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Soft heart, strong faith

Phillips pushes amendment rights, economy in bid for state house

CORALVILLE– Royce Phillips didn’t always want to be a pastor.
Growing up in Forth Worth, Texas, he possessed a knack for math and science and had every intention of being a physicist at NASA.
“If I wasn’t going to be a physicist, I was going to teach math at the University of Texas system somewhere,” he said. “That was just the assumption.”
He didn’t plan on becoming a mayor or running for state office either, but Phillips, 63, has been the pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Coralville since 1983, was mayor of Tiffin from 2007-2011 and is now running for Iowa House District 77 against Democrat Amy Nielsen, the mayor of North Liberty.
“I think that’s one thing that I do bring to the race. I got more years of life experiences to deal with– 30 of them here in Johnson County,” said Phillips. “I’ve seen a lot.”
Phillips beat out opponent Paula Dreeszen by 121 votes in the June 7 primary election and hopes to take the place of state legislator Sally Stutsman (D), who announced her retirement earlier this year. Nielsen overcame Abbie Weipert in the Democratic primary, receiving 63 percent of the votes.
“If you would’ve asked me 30 years ago if I was a leader, I would’ve said there’s no way. I was the class nerd. I was the kid that people came to for their science answers,” he said.
Phillips has both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology and has taken graduate classes at the University of Iowa on the history of Christianity in America.
“To say that I’m an old-fashioned, Southern revival style preacher, no I’m not. I think God made me for a town that has an academic background and I’m very comfortable in that world,” he said.
Although he said he identifies more with Republicans than Democrats, Phillips said he’s not partisan on all the issues.
“To some degree, I’m not sure the Republicans support me,” he said. “As far as being part of the party elite, I’ve never been. I’m not Republican because it’s part of a club. I’m many more things than a Republican. If I was to list my characteristics, Republican would come in like 10th and there are days I wouldn’t even list it. Because that’s really not who I am. It’s way more than that.”
A strong conservative, Phillips supports pro-life legislation, freedom of religion and gun rights, although he doesn’t own a gun.
“People want to defend themselves,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter who they want to defend themselves against. I think our constitution gives us that right.”
He said he views gun-related deaths as more of a cultural issue than a legislative one, although he said a felon guilty of a violent crime should not be allowed to possess a weapon.
“I keep hearing gun control people saying common sense gun control. And I’m thinking common sense to who?” he said. “I think there are some nefarious intentions with some of our gun control to make sure there’s no guns out there at all, and that bothers me.”
He said he’s also bothered by the seemingly one-sided interpretation of freedom of religion and thinks the government has gone from “equality to coercion,” especially concerning gay rights.
“If somebody wants to behave a certain way, the constitution guarantees him or her the freedom to do as they please,” he said. “But it still gives me the freedom to believe as I believe. Where I get upset is where you try to make me believe what you believe. I demand the right to believe what I believe. It’s called freedom of conscience.”
While Phillips said he supports individual rights for all, he feels it’s unnecessary to list every minority demographic affected by hate crimes. In the last legislative session, a bill to add transgender people to the list of those protected against hate crimes in Iowa code passed the Democrat-controlled Senate but died in the Republican-controlled House.
“It just seems to me that murder is murder. Rape is rape. Hatred is hatred. Abuse is abuse,” he said. “Just don’t abuse anybody. Don’t disrespect anybody.”
That’s one thing Phillips said he brings to the table– a soft heart.
“It bothers me when somebody hurts,” he said. “As far back as I remember, I’ve always wanted to help the hurting. And I do have an affinity for the underdog, the underprivileged, the left out. I think I can make a difference.”
Phillips said the key issue he’d champion at the state capitol, however, is beefing up the economy.
“There are so many things we’ve got underfunded, but there are only so many ways to cut that pie,” he said. “I think the bigger issue is deciding how we’re going to make the pie bigger.”
He said legislators shouldn’t have to pick and choose which items to fund.
“At what point do you raise education and compensate with water quality and grandma’s healthcare?” he asked. “You’re going to make somebody mad no matter what you do.”
A bill passed by Iowa lawmakers earlier this year approved a 2.25 percent increase in state aid for school districts, a compromise between the 4 percent Senate Democrats wanted and the 2 percent House Republicans offered.
Phillips said he sees public education funding as more of an issue of growth versus non-growth.
“You’ve got 333 school districts and roughly 10 are growing,” he explained. “To me that’s a far bigger idea than arguing whether it’s going to be 3 or 4 percent. How do you equitably deal with that?”
He said the formula for how state aid is distributed should be recalculated.
“We’re trying to operate under a 1960s mentality,” he added. “That ship has sailed.”
As far as water quality funding goes, although several initiatives were discussed during the legislative session, none were approved, including Governor Branstad’s proposal to take money from education funding.
“I’m a conservationist, but I think it’s bigger than that,” said Phillips. “I think it’s just common sense to utilize your resources better, not to mention it will save money in the long run.”
Term limits are also something he’d fight for in Des Moines, Phillips said. He proposed a limit of 12 years for any office in Iowa, although he said politicians could run for a different office but must sit out at least one term in his or her original office.
“Whoever’s ahead doesn’t want to talk about it. Right now, that would be the Republicans in a lot of Iowa places,” he added.
As of Oct. 21, about 20,500 voters were registered across District 77, with 7,783 (38 percent) identifying as Democrats. Republicans accounted for 5,355 voters (26 percent) and 7,268 (35 percent) identified as no party.
Phillips said he’s aware of the Democrat advantage in Johnson County but hopes that voters unaffiliated with a party will swing his way.
“I knew I’d be running against the Democratic Party even more than I’d be running against Nielsen, but I think this is more than parties,” he said.
According to turnout reports by the Johnson County Auditor, 3,721 District 77 ballots were returned in early voting as of Oct. 27. The majority 1,969 were from registered Democrats, 853 from Republicans, 877 no party, and 22 from either the Green or Libertarian parties.
In Johnson County, 21,423 ballots– roughly 24 percent of the total 90,000 registered voters– had been returned. (About 29,000 had been requested.) In the 2012 presidential election, nearly 58 percent of votes in Johnson County were cast early and the county saw a total 83 percent turnout.
“There are a lot of people out there who will vote for nothing but Democrat,” said Phillips. “There is that to overcome, but it’s not as cut and dried as it may appear at first glance.”