Staff Columnist

Who is Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds listening to on COVID-19?

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds holds a news conference on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center on Wednesday, April
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds holds a news conference on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in Johnston.

Who is she listening to?

It’s a question I’ve heard a lot lately as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds navigates the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why is she moving to partially reopen businesses in large parts of Iowa even as case numbers remain daunting and health experts from the University of Iowa are warning her a rushed reopen could lead to a second wave of illnesses?

Why does the governor believe meatpacking plant owners who claim to be protecting workers even as their plants become COVID hot spots, and despite reports to the contrary? The state is moving fast to protect hog production but are doing precious little to safeguard the health of packing plant workers.

It’s tough to say who exactly has the governor’s ear. But one way to glean who has shaped a politician’s thinking is to look at who is handing them piles of campaign cash.

Since 2017, for example Deb and Jeff Hansen, founders of Iowa Select Farms, Iowa’s largest pork producer, and their son Michael Hansen contributed nearly $350,000 in direct and in-kind contributions to Reynolds’ campaign fund.

Eldon Roth, founder of the South Dakota meat processing firm formerly known as Beef Products Inc., now Empirical Foods, donated $150,000 to Reynolds since 2015, after donating more than $200,000 to the Branstad-Reynolds ticket.

Bruce Rastetter, CEO of Summit Ag and who was among a group of investors who reopened the beef packing plant at Tama later acquired by National Beef, has donated nearly $100,000 to Reynolds. Under National Beef management, the plant has become a hot spot.

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Gerald Lynch of Lynch Livestock in Waucoma chipped in $86,000 since 2016. Ankeny businessman Denny Elwell has donated $181,000 and Douglas and Deborah McAninch owners of a large earthmoving company, have donated $135,000 to Reynolds’ campaign.

These are just examples of many check-writers and jet-loaners.

Advisors? Not exactly. But throughout her time in office, when the governor picks the wants of large business and agricultural interests over the common good and the broader needs of Iowans, campaign contributions offer a window into her decision-making. They’re the receipts for dirty water, injured workers no longer getting compensation and piles of business tax breaks we can no longer afford.

You’d like to think that might change in a crisis, but entrenched interests have deep roots. Reynolds’ backers expect her to keep Iowa wide open for business and farming, slash regulations and cut taxes. Not even a pandemic can change that. Health or the economy? It’s the economy, stupid.

Of course farmers need help in a crisis. But bending over backward to help large meatpacking companies, who failed to shield their workers and whose consolidation waves have been bad news for many farmers, reveals an agenda beyond “helping farmers.” We’re propping up a food system that’s harmed many while making a few very wealthy. Its fatal flaws are now obvious.

Sidestepping experts warning against reopening could cost lives. And the only reason we know about that advice is because The Des Moines Register demanded disclosure after Reynolds’ office tried to keep it under wraps.

Who is she listening to? Check the checks.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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