From the May-June 2018 print edition of the Informer.

PART I: THE CONGRESSMAN’S FORMATIVE YEARS

There’s an anecdote Steve King likes to tell the press on occasion, a coming-of-age story of sorts, about his first exposure to an illegal alien. It was the mid-1950s in Goodell, a lily-white town of about 250 people in northern Hancock County where King’s father, a state police dispatcher of Irish and German descent named Emmett, had recently been appointed mayor, succeeding J. J. Cook, who had resigned due to poor health. One night, after coming home from city hall, Emmett told the family how authorities had apprehended an undocumented Mexican immigrant, a rare — if not unheard of — sight in the rural community, on a local charge. “They just picked him up, processed him, and sent him on the shuttle run back to his home country,” King told the Daily Beast decades later, marvelling at the simplicity of the situation. “It never occurred to them to say, ‘Oh, well, I’m sorry, I’m just a little-town cop and a little-town mayor.”

King himself wouldn’t become a politician until 1996, when he launched a successful bid for the state Senate, coasting to a general election victory after knocking off first-term Sen. Wayne Bennett in the Republican primary with the help of Christian conservatives turned off by the incumbent’s moderate position on abortion. But it was something else about the campaign that stuck with King. In early October, a month out from Election Day, then-Gov. Terry Branstad hosted a fundraiser for him at Yellow Smoke Park a mile east of Denison off Highway 30. “I was running through my topics and I said, ‘And I believe English should be the official language of the state of Iowa.’ And it just brought the house down,” King later recalled in an interview with Talking Points Memo, describing the moment he took up the cause of the English-only movement. “There was this huge applause. I knew how strongly I believed in it. But I didn’t know how strongly they believed in it.”

In the Statehouse, King set to work cultivating his controversial reputation through actions like filing a lawsuit that prevented Tom Vilsack, the Democratic governor who succeeded Branstad, from implementing anti-discrimination protections for LGBT employees in the executive branch. But his focus remained on immigration-related issues. He introduced his so-called God and Country legislation, which, had it passed, would have stripped multicultural education requirements from school curriculum. And he pushed for an English-only bill until, in 2002 after a years-long effort, he got his wish, earning Vilsack’s reluctant signature that March despite allegations about its discriminatory intent. Two months later, King overpowered House Speaker Brett Siegrist in the state’s first nominating convention in nearly four decades to win his party’s backing for the 5th Congressional District, propelling him to his current position as one of the nation’s most notorious immigration hardliners, a man who now routinely espouses views in line with those of white nationalists.

A clipping from the Sunday, April 13, 2003, edition of the Des Moines Register quoting King with a photo of the congressman on the day he learned that he'd won the GOP's 5th District nominating convention in 2002.
A clipping from the Sunday, April 13, 2003, edition of the Des Moines Register quoting King with a photo of the congressman on the day he learned that he’d won the GOP’s 5th District nominating convention in 2002.

Those views were shaped by his upbringing, first in Goodell, then around northwestern Iowa as his father was transferred between police radio bases on new assignments. King traces his interest in English-only laws back to the eighth grade, when he studied the American lexicographer and nationalist Noah Webster, who “looked at all the enclaves in the colonies of people who had come from different cultures,” as he told longtime Iowa columnist Chuck Offenburger days before he was first elected to Congress. “There wasn’t as much travel then, and he saw differences developing in language and spelling from one community to another,” King explained. “He wrote the American English dictionary with the sole purpose of bringing the American people together. He saw a common language as the most powerful unifying force known to man, and that’s been my belief today.”

By the mid-1960s, King was attending high school in Denison, an expanding town with a population nearing 6,000 but scant diversity, near where he would make his pitch for an English-only law 30 years later en route to the state Senate. Just two African Americans, the Johnson brothers, attended the school. It wasn’t until after he graduated and moved to a farm outside his current home of Kiron that the first wave of Southeast Asian and Latino immigrants — refugees and job-seekers drawn to meatpacking plants in Storm Lake — hit northwestern Iowa.

As he became increasingly exposed to other cultures, King was initially receptive. “Just look at it in terms of food alone, if you want to,” he told Offenburger. “I was raised pretty much on plain meat and potatoes. The variety of all the different kinds of food that other cultures have brought here is great.” Those differences, he went on, “add to the richness of our life,” and “we should study them and celebrate them.” But before long, he came to see multiculturalism as a political tool of the left used to divide the country. “I like diversity of cultures and peoples, but we also need to recognize there is a greater American culture that unites us,” he said. “It’s fine to celebrate the individual cultures we come from, but it can’t hinder the greater American culture.”

“There is no emotion in chess. If you start getting upset, you lose control.”

King’s views were further influenced by the writings of Thomas Sowell, an African American academic known for parroting conservatives cliches about how social welfare harms black people and “all lives matter.” In 1996, Sowell published Migration and Cultures: A World View, which King told Offenburger he’d read “forward and backward at least three times.” The book criticized multiculturalism and affirmative action, arguing that they “add to the cost of absorbing immigrants, not least by increasing the resentment of them by the native population,” and labeled immigration advocates “ideological zealots.” Anti-immigrant sentiment, Sowell argued, was driven by “lax immigration laws, welfare state benefits, and schemes to keep foreigners foreign,” rather than allowing them to assimilate into American society.

Growing up in Goodell, Steve King enjoyed playing chess — the only board game in the house — with his father and younger brother, Jon. “It teaches you to be logical and not emotional,” Jon told the Sioux City Journal in 2012, “because there is no emotion in chess. If you start getting upset, you lose control.

“A lot of the decisions that Steve makes that are so unpopular at first are because he removed emotion from it and got right down to the brass tacks to begin with,” he went on. “We have so many people in Washington that are making decisions based on emotion, the way it makes them feel. That is a mistake.

“A lot of times, the things he says, they may not be as sugar-coated as some people would like them to be.”

Douglas Burns, a fourth-generation Iowa journalist who co-owns the Carroll Daily Times Herald newspaper in King’s district, described King’s rhetorical flourishes much differently in July 2016, less than four months before King crushed Democrat Kim Weaver by 22 points to secure his eighth term in Congress. “I think Congressman Steve King could simply start short-cutting his rambling narratives on race relations,” he wrote, “and just incorporate — casually and regularly — the N-word (the ugly term used to describe black people) into interviews and speeches without jeopardizing his US House seat in western and central Iowa.”


Featured image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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.