Q&A with Adam Zabner


Zabner signing the oath of office. Photo courtesy of Adam Zabner.

Tai Caputo, Opinion Co-Editor

Adam Zabner graduated from City High School in 2017 and is a current Representative of House District 90, which includes Iowa City. He is a member of the Appropriations Committee, the Environmental Protection Committee, the National Resources Committee, and the State Government and Transportation Committee. 


In your statement about when you ran for office, you mentioned that you were a child of immigrants. Can you talk about your parents and your family’s immigrant experience? How did growing up as a child of immigrants influenced your decision to become a legislator?

My parents came to Iowa from Venezuela. My dad was born there, my mom moved there from Israel when she was six. They came to Iowa planning to only stay for three years for my dad’s training here at the University of Iowa. They’d never lived in a cold place; they were used to big cities; they had never lived in a small town. They fell in love with Iowa City: how welcoming it is, the strength of our community, our access to the arts, and the world-class community. They decided to stay when I was born here. It really shapes how I think about a lot of issues, both in terms of making Iowa more welcoming and of course larger issues with our admissions system.


What kinds of issues are you more aware of because of this?

My mom talks about some times when they were getting their green card and changing status, the immigration office she was assigned to was Omaha, Nebraska. So they would get an appointment the day before and have to drive four hours out to Omaha in the dead of winter. And I was a baby and at that time they couldn’t breastfeed in federal buildings. So they would be there waiting for hours and having to go to the car in minus-whatever weather. So there are some real difficulties in our system. And I think here in Iowa, we have a legacy of being a very welcoming state, the legacy of Governor Bob Ray and his efforts to accept refugees from Southeast Asia. But I think that’s been called into question by some of the rhetoric of our Governor–of our leadership–around immigrants, and I think we need to understand, as a state, that immigrants make our state stronger, and we need to be welcoming.

I think we need to understand, as a state, that immigrants make our state stronger, and we need to be welcoming.

— Adam Zabner


Describe yourself as a student at City High.

I loved City. It’s a really wonderful school. I was on the debate team, which was really fun. My partner Joe Whiteman lives in New York, we were pretty competitive and we’d travel all over the country for different tournaments. I was in the orchestra, which I really loved. I think I had a great experience there. 


Did you become interested in legislation at City High? If not, when did you get interested?

I was definitely always interested in politics in high school. I did policy debate, and we would talk about a lot of the topics, and we had the opportunity to volunteer for a couple campaigns when I was in high school, but I definitely did not think this was what I would be doing. I actually went to college for neuroscience. My plan was to do research or get a PhD, something like that, and I [also] volunteered on a couple campaigns. I had the opportunity to come back home for a summer and intern for Pete Butigeg’s campaign for President [in 2020]. He had come out to my college and given a speech, and I had been really really impressed by him, and I just fell in love with the work of organizing, meeting activists in the community, being surrounded by folks who want to see change in the world, and want to see our country really be strong and operate in a way that makes people feel welcomed. And so I ended up staying on full-time and taking some time off school to work on that campaign, and then work on another races, so that’s sort of how I got involved. 


You serve on the Environmental Protection and National Resources Committees. How did you become interested in the environment? Did you have exposure to it at City?

Even when I was at City–it’s definitely grown since, and I’ve been impressed by the student actions–there was a lot of conversations and activism among the student body around environmental issues, for sure, and those were some of the issues I’m interested in working on in the legislature. It’s sort of difficult; it’s something that the majority party often does not take seriously. And if you sit through some of those Environmental Protection Committee meetings, there’s a lot of denialism about what is happening, both in terms of water quality in our state, and in terms of the broader international issues with climate change. But I think one of the things that’s really cool about representing Iowa City is that, at the University, we have experts in these fields, and so I’ve really had the opportunity to learn a lot from those folks. And then on those communities even being in the minority, I’ve had opportunities to bring in some experts. We’ve had opportunities to hear from the University of Iowa that come from this district presenting about some of these issues, which has been a really cool thing planning to help organize those help of conversations going forward, too.


What did you learn from running other people’s campaigns?

