Leader Wahls’ 2021 Opening Day Speech

Good morning everyone, and welcome to the first day of the 2021 session.

Before I begin, I ask all Senators in the Chamber, as well as staff, lobbyists, and other members of the public, to rise as you are able and bow your heads for a moment of silence or prayer in remembrance of the one million nine hundred forty-four thousand, eight hundred and thirty eight people around the world, including three hundred and eighty three thousand, two hundred and seventy five Americans and four thousand one hundred and thirty eight Iowans who have lost their lives to COVID-19. Please rise. (Beat 30 seconds) Thank you.

I congratulate every member of this body who was elected in 2020. To our freshman members — we are glad to have you join us and we cherish your new ideas and energy. It is an honor to serve the People of Iowa in difficult times, and our constituents have placed their trust in us during a time of global crisis. We are fortunate to all have incredible staff, both partisan and nonpartisan, who have accommodated changes to how we operate, which has involved working long days and weekends. We are all grateful to you for making our work, and the people’s work, possible. Thank you.

The last time the Iowa General Assembly convened for a full legislative session during a global pandemic was 100 years ago, amid the outbreak of the 1918 Influenza. Today, we face a similar challenge: the novel coronavirus. 

Scientists know a lot more today about viruses than they did in 1918, because in the century since 1918, our government — by, of, and for the people — has invested taxpayer dollars into public health research. We funded the greatest research universities in the world. That’s why in a matter of months, we were able to develop therapeutics like Remdesivier, which was piloted and tested at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. It’s why we were able to shatter the record for developing vaccines to help us defeat COVID-19, including one that was also piloted and tested at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and new nanovaccines that are being developed at Iowa State University. This life-saving work of scientists around the world — and right here in Iowa — is an inspiring testament to what humanity can accomplish when we work together and follow the facts. And all of this was made possible because of public investment in public health. 

Without these incredible advancements, the death toll from the coronavirus would have been incalculably greater. But unfortunately, when disaster struck, we missed our opportunity to stop the spread. As a result, the virus is tearing through our state, and thousands of Iowans are dead. Some of us have lost family and loved ones. Many of us have lost friends and neighbors. All of us have lost constituents. 

One of my constituents who died from COVID was a beloved mail man from Coralville named Mel Stahmer who worked for the United States Postal Service for thirty-five years. He was a public employee and a proud union man who performed an essential service — delivering medications, ballots, and correspondence that connected people across our state and our country. As our local newspaper put it: “Mel was the kind of mail man who knew everyone on his route.” He helped make our community feel like a small town. His son Jon was a classmate of mine in high school. When he was out on his route, Mel would often notice when the people along his way needed help — and he and his family were always ready with a soup or a casserole, a helping hand, or a listening ear. Mel was the kind of neighbor who took care of his neighbors. 

And when Mel died, our community mourned. We honored him with a driving procession, including his friends in our own cars and his colleagues in mail trucks. When the procession drove by his home, a bottle of beer and a peanut butter sandwich, two of his favorite things, were on a table in the front lawn. For months afterward, signs honoring Mel’s life were displayed in the windows of the mail trucks in our community.  

We all have stories just like this one in the communities we represent. We will all carry the scars of this pandemic with us for the rest of our lives and as we get back to work for the people of this great state.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will balance our legislative responsibilities and our leadership responsibilities. As Legislators, we have the responsibility of faithfully discharging the duties of Senator and upholding the Iowa Constitution. The first sentence of the Iowa Bill of Rights, reads quote: “All men and women are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights — among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.” end-quote. As Leaders, we have the responsibility of following the best available public health guidance, and leading by example so Iowans are not forced to choose between life and liberty or safety and happiness.

That is why we must do everything in our power to speedily deliver a safe, effective, and free vaccine. With this vaccine, we will be able to safely see our extended family and friends, safely send our children back to school, and safely visit the elderly and infirm who have despaired as the coronavirus spread unchecked in Iowa. 

We must help those who are hurting by using federal monies, our budget surplus, and the economic emergency fund to help everyday Iowans. We can give frontline healthcare workers a raise, even if they can’t take a day off. We can ensure other essential workers have access to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and PPE. We can continue to support struggling small businesses on Main Street. We can help our cities and towns, which have borne the brunt of this crisis. We can give food banks the aid they so desperately need, because since last March, the number of Iowa families with children experiencing food insecurity has tripled.

Together, we must lay the rock upon which we will build back better. We must take up legislation passed with strong bipartisan support in the House to assist child care providers, who were already struggling before the pandemic began. We must make the necessary changes to ensure every Iowan has access to high speed broadband internet. We must continue the work we began last summer to address racial inequities in our society. And we must enact legislation to expand access to and build more affordable housing to help family budgets and protect Iowans from predatory landlords. The Iowa Senate has addressed each of these issues with a bipartisan approach in the past — and that must guide our work this session.

And — with courage — we can ensure our state learns the difficult and painful lessons of this pandemic. Republicans and Democrats should come together to create an independent and nonpartisan Blue Ribbon COVID Commission with full investigatory powers. The COVID Commission should help us understand state government mistakes and failures, investigate negligence or profiteering in the private sector, and prepare a report for the Legislature about what steps we must take to ensure we are better prepared when the next pandemic strikes. 

Finally, we must not ignore last week’s events in our nation’s capital. Last week’s insurrection and attack on the American democratic process was the direct result of a President who encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol. He launched his campaign for president and said that he could get away with shooting a man on Fifth Avenue in New York. He ended his time as president by instructing his supporters to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. This resulted in the deaths of at least five people, including a at least one Capitol police officer who died in the line of duty, and whose death is the reason our flags outside the Capitol are flying at half-mast today. We should all be proud the Congress was undaunted by the attack and continued the peaceful transition of power. This is truly a moment for all patriotic Americans and for every member of this General Assembly to publicly affirm our shared commitment to our democratic republic and to repudiate the lies used by this President to undermine faith in American elections.

As President-elect Joe Biden said last week, “Democracy beats deep in the heart of America.” End-quote. I know we will endure, and as said by America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln: “This government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This is an incredibly difficult time. And while it may get worse before it gets better, there is a deep understanding across this state, and across this country, that we are in this challenge together. We are counting on each other, and we are working side-by-socially-distanced-side to endure this pandemic. We have learned that “social distancing” and wearing face masks are not just actions we take for ourselves — we do these things for each other — for our friends, for our colleagues, for our neighbors, and for people we don’t even know. We are counting on each other to take these responsibilities seriously, so that we may protect the people we love. And, like the late, beloved mailman from Coralville, Mel Stahmer, we can all be the kinds of neighbors who take care of our neighbors.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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