Zoom meeting hacked by racist trolls fails to deter Black Iowa legislators' push for public input as Iowa legislature reconvenes

The People’s Condition of the State held a series of meetings around the state to empower Iowans to participate in Iowa’s 2022 legislative session, which opens today, Monday, Jan. 10.

Trolls recently disrupted the virtual People’s Condition of the State in Des Moines held via Zoom. Trolls hacked the video conferencing platform and spread racial slurs and racist images. (Read about the Zoombombing incident here.) Here's what Black legislators, organizers and others at the meeting had wanted to share with the public.

Black legislators and top Democrats discussed the importance of public input and interacting with legislators during the People’s Condition of the State, held on Friday via Zoom in Des Moines. The 2022 Iowa legislative session begins Monday, Jan. 10.

“I would love to see more people engage in the process,” said State Rep. Ras Smith (D-Waterloo). “People have to grasp the power back from the system that exists.”

Al Womble, chair of the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus and state political director of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said the Iowa Legislature website contains information to help Iowans get involved, including being able to research bills by number or keyword and find out more about what's happening during committee and subcommittee meetings.

“Democracy is a participatory sport,” Womble said. “You can't really sit on the sidelines and hope that things will change or hope that things that are important to you will take place.”

The virtual meeting held on Jan. 7 in Des Moines was interrupted several times by racist trolls, but legislators and organizers continued with the meeting.

Several groups including the Black Caucus, Progress Iowa and others held the People’s Condition of the State meetings in several locations around the state. The final meeting will be held on Jan. 10 in Cedar Rapids.

Smith, in his 3rd session and 6th year in the legislature, recently suspended his campaign for governor. He said the people must demand change because nobody is coming to the rescue. He said the public must become involved in legislative subcommittee meetings, committee meetings and hold general conversations with lawmakers.

“I will tell you I had no idea what (a) subcommittee was before I was elected to the Iowa House. I had no idea of the access that the average individual . . . have to legislators, to the process, to government staff to ask questions,” he said.

Al Womble, chair of the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus, and State Reps. Phyllis Thede, Ross Wilburn and Ras Smith. Photos special to Black Iowa News. Iowa Capitol photo by Black Iowa News.

The public can show up, listen and ask questions about the origins of legislation and discuss the impact of proposed legislation on their local communities, which is something that hasn’t always happened the last few years among Democrats, he said.

“Our folks haven’t been the ones that are showing up, and so it has been difficult for us at times to have some of these debates over critical issues going on,” he said.

Smith said it’s important to build diverse coalitions around similar issues. He said last year a piece of legislation didn’t make it out of committee about midwife licensure. He said people from around the state from different legislative districts must come together to work on issues.

“So now what you’re doing is engaging multiple legislators because they’re having to speak to constituents from across the state and not just one specific demographic,” he said. “That’s extremely important because the more you listen, the more important the issue is.”

He said issues should have broad support regionally but also demographically and socioeconomically. He anticipates more discussion during this session about the overpolicing of minority communities, especially when it comes to probation infractions and the overpopulation occurring in Iowa’s jails and prison systems, he said.

“So we need to reform our system because we can’t just offer more and more dollars so we have more prison guards,” he said. “That’s not a sustainable way for us to just pay our way out of this.”

READ: Zoombombers hack meeting with Black legislators, flash image of monkey, the N-word, days before Iowa legislature reconvenes

The explosion of omicron cases likely will affect the ability of some Iowans to visit the Capitol. Smith said it’s their responsibility as legislators to take precautions to make it a safe space. He said since the coronavirus pandemic began, showing up at the Capitol has been a “calculated risk,” but he hopes COVID-19 mitigation measures will be put into place to ensure public safety.

Sen. Pam Jochum (D-Dubuque) said the public can weigh in via Zoom on pieces of legislation moving through the process at the subcommittee level in the Senate.

“Because at least then, you’re having your voice heard in the early stages of legislation,” she said.

Tuesday, Jan. 11

Governor’s Condition of the State Address

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds listens during an Iowa Disaster Recovery Briefing with US President Donald Trump, on August 18, 2020 at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Iowa Democratic Party Chair and State Representative Ross Wilburn said he anticipates the legislature will discuss issues that are of concern to all Iowans. He criticized Gov. Kim Reynolds' handling of several key issues.

“She has called Iowans lazy and pulled the rug out from under families during the pandemic when they needed help the most,” Wilburn said.

Iowa has historically been known for having a “fantastic public school system,” and Wilburn said Democrats believe money should go to public schools. Now some lawmakers want to strip students of their first amendment rights, ban books that teach history “honestly” and censor educators who strive to nurture and empower our next generation, he said.

“It’s that teaching of history and all of our history that helps inform us and the next generation,” Wilburn said. “It’s tragic events of the past that we do not want to happen that must not happen in the future.”

Democrats this session will work to lower costs and increase wages for families and expand access to quality and affordable childcare, among other priorities Wilburn said — “if you vote and put Democrats in charge.”

He encouraged the public to contact legislators by email, regular mail and leave voice mails. Wilburn cautioned the public not to assume senators and representatives are “very familiar” with every bill that comes up.

“We're all on committees and there are hundreds of bills that come up every year,” he said. “If you're not serving on the committee, you may not have the most up-to-date knowledge and information about the bill.”

Womble, chair of the Black caucus, said: “Sometimes we take for granted that public officials know everything, but we also understand that when it comes to some issues that are most important to us, we are the best advocates because we do (the) research.”

Iowa Capitol. Photo by Black Iowa News

State Rep. Phyllis Thede (D-Bettendorf) said there are several opportunities for the public to interact with legislators like the small group she created that includes women in Davenport who are involved in politics. The group writes letters, operates phone trees and studies proposed legislation.

“I’m very proud of them,” she said. “I started it because I wanted to get more women involved.”

Sometimes issues move quickly through legislative processes, so the public must move quickly as well, Thede said.

Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa, said it’s crucial for people to participate in the legislative process and democracy. He said Reynolds and the Republican-led legislature won’t fully fund public schools, provide access to health care that people need, solve the workforce crisis or assist working families.

“That's what's going on all over our state,” he said.

Iowa Legislative Session Timetable

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