Government

Rep. Jeff Shipley: 'Comedy gave me the courage to run'

Fairfield lawmaker says his bills really aren't 'off the wall'

Jeff Shipley speaks to the audience March 20 between songs during the musical set of David Birchmier and Tyler Anderson during open mic night at Cafe Paradiso in Fairfield. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Jeff Shipley speaks to the audience March 20 between songs during the musical set of David Birchmier and Tyler Anderson during open mic night at Cafe Paradiso in Fairfield. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — He’s a sauerkraut salesman from southern Iowa.

He does stand-up comedy and serves as Wiener Dog Racing chairman.

And midway through his freshman session as a member of the Iowa House, 30-year-old Fairfield Republican Jeff Shipley says the experience so far has lived up to his expectations.

“You know, a lot of people sitting around thinking they are important,” he said with a grin that makes it hard to tell if it’s the legislator or the comedian talking.

Joking aside, Shipley is taking his new job earnestly. He has introduced bills dealing with increasing the number of conditions that can be treated with medical cannabis, banning fluoride in drinking water, installing and using composting toilets, taxing virtual currencies and allowing Medicaid coverage for yoga.

“Yeah, I’ve heard a few jokes made at my expense,” Shipley said when asked about his proposal to require high school students to “read and demonstrate comprehension” of excerpts from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” a three-volume text chronicling labor camps in the former Soviet Union.

“The bills, yeah, maybe they seem a little bit off-the-wall to the traditional political observer. But they are rooted in those conversations that I had with people on the campaign trail,” he said.

He proposed requiring schools to include a daily vegetarian option in breakfast and lunch programs and by 2022 serve only 100-percent certified organic food.

“Sure, that’s a mandate and a huge fiscal note that a lot of people thought was really stupid,” he said. “But it came from talking to mothers at the door and their concerns about what their kids are eating in school.”

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Shipley was elected last November to represent District 82, which includes Fairfield, Bloomfield and Keosauqua. Election night returns had him winning by just 34 votes. A recount later expanded that — but to just a 37-vote difference. Now sitting on a settee bench in the House chamber, he talks fast, loud, with nervous energy. A fellow lawmaker comments later, “That sounded like an interesting interview.”

Whether or not his proposals are worthy of becoming state law, Shipley believes they are “a starting point for discussion based on an actual concern that a constituent relayed to me. If I hear the same thing from three, four people, that’s good enough for me to put in a bill.”

His Solzhenitsyn bill stemmed from comments he heard about a lack of civics education and students being too far removed from history.

“Some of the Maharishi (University) folks raised concerns about vaccine safety and alternative health care,” Shipley said, so he offered the Immunization Informed Consent Act and proposals on medical cannabis research, banning fluoride and removing psilocybin and psilocin — the hallucinogenic components found in several species of mushrooms — from the list of Schedule I controlled substances.

At the same time, “I like to think I’m doing a good job supporting the Republican caucus that prioritizes rural Iowa,” he said.

Despite what people might say about his legislative proposals — many which have gone nowhere — Shipley insisted that “I am very serious and my goal is to start serious discussions.”

That’s a strength, said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake.

“He’s really good at discussing things, asking why,” she said. “He’s good about having conversations with me or other legislators. He looks to people with experience to frame-up issues,” she said, adding, “I can’t say that I’ve changed his mind.”

But she doesn’t dismiss his work out-of-hand, either.

“He comes from a part of the state where perhaps that sort of freethinking is appreciated,” she said. “He filed a lot of bills … that were things that were of interest to his community.”

His proposals may have caused more heartburn for Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway in southwestern Iowa.

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“I’d get these phone calls about bills and I wouldn’t know what they were talking about,” he said. “I’d look them up and tell them they have the wrong guy.”

The two Shipleys are not related.

“Same party, but there are some fundamental differences in our politics,” Sen. Shipley said.

