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So I was an idiot on Twitter.
In the wake of Democratic state Auditor Rob Sand’s decision to not run against Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds I unleashed a cringe-y hot take on Twitter arguing that Democrats are “not competing’ in the race that tops the ticket.
Of course, two leading Democratic candidates are competing — businessperson Deidre DeJear and state Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo. I tried to explain that I worry DeJear and Smith won’t have the name-recognition or resources to take on a heavily favored and funded incumbent.
These were both ill-conceived, wrongheaded arguments at this point in the race. Republicans jumped on the tweets because a liberal columnist is saying Democrats aren’t competitive against Reynolds. These are folks whose opinions I generally don’t value.
But then some folks on the left argued my tweet was racially motivated. DeJear and Smith are Black. Some suggested I let my implicit bias cloud my argument. That’s a painful thing to contemplate, but it’s also entirely possible.
All I can do now is admit my mistake and work to do better. As a start, I interviewed DeJear and Smith in recent days to get their take on the state of the race.
I believe the history-making possibilities for both candidates are strong assets. We’ve got two Black Iowans, the descendants of southern sharecroppers, contending for the state’s highest office. DeJear won the Democratic nomination for secretary of state in 2018, so she’s run a statewide campaign. Smith boasts an impressive legislative record even as he’s served in a Republican-controlled Statehouse, including leading a dramatic effort in 2020 to pass policing reforms, unanimously.
Both see the late Republican Gov. Bob Ray as a model for what kind of leadership Iowa needs. Smith’s family owns a small farm in Grundy County. DeJear and her husband own a herd of cattle in Oklahoma.
I asked them both which is the bigger challenge, building the fundraising and organization needed to beat an incumbent or overcoming the skepticism among some in the Democratic establishment and the media who discount your chances?
“The Democratic Party, the progress that we’ve made has been built on the backs of Black bodies for a long time. Black people are the base of the Democratic Party,” said Smith who was named an Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame Rising Star in 2019.
“At that time, Troy Price, the chair of the party, said Ras Smith is the future of the Democratic Party. And so if there’s a narrative among Democrats that we can’t be competitive, without seeing what dollars are on hand, I’d put up my legislative resume’ against anybody’s, from Nate Boulton’s to Todd Prichard’s to Fred Hubbell. The only difference is I’m not wealthy enough to self-fund my race.
“Otherwise, what are the qualifiers I don’t meet? I’ve been elected for six years in a Republican trifecta. I’ve had legislation signed by Kim Reynolds and Terry Branstad. I passed (police reform) legislation unanimously at a time when our country didn’t know which way to move after the murder of George Floyd,” Smith said.
Later in the interview, Smith returned to the notion that Democrats are discounting his chances. And it’s not just about a journalist’s dumb tweets
“I’ve been struggling,” Smith said. “And I believe in being transparent and authentic in the work that I do. I’ve been struggling to have sit-down conversations about my campaign with institutional donors to this party historically. I’ve been struggling to get them to answer a phone call and have a meeting with me. And I wonder why? I wonder what I’ve done to make these folks not want to entertain a Ras Smith candidacy?
“I wonder along the way what misstep did I make? Did I not shake a hand at the right event? Did I not pass the right policy to not show up? I’ve got a case full of plaques that they said I was doing a dang good job. But when it comes to the fact that I call to have a conversation, I don’t even get a return phone call back. No answer back,” Smith said.
DeJear argued the bigger challenge is convincing the nation that Iowa is a purple state that still matters, even as Statehouse Republicans consider and pass bills that make the state less welcoming.
“I think the biggest challenge as I think about our state and what it's been through over the last few years, and what we're seeing happening related to just the politicization of so many issues where we are passing bills that were written in other states that make no sense to pass in this state, I really think that our biggest challenge in this state is to ensure that this country is not counting us out,” DeJear said.
“Because as I'm looking at the press, as I'm, as I'm hearing stories, there's questions about Iowa's viability. Is it still a purple state? There's questions about whether or not Iowa should be first in the nation. And I get that the outcomes of the 2020 election weren't the outcomes that people a lot of people in our state would have liked to see, especially from my vantage point specific to the presidential race. But I don't think that that's any reason to count us out,” DeJear said.
“This is a state 100 years before Brown v. Board of Education had desegregated schools, so I know what we're capable of. I know what we're capable of,” DeJear said.
Both candidates reject the argument Reynolds isn’t beatable.
“Kim Reynolds is vulnerable,” Smith said. And the UAW strike at John Deere provides an opportunity for Democrats to explain their commitment to workers.
