IOWA CAUCUS 2020

New Iowa Democratic leader Mark Smith jumps into the fire

Mark Smith, then Iowa House minority leader, speaks in January 2018 during the first day of that year's session of the I
Mark Smith, then Iowa House minority leader, speaks in January 2018 during the first day of that year’s session of the Iowa Legislature in Des Moines. Smith, who is serving his 10th two-year term in the Legislature, previously announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. However, earlier this month he was elected to serve as interim chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Retirement was on Mark Smith’s horizon. When he looked into his future, he saw vacations and spending more time with family.

Suddenly, Smith’s future looks decidedly different.

Smith, a state lawmaker from Marshalltown, had already announced that this, his 10th two-year term in the Iowa Legislature, would be his last. But earlier this month, he was elected to serve as the Iowa Democratic Party’s interim state chairman. His term began immediately and will run through the November elections.

So instead of vacations and extended family time, Smith’s future now consists of caucus cleanup and defense, and a critical election cycle for his party.

What exactly will be on Smith’s agenda as state party leader?

Not much. Just this:

• Overseeing a party that will undergo an independent investigation into what went wrong leading up to and during the Feb. 3 presidential caucuses. A computer program designed for the caucuses faltered, causing a three-day delay in the results and leading former chairman Troy Price to resign.

• Defending the Iowa caucuses’ first-in-the-nation status. Iowa is forced to defend its lofty status every four years, but after this year’s reporting mess, the pressure has been dialed up to 11. Smith now is the face of the state party and will be the lead on that defense effort. If Iowa Democrats are to go first again in 2024, it’s largely up to Smith to make that case.

• Leading Iowa Democrats through the 2020 general election, in which they have an opportunity to flip a U.S. Senate seat, must protect two first-term incumbents in competitive U.S. House districts, and have a legitimate chance to gain a majority in the Iowa House and, thus, block compete control of the state lawmaking process by Republicans.

That’s a slightly more daunting to-do list than sipping lemonade on the deck with family and friends. But it’s what Smith signed up for when he decided to run for interim party chairman.

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The party does not publish votes for its elected officials, but the state party official conducting the election said Smith’s victory over three other candidates was “conclusive.”

“I am a committed Democrat, as I said in my speech, that I’m a sixth-generation Iowan and that it’s very important to me that we have a strong Democratic Party,” Smith told reporters after his election. “I believe that the skills that I’ve developed over the years of being an activist, being a state representative, and being a leader in the Democratic Party, gives me those skills at fundraising, at recruitment, at organizing, and making sure that we have the appropriate administration in the Iowa Democratic Party.

“So that’s why I made the decision to put off retirement and to move forward with doing this job.”

It would be a monumentally challenging job for anybody. Smith has to deal with multiple caucus-related fires while also leading the party into an election that has so much at stake for the party.

Whether he is the right person for the job will be revealed in the months to come. At the very least, Smith is no political newbie. He knew what he was getting himself into. Perhaps that, if nothing else, suggests he’s prepared for the Herculean tasks at hand.

“We have an excellent chance of regaining that Senate seat. We have a chance of sweeping all four congressional seats here in Iowa, and we intend to have strong candidates from the courthouse to the White House in this next election cycle,” Smith said.

If Iowa Democrats do all that, Smith will assuredly and finally get that vacation. And he will have earned it.

Comments: (563) 333-2659; erin.murphy@lee.net

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