'This Is A Defining Moment': Zach Wahls, Who Gave A Viral Speech To Iowa's Legislature, Now Aims To Join It

"This is a defining moment for the future of Iowa."

In 2011, Zach Wahls had the most viral political moment of the year.

The 19-year-old delivered a powerful speech to the Iowa House of Representatives about being raised by a lesbian couple and explained why the state should protect same-sex marriage. His speech would be viewed millions of times, and helped catapult him to a new goal in 2018: being elected to Iowa's state senate.

"When I gave that speech I was actually studying engineering at the Unversity of Iowa and I was hoping to potentially work in the renewable energy industry," Wahls told A Plus. "That speech was definitely a life-altering moment for me, and did help me see that there were going to be many other ways that I could make a contribution or make a difference beyond engineering."

Zach Wahls campaign

Shortly after his viral fame, Wahls decided to take a leave of absence from college and try his hand at advocacy work and public speaking. He spent about 18 months out of school, and in that time helped co-found Scouts for Equality, a group of Boy Scout and Eagle Scout alumni that led the campaign to end a ban on gay leaders in the Scouts. The group was founded in the summer of 2012, and, by spring of 2013, the ban on gay youth in the Scouts ended. By summer of 2015, the Boy Scouts of America's National Executive Committee voted overwhelmingly to end the leadership ban.

Wahls, who is an Eagle Scout himself, got the taste of advocacy work and thrill of seeing it succeed. Over the next few years, he also watched as Iowa's political landscape changed in a way that he felt was detrimental to the long-term health of the state. Republican legislators in Iowa cut funding for higher education, hiked up tuition on Wahls' alma mater, and "gutted collective bargaining rights," according to Wahls. 

This culminated in November of 2016 with a landslide victory for President Donald Trump in Iowa, where he won by 10 points — a 16 point swing from Obama's six-point victory just four years before. All of this motivated Wahls' decision to run for state Senate. He'll be finishing up a master's degree in public policy at Princeton during his campaign.

"If we're not able to step up and win in very convincing fashion in the fall of this year — I mean, this is a defining moment for the future of Iowa," Wahls said. "And I really feel that it's all hands on deck, so I'm trying to step up and do my part."

The incumbent, Bob Dvorsky, isn't running for re-election. In his campaign for the Iowa Senate, Wahls is focusing on three big issues: education, health care and workers' rights. He says these are the things Iowa's future growth depends on, but also knows there is something a bit more abstract at play. 

"Without a vision, the people perish. What we really need is a vision for the people of Iowa that includes all Iowans," Wahls said. "As someone who grew up as the child of a same-sex couple, I know what it feels like to not be a part of that vision. It sucks, it is isolating, it is scary, and you get angry. You get scared."

Wahls said the fact people didn't see themselves in the vision of Iowa's future was part of the reason President Trump was so successful. But he's a critic of much of the policy being pushed as a result of the 2016 election.

"You can't build a tower and tell us that all the wealth in the penthouse is going to trickle down if you don't have a strong foundation," Wahls said. "That's really what my work in the Iowa state senate is going to be about." 

As for the issue that brought him into the spotlight — marriage equality— there seems to still be work that has to get done. Although, according to polls,  Iowans' opinions on marriage equality have fluctuated over the years, Wahls said what he hears from the people he meets is a bit different.

"That mentality of 'live and let live' and as long as you're not getting into other people's business, they won't get into yours, is what I'm hearing," Wahls said. "What makes a community is our commitment to each other, and we have to renew that commitment if we want to rebuild that foundation."

Cover photo: Zach Wahls campaign

Correction: A previous version of this story noted that Wahls' viral speech was a call to protect civil unions. He was speaking about protecting same-sex marriage. 

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