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Meet the young lawmakers crossing party lines for a green future

The two Iowa legislators make an unlikely pair. One’s a Democrat and the other is a Republian. One’s a Unitarian Universalist, the other is a Christian. One’s the son of two lesbian mothers and grew up in Iowa City, which has more than 76,000 residents. The other hails from a more traditional household, and he’s spent his life in Wayland, a small town with fewer than 1,000 people. One speaks at a rapid-fire pace, his voice full of energy and passion, the other has a calm demeanor and speaks in a measured, matter-of-fact way.

But Zach Wahls and Joe Mitchell do have some things in common. They grew up less than an hour from each other in southeast Iowa, for starters. They’re also young: Wahls is 28 and Mitchell is just shy of 23. They both ran for office in 2018 and won, part of a national upswell of young, first-time candidates who were elected during a midterm election that drew unprecedented numbers of people to the polls. Leaders from Iowa’s Democratic and Republican parties hailed their victories as a sign of changing times.

And even though these two legislators sit on different sides of the political aisle, they’ve still managed to find common ground, particularly when it comes to solutions for the climate crisis.

Mitchell, a state representative, and Wahls, a state senator, are part of a growing number of young legislators who are rising above the polarization that has soured politics nationwide and stalled action on climate change. At both the state and national level, legislators are forging friendships across the political divide and engaging in dialogue to better understand each others’ viewpoints.

They say their constituents are exhausted by the political circus and hungry for progress. Many Iowans agree on the need for things like economic opportunity, good schools, affordable health care, and renewable energy — and they’re looking for lawmakers who are willing to do the job they were elected to do: make laws that help Iowans thrive.

Wahls and Mitchell meet for beers, share meals, and travel the state together to talk with constituents. Their vision is to work across party lines to improve the lives of all Iowans. That’s what got them into politics to begin with, they say, and as bright-eyed young legislators, they aren’t going to let partisan strongholding or divisiveness stop them from achieving this goal.

“Relationships are everything in life and in politics,” said Mitchell, who represents a rural swath of southern Iowa’s farm country, one of the reddest districts in the state. “I understand that Zach and I are going to disagree on some issues, but for the most part we can find common ground in almost every area.”

“Just because I have a great relationship with Joe doesn’t mean I’ll vote the same way as him,” said Wahls, whose district is more urban and suburban. “But being able to start building those relationships now and creating a space for that dialogue is really important so that the politics are workable.”

Zack Wahls, Steven Olikara, and Joe Mitchell at the MAP Future Summit in Nashville, Tennessee. Milennial Action Project

If Zach Wahls’ name sounds familiar, there’s probably a good reason. Wahls rose to Internet fame in 2011 when he delivered a speech to the Iowa Legislature about growing up with lesbian parents. Millions saw it online and Ellen DeGeneres invited him to be on her show. Shortly after, he dropped out of college at the University of Iowa to promote his book, My Two Moms, and cofounded Scouts for Equality to advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Boy Scouts. (Zach is an Eagle Scout, the organization’s highest rank.)

“I lobbied the Boy Scouts to reverse their ban on gay members, and we were successful in that,” he said. “That wound up being a big part of my life, and I realized that politics would be an avenue I could pursue.”

Joe Mitchell got started young, too. He served on mission trips, and supported his parents’ small manufacturing business. In college, he worked at the Capitol for four legislative sessions. He was still a student at Drake University when he won his seat, and was the youngest lawmaker to take office in Iowa that year. Living in rural Iowa, he has a unique lens on an often underheard yet critical part of America that he hopes to revitalize.

“What propelled me into politics was the idea that government can be very helpful and very hurtful at times to the American worker and getting in the way of the ‘American Dream,’” Mitchell said.

The two first met at an orientation offered by the state for all incoming senators and representatives. Mitchell was the youngest representative to take office and Wahls was the youngest senator.

“We bonded over being the youngest,” Wahls said. “It’s funny, he was finishing college through his primary, and I was finishing grad school during my primary.”

As fate would have it, they ended up serving on the education budget sub-committee together, one of the few joint committees between the Senate and the House.

“We were both freshmen coming in and that was really helpful for both of us,” Wahls said. “So many legislators are there for a couple years and feel like they’ve been betrayed by the other side. For me, I said, you know what, we’re coming in at the same time, we both like and trust each other, this seems like a good place to start.”

Their friendship grew, and in the summer of 2019, they decided to take a road trip together to a conference in Nashville. They drove south, stopping for gas, pausing for bathroom breaks, chatting about policy and politics, sharing stories from their pasts, and listening to the audiobook of Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Iowan author Art Cullen.

Their destination was the Future Summit, hosted by the nonprofit group Millennial Action Project (MAP). The organization was founded by the charismatic Steven Olikara, a high-energy, ambitious millennial who grew up in Wisconsin — a state with its own colorful history of division.

