Phil Thompson looks back on his time in Iraq as an 18-year-old Army private and equates it to “drinking water from a fire hose.”
Thompson, who was on the ground in Al Anbar Province with the 82nd Airborne Division just months after walking with the Jefferson-Scranton High School Class of 2009, nevertheless figured out how, in fact, to drink from a fire hose.
He survived Iraq, only to go on to complete the Army’s notoriously grueling Ranger School and to proceed from there to West Point, the fabled institution that has molded everyone from William Tecumseh Sherman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and 7-Eleven.
“I definitely have more miles on me than most 30-year-olds,” Thompson explained recently, reflecting on turning 30 this year.
Even so, the Jefferson native was far from the picture of confidence in 2019 as he made his way to the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines for his first legislative session as Greene County’s newly elected state representative.
All of a sudden, he was an 18-year-old in Ramadi all over again.
“I threw up three times on the way to the Capitol,” Thompson said.
As a Republican in a state where Republicans control the Legislature and occupy the governor’s mansion, Thompson was headed into what most observers would consider friendly territory — but that was seemingly about as much comfort as being deployed knowing the combat fatality rate has dropped from 55 percent in World War II to 12 percent today.
“Your personal life is under such scrutiny. You lose friendships no matter what,” Thompson said of politics. “It’s something you have to be ready for, and I felt like I was thrown into it.”
Two years and one re-election later, it can be said with certainty that Phil Thompson has done it again by rising to the occasion.
Thompson, who also represents most of Boone County in the Iowa House, recently wrapped up his third and most productive legislative session yet.
He holds a chairmanship (of the economic development appropriations subcommittee), carries the respect of House Speaker Pat Grassley and — maybe most impressively — counts as friends both a conservative Sioux County culture warrior (Rep. Skyler Wheeler) and a founding member of Iowa’s Legislative Black Caucus (Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo).
“There’s a clique of us. We call ourselves ‘radical moderates’ as a joke,” Thompson said.
The recent legislative session in Iowa seemed to pinball week to week, even day to day, from one hot-button issue to another.
“It was a whirlwind,” Thompson said.
While Thompson didn’t break with his party on any of the most triggering issues — including voting reform, the prohibition of so-called “divisive concepts” in school curriculum and a bill that simultaneously establishes qualified immunity for police and makes “rioting” a felony — the session concluded on a note of personal triumph.
Holding back tears
On June 9, Thompson made a three-hour trek to Monticello to watch Gov. Kim Reynolds sign a measure into law that he’s been working on for six years.
“It was unreal,” he said. “It was a pretty stoic moment in general, but I was holding back tears.”
The new law — passed as an amendment to a standing appropriations bill — significantly changes Iowa Code to enable county supervisors to declare EMS an essential service funded by property taxes, exactly like police and fire services. It would require a ballot initiative and a 60 percent majority to pass, but emergency medical services in many rural Iowa counties have, until now, been the domain of private ambulance services — or worse, no EMS at all.
Thompson was motivated to seek change by the death of his own mom, Karyl, in 2011.
“I never really got an answer why there wasn’t someone to take the call,” Thompson explained, recalling the early August morning 10 years ago when Karyl Thompson experienced heart valve failure at home two miles outside of Jefferson.
Coincidentally, Thompson had already started on his way home from Fort Bragg in North Carolina for what was to have been his first vacation since graduating from Ranger School.
“I came back and buried my mom instead,” Thompson said.
With his mom unconscious, he said his dad, Charlie, called 911, but it took an hour before anyone responded to their farmhouse.
It’s a story that, tragically, isn’t uncommon.
“I’ve heard it in all corners of the state,” said Thompson, who ended up leaving West Point following his mom’s death at age 60.
After his defeat of Democrat David Weaver in 2018, Thompson said he went to the Capitol “laser focused” to give counties the ability to declare EMS an essential service like police and fire.
Ironically, just as Thompson was beginning his crusade, supervisors in Greene County opted to replace the area’s private ambulance service with a new county ambulance department.
“If we can save one life,” Supervisor Tom Contner said at the time, “I don’t care what it costs.”
Admittedly, though, when Mr. Thompson went to Des Moines, he assumed it would be an easy sell there, too.
“I thought I’d come in and this would be an awesome thing and we’d all high-five each other,” he said, not knowing his biggest opponent would prove to be a member of his own party.
Twice his EMS measure passed through the House, having made it through four committees, only to die in the Senate.
“I was so mad at the Senate for so long,” Thompson said.
As it turned out, the family of state Sen. Jake Chapman, Republican of Adel and the president of the Iowa Senate, operates a private ambulance service.
