The Story County GOP’s Deafening Silence on Steve King

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Justin Skarin

IN OCTOBER 2016, the Story County Republican Party hosted its seventh annual Wendy Jensen Memorial Chili Supper, named in honor of a local volunteer who died in 2011. The fundraiser’s theme that year, “Show Some Respect: Bringing Civility to Political Discourse,” was indicative of the tone the local party has tried to strike. A featured panel discussion on civil discourse included Supervisor Rick Sanders, who often touted his productive working relationship with his late Democratic colleague on the county board, Paul Toot, and now works closely with County Attorney Jessica Reynolds, also a Democrat. Another member of the panel, Brett Barker, the current mayor of Nevada and county GOP chairman who at the time was a City Council member, comes across as a levelheaded leader with a genuine interest in constructive public dialogue.

But the theme was also strikingly incongruent with one of the “special guests” billed for the event: Congressman Steve King, who in the previous month alone had attacked NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests against racial injustice as “activism that’s sympathetic to ISIS,” because his actions were supposedly influenced by his Muslim girlfriend; and, before a presidential debate, tweeted, “Tonight’s biggest post-debate question: Inquiring American minds will want to know, was Hillary on her meds or off her meds?”

Reached for comment about the contradiction between the fundraiser’s theme and King’s presence, the Story County GOP did not reply. But months later on Twitter, Barker finally did, using a convenient and predictable cop-out that avoided addressing the congressman’s divisive and bigoted rhetoric: King was asked to come because he represents the county in Washington.

Since then, the Story County GOP has continued to invite King to local party functions as its leaders, including Barker and Sanders, time and again ignore his bigotry. They were silent when King, in March 2017, tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” even after former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke praised his words, encouraging fellow white supremacists to move to the 4th Congressional District, where “sanity reigns supreme.” (“Attempts were made to contact King and the Story County Republican Party for comment,” the Ames Tribune reported then, but requests for comment “went unanswered.”) They said nothing last November when King retweeted a quote from Viktor Orbán, the autocratic prime minister of Hungary who said, “A nation which expects its biological survival from immigrants won’t survive,” that was shared by a Twitter account for a website founded by a white supremacist who has sympathized with the views of Adolf Hitler. Nor did they condemn King the following month when he shared another anti-immigrant quote of Orbán’s, adding, “Diversity is not our strength,” which for years has been a common refrain among white nationalists and supremacists, including Duke and current KKK leader Thomas Robb. More recently, it was crickets when King’s campaign re-election page on Facebook shared memes mocking high school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez for her Cuban heritage and, on April 20 — Hitler’s birthday — featuring an image of a Nazi soldier (the latter post was eventually taken down, the King campaign claiming it to be an unfortunate oversight, although its dog-whistle intent seemed clear).

It’s not that the leaders of the Story County GOP necessarily share King’s views. Last December, responding to remarks made by two Forest City radio announcers who were caught on air mocking the “Español people” on the Eagle Grove High School boys’ basketball team, Barker called their comments “one of the most disgusting things I have seen in a while.” Yet is it really any wonder when this town’s representative in Congress has compared immigrants to livestock and dogs, and accused them of being drug smugglers with “calves the size of cantaloupes”?

Despite his disgust over the anti-immigrant sentiment in Forest City, Barker’s Story County GOP in March featured King as a speaker at another fundraiser with the apparently unironic theme “Celebrating What Connects Us.” Far from distancing itself from King’s views, the local party embraced them. “Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” its Twitter account posted alongside a photo of King at the event. “In that order. Thanks for affirming it.” Celebrating the strong turnout, Sanders thanked King for attending. The party also heaped praise on Gov. Kim Reynolds, who kept the congressman on her re-election campaign as a co-chairman after his anti-diversity comments, downplaying the controversy by saying she “completely disagreed with” them but also dismissing them as no more than part of “the Twitter war.”

In neglecting to speak out against this extremist within their ranks, Story County Republicans have lent their tacit, and at times explicit, support to King, whose noxious racial views can no longer be described as anything other than white supremacist, and whose vile rhetoric encourages discrimination against minority communities throughout the 4th District. The local party is attempting to claim a moral high ground and spirit of bipartisanship while treating King like their racist uncle at Thanksgiving dinner: turning a blind eye to him when it’s convenient but still welcoming him as part of the family instead of risking a scene when it comes time to raise money.

The Story County GOP’s silence on Steve King is cowardly, and it is deafening.

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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.