Republicans in the Iowa House have chosen Clear Lake Representative Linda Upmeyer to be the next Speaker of the House, and the first woman to hold the position. Upmeyer will take over from current speaker, Hiwawatha Republican Kraig Paulsen.
The top Democrat in the House was quick to criticize the new leadership. And Upmeyer’s Republican opponent for the top spot says his party needs some fresh ideas.
Upmeyer, who’s 63 years old, comes from a politically active family. Her late father, Del Stromer, was Speaker of the House back in 1981 and 1982. That was very much on her mind as she emerged from the private meeting with her fellow Republicans.
“It’s an exciting day for me on many levels,” Upmeyer says as she chokes back tears. “My dad was an amazing man. And so it's really something to live up to.”
Upmeyer says she didn’t experience a glass ceiling as she sought a leadership position, first as majority leader, and now speaker. And she hopes her high profile post will encourage other women to seek public office.
In a secret vote, Upmeyer won out over her male opponent, Osage Republican Josh Byrnes. Byrnes got a taste of leadership when he shepherded the gas tax increase through the Iowa House.
He had hoped to take over and run a tighter ship at the statehouse.
“This is my fifth year and we've never finished on time,” Byrnes says. “Especially when you start thinking about things with our school districts.”
Byrnes is referring to the fact that year after year, the legislature has failed to approve school funding in the first 30 days of the session as required by law.
Byrnes says the unpopularity of the gas tax increase for some House Republicans was a big strike against him as he sought the top post.
Christopher Rants of Sioux City, now a lobbyist, was Speaker of the Iowa House from 2003 to 2006. Rants says Linda Upmeyer has earned the approval of her colleagues over the years.
“Linda has worked very hard,” Rants says. “When she was in the rank and file, she carried a lot of bills, a lot of water for people.”
Rants was in the legislature when the late Mary Lundby, a Cedar Rapids Republican, helped engineer a Republican majority in the House but never made it to speaker.
“Because she worked so hard in the campaigns and was a fighter for the Republican caucus when they were in the minority, a lot of people thought she should be the speaker,” Rants says. “Whatever you want to read into that.”
Rants stopped short of saying the legislature wasn’t ready for a female speaker back then. He adds it was only a matter of time before a woman made it to the top.
The female speaker will serve with an all-male leadership team, including the new majority leader Chris Hagenow of Windsor Heights and new majority whip Joel Fry of Osceola. Representative Linda Miller of Bettendorf says that’s because Republican women were happy to keep chairing important committees instead.
“Each woman is in a chair position right now that they weren’t willing to give up,” Miller says.
But she adds she is concerned about female representation in her caucus, which lags behind that of House Democrats.
Upmeyer was asked how her leadership style will differ from the current house speaker Kraig Paulsen.
“As all of you know I use more words than Speaker Paulsen,” Upmeyer says, to laughter from reporters. “I will try and curb that temptation as we move forward.”
Upmeyer says the Republican agenda has not changed. It includes promoting a friendly business climate and controlling state spending. That appears to be a recipe for conflict with minority Democrats. In a statement, minority leader Mark Smith points to the role the new leaders played in education funding last year.
“Iowa kids deserve better,” Smith says.