Retirement Party: Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock

Dogged for years over his inaction on sexual harassment in the GOP Senate caucus, Dix was forced into early retirement Monday by a sex scandal of his own

Icon: Becris/Noun Project; Photo via Iowa Starting Line

The first in a series looking at state lawmakers who have said they don’t plan to run for re-election in 2018.

Several state lawmakers, in both the House and Senate, have announced that they don’t plan to seek re-election this year, but retirement came early for Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, a Shell Rock Republican, who resigned Monday afternoon just hours after the Democratic news website Iowa Starting Line exposed his extramarital affair with a Statehouse lobbyist.

It was a fitting downfall for the politician who for years had mishandled the culture of rampant sexual harassment in his GOP Senate caucus office that came to light in 2013, when he fired communications director Kirsten Anderson on the same day that she filed a civil rights complaint criticizing the Statehouse’s three-decade-old sexual harassment policy and alleging that Dix failed to foster a safe working environment. Anderson’s complaint detailed the grotesquely sexist actions of caucus staffers, including a senior analyst who “often talked openly and negatively about women, referring to them often in the most derogatory and vile terms,” and once summoned her to his desk to show her an image of a naked woman on his computer. She said similar things had been commonplace for years. Yet Dix maintained that the timing of Anderson’s firing was a coincidence, and that it was for poor work performance.

Dix’s handling of the situation ultimately cost Iowa taxpayers $1.75 million last fall to settle a lawsuit, brought by Anderson, amid funding cuts to shore up a state budget shortfall. Afterward, under pressure to step down from his leadership role, Dix resisted. He also resisted calls for an independent investigation into Anderson’s allegations, instead hiring a new HR director to handle complaints and launching an internal investigation headed in part by Charlie Smithson, the Senate secretary who earlier in the year told a gathering of women interested in running for political office that female clerks ought to show less cleavage and wear longer dresses for the sake of “some of our older male members” who were “starting to sweat a little bit.” When Smithson finished his investigation, which found that there was an ongoing culture of harassment in the caucus office where staffers were hesitant to report incidents for fear of retaliation, Dix attempted to shield the report from the public, falsely claiming it instead showed that sexual harassment was no longer an issue.

Despite the recent media attention over the sexual harassment investigation, Dix found himself earlier this month at the Waveland Tap, a Des Moines dive bar, where the married father of three was caught on camera flirting with and kissing a younger woman who was not his wife but a lobbyist for the Iowa League of Cities. The man who caught Dix, 57-year-old bar regular Tom Criswell, told the Des Moines Register that he became political after he lost his right to vote — thanks to the Iowa GOP — because of a felony drug conviction.

Not only was Dix a self-proclaimed “family values” lawmaker who once co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman in order to protect the institution against “liberal activist judges,” but the apparent extramarital relationship presented a potential abuse of power by the man who controlled what legislation came up for debate in the Senate and was frolicking with a woman whose job it is to influence those decisions.

On Monday, a few short hours after Iowa Starting Line published images and a video of Dix and the lobbyist together at the bar, Dix threw in the towel, issuing a statement that said only, “I resign my position as Iowa State Senator and Majority Leader effective at 2pm today, March 12, 2018.” Dix’s page was quickly purged from the website of the Iowa Senate Republicans. Requests for comment from the Senate’s new HR director were directed to Smithson, who declined to comment. But this did little to quiet the uproar; Dix’s resignation made national headlines, and Iowa Democrats were quick to point out that Gov. Kim Reynolds had previously “put her ‘faith’ in Bill Dix to handle sexual harassment at the Captiol [sic] – despite warning signs.”

Two days earlier, Dix, who represented Senate District 25 covering parts of Butler, Grundy, Hardin, and Story counties, spoke at the Story County Republican convention. He was joined by county Supervisor Rick Sanders, who told the Ames Tribune after Monday’s news broke, “I don’t get really, really stunned all that often. I’m stunned by this.” Nevada Mayor Brett Barker, who chairs the Story County GOP, added that he was “just shocked and extremely disappointed” at Dix’s “severe lack of judgment.” On Twitter, the county GOP had thanked Dix for speaking at the convention with a #beststate hashtag, a reference to US News and World Report’s recent report ranking Iowa as the top state in the nation.

Before his early retirement, Dix — a former state chair of the conservative bill-drafting American Legislative Exchange Council — shepherded the Senate passage of several extreme bills this year, including a billion-dollar tax cut, a proposal to ban nearly all abortions in the state, and another that would make it harder for the Iowa Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional.

Senate Republicans plan to hold a private vote Wednesday to elect a new majority leader. According to Iowa law, Reynolds must schedule a special election “at the earliest practical time, giving at least eighteen days’ notice of the special election,” to fill Dix’s vacant seat until the November general election. Before his resignation, Dix was facing a Democratic challenger, “millennial dynamo” Tracy Freese, who is the race’s only official candidate and plans to run in the special election, too. Republicans have until Friday to submit paperwork to field a candidate for the general election for Dix’s seat.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.