I think the coolest thing I learned working on campaigns–well, two things really: number one just how powerful a group of passionate people coming together can be. And you know when I started to work for Pete Butigeg, literally no one knew who he was, I would stand at the farmers market holding my sign, and people would ask me if I was Pete. Getting to see the group of activist volunteers and him really being launched into a successful Iowa caucus night was a powerful experience in how quickly things can change when you have a good group working really hard. I think the second thing I learned [while] talking to voters, listening to people, it’s just really special especially here in Iowa, when you’re knocking doors, talking to voters, folks are really willing to share with you some deeply personal things about the way they think about politics, the way they think about the world and which issues are important to them. And that to me is just really wonderful and I learned so much through conversations with voters not just here in Iowa City, but in some of my work all over the state and [in] some more rural areas. That really still impacts how I think about Iowa and Iowans.


Can you explain what your job is like? Was it what you expected to serve in the General Assembly as a representative?

It’s very exciting, getting to work at the Capitol every day, especially the first week, there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, and it’s hard to believe you’re actually there, it’s been really wonderful getting to meet colleagues. We have a very large freshman class, 39 out of 100 of us, and there’s a couple that I’ve become very close with that I think are wonderful, and I’ve learned a lot from folks already on both sides of the aisle. I also think there’s been a lot of disappointment in the last five weeks. . . . Public education, for me, is one of the most important issues, and so to see these attacks on public education, to see the passage of the vouchers bill on partisan vote, to see some of these attacks on our most vulnerable students in terms of the don’t-say-gay, don’t-say-trans type of legislation that’s moving to our body is really, really disappointing. 


What does your day-to-day job look like?

I think one thing that surprises people sometimes is that we don’t have offices, we sit on the floor of the House, in chairs. . . I usually arrive between 7:30 and 8:00 in the morning and have opportunity to meet with different groups to talk to, legislators, about whatever issue there is to talk about, and it really changes day to day, but I serve on several committees, and so there are committee meetings, for the bills we have to sign. . . . 


This is a tough time to be a Democrat in the Iowa House of Representatives. Do you do work across the aisle with Republicans or is it very polarized? 

I think that if you want to get something done as a Democrat in Des Moines, your only option is to work with Republicans. And there are some issues that I’m working on that if and when you do, there are Republicans who are willing to work with you–some of the opioid legislation I’m working on, some of the stuff I’ve been working on with natural resources is fairly bipartisan, Representative Jacobe from Coralville passed a bill out of our committee last week to protect black bears that passed 90 to 5 in the House. So there are those issues where you can work together, but it is really really difficult watching the Governor [Reynolds] ram through this agenda which even a lot of Republicans don’t agree with, whether it’s vouchers, whether it’s underfunding our schools. And the thing that really makes me sad about it, is that things like the voucher law, they’re really not informed by a large group of Iowans that wanted this. There are out-of-state groups and national political situations that make these things priorities for the Governor and she has the ability to really put a lot of pressure on members of her own party to deliver her agenda for her. But it’s really not clear to me that the legislation we’re passing and focusing on has been asked for by Iowans, and it’s really clear to me that it doesn’t have the best interests of Iowans at heart.

It’s really clear to me that [this legislation] doesn’t have the best interests of Iowans at heart. 

— Adam Zabner


So you think that Governor Reynolds is thinking more on a national level than on a state level?

Definitely. I think that’s why all this out-of-state money came in to support her primary campaigns last June around this vouchers issue. The day after vouchers passed, you had all these national figures fly into her bill siding who really wanted this. And you know it’s really the brainchild of people like Betsy DeVos, who was Trump’s education secretary, that have really pushed people to do this, and this is why you see similar legislation or copycat legislation across multiple states, like Utah. 


Why do you think the voucher bill harms students, especially “more vulnerable students?”

The voucher bill will cost around 350 million dollars a year. And this is an appropriation for families to send their kids to private school. My problem with this is that they’ve called it school choice, but it’s really not, because the schools get to choose which students they want. So City High takes every kid. But private schools can say no to kids who aren’t the right religion, who have disabilities, who are English Language Learners, who have behavioral issues, who don’t have the means, whatever. And so I think it’s really not a fair competition and for me. . . 134 schools in Iowa have closed in the last decade. Every year we have a school funding debate. . . . And every year administrators, students, parents, tell us that their schools need more support, whether it’s for extracurricular activities like the arts, whether it’s mental health care in school, whether it’s making sure that kids with disabilities have the support they need, and for years, what Republicans who have been in control have said is, ‘We’re really sorry, we wanna provide this, but we just don’t have the resources to do it and we have to be fiscally responsible.’ [But] I don’t know how you can make that argument in good conscience when you just gave 350 million dollars away to private schools. 