The idea behind Millennial Action Project is to encourage Republicans and Democrats to form “future caucuses,” at both the state and national levels. Mitchell and Wahls are co-chairs of the Iowa Future Caucus, along with Representative Lindsay James (a Democrat) and Senator Zach Nunn (a Republican).

“The Iowa Future Caucus represents the widest array of districts you can imagine,” Olikara said, adding that “they have chosen to prioritize renewable energy as a top issue in their agenda.”

There are now more than 700 legislators like Mitchell and Wahls who are engaged in MAP’s initiatives across 29 states. The organization also supported the creation of the Congressional Future Caucus which works at the federal level and engages more than 40 U.S. Representatives with nearly equal representation from both parties.

“If you can develop these young leaders at the beginning of their legislative careers, we might be able to shift the paradigm and bridge the old divides that have held our society back,” Olikara said.

Iowa Future Caucus

Shortly after their journey to Nashville together, Wahls and Mitchell went on another road trip — this time around Iowa — to tour wind and solar farms and biodiesel plants, and meet the Iowans who work at the state’s renewable energy operations. The statewide tour was covered in local papers and news channels, reinforcing a message of unity among Republicans and Democrats in support of renewable energy in Iowa.

“Senator Wahls and Representative Mitchell are two of our youngest legislators, and I’m glad they’re working on issues that are important for Iowans,” said state Senator Rob Hogg, a Democratic legislator (and member of the 2016 Grist 50) who’s been a vocal supporter of climate action.

At 53 years old, Hogg is not eligible to be a part of the Future Caucus, but he supports the work that’s happening across party lines.

“I think it reflects the broad support for clean renewable energies … regardless of party affiliation,” Hogg said. “It is extraordinary what we’re seeing from young people in Iowa and across the country on climate change and other issues.”

Last year, Mitchell and Wahls worked together to oppose a bill that proposed a “sunshine tax,” allowing utilities to force consumers to pay additional fees for using solar power.

“It was primarily Republicans that were pushing these fees, Democrats were generally against them,” Hogg said. “Representative Mitchell and other younger Republican legislators joined with Democrats to say they don’t want to do that.”

The battle gave birth to another unlikely alliance, as the Sierra Club joined forces with Iowa pork producers who use solar panels on their animal feeding operations. Many of these operations are in the middle of nowhere; they’re required to be a fair distance away from population centers due to air-quality concerns.

“Getting electricity to them is expensive, which is why distributed solar is a perfect solution for them,” Wahls said.

The bill stalled, and never came up for a vote in the House. Utilities and solar groups are now working on a compromise solution to present to legislators this year.

“We want to be proactive and have a system in place where we’re generating power from alternative sources,” Mitchell said. “It’s better for our environment as a whole as we start slowly getting away from fossil fuels.”

One of the next bills Wahls said he’s eager to work on with Mitchell focuses on regenerative agriculture, a method of farming that enriches and sustains soil while reversing the impacts of climate change. They’re also exploring legislation that would attract and retain young people in Iowa’s rural areas through a tax credit — an idea that came about during their drive to Nashville.

Iowa Future Caucus

This work isn’t without risks or pushback, though. Both Wahls and Mitchell have experienced backlash from people in their own parties, and skepticism from groups that have grown accustomed to political divisiveness. To illustrate this, Mitchell described a recent visit with the Sierra Club.

“They’re not generally a group that’s friendly towards Republicans, and Republicans don’t generally meet with them,” Mitchell said. “But I met with them, and talked about the water-quality issues that the state is working on and how Republicans support initiatives such as cover crops.”

The Sierra Club representatives were surprised, Mitchell said, because they didn’t realize Iowa Republicans support environmental initiatives.

People need to realize that there’s a spectrum within group identities like “Democrat” or “Republican” — they are not monolithic, Mitchell and Wahls said.

There’s also an issue of semantics.

“The moment you say the word ‘climate change’, it can shut down and trigger,” Mitchell said.

But that doesn’t mean that people oppose policies and projects that combat climate change. Iowa, known for its exports of soybeans, pork, and corn, is a rising star in the nation for its production of renewable energy. The state generates more of its energy from wind power (40.1 percent) than any other state in the country.

Both Wahls and Mitchell agree that renewable energy is great for the environment, the economy, and the livelihoods of hardworking rural Iowans who lease their land for new wind and solar installations. The wind operators they met earned $90,000 a year on average, they said.

“We’ve created thousands of jobs in the solar and wind sectors, and in our agriculture economy here in Iowa,” Wahls said. “We know the state is better for it.”

In national politics especially, it’s clear that the divisiveness continues to ripple out through impeachment hearings, stonewalling, hate-filled tweets, and an “us vs. them” narrative.

Still, it’s this changing sense of politics among millennials and Gen Z that gives Wahls and Mitchell hope for the future — a counter-narrative to the type of political story we’re so used to hearing, full of animosity and partisanship.

“It gives me hope because the stakes could not be higher than they are right now,” Wahls said. “It seems like this evolution may be happening at just the right time … People are reaching across the divide and, despite having different opinions, are able to work together to achieve a common goal.”

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