthen the voting rights of Iowans by expanding vote by mail and Election Day registration; to save lives by raising the price of a pack of cigarettes by $1 and by ending smoking in workplaces; to bring health care and mental health services to Iowans by expanding Medicaid, creating the Iowa Health and Wellness Program and establishing a regional mental health system; and to prepare for Iowa’s climate challenges by authoring legislation establishing the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council.
Bolkcom acknowledged that being able to tackle some of those issues was due to representing a safely Democratic district.
“This Senate seat is probably one of the best political jobs in the country,” Bolkcom said. “Representing people in Iowa City, I've been given great freedom and latitude to work on a whole host of issues. In some cases, issues that my colleagues just can’t. They come from districts where it's harder to be outspoken on things like marijuana reform, for example.”
Bolkcom is quick to share the credit.
“You don't get anything done unless you get to 26 or 51,” he said, referring to the majorities needed in the Senate and House, respectively, to pass legislation. “So to the degree which anybody gets credit, we all get credit.”
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