If you could accomplish anything as a member of the House of Representatives, what would it be?

One thing that’s really really important to me is access to healthcare and dental care. And one thing we’ve seen with the privatization of Medicaid in our state, with low reimbursement rates, is families not being able to find providers that are willing to accept Medicaid to dental, people driving two hours to the University of Iowa for their kids [to be able] to go to a dentist, and I just don’t think that’s fair, so I would really like to see that fixed.


How likely do you think this is to happen?

I think there are definitely some Republicans interested in this issue, but unfortunately the leadership in their party, and some key members have stood in the way of this type of thing.


What are your goals and ambitions for the state of Iowa?

The reason I ran is. . . I see so many of the kids leaving Iowa. And as a statewide trend, we’re the slowest-growing state in the Union, and I think we see so many of our young, talented people wanting to leave this state. And so I really need to find a way to make our state welcoming, to make our state attractive for young talent, and to make our best young people feel like they can and should and want to stay here in our state.

I think the Legislature is out of touch. . . It’s a massive problem. We see that in this really hurtful legislation that makes our state unattractive to folks from [the] outside, makes us look bad, and frankly, has been really disastrous over the last couple years.

— Adam Zabner



What kinds of things do you think would increase the attractiveness of this state?

I talked a lot in my campaign about the affordability of college and incentives for young Iowans to stay here after graduation so my proposal was a tuition grant that would make community colleges and public universities free for students that commit to staying in Iowa after graduation. I also think we need to stop these culture wars and attacks on the fundamental rights of young Iowans, whether it’s their reproductive healthcare, whether it’s their right to love who they love, those things are toxic to our ability to keep young people wanting to come to this state and to attract business and jobs to this state. 


Do you think that the legislature is going in a different direction than students and young people in the state of Iowa?

I think the Legislature is out of touch. I think it’s a massive problem. We see that in this really hurtful legislation that makes our state unattractive to folks from [the] outside, makes us look bad, and frankly, has been really disastrous over the last couple years.

I think the leadership from the Republican party has moved really far to the right. . . the Governor, and House and Senate leadership. And I think it’s important, because whether it’s vouchers, whether it’s their radical approach to reproductive healthcare, or their tax on LGBTQ Iowans, these things are not popular with everyday Iowans, and on these types of issues I hear from Republican, Independent, Democratic voters that they don’t want to see this, and think this is wrong for our state, but we have this extreme Republican leadership that comes from the farthest right rank of their party, and is unwilling to be reasonable or listen to the voters when it comes to what Iowans actually want to see in our state. You know, things like codifying the right to an abortion, or abortion access, things like legalizing marijuana are overwhelmingly popular things to people in our state. 


What do you think are the most important skills involved in your job?

I think the most important skill is listening. Both being able to listen and try to find points of agreement with my colleagues, and really listening to my constituents back home. I think the thing that makes me feel that we’re not going to be in the minority forever, is [the fact that] I think that our party is listening to Iowans, and I think in their large majority and in some hubris, the Republican majority has stopped listening to Iowans, and I think that’ll get them in trouble.


If you had one piece of advice for students at City to help them achieve their personal goals, what would it be?

If you’re successful at City High, you can pretty much succeed anywhere.

— Adam Zabner

I would say, I think the fact that you, if you’re successful at City High, you can pretty much succeed anywhere, because you’re among a very elite group of kids, who are really bright. And so sometimes, people feel like we live in a smaller town, and maybe we can’t compete with people from all over the country–but City High is a really special place.


Is there anything else you would like me to include in the Q&A?

Any time any City High kid wants to come up and see the Capitol, I’m more than happy to give them a tour and they can reach out to me on my email. I’m open to having students come shadow for the day or anything like that, and I’m just so grateful to City High because it gave me a lot of the skills I use every day in the Legislature, and I think I wouldn’t be in this role without the things I learned there.