DES MOINES — Iowa Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen broke through the usual opening-day fare of the Iowa Legislature with a call Monday for lawmakers to better address sexual assault and harassment — both inside and outside the Iowa Capitol.
Petersen, a Democratic from Des Moines, made the plea during session-opening remarks by legislative leaders.
She said she was quoting author William Paul Young when she said, “I don’t think there is anything that is the equivalent of sexual abuse that tears apart the fabric of the human soul. It empowers the lies of shame.”
She called on legislators to eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual assault charges, saying the limit “puts the rights of serial predators ahead of survivors.”
Petersen said Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, plan to introduce measures that would eliminate limitations on sexual assault charges and lawsuits involving alleged sexual assault victims younger than 18.
“We can fix this for the children and adult abuse survivors in this state,” Petersen said.
She also called for a review of. and possible changes to, ethics rules that govern legislators.
The Iowa Legislature has been dealing with the fallout from multiple incidents of sexual harassment or misconduct. A former Senate Republican caucus staff member was awarded $1.75 million to settle a lawsuit over her allegations of sexual harassment at the Capitol. And Sen. Nate Boulton, a Democrat from Des Moines and former candidate for governor, was accused of sexual misconduct in incidents in 2015, before he was elected.
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A legislative ethics panel ruled Boulton was not subject to punishment because its guidelines don’t apply to actions by lawmakers outside the Capitol or by people before they’re elected to the body.
“I renew my commitment ... to continue working in a bipartisan manner to make the Iowa Capitol a safe environment for everyone,” Petersen said, with Boulton sitting feet away. “That includes making appropriate changes to the Senate Code of Ethics and harassment prevention policy to ensure better pathways to justice.”
Petersen has called for Boulton to resign but he won’t. He’s up for re-election in 2020.
Petersen originally stripped Boulton of his committee assignments. But after the ethics committee ruling and a pre-session meeting, she appointed Boulton to three committees.
As the result of the 2018 elections, significant turnover came to each chamber although the GOP remains in control of both. The Senate has nine new members — nearly 1 in every 5 senators — and the House has 22 new members among the 100 representatives.
“It’s fresh ideas, fresh faces. I think that’s great,” said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, who was first elected in 2002. “I believe there were 19 new legislators elected the year I came in … Any time you see a big influx there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of energy. I’m looking forward to it.”
While freshmen making up nearly a quarter of the House brings challenges, “the opportunities we have before us to make generational changes should not be taken lightly or passed by,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley.
The election also produced a new majority within the House Democrats’ caucus: 24 of the 46 are women.
Many leaders made calls for and promises of bipartisan cooperation.
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“As elected officials and leaders of our state, we have a responsibility to bring people together,” said Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines. “The time for drawing contrasts is over. The time to govern has arrived. We are all Iowans. We are all here to make our state a better place for our families, neighbors and communities. Now is the time to come together and focus on Iowa’s future.”
Upmeyer said she has served in divided government and under one-party control by both Republicans and Democrats.
“However, during all these changes, one thing has remained constant,” she said. “After the election, no matter who is in charge, Iowans expect us to move beyond the partisan gamesmanship and govern.”
House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Urbandale, addressed House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, and pledged to work with Democrats. Hagenow said nearly 9 in 10 bills passed in 2018 had support from both parties.
“I am hopeful we can move that number even higher,” Hagenow said.
“With the election behind us, it is time to set aside petty politics and get to work on improving the lives of all Iowans: urban and rural, affluent and indigent, young and old,” Prichard said. “If we take one lesson from the recent campaigns, it is that the public is weary of hyperpartisan politics.”