On Monday, after weekend protests decrying racial injustice shrouded the Statehouse in tear gas, Gov. Kim Reynolds stood on the Capitol steps and vowed to work for change.
“As the governor, I want all Iowans to know that I hear you. I hear your frustration. And I am committed listening and having a respectful dialogue about what we need to address the injustices that are felt by so many,” Reynolds said. “And that might mean having some very uncomfortable and eye-opening discussions. But they’re discussions that we must have if we’re going to bring about positive and impactful change.”
The Republican governor brings a track record to that dialogue. She has called on the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, bucking the policies of her GOP predecessor. Iowa denies voting rights to felons unless they apply to the governor for restoration, a policy that disenfranchises tens of thousands of Iowans of color.
Reynolds appointed Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, the former state public defender, to lead the FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform. The committee made a series of recommendations late last year, mostly aimed at providing education, services and employment support for offenders leaving prison and re-entering society.
We’d like to see Reynolds use the passion for change she displayed on the Capitol steps inside the Republican-controlled House and Senate chambers. Too often, the governor has brought good reform ideas to the Legislature only to watch lawmakers shelve them, water them down or make misguided alterations.
Reynolds proposed her felon voting amendment but lawmakers refused to pass it without first approving legislation requiring offenders to pay all court-ordered restitution before having voting rights restored. That will make rights restoration even more difficult than under the current system, which only requires proof that progress is being made to pay obligations.
And yet, Reynolds acquiesced to those legislative demands. And she has refused to use her executive authority to restore felon voting rights now. We urge her to reconsider. We’d also like to see her expand her justice reform agenda to include steps addressing racial profiling, the reduction of penalties for drug offenses and other issues.
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To make actual progress on the difficult work of addressing justice reforms and racial disparities, Reynolds is going to need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable necessity of pushing the Legislature to do the right thing. Sometimes, at critical moments, governors must stand up to bickering, dithering lawmakers and wield gubernatorial power to make real progress, even if that means bucking their own political allies.
It’s called leadership, and we need it at this moment.
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