Iowa governor got 2nd chance; she thinks felons should, too

Full Screen
1 / 3

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

In this Nov. 7, 2019, photo Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in her formal office at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. For Reynolds, her drunken driving conviction nearly 20 years ago marked a turning point. Now, after becoming the state's first female governor, the Republican is using her experience as motivation for a stubborn campaign to restore the vote to felons that has divided her from many in her own party.(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES, Iowa – Iowa's Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, will never forget the summer night 20 years ago when a state trooper stopped her minivan on Interstate 35 and found a nearly empty bottle of Black Velvet whisky on the seat behind her.

What followed was a sometimes humiliating series of hearings and counseling sessions as Reynolds pleaded guilty to her second drunken driving offense in less than a year and committed herself to treatment. It was a personal turning point for her, and now, so long afterward, it has also become the motivation for a stubborn campaign that has divided her from many in her own party.

After her treatment for alcoholism, Reynolds went on to build a career that saw her become Iowa's first female governor. Now she's pushing her GOP-controlled Legislature to end Iowa's status as the only state that permanently bars felons from voting unless the governor personally restores their rights.

Reynolds acknowledges that her painful experience gave her a different perspective from many of her colleagues.

“I am a firm believer that you can make a mistake but that shouldn’t define you," she said in an interview. “Everybody deserves a second chance."

In nearly every other respect, Reynolds is fully in tune with her fellow Republicans in the Legislature, where she served as a state senator before becoming governor in 2017. She supports making abortion illegal, loosening Iowa's gun laws and restricting public employee union bargaining rights. She's an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump.

But the GOP here and elsewhere generally opposes efforts to expand felons' voting rights except in limited circumstances, holding with a tough-on-crime policy. The cause is considered a Democratic Party issue that would likely add more Democratic than Republican votes to the rolls.

However, to Reynolds the issue is personal. She unsuccessfully pushed her proposal last year to restore felons voting rights, and is trying again.

“It’s really important to me that I received that grace, and it’s important for me to pay that forward," she said.

After recent changes in Kentucky, Virginia and Florida, Iowa is the only state with broad constitutional language that revokes voting for all felons and requires a petition to the governor for restoration individually.

In Maine and Vermont felons can even vote while they’re in prison. Sixteen states restore the vote upon release, and another 21 automatically restore it after the sentence is served, including parole and probation. Other states attach conditions for certain crimes.

It's unclear how many people in Iowa have felony records and could vote if the governor's plan is implemented, but it's likely in the tens of thousands.

Republicans in the Legislature are backing a separate bill that would require felons to pay all their victim compensation orders before becoming eligible to vote again. A federal court rejected a similar Florida law, which opponents argued amounted to a poll tax.

Republican Sen. Dan Dawson, who opposes Reynolds' proposal, said those who commit the worst crimes including murder and rape should have to appeal individually for voting rights restoration. He said victims must be considered first.

“Folks I got news for you, the felon is not the victim in this," he said.

Rep. Steven Holt said he supports giving people a second chance but victims must first be paid restitution.

“If you don’t want to repay the victim don’t do the crime,” he said.

The Legislature has suspended its session because of the coronavirus, and it's unclear whether lawmakers will return to the issue.

Reynolds, 60, is a mother of three with 10 grandchildren. She's an energetic woman who often perches reading glasses on the end of her nose when she signs bills or reads statements.

She grew up in a conservative rural community south of Des Moines, dropped out of college, got married at age 23 and raised her children with her husband while working as a grocery checker and in the county treasurer's office. She later became treasurer herself and held the office for 14 years.

It was during this time that her drinking problem became apparent. In August 2000, she pulled onto the highway and almost plowed into another vehicle, then drove onto the grass median before returning to the road. A trooper summoned by a 911 call pulled her over. She was taken to the Clark County jail, where her blood alcohol content was measured at .228, more than double the legal driving limit at the time.

She was first charged with an aggravated misdemeanor because it was a second offense, which could have disqualified her from voting or holding public office, but she later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

Longtime friend Peggy Weitl said the arrest spurred Reynolds to face her addiction.

“She identified and accepted the consequences for her actions and her behavior and did the necessary things to move forward for the sake of her friends, her family, her constituents and everybody who supported her through those difficult times,” Weitl said.

Besides rebuilding her life, Weitl said, Reynolds gained a greater sense of empathy for others in the criminal justice system.

“That’s where she creates the second chances deal," Weitl said. “Look at where she’s come from.”

Reynolds said voting can help felons return successfully to society. Previous Democratic governors used executive orders to automatically restore prisoner voting rights after their release, but Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, Reynolds' predecessor, reversed that action when he was elected in 2010.

Reynolds has simplified the process for petitioning the governor and has restored rights to more than 543 felons since becoming governor in 2017. That compares with about 200 restored by Branstad in nearly seven years.

Some Democrats say Reynolds should issue a blanket executive order now rather than pushing for a constitutional amendment that would take several years.

But Reynolds said she wants to ensure the voting rights won't be reversed again by a future governor.

“I’m going to continue to work with them and we’re going to get this done,” she said.