Rep. Shipley has been a Republican activist since he was 19. After attending the University of Iowa and losing a bid for the Iowa City Council, he moved to Fairfield and ran for the Iowa House in 2014, losing by 398 votes. In 2015, Shipley chaired the Jefferson County GOP, but resigned after the 2016 caucuses “because the whole Trump thing made things relatively weird.”

In 2018, Republicans were having a hard time finding a candidate to challenge Democratic Rep. Phil Miller, a Fairfield veterinarian and former school board member.

“I came along at the very last minute,” Shipley said, adding, “Comedy gave me the courage to run.”

Even at the time, Shipley saw himself as an unlikely candidate.

“I asked myself, ‘Who am I to be running for office?’ I’m not where I want to be professionally. I’m not where I am personally. I don’t have a wife and kids or anything like that, all the standard check boxes of a politician,” he recalled.

“But I did have comedy as a hobby,” he said.

Doing comedy, he explained, meant he could talk about controversial subjects in his act.

“I did like the idea of stirring it up. Even when people get uncomfortable, as long as we are saying things in an honest way, then maybe some discomfort isn’t really a bad thing,” Shipley said. “That’s what gave me the courage to run for office.”

He didn’t run a textbook campaign. Shipley said he spent 10, 15, 20 minutes at voters’ doors talking about issues.

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“We have a tendency to talk in eight-second sound bites — ‘make America great again,’” he said. “But that’s a disservice to the public because if we’re going to talk about mental health or health care or education, we need a longer attention span to flesh that out.”

Sometimes it took that long to find something to agree on. He spent 10 minutes listening to a “typical Democrat” tell him how much she disagreed with Iowa Republicans’ anti-abortion rights agenda and how much she supported Planned Parenthood “and how much she disagreed with me.”

“The next 10 minutes, she’s taking issues with my personality and reputation,” Shipley continued. “The last 10 minutes we talk about endocrine disruption pollution. It took 20 minutes and then we find an issue we agreed on and was super important to her. She put up a yard sign.”

As a result of such extended conversations, voters know they may not agree with Shipley’s position against abortion rights, but “they also know I’m not running for Supreme Court.”

“The funny thing about politics is it’s not so much what you believe, but how passionately you believe it,” Shipley said. “So the way we rank these ordinal preferences of intensity, not so much what we believe but how intensely we believe it, and what are we willing to do to act on those issues.”

One of the issues Shipley is most intense about is the “smart meters” allowing utility companies to remotely collect data and monitor their grid using radio frequency signals. He believes that was the issue that propelled him to the 37-vote win.

“For those people, it was their No. 1 concern and their state representative really should be plugged in and advocating for the people,” Shipley said. “Look, they’re not going to let me craft policy on abortion. I have a very tiny say in education funding. I’m not going to change many hearts and minds on the Second Amendment and judicial nominating. On those issues I’m just one voice in 100 and my say doesn’t mean a whole lot besides a grumble in caucus.”

But on smart meters, “it’s local, so the state representative really should make progress on that.”

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Alliant Energy is set to roll out smart meters starting this week in Fairfield, but regulators have said the utility must come up with a “community opt-out“ plan for sections of town that do not want the new meters.

Shipley has tried his hand at a variety of jobs. He was in sales at Iowa Wind and Solar, now Simpleray, and worked for Fairfield lawyer Ed Noyes. He’s probably the only Iowa legislator who intentionally does stand-up comedy, performing regularly at Café Paradiso in Fairfield.

And then there’s the sauerkraut sales. Shipley keeps bottles of Bubbling Brine Brothers sauerkraut, which he touts for its probiotics, under his desk in the House.

Recently he tweeted: “Just sold sauerkraut to Rep. Forbes and Rep. Bearinger. I congratulated them on the best decision of their entire lives.”

Shipley, whose Twitter handle is @sauerkraut sales, said introducing himself to voters as a sauerkraut salesman was a good icebreaker. That could work at the Capitol, too, Upmeyer said.

“He brought sauerkraut to the majority leader, but not the speaker,” she said with a wink. “He’s still learning.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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