September 29, 2022

Iowa’s black political candidates face tougher times than Obama

By THOMAS BEAUMONT Associated Press

NEVADA, Iowa (AP) — In 2008, this majority-white state was by Barack Obama unlikely stepping stone to becoming the country’s first black president. Fourteen years later, Iowans show no similar embrace for the woman running to become its first black governor.

Democrat Deidre De Jear finds Iowa a very different place, staunchly conservative in leanings, endorsing many aspects of Trumpism, with an electorate that so far shows little interest in his historic candidacy.

The educated young adults who were once reliable Democratic voters fled rural Iowa in search of opportunities elsewhere. The strength of organized labor has eroded. Obama’s general election victories in 2008 and 2012 seem like distant memories.

The changes are part of a broader transformation that has spread across the Northern Plains over the past two decades, making it increasingly difficult for Democrats to compete in the region, even as they make inroads in other places like the Deep South and Sun Belt.

“The times are so different from Obama’s 2008 campaign,” Dave Leshtz, a veteran Democratic organizer from Iowa City, said after a DeJear event in the liberal enclave. “It’s a completely different state.”

Iowa Democratic gubernatorial candidate Deidre DeJear, right, greets Rebecca Hoeppner, left, and Maddie Anderson, center, at the Story County Democrats Super Soup fundraiser on Saturday March 12, 2022, in Nevada, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Black candidates have a harder time winning in almost all-white Iowa

DeJear, a 36-year-old Des Moines businesswoman, cemented her status as a rising political star in 2018 when she became the first black candidate to win a statewide primary in the United States. Iowa. She lost the general election as Secretary of State, but she captured national attention and invitations from Democratic presidential candidates serve as a councilor of state.

She struggles to translate that underpowered fame into voter support. Only 31% of likely voters in Iowa said they knew enough about DeJear — running unopposed in the June 7 primary — to form an opinion, according to the Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll, conducted in late February and early March. .

Meanwhile, she posted an anemic fundraising balance of $8,500 in January, raising less than $300,000 since announcing her candidacy in August. It paled next to incumbent Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ $4.8 million balance and $3.8 million in contributions.

Story County Democrat Barb Wheelock attributed part of DeJear’s struggle to racism, both within the party and among voters in the state.

“I think it’s part of the fact that she’s black and people don’t think she’s going to do very well — people in our party state, people with money,” Wheelock said. , a 70-year-old retired physiotherapist, during his participation. a Deidre DeJear stop in Story County last month.

Deidre DeJear: ‘I believe in what is possible’

DeJear told The Associated Press that she suspects her race may be on the minds of some as she seeks out supporters.

“Of course, no one told me that outright,” DeJear said. “But there is a question of whether a black woman could win or not. It’s definitely a question.

DeJear tried to put those doubts aside as she took the stage at an event in Nevada, a small farming town in central Iowa. With an upbeat style and a trace of his native Mississippi accent, DeJear reminded the audience that Iowans have a groundbreaking heritage, including an Iowa Supreme Court decision that made Iowa the first state to desegregate public schools after the civil war.

“I believe in what is possible,” she says. “We made the conscious decision that no matter your skin color, no matter your race, every one of our students should have access to a quality public education.”

It was a nod to a progressive streak in Iowa that has continued into the 21st century.

Iowa politics have changed drastically

In 2009, the Iowa High Court declared same-sex marriage legal, making the state the third to allow it, following similar rulings in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but five years ahead of the US Supreme Court. United. A year prior, Iowa voters not only backed Obama by a healthy margin in the general election, they overwhelmingly sent liberal Democrat Tom Harkin to the US Senate for a fifth term.

Iowans ushered in the new millennium with Tom Vilsack, a Democrat and former mayor from rural southeast Iowa, as governor. And in the 1988 Democratic presidential caucuses, the Reverend Jesse Jackson finished fourth, relying on support from rural Iowa.

But a sharp drop in union jobs and an exodus of college-educated young adults have altered Iowa’s once-vibrant political map.

In a stark illustration, Obama swept the state in November 2008 by winning 52 of its 99 counties. Joe Biden, who will make his first trip to Iowa as president on Tuesday, lost the state in 2020, winning just six counties.

After decades of divided state government, Republicans have controlled the Legislature and the governorship for six straight years, cutting taxes and limiting voting and abortion rights. Today, five of Iowa’s six congressmen are Republicans.

Some black candidates receive cold reception from Democratic Party donors

State Rep. Ras Smith had hoped to break the trend as a gubernatorial candidate in this year’s race. Smith, 34, who was voted the 2019 Democratic Party of Iowa ‘Rising Star’ recipient and is black, has struggled to persuade some of the party’s top donors in the state, who are white , give it a look.

Despite Smith’s promising profile and DeJear’s breakthrough in 2018, some wealthy Iowa Democrats have sought others to run, including state Rep. Todd Pritchard, a northern Iowa native and white .

Smith said some influential donors declined his invitation to meet to discuss his campaign. Among them, he said, was Fred Hubbell, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor. A wealthy Des Moines-area businessman, Hubbell spent $7 million of his own money to narrowly lose to Reynolds.

“It wasn’t about the dollars,” said Smith, who ended his campaign in January, leaving DeJear unopposed in the primary. “He didn’t come to an event and was turned off. We didn’t have coffee and I said something that pissed him off. This is the part that felt disrespected. It was disrespectful. »

Smith said he and Hubbell spoke over the phone but never met despite several invitations. Hubbell did not respond to requests for comment.

“My party doesn’t think it’s that racist,” said Tom Courtney, a former state senator and longtime labor activist from the once-thriving manufacturing corridor along the Mississippi River, who is white. “But some of that is happening.”

Obama’s gains were wiped out

Sentiment stings for Iowa Democrats as national party leaders, frustrated by the state’s lack of diversity, move to move the first presidential nominating contest away from the traditionally premier caucus state of the nation.

Hubbell endorsed DeJear in a written statement last month, two months after Smith’s withdrawal made her the Democrats’ sole candidate. Hubbell has since contributed to DeJear’s campaign, though his campaign declined to say how much. Smith also endorsed DeJear, one of several black Democratic women running for office this year in statewide elections across the country.

Democratic Georgia Stacey Abrams seeks the governorship again. Cheri Beasley, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, is running for the US Senate as a Democrat. And Florida Rep. Val Demings is the lead Democrat to take on the Republican US Senator Marco Rubio.

But DeJear is the only black woman campaigning in such a predominantly white state. In 2020, 90.4% of Iowans were white, according to census data. About 62% of the country’s population was white and more than 13% black.

Still, DeJear, who campaigned for Obama as a student at Drake University in Des Moines in 2008, is optimistic about her ability to reignite the flame.

“We also look to Obama and what he was able to accomplish,” she said in the interview. “I believe Iowans have this innate ability to see the humanity that exists in other people. And that’s what drives us.”