Over the past week or so, Iowa’s new Human Rights Director, Isaiah McGee, has come under attack. Jill Olsen, the Chairwoman of the Iowa Human Rights Board and the Commission on the Status of Women, is criticizing McGee because McGee wants his office to speak with one united voice.
Olsen insists that McGee’s decree is essentially a “gag order” that stifles commission members from speaking with lawmakers. The Des Moines Register and every other major newspaper in the state have been willing accomplices in perpetuating Olsen’s myth. Now, following countless stories about McGee’s alleged “gag order,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal has told reporters that McGee’s nomination is in doubt.
McGee isn’t muzzling his staff like the media reports have suggested. Instead he is trying to get his department to communicate with a cohesive voice. To accomplish that goal, he has stated that he wants his staff to avoid advocacy and remain neutral on policy issues.
McGee’s approach is not new within the Human Rights Department. Last year, Preston Daniels, the department’s former director in the Culver Administration, reorganized the department to save money and to encourage the group’s nine divisions to work together. McGee is basically carrying on the work that was started under Daniels.
It is also important to note that McGee didn’t issue a blanket declaration stating that his staff couldn’t speak to legislators. He has occasionally reminded his staff to avoid advocacy. There is a big difference between the two. McGee’s biggest move was taking over the lobbying function of the department, a decision that, according to Acting Iowa Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider, is well within his jurisdiction as director.
What appears to be the main issue here is that Olsen and a few other commission members refuse to work with McGee. It’s not only that they take issue with his decision on how to run his department, but they are also undermining him by calling press conferences and staging rallies. That’s not their job, and it actually bolsters McGee’s position that the Human Rights Department needs to become more cohesive.
Another issues has gone unreported by the traditional news media is that this all of the tension between McGee and Olsen and a few staffers began when his department registered against a series of pro-life bills. Olsen believes that the Commission on the Status of Women should advocate for abortion rights, while McGee disagrees.
In other words, Olson wants to use this state commission, its staff, and the tax dollars that support it, to push the agenda of Planned Parenthood and advocate for abortion in Iowa. The state website for the Commission on the Status of Women even links to Planned Parenthood when you click on the “health and fitness” section. Keep in mind that all of this is happening during the first legislative session in almost a decade and a half that there is a possibility that pro-life legislation, including a ban on late term abortions, could actually be enacted. Once you understand that this is the crux of their disagreement, it helps bring things in to focus.
It’s also more than a little ironic that Planned Parenthood has been in the news lately as the target of sting operations showing that they do nothing to stop or report the human sex trafficking of women whose “pimp” shows up at the abortion clinic seeking abortions for under aged prostitutes. Yet, in Iowa, we have the Chairwoman of the Commission on the Status of Women essentially acting as a state-supported lobbyist for Planned Parenthood and directing women seeking information on “health and fitness” to Planned Parenthood’s website.
In reading all of the news articles about the drama in this department, it seems like Olsen thinks that she’s the director of the department. These departments have to know that they are going to experience changes when a new administration takes over. That’s especially true when a governor of a different party takes office for the first time in twelve years.
Maybe instead of giving Olsen and McGee’s detractors unlimited amounts of ink to air their grievances, the Des Moines Register should invite McGee in to sit down and talk about his vision for the department. That is an invitation that other Branstad department heads have received. In light of the recent developments, it would seem appropriate to give McGee an opportunity to tell his side of the story.
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