Fairfield forum highlights candidates for state office

Democrat Jeff Fager, left, and Republican Joe Mitchell are competing for the Iowa House District 84 seat that Mitchell currently occupies. The two participated in a candidate forum Wednesday at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center. (Image courtesy of Fairfield Media Center)
Democrat Jeff Fager, left, and Republican Joe Mitchell are competing for the Iowa House District 84 seat that Mitchell currently occupies. The two participated in a candidate forum Wednesday at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center. (Image courtesy of Fairfield Media Center)

FAIRFIELD — Six candidates vying for three different statehouse offices met Wednesday night for a forum at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center.

The three races are for two seats in the Iowa House of Representatives and one seat in the Iowa Senate, all three districts include portions of Jefferson County. The two House races are between Republican Jeff Shipley and Democrat Phil Miller for District 82 (the western two-thirds of Jefferson County including Fairfield), and Republican Joe Mitchell and Democrat Jeff Fager for District 84 (all of Henry County plus the eastern third of Jefferson County). The Iowa Senate for District 42 (all of Henry County plus eastern third of Jefferson County) is between Democrat Rich Taylor and Republican Jeff Reichman.

All six candidates appeared at once on the stage inside the Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts. Each had the chance to answer every question from moderator Lindsay Bauer, the arts center’s new executive director who assumed her post in August.

In their opening statements, the candidates were given a few minutes to set the tone for the rest of the forum. Shipley spoke about how he campaigned in 2018 on proposing 100 pieces of legislation, and how some people didn’t think that was realistic, but he accomplished that goal. He said some of his bills garnered worldwide attention. Taylor spoke about how he wants to be an advocate for rural folks, and how talked about how rural issues differ from those in a big city like Des Moines.

Fager talked about how he grew up in Indiana in a place that “mirrors Henry County.” He spoke about how his parents instilled in him the value of education. Reichman talked about his background, having served two tours of duty in Iraq, and also about a time in his life when he was unemployed.

“I feel I know what people in southeast Iowa are going through,” Reichman said.

Miller spoke about winning the special election in 2017 that sent him to the statehouse in the wake of Iowa Rep. Curt Hanson’s death. He talked about growing up on a farm, attending a regent university, and about how public education made him the person he is today. Mitchell said he had three priorities upon entering the statehouse two years ago — fiscal responsibility, funding rural schools and supporting small businesses — and he believes the states has made strides in all three areas.

Bauer asked the candidates about their spending priorities should they win election. Reichman said the state is funding a curriculum that is geared toward 60 percent of the students, which is the figure of how many go on to college. He said that only about 25 percent graduate from college, so the state needs to do more to make sure those other 75 percent are not being left behind.

Taylor said the state’s top priority has to be kids. He said back when Tom Vilsack was governor, the state was spending 60 percent of its budget on education, and today it’s closer to 53 percent. He said the state is underfunding its K-12 students and is allocated a lower share of its general fund toward them than other plains states.

Fager named education as his priority, too, saying $1 spent on education returns $4-$6 in benefits. He mentioned that access to broadband internet is critical, too, especially now that so many students are taking courses online.

Mitchell remarked that the numbers from the governor’s office show that 58 percent of the state’s budget goes to education. He said the state should not force a business to close because of the pandemic, and then do nothing to help keep it afloat.

“We need to give grants to our small businesses to make sure they’re OK, going through this time of COVID,” Mitchell said.

Shipley piggybacked on Mitchell’s comments on COVID relief, saying the state “destroyed a lot of businesses and we owe it to them.” Shipley said he spoke to state law enforcement officials in June and promised them a raise because they’re doing important work on sex trafficking.

Shipley agreed with Fager on the importance of internet access, but he said it will cost a little bit extra to ensure hard-wired internet to ensure safety and data privacy. He mentioned that he wanted to bring organic food into school cafeterias, and learned it would cost about $500 million.

Miller said he is a small-business owner with 15 employees, and remarked that the state’s priority should be ensuring an educated workforce by investing in public education. He mentioned other priorities include health care, law enforcement and roads.

Bauer asked the candidates a question about whether the state needs to do more to support law enforcement officers and citizens, and referenced the case of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis whose death sparked protests around the world. Shipley remarked that he’s been particularly interested in reforming the criminal justice system, and said the problem lies with too many laws and a sentencing code that takes power from judges to give a “fair and just” sentence because “legislators have taken that away.”

Miller said the burden on law enforcement is too great, and the state can relieve that burden by having mental health officers play a larger role.

“We’re asking officers to do things under pressure, and maybe a lot of times a mental health specialist, someone who can bring tension down and help prevent a tragedy, would be positive,” he said.

Reichman spoke about bills at the federal level designed to create a national registry for law enforcement to weed out problem officers. Reichman said he hopes that effort is successful, and he said the issue hasn’t become a major problem in Iowa.

Taylor agreed with Miller that too much is expected of law enforcement, particularly in treating mental health cases.

“We expect them to be family counselors. They’re not. They’re not trained for that,” Taylor said. “But if we gave the department of public safety just a little bit more funding, they could train these officers so they could respond and recognize a mental health problem properly, and call for someone who can handle the problem.”

Fager said the issue of George Floyd’s death is a symptom of a problem that has festered for over 400 years. He spoke about how prison is not the right place for someone suffering from mental health problems. He wants the Legislature to fund police training on de-escalation.

“I’ve heard that officers get hours and hours of training on weaponry, and maybe an hour or two on de-escalating tense situations,” Fager said.

Mitchell said the Iowa Legislature reconvened in June after Floyd’s death and passed a criminal justice bill that outlawed most choke holds, gave officers more de-escalation training, gave jurisdiction to the Attorney General’s Office to investigate police shootings, and addressed local police departments and sheriff’s offices hiring of “bad cops.” It was passed unanimously by the House and Senate.

“At the end of the day, we need to refund our police, not defund them,” Mitchell said. “Our police need more funding so these situations don’t happen again.”

The two forums at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center Tuesday and Wednesday night were a collaborative effort between the arts center, Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Fairfield Economic Development Association.