Part of a series looking at state lawmakers who have said they don’t plan to run for re-election in 2018.
Two years before Steve King made national news for unapologetically retweeting British neo-Nazi Mark Collett — twice — a conservative state senator from the congressman’s 4th District in northwest Iowa captured headlines of his own when he became the first elected official to disown the GOP because of Donald Trump’s bigotry. Now, that same man has endorsed King’s rival, Democrat J.D. Scholten, for Congress.
“A Congressman Scholten will stand up to President Trump and a Congressman Scholten will not race-bait, which is a current trend of our president and our current congressman,” he told the Sioux City Journal Thursday. “Steve King needs to set his Confederate flag in his back pocket and go back to Kiron.”
In 2016, he had similarly strong words for Trump. “If Mr. Trump is the nominee, he becomes the standard bearer for a party that’s on the verge of breaking apart,” he said, a month before the now-president officially clinched his party’s nomination. “He simply cannot unify the GOP. If there is a profound split, I’ll gladly re-join Republicans who are dedicated to equality and justice for all, and let Mr. Trump lead his supporters over the cliff.”
Johnson elaborated in an interview with the Guardian, specifically condemning Trump’s recent attack on Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge of Mexican heritage whom the presidential candidate accused of bias after he signed off on the release of documents in a lawsuit against Trump University. The state senator also spoke out against Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country. Invoking Nazi Germany, he explained that his father was among the first US soldiers to help liberate a death camp during World War II and compared Trump’s shocking rise to that of Adolf Hitler.
“I was raised without hearing any racial slur, any racial epithet,” Johnson told the Guardian. “It’s something that if we’re going to exclude Muslims from traveling to the United States, who’s next? Are we going to come down on Jews?”
He added that Trump was on the verge of clinching his party’s nomination “by reducing his campaign to reality TV and large crowds and divisive language and all the trappings of a good show for those who like that kind of approach, and that’s what happened in the 1930s in Germany.”
“Certainly,” he concluded, “the fascists took control of Germany under the same types of strategies.”
Johnson’s decision to become an independent — the first in the state Senate since 1926 — didn’t sit well with many Iowa Republicans. They included Terry Branstad, whom the senator had already been sparring with over the then-governor’s positions on privatized Medicaid, recreation funding, and budget cuts; and then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, who punished Johnson by depriving him of committee assignments and killing legislation he sponsored.
The decision also drew the attention of Steve King, who, two and a half months later on Twitter, applauded a 28-year-old congressional aide named Zach Whiting, who had just decided to leave King’s Washington DC office to return to his hometown of Spirit Lake and challenge Johnson when he was next up for election in 2018. “Congratulations to Zach Whiting, the next Senator for the most Republican district in the state of Iowa!” King tweeted. (He had reason to be excited: Johnson supported King’s 2016 primary opponent, Rick Bertrand, a Sioux City state senator who also retired this year, and told Bertrand’s hometown paper that would do so again, saying, “There is too much blind loyalty to Steve King.”)
Last December, Johnson announced his intention to run for a fourth term in the Iowa Senate as an independent, calling the two-party system “badly broken.” But on May 31, the 67-year-old lawmaker changed his mind, announcing his retirement instead in a statement thanking “all those who have supported my efforts to shine a spotlight on how polarized and partisan the political process has become” and vowing to “find a place to be an advocate for education, the environment, access to health care and fiscal responsibility” as a private citizen.
Despite leaving the GOP, where he was a longtime Senate assistant minority leader, Johnson told the Des Moines Register on the day of his retirement announcement that he still identified as a “Bob Ray Republican,” referring to the widely respected former governor, a moderate champion of Southeast Asian refugees, who died July 8.
Indeed, Johnson’s legislative record includes a mix of staunch conservatism and more progressive stances. A social conservative, he unsuccessfully pushed for the passage of a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage after the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 Varnum v. Brien ruling. This year, he voted in favor of what’s now considered to be the strictest abortion ban in the entire country. But he has also supported stronger environmental regulations for concentrated animal feeding operations when his former Republican colleagues have not. Since departing the GOP, he has at times allied himself with Democrats, who gave him a spot on the Senate Natural Resources Committee when Dix refused. He voted against the Republicans’ new $2.1 billion tax cut law, warning of a “huge train wreck” for the state. And, as Branstad prepared to leave Iowa to become Trump’s ambassador to China in 2017, Johnson further provoked the former governor by questioning the legality of the transfer of power to Kim Reynolds.
With Johnson gone, Whiting, the former King congressional aide, is all but guaranteed to succeed him in conservative Senate District 1 — where Democrats don’t even have a candidate on the ballot — after coasting through a three-way primary with 62 percent of the vote.
Whiting, assuredly, is not cut from the Bob Ray Republican mold. Taking a page from the hyperpartisan, Trumpian book of his former boss, among the key issues on his campaign website is the “rule of law,” which Whiting claims “is under assault by the Left.” He adds, as though it has some obvious relevance to state government: “The Hillary Clinton email scandal is just one prominent example of the political class giving special treatment to protect one of its own from rigorous investigation and potential criminal liability.”