To first-term state Rep. Jeff Shipley, the threat of the coronavirus is overblown.
As he faces a re-election, the sauerkraut salesman, comedian and Republican lawmaker from Birmingham is unapologetic for views that at their best fall outside the political mainstream and at worst undermine public health recommendations to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.
He wrapped up his first term in the statehouse by drawing sharp criticism and statewide headlines for downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. In a speech on the Capitol steps to a group advocating that parents, and not governments, should decide on vaccinations. Shipley said “the virus isn’t even killing anybody.” As of midday Tuesday, 725 Iowans have died from the novel coronavirus.
He later walked back the claim on Twitter, and in an interview with the Southeast Iowa Union, Shipley chalked up his statement to “putting my foot in my mouth.”
“I was at a rally, and I spoke quickly, unprepared and threw out some red meat for a crowd that was, you know, really wanting to hear controversial stuff,” he said.
Shipley still thinks the state should take a more libertarian approach to the virus - avoiding state-mandated shutdowns, mask-wearing, and vaccinations, once one is available. Iowa is one of a handful of states where face coverings are not required in at least parts of the state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends face coverings as an effective and simple method to stop the spread of respiratory droplets that carry the deadly virus in places where social distancing is difficult.
Shipley says he’s OK wearing a mask in stores that ask him to - but thinks voluntary health measures are sufficient for people to follow.
“Mother Nature created this virus, I feel the best solution is for human beings to be healthy enough to withstand it,” Shipley said, adding that for him personally, catching the virus and developing an antibody would be a more permanent public health strategy, which he called a position that was “extremely contentious and controversial”. And it doesn’t take into account the possibility of spreading the disease to those already with underlying conditions at high-risk of severe illness.
According to the CDC, it’s still unclear whether those who recover from COVID-19 can be infected with the virus again.
“People are a little bit disgruntled and upset and stressed out and impatient with some of the public health measures. So, what I was really hoping to voice is we need a critical examination of the pandemic response in the emergency proclamations,” Shipley said of his speech on the Capitol steps.
Shipley is quick to say he doesn’t have all the answers - “I’m not the governor. I’m not the chair of the Department of Public Health,” he said.
Headlines from the controversial rally prompted 12-year Jefferson County Public Health Department Administrator Christine Estle, who said she normally doesn’t wade into politics, to share the post with the caption “No words...” on Facebook and reach out to her representative.
“I felt that it was my responsibility as a public health administrator to reach out to him. And voice my concerns and frustrations on a local level,” she said.
She said they set up a half-hour Zoom call, the focus of which she said was on her concerns that the local department wasn’t recieving enough public health guidance from state-level departments. She said she largely recieves the same guidance that’s issued publicly, adding the local department doesn’t have a “magic playbook nobody else has access to.”
“When you are in a medical crisis or a pandemic, you want to hear from medical professionals. You don’t want to hear from elected officials - that’s not their area of expertise,” she said, but added that she appreciated how quickly Shipley returned her request for a meeting.
The freshman legislator won his seat in 2018 over Phil Miller, who the winner of a special election to fill the seat in 2017. The two are running against each other again in the fall. The district covers Van Buren and Davis counties, and most of Jefferson County. Shipley has worked a variety of jobs, including for Wind and Solar - now Simpleray - in Fairfield and worked for Fairfield attorney Ed Noyes. In his spare time, he does standup comedy.
In his first term as a lawmaker, he’s sponsored about 100 bills, most of which failed to advance. One would require high school students to read and demonstrate comprehension of the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book “The Gulag Archipelago”. Another would have prevented energy companies from charging a fee for customers who opt out of utility smart meters, an issue which he, in part, credits with his 2018 election win.
His No. 1 accomplishment from the Legislature, in his view, is giving a speech on the floor proposing to legalize psilocybin, a type of psychedelic mushroom, which for Shipley would reduce laws that need to be enforced in Iowa and open up possibilities for studying health benefits.
Johns Hopkins researchers have done studies showing evidence the drug could have therepuetic effects for people recovering from drug addictions or other health ailments, such as depression. The bill was shot down in a procedural vote, 17-76. Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, voted for the bill to be debated by lawmakers but said the issue was not in his top 50 priorities.
Shipley was the one “no” vote on two House transportation equity funding bills in back-to-back legislative sessions that appropriated more funding for rural school districts that often have to bus people longer distances. Shipley said his vote was a way to start a conversation about ways to restructure the education system in a way that students didn’t have to be bused for long periods of time in the first place.
Miller, a Fairfield veterinaian and Shipley’s opponent in November, is quick to point out Shipley voted down the transportation funding, saying the decision made “all of us scratch our heads.” To Miller, the bill represents critical funding for the House district’s rural schools.
As he seeks re-election, Shipley says he wants to reform the school finance formula to support parents that want to home school or send their children to private school. Shipley said he expects interest to grow in alternative education options due to COVID-19 mitigation decisions from school boards. In 2018 in Iowa, at least $37.1 million went to private schooling from the state’s budget, including to tax-incentives for scholarship donations, private-school transportation and voluntary home schooling programs.
Some of his colleagues in the statehouse are quick to say Shipley is an unusual lawmaker.
Rep. Skyler Wheeler said he doesn’t “always see eye-to-eye” with Shipley but that the pair worked together on legislation out of the House Education Committee.
“Every legislator has different priorities in Des Moines,” Wheeler said. “Some of us share priorities while all of us have something or some things specific to our area that are individual priorities. Rep. Shipley is no exception to that.”