Iowa House District 89 candidates Elinor Levin, Jacob Onken debate gun rights, child care

Democrat Elinor Levin and Republican Jacob Onken debated public school funding, gun rights and more Tuesday at a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Johnson County.

Levin and Onken are running for Iowa House District 89, previously represented by Mary Mascher, which encompasses southern Iowa City, all of University Heights and portions of East Lucas Township.

The pair were joined by Janice Weiner, who is running for Iowa Senate District 45. She was to debate against Republican Harold Weilbrenner at the forum, but Weilbrenner did not show up.

At a previous candidate forum Oct. 4, Republican legislative opponents also did not show, forcing Democrats Kevin Kinney and Eileen Beran to continue alone.

Onken, 32, is an Iowa City resident who works at Collins Aerospace.

According to the Johnson County Auditor's website, the last Republican elected to a state legislative seat primarily or entirely within Johnson County was Dale Hibbs, a former teacher at City High, who held House District 74 from 1978-80, the Press-Citizen reported in August.

Onken told the audience of about a dozen at the Iowa City Senior Center that he wants to be an “option” for voters and maintain “traditional family values” that are the “best thing for Iowa.”

Levin, who won the Democratic nomination in June, is a resident of Iowa City and has been involved with the South District Neighborhood Association, Iowa City Community Theatre and more.

The 35-year-old former educator said she is an “Iowan by choice twice over.”

Tuesday’s debate was among multiple candidate forums held by League of Women Voters of Johnson County ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

Early voting in the election starts. Oct. 19.

Proposed amendment on gun rights to Iowa's constitution has Levin and Onken in disagreement

Candidates were asked about the proposed amendment to Iowa’s constitution that adds language that goes beyond the protections contained in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

The proposed amendment states: "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny."

Levin and Onken disagreed about whether Iowans would vote no or yes on this proposal.

Levin said that gun violence isn’t limited to homicide, but self-inflicted harm as well, and expressed concern that some laws would be removed if this amendment is passed. For example, an Iowa law prohibiting people from storing or leaving a loaded firearm without properly securing it if there’s reason to believe that a minor under 14 could access it.

Onken said that the strict scrutiny standard is “sufficient,” adding that the Second Amendment is not something that should be taken away or taken for granted.

Approach to supporting child care, funding for private schools differs among candidates, though they do find moments of common ground

Throughout the evening, Onken and Levin responded to questions by clarifying they were not an expert on the subject. That included on the topic of cleaning Iowa’s waterways, and whether to combine the Department of Human Services and the Department of Health.

The topic of public school funding was raised to candidates, a subject Levin said she was able to provide personal experience about as a former English teacher.

She said, as a teacher, she was focused not on what was being allocated from the state budget, but on how to make the resources she was provided “stretch as far as possible.”

“When public schools are not adequately funded, they are not adequately staffed, which leads to safety concerns, which leads to difficulty meeting the needs of individual students, which leads to all kinds of difficulties,” Levin said.

Onken said it’s up to taxpayers to determine where they want to send their child to school, and if the school is far away, it's their responsibility to manage that.

Schools that lose students, and some of the funding for those students, will be “forced” to focus on academics and “the things that parents think are important, instead of focusing on things like equality and equity and all these things that you see plastered all over the Iowa City schools,” Onken said.

The Iowa City Community School District’s 2019-2022 Comprehensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan states that the district believes “all students can achieve at high levels and that equitable classrooms are essential to their success” and the district “is committed to overcoming barriers to learning that have been identified through educational research.”

Candidates were also asked how they’d address the child care shortage in Iowa.

The Des Moines Register reported that the number of child care facilities decreased 56% from 2011 to 2021 and that available spaces dropped by 6.5% in the same period.

According to 2021 federal data, the average annual income of a child care worker — defined as people who “attend to children at schools, businesses, private households and child care institutions”— is $22,320.

Levin said this challenge needs to be addressed through paying child care workers adequately and having benefits that incentivize them to want to remain in that career, or pursue it. It also has to be addressed, she said, by ensuring access to both child care facilities and in-home opportunities are distributed equitably throughout a community.

Onken said that child care is a privilege, not a right. He said he believes there should be options for people who cannot afford child care, though he did not state what those options could be.

“I agree we need to pay the workers sufficiently,” he said. “With that said, I typically don’t agree with government mandates on prices and that kind of thing unless it’s a government-run institution. Then the government would have the ability to set the wage.”

A recording of the candidate forum can be found online on City Channel 4's YouTube page:

Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach her at or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.

This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: Iowa House District 89 candidates debate gun rights, child care