“If you spent time on the picket lines as I did you’d know roughly maybe 40 percent of those folks on the picket lines are Republicans, upset that their leadership wasn’t present. We’re talking about workers’ rights and that’s a commonality we have Democrat or Republican,” Smith said.
“Kim Reynolds, she’s demonstrated over and over again that she’s not willing to be transparent, that she doesn’t really care about the condition of the people. She gave a corporation that was founded that their managers were knowingly betting on the lives of human beings in a meatpacking plant … carte blanche. No accountability,” Smith said. “These are things that are not in line with what Iowans believe and the heritage of our state.”
“You know, Kim is unbeatable, that's not true,” DeJear said. COVID and other issues indicate otherwise, she said.
“I don't believe that Kim Reynolds rose to the occasion, we see the challenges with education. Right? Needless to say, this administration, along with Republicans are threatening our teachers, rather than adding value to our education system and trying to figure out how we resolve the challenges within education. You know, we get a charter school bill that doesn't immediately resolve the challenges that our students are dealing with. Regarding education, we have a skills gap. We have a worker shortage. We want to ensure that our K through 12 program is there to not only be a gateway for students to go to college, but if they want a job, after high school, they can actually go get a job. And that K through 12 experience prepared them for that,” DeJear said.
“But what our governor decided to do was end (extra federal) unemployment benefits, a political move. You know, rather than trusting our administrators and our teachers to do the work of educating our kids and keeping them safe, she created this blanket approach to how everybody should respond to COVID. And not to mention the bills that are constantly cycled in, outsourced. It's like she's taking her pointers from somebody other than Iowans. We had another voter restriction bill that was passed in this cycle. How does that help our economy? How does that help our mental health care crisis?” DeJear said.
I asked both candidates about Democrats’ decline in support among voters in county seats, smaller cities and rural areas. Both said step one is going to those places to hear concerns and pitch ideas that address them.
DeJear said in her work as an organizer for the Obama campaign and her work on local elections across the state she’s been able to expand the electorate. And she contends she made inroads in rural Iowa during her exploratory conversations tour.
“I asked them was, where do you see need for improvement?” DeJear said. “Overwhelmingly, among farmers, small business owners, workers, elected officials, what people shared with me is that they feel like the state has left them behind. They see the potential that exists in their community, and they don't see the state showing up to help see it through.”
Smith talked about his mother-in-law, who worked for 17 years at Casey’s, the highest paying job she could find. Her community’s grocery store closes, leaving Dollar General as the only local alternative.
“In the past 10 years, you’ve all had to flock to city centers to have access to resources. Who’s been starving you out? Who’s been in leadership? It hasn’t been Democrats. But if we’re not going to be bold and do half-steps and be Republican lite, we’ll always lose,” Smith said.
So stick up for people who work at Casey’s, not just tweet photos of breakfast pizza?
“If that’s what Iowa Democrats are preferring, I’m not that guy,” Smith said. “I’m the son of a military police officer and assembly worker. There’s work to be done and we need to have a level of seriousness about it. I didn’t jump into this race to not be taken seriously.”
DeJear and Smith said improving public education is a top priority. They oppose recent Republican efforts to whitewash the teaching of America’s history, banning discussions of systemic racism and other concepts GOP lawmakers argue are too divisive.
Smith learned a tough lesson about racism in Iowa on the basketball court. His team from University High School in Cedar Falls was playing at North Tama.
“And I was at the free-throw line. And I had this referee come up to me and say ‘pull your pants up this ain’t no east Waterloo.’ I was wearing like John Stockton-style shorts, right?” Smith said, referring to the former NBA player’s affinity for short shorts.
“And my coach, who was a young college student from Algona, jumped up off the bench, ran across the court and berated the referee about how he treated me in that moment. Every Iowa student needs to know enough history to understand why that moment was necessary. Why that comment was racist on its face. And why he needed to address it. So pulling a book off a shelf and saying you can’t teach the 1619 Project and these things, that’s not preparing our students to be better Iowans. That’s not preparing students to be in line with our history,” Smith said.
“I am a former basketball coach,” DeJear said. “You know, state champion, (Des Moines) East High School, Lee Township against the world. And anytime we prepared for a game, we looked at the defense. We looked at our opponents. We respected our opponents, but we also had our game plan. And we worked our plan.
“And I know we didn't get all the wins that we wanted in 2018. Specific to Democrats. I know we didn't get all the wins that we wanted in 2020. But we did some great work. And we got a lot of lessons learned. And it's, it's our game right now. And I believe people are ready because I see they're ready,” DeJear said.
Sounds like two candidates determined to compete. And prove the doubters wrong.
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