Government

Former Iowa City mayor makes history as first Black chair of Iowa Democratic Party

State Rep. Ross Wilburn of Ames speaks during a gathering announcing the Plan for a More Perfect Union proposal on the s
State Rep. Ross Wilburn of Ames speaks during a gathering announcing the Plan for a More Perfect Union proposal on the steps at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Former Iowa City Mayor Ross Wilburn was selected Saturday as the next chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, becoming the first Black Iowan to lead one of the state’s major parties.

Wilburn’s historic appointment comes at a critical time for the state party: Iowa Democrats have struggled in statewide elections for the past four cycles, and they may face a stronger-than-ever push to remove Iowa from its enviable position as first in the nation presidential nominating process.

In fact, the job Wilburn is taking opened because the previous chair, Troy Price. resigned after last year’s Democratic caucus meltdown in calculating results brought wide derision.

Wilburn also assumes the state party mantle at a time when Democrats hold just one of the Iowa’s six seats in Congress, are the minority party by wide margins in both chambers of the Iowa Legislature and have not held the governor’s office in a decade.

“We must engage more Iowans and convince the working class, farmers, factory workers and our diverse constituencies that our party is on their side and will be at their side,” Wilburn said in his candidate remarks during Saturday’s state party meeting. “I have the compassion, energy and experience to bring us together and lead our party’s rebuilding effort.”

Wilburn is a state lawmaker from Ames. Previously, he had lived in Iowa City where he served on the City Council and was elected the community’ first Black mayor in 2006.

In 2018, he ran for Iowa governor in the Democratic primary but came in sixth.

Wilburn works at Iowa State University as an extension and outreach diversity consultant, a job he said he would resign in order to work full-time as state party chairman.

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During Saturday’s meeting, Wilburn told Iowa Democrats that the state party’s rebuilding effort should include creating a three-cycle strategic road map, improving candidate and local leadership development, helping local parties and developing year-round organizing.

Wilburn also said Iowa Democrats should focus their messaging better “so people will know what it means to be a Democrat.”

Wilburn received 64.6 percent of the votes cast by the state party’s leadership committee, according to the results announced by former state party interim chairman Mark Smith.

Jodi Clemens, who worked on Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign in Iowa and managed Kimberly Graham’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, finished second in the selection.

Sandy Dockendorff, who nominated Wilburn during Saturday’s meeting, highlighted his campaign experience and their shared belief that Iowa Democrats must work to build consensus and trust with and among the party.

“Ross spoke to me from a position of understanding that we are not responsible for running campaigns, but we are responsible for setting an environment where more of our candidates in more places can be successful,” Dockendorff said.

Wilburn said that includes establishing a permanent campaign operation. He said in previous cycles, Democrats’ work in Iowa would accelerate during campaign seasons and then subside during non-election years. Wilburn said he hopes to create an operation that operates continuously, and that he will lead a fundraising effort to help sustain such a program.

“It’s going to involve not just planning for the next election, but looking several election cycles out,” he told reporters during a news conference later Saturday.

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As for the caucuses, Wilburn said he will work to ensure Iowa remains first. He said that will include discussing the nominating calendar with members of the national party’s leadership structure, including newly elected national party chairman Jaime Harrison, of South Carolina — another one of the early voting states — and President Joe Biden.

In Biden’s three runs for president, he has never finished better than fourth in Iowa. He finished a distant fourth in the 2020 caucuses before going on to secure the party’s nomination, a victory in South Carolina that was his springboard.

In addition to evergreen criticisms that Iowa’s population is not representative of the country and that caucuses are a complicated process that make it difficult for some people to participate, Iowa Democrats are coming off a 2020 caucus in which a faulty program caused a multiple-days delay in reporting the official results. And even then, because the results were historically close between top finishers Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, confusion and challenges to those results drew out the process even longer.

Wilburn said he hopes to work with diverse constituencies in Iowa to amplify their voices.

“We can always make the case that Iowa should be first in the nation,” Wilburn told reporters.

As to becoming the state’s first Black chair of one of the state’s major political parties, Wilburn credited his parents and siblings, from whom he said he learned the value of contributing to the community.

Wilburn also paraphrased Vice President Kamala Harris — the first Black and woman to serve as vice president — in saying he wants to help make sure while he may be the first, that he is not the last Black state party leader in Iowa.

June Owens was chosen again as first vice chair, a position that makes her a member of the Democratic National Committee. Owens is the first Black woman to hold the first vice chair position.

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