Staff Columnist

Kim Reynolds - pragmatic justice reformer by day, rowdy Trumper by night

Despite her divisive rhetoric, Reynolds already has made historic progress, with more on the way

In this image from video, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks from Des Moines, Iowa, during the second night of the Republican
In this image from video, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks from Des Moines, Iowa, during the second night of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via AP)

Iowans saw two sides of Gov. Kim Reynolds last week — the cautious but pragmatic criminal justice reformer, and the tough-on-crime fearmonger, on the same day.

Early in the day last Wednesday, in a prerecorded interview for The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference, Reynolds touted the bipartisan police reform bill she signed this year, which cleared the Legislature with unanimous bipartisan support.

“To Iowans out there, two parties can sit together at a table, walk through a draft — you don’t get everything you want, but you can find consensus, you can move things forward. I think we led the country with that bill that we were able to get done,” Reynolds told Gazette Executive Editor Zack Kucharski during an interview conducted on Zoom.

That night, by contrast, Reynolds appeared on stage at a campaign event for President Donald Trump, where she fired off a series of hyperpartisan attacks.

“All you have to do is turn on the TV and see the chaos and the intimidation and the dysfunction and the lawlessness that is taking place across this country. And I will tell you, most of those states are run by Democratic governors. It is unconscionable, and they are showing us what a big government, socialist, liberal agenda looks like,” Reynolds said, after throwing “Make America Great Again” hats to the pro-Trump masses gathered at the Des Moines International Airport.

In an unusually animated moment for Reynolds, she delivered a hostile rejection of the leftist slogan of “defund the police.”

“I want to tell you something: This administration and this governor will never, ever abandon our law enforcement and will never defund our police,” Reynolds shouted, drawing boisterous applause.

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It’s a glimpse at the duality of Kim Reynolds — as a policymaker, she already is one of the most successful justice reformers in Iowa history. As a politician, however, she leans heavily into the divisive Trumpian rhetoric by overstating public safety threats.

In less than four years as governor, Reynolds has racked up more significant smart-on-crime policy successes than most of her predecessors:

Felon voting — Reynolds this year signed an executive order to automatically restore voting rights for Iowans with felony convictions. She should have done so sooner, but she deserves credit for prioritizing the issue. She vows to continue working toward a constitutional amendment — a permanent solution for felon voting — next year.

Police reform — In response to mass protests calling for racial justice following high-profile police killings, lawmakers passed and Reynolds signed a law to restrict police chokeholds, ban rehiring of officers fired for misconduct and prescribe anti-bias training for officers.

Occupational licensing — The Legislature passed and Reynolds signed a law reducing barriers to occupational licensing for Iowans with felony convictions. It also provides protection for employers who hire reformed criminals.

More positive developments could be coming soon. Reynolds in 2019 formed a committee on criminal justice reform, the FOCUS Committee, which now is finalizing its recommendations ahead of the coming legislative session.

The panel, composed of law enforcers and a few reform advocates, is expected to recommend banning racial profiling and requiring departments to collect more data about traffic stops. Those policies would go a long way toward addressing racism in policing, and position Iowa as a serious player in the criminal justice reform arena.

Reynolds has not said whether she supports the committee’s recommendations in their draft form. As usual, she says she will wait to see the final version before taking a position.

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As a conservative governor in a reddish-purple state, Reynolds has an opportunity to cast a model for common-sense law enforcement reform for a national audience.

Which Reynolds will show up to the Statehouse when the Legislature convenes in 2021? I hope it’s the policymaker, not the politician.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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