Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller fended off attacks by challenger Brenna Bird as the two candidates sparred in a televised debate.
The two candidates aired their differences on abortion policy, how to handle opioid addiction and drug crimes and their views of the office in the hourlong debate broadcast Sunday on KCCI-TV.
Miller, the Democratic incumbent, is seeking his 11th term in office. Bird is a Republican and the Guthrie County attorney.
Early voting begins Oct. 19 for the Nov. 8 election.
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The candidates clashed the future of Iowa’s abortion laws in light of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade this summer, eliminating the nationwide right to an abortion.
Bird criticized Miller for declining to defend the state’s “fetal heartbeat” law, which would ban most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. The law was blocked in court, but Reynolds is seeking to revive it. In place of the attorney general’s office, the state is being represented by a conservative group.
More:Iowa asks state court to allow ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion law to go into effect
Miller called the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade “a terrible mistake.”
“I believe that women should essentially make this choice,” he said. “That they should have the freedom from government intervention to make this decision with their family, if necessary, and, of course, with a doctor.”
Because of that belief, Miller declined to defend the “fetal heartbeat” law, calling it “far, far too restrictive on women.”
“That is the case that I decided that ethically I couldn’t perform,” he said. “I couldn’t zealously pursue that argument because of the strong convictions I have about abortion.”
Bird has praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. At the time of the court’s ruling in June, she said “life is on the ballot in 2022.”
She said during the debate that she would defend the “heartbeat” law, and any others passed by the Iowa Legislature.
“I am pro-life and I will defend the laws that are passed by the Legislature,” Bird said. “The Legislature makes the laws, I would defend them.”
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The candidates were asked whether they would advise Gov. Kim Reynolds to consider pardoning people convicted of simple possession of marijuana at the state level, as President Joe Biden has done at the federal level.
Miller said Reynolds should consider doing so “maybe in a selective area.”
“I think additionally the governor should consider pardons in the area of opioids,” Miller said. “Particularly those people that went in for surgery and got a prescription for 30 days and had no idea of the risk that they were taking and get addicted in 10 or 12 days.”
Bird said the question of pardons is up to the governor, but said she’s seen the harm drugs have caused in rural Iowa.
“As a prosecutor I have prosecuted drug dealers,” she said. “I don’t think our current attorney general has ever prosecuted a criminal case, much less a drug dealing case, but that’s something that I will bring with me to the attorney general’s office.”
Moderators also asked the candidates what role the attorney general has in keeping dangerous drugs out of Iowans’ hands. Miller pointed to the lawsuits his office has pursued against opioid manufacturers, which he says will net Iowa $225 million to invest in treatment and prevention.
“We’ve sued the pharmacy companies, Purdue Pharma and the others, the opioid companies,” he said. “We’ve investigated them. We’ve negotiated with them and now we have this incredible settlement with them that we’ll get $225 million to try to rectify the problem and try and help victims.”
Bird said she’d focus on drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl which, she said, are “coming across our unsecured southern border.”
“If I were attorney general I’d call upon the Biden administration to secure our southern border and stop the flow of illegal drugs that are devastating Iowa and hurting Iowans,” she said.
The candidates stressed different experiences when describing the approach they would bring to the attorney general’s office.
Bird emphasized her credentials as a prosecutor and pointed to endorsements she received last week from 72 of Iowa’s 99 county sheriffs.
“When I’m attorney general we will back the blue,” she said. “We will work with law enforcement. What I’ve heard on the campaign trail is most law enforcement have never met the attorney general. He’s essentially retired on the job.”
Miller disputed Bird’s allegation that he’s not active enough, saying “nothing could be more ridiculous or stupid.”
“The idea that I’m retired on the job is insulting but it’s even more so ridiculous,” Miller said. “I love this job. I’m very active and have been very successful in the job.”
Miller said he’s focused on “using the law to serve ordinary Iowans” in areas like consumer protection and he places a high priority on the independence of the office.
“It is so important that the attorney general be independent, that the attorney general not be under the control or direction of any individual or any political party or any ideology,” he said. “And that’s been a center point of my career. I’ve been independent. I call them as I see them. Doesn’t matter what the political circumstances are.”
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.