DES MOINES — Kim Reynolds has been Iowa’s governor since 2017, and the state’s lieutenant governor before that since 2011.
It’s unlikely that Reynolds in all those years has displayed more emotion publicly than she did last week at the end of her news conference.
As she closed out her update on the state’s response to the coronavirus Thursday at the Iowa Capitol, she took a moment to thank the Iowans she said have been sending her their best wishes, thoughts and prayers for months.
Reynolds became visibly emotional as she spoke, and even struggled to get the words out.
“I just want to say a heartfelt thanks to all Iowans out there for being with me, for the notes and the prayers that you’ve sent my way throughout this really difficult time,” Reynolds said through a choked voice, with tears in her eyes. “It really has sustained me. And I can’t even begin to tell you how much I appreciate those notes and cards that I’ve received.”
It was the most striking display of emotion from Reynolds that I can remember. It’s not difficult to imagine why.
The past few months have been remarkable in Iowa and across the country. The coronavirus pandemic has cost thousands of lives and upset the economy in unprecedented ways, and the latest death of a Black man in police custody set off civil unrest and protests calling for racial justice.
Imagine, for a second, being a governor at a time like this — making the decisions governors have had to make.
If you do, it’s not difficult to imagine why Reynolds would be overcome by emotion, as she was Thursday.
Imagine, for example, having to make the decisions on when and how to order businesses closed. If you do, by your actions, many businesses will suffer severe economic damage — perhaps even be forced to close for good — and many workers will lose critical income.
If you don’t, an infectious disease will continue to spread and more people will die.
Imagine having to make that call and then trying to sleep at night. Think about the things that keep you up at night, and replace those thoughts with those kinds of literal life-or-death decisions, for which there is no obvious or universally approved answer.
To be clear, this exercise is not to recuse myself from my duty as a Statehouse reporter to question government officials and their actions. While these decisions surely have been challenging, they absolutely must, have been, and will continue to be scrutinized. That’s what you sign up for when you run for a high public office like governor.
But there is a human element to all of this, and that is what we’re considering here. Sometimes that gets lost.
There is a human element to every coronavirus-related death: Someone is gone who would not otherwise be. That is tragic, pure and simple.
There is a human element to every coronavirus-related economic disruption: A business now is struggling to remain in operation, or a worker suddenly is struggling to pay the bills.
There is a human element to the calls for racial justice: An entire race of people still, decades and too many unfair prison sentences and deaths later, are demanding equal treatment from all of our country’s institutions.
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And there is a human element in the offices of the people who have been elected to lead and have been forced to confront all of those things, who have been tasked with making remarkable decisions during an unprecedented time.
Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.