Retirement Party: State Rep. Ralph Watts, R-Adel

The impolite Adel Republican accused last year of using a gay slur against a political opponent announced his retirement in a Facebook post griping about how social media has allowed advocacy groups to "project a much larger influence than they really deserve"

Icon: Becris/Noun Project, Screenshot: Jefferson1 IndivisibleIowa/YouTube

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

A 73-year-old, eight-term incumbent from Adel, Ralph Watts has a reputation for being an unlikeable guy, even among his fellow Republicans, who neglected to give him any committee leadership spots in the House. Recently, Watts has perhaps been best known as the lawmaker who allegedly used a gay slur against a political rival at a public forum in February 2017.

Video footage from the event at the Adel library, recorded by Kale Smith, the husband of Watts’ 2016 Democratic rival Bryce Smith, who didn’t attend, quickly spread on social media. The video showed Watts asking Kale on three occasions, “Where is red rider?” — referring to Bryce, a red-haired man in his mid-20s. The LGBT-rights group One Iowa accused Watts of using “a derogatory term for a gay man,” although if he did, it was apparently uncommon. A New York journalist who is gay expressed doubt that it was a slur on Twitter, and the news site LGBTQ Nation seemed uncertain, too, sourcing “red rider” as a slur to an Urban Dictionary definition referring to a “top in a gay relationship” who “does not wear protection (condoms) and is into rough sex.”

Whatever the case, Watts denied the allegations, telling the Des Moines Register that he was referring to a Red Ryder BB gun. “It’s used to teach kids how to use a weapon and shows them responsibility and shows they’re capable of using something more powerful,” he explained. “With some of the things that have happened, the constant sniping and constant obscure criticism shows me that he hasn’t progressed past the Red Ryder stage.”

The lawmaker then proceeded to shoot himself in the foot, answering a question about the controversy at an event hosted by the Urbandale Chamber of Commerce by saying, “Anything you say to a gay anymore is a gay slur.” One Iowa Executive Director Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel slammed him for the dismissive response, adding: “Further, his use of the phrase ‘a gay’ is homophobic and dehumanizing. We ask him to apologize for his actions.”

When he hasn’t been preoccupied with fending off questions about his alleged gay-bashing, Watts has advised constituents to break federal law by transporting medical marijuana across state lines and complained about the corrupting influence of liberalism in Iowa.

He continued the latter tradition on Feb. 2 in a Facebook post announcing his retirement, which included a list of “several conclusions” he had reached about state government. He criticized its “systemic and automatic” growth and inability to keep current with new technologies, writing, “Government should never provide a service that can otherwise be handled by the private sector on their own.” And he went after the Iowa Department of Education, accusing it of shortchanging K-12 students despite the amount of money in the state budget allocated for public schools. “Far too many of our young people are graduating with marginal skills and without a fundamental appreciation for our system of government,” he wrote. “A large percentage of our young people say they prefer Socialism as a form of government. It is an indication that liberalism has infected the education process to an intolerable degree.”

Watts finished off the list by griping about social media — a sign that he may still hold a grudge over the gay slur allegations. “There is always a group that seeks to solve their perceived issues by getting to the pubic [sic] purse through legislation,” he wrote. “The expansion of social media over the last few years has allowed many of them to project a much larger influence than they really deserve.”

With Watts departing House District 19, the lower chamber’s majority leader, Chris Hagenow, has become a carpetbagger for the sake of self-preservation, leaving his swing district in suburban Polk County for Watts’, where active Republican voters outnumber active Democrats by about 4,500 (PDF).

On Facebook, Bryce Smith called Hagenow’s maneuver “a sad day for Iowa politics and democracy,” asking, “Who does he really care about and want to represent???” But Smith won’t be the one challenging the Republican leader this year. Instead, it’s Gregg Gustafson, a resident of Waukee.

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.