Iowa GOP’s Bungling of Sexual Harassment Scandals Highlights Importance of #MeToo Movement

IN RECENT MONTHS, two high-profile scandals have put the Iowa GOP’s inability to adequately address sexual harassment complaints into stark relief against the backdrop of the powerful #MeToo movement to finally hold longtime perpetrators accountable for their misdeeds.

The first was the case of Bill Dix, a Shell Rock Republican who as Senate majority leader oversaw a toothless investigation of the GOP Senate caucus following a taxpayer-funded $1.75 million settlement last October for Kirsten Anderson, a former communications director who was fired after exposing a “boys’ club” culture of widespread harassment in the caucus office. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, including the unanimous decision of a Polk County jury, Dix continued to maintain that Anderson had been fired not for whistleblowing but poor work performance. As the senator’s critics called on him to step down from his leadership position over the scandal, Gov. Kim Reynolds came to his defense, dismissing their demands as “ridiculous,” nothing more than an attempt to turn the unfortunate situation into a “political issue.”

Dix also resisted calls for an independent investigation into Anderson’s allegations, opting instead for GOP insiders. Audio leaked to Bleeding Heartland revealed that one of them, Iowa Senate Secretary Charlie Smithson, had spoken at an event earlier in the year hosted by 50-50 in 2020, an organization devoted to electing more women to public office, at which he described how he had advised lawmakers to urge their young female clerks to wear less-revealing clothing because “some of our older male members are starting to sweat a little bit.”

Although Smithson’s remarks raised eyebrows, his retrograde views on gender relations had no immediately apparent influence on his findings, including an ongoing culture of harassment in the caucus office, where several staffers said they would be unwilling to report inappropriate conduct for fear of retaliation. Initially, GOP leaders refused to publicly release his report. In an interview with right-wing radio host Simon Conway, Dix falsely claimed, “with complete and utter openness and confidence,” that there was “nothing that has come to me as a result of that investigation or any other conversations with our employees that indicates this is an ongoing problem within the staff.” In the face of mounting pressure, Smithson’s report was eventually released over a holiday weekend.

“Many of the Senate Republican staff members said that there is an environment on the Senate Floor with senators making sexually suggestive comments or about sexual preferences,” Smithson found, including during a discussion over “proposed legislation on dense breast tissue” at an unspecified date. But in the end, the Senate secretary remained loyal to his party and its desire to dodge accountability. “We conclude these findings and observations with a note that the task was a very delicate matter that involved colleagues and subordinates,” he reported. “While this may have had a chilling effect on some responses, it does not appear that bringing in yet another entity to conduct further investigation would be productive.”

Then the other shoe dropped: A video handed to Iowa Starting Line showed Dix, a self-proclaimed family values politician and married father of three, flirting with a Statehouse lobbyist in a Des Moines dive bar.

Speaking to the Ames Tribune after Dix resigned in disgrace over the video, Story County Supervisor Rick Sanders and GOP Chairman Brett Barker expressed their ostensible surprise about the affair. “I don’t get really, really stunned all that often,” Sanders said. “I’m stunned by this.” Added Barker, “I’m just shocked and extremely disappointed.” However, the affair was less of a shocker at the Capitol, where it had been a relatively open secret for months — and, arguably, behavior that was entirely consistent with Dix’s effort to shield the Senate GOP sexual harassment findings from the public.

The second scandal involves former Story County Treasurer Dave Jamison, whom Reynolds fired from his position as director of the Iowa Finance Authority in late March over sexual harassment allegations.

At first, Reynolds refused to release any details about the allegations, claiming she wanted to protect the victims’ privacy — although it was just as likely she was trying to protect Jamison, a political ally whom she had become very close to during her tenure as Clarke County treasurer, from further embarrassment. The following month, the governor responded to a request for more information from the Associated Press by saying no responsive documents existed. She quickly backtracked, dubiously blaming the apparent violation of the state’s open records law on an office oversight and releasing a letter that had been sent to her directly from one of Jamison’s victims.

In the letter, the victim explained in graphic detail the sexual harassment she and other IFA staffers had allegedly experienced since Jamison was appointed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad to head the agency in 2011. Jamison, the victim told Reynolds, would tell her about “how his wife would never have sex with him” and “how he frequents Asian massage parlors for the ‘happy endings,’” where the women “tell him how large his penis is.” He “constantly talks about how big my chest is and tries to look down my shirt” and once tried “to get me to pull my shirt open and show him my breasts” so he could see if they were real. Once, while traveling, he “was staring at my breasts so much I thought the car was going to go off the road.” During a business trip, a drunk Jamison tried to get the victim to go back to his hotel room with him. He would regularly tell “sexist and racist jokes,” turn “everything anyone says into a sexual innuendo,” make sexual gestures, and ask the victim personal questions like, “Tell me about the biggest cock you’ve ever had?”

“I know you’re friends with Dave and I hate to put this on your shoulders, but I just can’t take it anymore,” the victim pleaded to Reynolds. “I think [the Department of Administrative Services] will just cover for him and I’ll end up without a job. Please help me or tell me who to go to.”

The letter prompted Reynolds to fire Jamison, saying her action sent a “strong message” about her zero tolerance for sexual harassment. But soon after her botched disclosure of the letter, the governor stumbled again, telling reporters that she would not order an independent review of sexual harassment at the IFA because Jamison had been solely responsible and was now gone. Later that same day, she reversed course, announcing that, with the help of the Democrat-held attorney general’s office, she had selected Mark Weinhardt, a well-known Des Moines attorney, to lead an independent probe. Two days later, the Des Moines Register reported that high-ranking employees at the IFA had warned Jamison to stop making inappropriate comments to women staffers months before he was fired.

The Iowa GOP is eager to portray itself as a champion of women, highlighting that the state’s first female governor and senator are both Republicans. That governor just signed the nation’s strictest abortion ban into law in an effort to overturn Roe v. Wade, which would set women’s rights back decades. And that senator, Joni Ernst, a veteran who casts herself as a champion against sexual assault in the military, perhaps best summed up the Iowa GOP’s cluelessness on sexual harassment and assault when, speaking to Cityview’s Douglas Burns, she criticized the #MeToo movement because “I do have concerns now that a pat on the shoulder might be taken the wrong way.” She added: “It’s possible that you could be accused of something. You know, I’m a big hugger, and I love to hug people, and that’s just who I am, and I have given pause to that now, even. I don’t like that. But I don’t want to be accused of hugging somebody who didn’t want a hug. So, it’s unfortunate in some aspects.”

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.