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Hart chosen as Iowa Democrats’ new leader
A former state lawmaker and candidate for lieutenant governor and Congress, Hart will attempt to lead the party’s effort to bounce back from several consecutive poor showings in recent election cycles
DES MOINES --- Rita Hart, a former candidate for Congress and lieutenant governor, and one of the last Democrats to represent a rural district in the Legislature, was elected Saturday by her fellow Iowa Democrats to lead the party as it attempts to rebound from a string of poor election performances in the state.
Elected to a two-year term during a virtual meeting of the Iowa Democratic Party’s leadership committee, Hart assumes leadership of the state party as Democrats are reeling from poor election outcomes in 2014, 2016, 2020 and 2022 in the state and as the party is fresh off its presidential caucuses being stripped of their enviable first-in-the-nation status.
Hart, 66, of Wheatland, did not immediately speak after her election, but during her remarks ahead of the vote pledged to focus primarily on winning elections in Iowa. In her candidacy letter to state party leaders, she highlighted a need for Democrats to raise more money in order to build a stronger campaign apparatus.
Hart noted that she twice won elections in a statehouse district carried by Donald Trump, and outperformed Joe Biden more than other Democratic congressional candidates.
She said she has gained even more perspective on what it will take for Iowa Democrats to win elections again while serving as chair of the Clinton County Democrats over the past year.
“I’ve seen at a grassroots level the kind of support that our county parties need in order to work more effectively,” Hart said. “I’m under no illusions that this will be easy, and I know that it will take time, but I am heartened by the support that I’ve heard from the (state party leadership committee) and from folks across our state.”
Hart succeeds state Rep. Ross Wilburn from Ames, who stepped down after serving as party chair the past two years. Wilburn was the first Black Iowan to serve as a major party state chair.
“I know that we have made some important strides since January of 2021 … even if it doesn’t feel like it,” Wilburn told party members during the meeting. “We did our best to fight for a better future for every Iowan.”
Hart was selected over two other candidates:
Brittany Ruland, 32, who moved to Iowa in 2019 to work on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and also worked on Eddie Mauro’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2020 and Sarah Trone Garriott’s state legislative campaign in 2022. In the latter, Trone Garriott defeated former Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman.
And Bob Krause, 73, a former state legislator who ran for the U.S. Senate nomination in 2010 and 2016 and for governor in 2014.
Hart received 34 votes, Ruland 14 and Krause one.
Hart served in the Iowa Senate and was Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell’s running mate in 2018, losing to Gov. Kim Reynolds and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg by 3 percentage points.
Hart later lost her 2020 congressional race to Republican U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks by a historically close six votes. Hart is now serving as chair of the Clinton County Democratic Party.
In an email to members of the State Central Committee, Hart wrote that she has never previously considered leading the party, but that she cares deeply about Iowa Democrats’ success.
“My focus is squarely on helping our party begin winning elections again. With that focus on winning in mind, I have worked to put together a series of proposals on the governance of our party and structure of staff that will put IDP’s focus squarely on supporting our elected leaders and candidates for office,” Hart wrote.
The email included a document she called her “Mandate for Change” that emphasizes the need for the state party to raise money so that it can adequately invest in candidates and amplify a statewide message, including hiring a staffer to manage online fundraising as part of a proposed small-dollar donor program.
The plan also calls for hiring positions dedicated to content generation, digital and field organizing, and a data director to manage and improve the party’s voter database.
“Instead of starting with four organizers covering 20-plus counties each, we will begin with organizers having responsibility for only a couple of contiguous counties and responsible for working that turf all off-year aggressively,” Hart wrote. “This program will grow to cover more counties as more funding becomes available and serves as a pilot for an eventual 99-county year-round program.”
Hart proposed prioritizing smaller, swing counties in a statewide race as well as counties “that need additional capacity to grow but have shown clear signs of committed leadership.”
As for the Democratic Iowa caucuses, Hart during a virtual forum hosted by the Southwest Iowa Democrats did not say whether she thinks the party should hold an unsanctioned caucus in defiance of the Democratic National Committee, as some have suggested.
None of the three candidates for state chair during Saturday’s meeting mentioned the caucuses during their remarks.
State party members spent the first two hours of the meeting arguing over newly created constituency groups — one for Arab Americans and one for environmental and climate change issues — that were not formally created and recognized in time to vote in Saturday’s leadership election.
Tom Barton of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.
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