116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A Cedar Rapids Democrat is poised to become the first Arab American lawmaker in the Iowa Legislature.
Sami Scheetz, a 26-year-old community organizer whose mother immigrated to Cedar Rapids from Damascus, Syria, is running unopposed for the Iowa House District 78 seat.
The newly redrawn district has been represented by Democrat Rep. Liz Bennett, who is running for an open Senate seat.
If elected, Scheetz said he hopes to counter what he sees as “sharp and harmful” anti-immigrant rhetoric from Iowa Republicans.
He referenced a state law that mandates all official political documents from the state be written in English, with the exception of voting materials in two counties, and he cited Gov. Kim Reynolds’ rejection last year of a federal request to accept unaccompanied migrant children into the state, saying the need to find homes for them “is the president’s problem.”
“Right now, there are small towns across the state of Iowa that are being revitalized by Latin American or Mexican American immigration,” Scheetz said.
“And to have that unwelcoming rhetoric from the Iowa GOP, I think, is going to be really, really problematic, when the census projects by 2050 Iowa’s going to be a quarter Latino.”
Scheetz said rural Iowa’s future rests on immigrants and refugees to ensure an adequate labor supply to replace those aging out of the workforce.
Republican Party of Iowa Communications Director Kollin Crompton responded, saying, “Iowans overwhelmingly disapprove of (President) Joe Biden's open border policies,” which, she said, have resulted in “thousands of pounds of deadly fentanyl flowing across our border.”
Diversity a goal
Born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Scheetz, the son of an immigrant teacher and a lawyer, said he looks forward to working to promote increased diversity and inclusion in state politics.
The 78th District has a diverse electorate that includes large Latino, Arab American and African American communities. The district also has among the lowest voter turnout rates in the state, according to Scheetz.
“There are tons of Democrats that just have not been voting, and I think part of that is us not investing the resources and the time in connecting and turning out voters of color … and immigrant communities,” said Scheetz, who has worked the past 10 years on political campaigns for Democratic candidates at the state and federal levels.
Scheetz worked on Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, helping establish satellite caucuses to encourage first-time and reluctant voters to participate. Scheetz said he hopes to push for more political integration of minority groups.
“We need to focus on more of that as a party,” he said.
While Iowa has a sizable Arab-American community — with Arab immigrants settling in Cedar Rapids more than a century ago — the exact number of Arab Americans in the state is difficult to accurately measure as their only option for describing their racial and ethnic origin on U.S. census forms is “white.”
The Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., estimated more than 17,000 Arab Americans lived in Iowa in 2017 and at least 3.7 million lived in the United States.
Recent crises and conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine have resulted in fresh waves of Arab and Muslim immigrants arriving in the United States, including more than 900 Afghan refugees who have made their home in Iowa.
Scheetz, who is all but guaranteed to be elected to the Iowa House from the solidly Democratic district, would become one of about 25 current state legislators across the country of Arab American descent, according to the institute.
Scheetz said he also intends to focus on improving public education, access to affordable health care and workers’ rights.
He said Iowa’s privatization of Medicaid has needlessly complicated care for countless working class families and led to decreased service for Iowans with disabilities.
Scheetz, too, said he would work to restore collective bargaining rights for public employees in Iowa and push for policies like prevailing wages and project labor agreements.
Scheetz also worked on state Cedar Rapids Democratic Sen. Rob Hogg’s unsuccessful 2016 campaign for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
“Having a young person like Sami who has grown up in a diverse community as an Arab American brings a perspective that will be very helpful on issues like” confronting racism, hate crimes and hate speech, Hogg said.
State lawmakers last year passed and Reynolds signed into law a bill that bans public schools and government agencies from promoting "divisive concepts" in their teaching or training, including that the U.S. and Iowa are systemically racist or sexist. Teachers and historians say it will stifle conversations about the country’s bitter legacy of slavery, segregation and racial exclusion.
“Some people feel threatened by it,” Hogg said. “What Sami is going to do is show, ‘Hey, we have to address our history, but we also have to embrace this extraordinary diverse future if we want to be successful in the 21st century.’ That’s where his voice will really be helpful.”
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Cedar Rapids boasts a sizable Arab American community, with roots stretching back more than a century.
Arab Christians immigrated to the community from the Middle East, many of them from Syria, in the early 1900s.
Muslim family members and friends followed, and helped their Christian neighbors build the St. George Orthodox Church in southeast Cedar Rapids.
The Christian community returned the favor, helping the Muslim community build its own place of worship, creating the oldest-standing mosque in North America, 1335 Ninth St. NW, completed in 1934.