Thompson credits Greene County’s new state senator, Sen. Jesse Green, R-Harcourt, with serving as a game-changing conduit for communication between the two chambers.
Frustrations aside, House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, called Thompson’s leadership on the EMS bill and its passage so early in his legislative career a “pretty impressive feat.”
Grassley also commended Thompson’s leadership this session on the butcher bill — a bill to establish a butchery innovation and revitalization fund and program that Reynolds signed into law on June 9 as well.
Following a slew of COVID-related issues at corporate meatpacking plants during the pandemic, the new law will help local meat lockers upgrade equipment and expand facilities. It also addresses workforce issues by exploring the feasibility of creating an artisanal butchery program at a community college or state institution.
Thompson shepherded the bill through the House, and secured the $750,000 that will be available in grants to small lockers.
“He’s loyal to his caucus,” Grassley said of Thompson’s standing among his fellow Republicans at the Capitol, “but he also represents his district very well.”
For Thompson’s part, he’s learned over the course of two terms that friends one day may or may not be friends the next day.
“Every time you vote for something or don’t vote for something, your coalition changes,” he said, adding that nothing gets done without a coalition. “You need 51 votes to pass something through the House.”
If you need further proof of the learning curve that awaits new arrivals, consider that Thompson went to Des Moines with arguably more insider knowledge than most, having previously been a clerk for two years for former state Rep. Dawn Pettengill, of Benton County.
Pettengill initially took office in 2005 as a Democrat, but became a Republican — a switch not unfamiliar to Thompson himself.
Parades with Harkin
Once upon a time, his late mother, the former Karyl Weaver, actually chaired Greene County’s Democratic Party.
“We grew up doing parades with Tom Harkin,” Thompson said of Iowa’s former longtime Democratic U.S. senator. “It seemed like a different time then.”
Today, the six Thompson kids — all of whom served in the military; five in combat — represent a mix of holdout Democrats and converted Republicans.
Phil Thompson admittedly shifted farther to the right after the passage of Obamacare, when he started thinking more about the role of government and about individual responsibility.
Most of what the Legislature does, he maintains, isn’t actually partisan, and he may be right. While the “Marxists” were busy arguing with the “Nazis” on the Des Moines Register Facebook page, you probably missed the bill this year establishing a lifetime trout fishing license for older Iowans.
But then comes a debate like the one surrounding the alleged teaching in K-12 schools of so-called critical race theory, or CRT.
Thompson said he voted for the new state law prohibiting “divisive concepts” in school curriculum, but doesn’t believe it will be “as impactful as people think.”
He said colleagues like state Rep. Skyler Wheeler — the Sioux County Republican who also co-sponsored a bill this past session to remove gender identity as a protected class under the Iowa Civil Rights Act — have been more provocative in their messaging of the new law.
“It had less to do with the material and more to do with how the material is presented,” he said.
Signed into law June 8 by Reynolds amid a nationwide conservative frenzy around CRT, House File 802 doesn’t outlaw curriculum that teaches topics of sexism, slavery, racial oppression and racial segregation. It does, however, put the kibosh on curriculum — that is, if there was any to begin with — stating the United States and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systematically racist.
“It’s OK to have the conversation, but don’t teach it as true fact,” Thompson said. “It kind of forces conversations in a way.”
“I don’t think we’re perfect,” he added, “and we never have been. Our nation has overcome a lot, and we should celebrate a lot of that.”
Thompson, who works by day as a contractor remodeling homes in the Des Moines metro, will be up for re-election in 2022.
He’s still unsure about seeking a third term, but vows to make a decision well in advance of the morning before signatures are due. Thompson recalls sitting at Greene Bean Coffee in 2018 with county GOP chair Roger Olhausen when then-Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, called at 10 a.m. with word that he wouldn’t be seeking a fifth term as the area’s representative.
In order to make the ballot, signatures were due that day.
Thompson hit the ground running.
With this past session in the rearview mirror, Thompson is able to tend to some more personal matters — like his engagement a week after session ended to Rebecca Boyer, a recent graduate of Drake Law School. The wedding is set for next June.
Thompson also plans to attend Drake himself this fall to finish up his undergraduate degree in law, politics and society.
And, they’re moving soon to Boone — which, for now, is still a part of Iowa House District 47 that includes Greene County.
That may change later this summer with the redistricting that follows the decennial census. Unlike in other states, the redrawing of congressional and legislative district boundaries in Iowa with new census data is a nonpartisan, statutory process.
If Greene County remains in a district with Boone, Thompson said he would “strongly consider” running for re-election. If not, then he would bow out, having accomplished this year what he initially set out to do: enable EMS to be deemed essential.
“There’s no way I’m going to run,” Thompson explained, “if I can’t represent Greene County.”