There’s a lot of insane things happening in America right now. Attacks on abortion rights. Voting rights at risk. Trade wars. Nazi sympathizers in office. And Iowa, the quiet heartland right smack in the middle of the country, is dealing with all of it.
What happens in Iowa this November will have an outsized impact on the rest of us. So let’s start with good news: While the last few years have seen Republicans play every angle and pull every nasty trick in their Jim Crow 2.0 playbook to disenfranchise voters, a judge delivered some good news for democracy (and Democrats) in Iowa on Thursday. In a crucial ruling, an injunction was placed on the state’s controversial Voter ID law, suspending the discriminatory practice and restoring the 11 days of early voting that the legislature eliminated last fall.
It was a major setback for Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, an old-school, corrupt creature of whatever would you’d call the cornfield-equivalent of the swamp in Des Moines. A few hours after the ruling, I hopped on the phone with Deidre DeJear, a former Obama campaign coordinator who is now the Democratic nominee challenging Pate this November.
“He commissioned this bill, then turned it over to a senator and they put it through committee and ended up passing it,” DeJear said, putting the onus directly on the man she is trying to unseat. “This is his baby and this is what he’s been working on for a while in our state. He hasn’t been promoting voting.”
Encouraging the electorate is engrained in her, as DeJear has been working to turn out votes since childhood. That’s not hyperbole — as a kid, she was drafted to help on her grandmother’s campaign for election commissioner of Yazoo County in Mississippi.
It should be noted that, when she was a kid knocking on doors for her grandma, Pate was being called a “big league sleaze” by political columnists in Des Moines. He’s made a habit of corruption and lying — just this spring he called an AP investigation into oversights in his financial disclosures “fake news,” before later adjusting those documents to account for millions of dollars in undisclosed property.
DeJear, meanwhile, has made a career out of helping small businesses. She was just out of college, working in the marketing department of a small local bank when the 2008 recession hit and wiped out the livelihoods of millions of Americans. People were laid off en masse and many felt forced to start their own businesses, and came to the bank looking for guidance.
So DeJear ultimately left to start her own company, which helps to launch and market new small businesses. The Secretary of State in Iowa also has a heavy hand in small business administration, another reason she wants to win the job.
“We have over 260,000 small businesses in our state and they provide jobs for about 50 percent of the workforce, so I want to make sure that whatever economic trials and tribulations come through the path of Iowa that our small business owners are going to weather that storm,” she said. “I remember in 2008 to 2010, there were just so many dilapidated buildings and empty storefronts. Now that they’re filled back up, I don’t want to fall by the wayside again. We’re also trying to further develop and redevelop rural Iowa, and rural Iowa isn’t too good right now, especially in light of all Trump’s trade war stuff, so we need to make sure that they’re getting resources.”
Her adult political career started around the same time as her formative business experience. While attending Drake University, DeJear helped organize students for then-Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. She took on a bigger role with his re-election campaign four years later.
“When 2012 came along, I walked into the office to volunteer and a couple of weeks later it became a full-time job,” DeJear, who now works as a small business consultant, remembered. “I traveled throughout the state. I was African-American vote director that year and my job was to get African-Americans engaged in the process because we knew by and large the African-American supported the President, but that didn’t necessarily translate into a vote.”
Her plan, a combination of canvassing and active citizen-to-citizen lobbying, helped increase the minority share of the vote in lily-white Iowa from 3% in 2008 to 7% in 2012 — crucial to a smaller margin of victory for Obama in his second go-round.
Five years later, as Pate pushed the law in the legislature, he promised that it would not make voting more difficult for Iowans. That was, as everyone knew at the time, a blatant lie. Beyond the fact that voter fraud is almost non-existent, which negates the cynical rationale for the measure, national statistics make clear just how much these laws deter eligible voters from casting ballots — even when they do show up to the polls with all their proper paperwork. And in Iowa, it quickly became clear during local and primary elections that the Voter ID law was the equivalent of scattering roadblocks and car wrecks across a highway and suggesting that people were still free to drive.
Clearing the path to voting isn’t enough. To exhaust the metaphor, DeJear is focused on getting more people actively on the road to the polls.
“We also have 2.3 million people eligible to vote, but only 1.9 million registered,” she said. “So we’ve got about 400,000 folks that are just kinda out there in limbo and he’s not really doing much to engage them either. So there’s a lot of work that can be done in that office to increase voter turnout.”
Pate promises to fight to make voting harder all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court, while DeJear’s plan to handle voter rights and election administration is fundamentally different. It comes down to a very simple philosophical difference: Unlike Pate, DeJear actually wants more people to vote and participate in the system. Headlining her agenda is automatic voter registration, a progressive policy that’s grown more popular over the last few years as Democrats have woken up to the importance of voting rights and expanding the electorate.
“Right now, when you go to the DMV, if you’re getting your driver’s license renewed or getting your ID renewed, you have to ask about applying to register to vote,” she said. “The situation that I would prefer is that people, if they’re eligible to vote, they’re automatically registered, and if they want to opt out, they can.”
In states that have implemented automatic voter registration, the rate at which citizens registered to vote increased dramatically. Anything that gets people out of the DMV faster is a public service — adding voting rights to the equation is nearly saintly.
So, why should you care?
Iowa is traditionally a swing state, but in recent years has tacked to the right, like many states in which Democrats largely abandoned their political infrastructure after 2012. And thanks to both that rightward shift and Democrats’ grassroots resurgence, the state has suddenly become a microcosm of the national political environment. For a landlocked, largely rural state, it’s got an astonishing number of issues at play.
The ballot will be crowded in the state this year. Along with the Secretary of State race, Iowa plays host to a gubernatorial election and what should be a number of very tight races in a GOP-controlled state legislature that is close enough that it could tip back to Democrats in a wave election. Wresting some control of the state will be critical to stopping a return of the medieval anti-abortion law that the GOP passed there this spring; it was quickly blocked by a judge, but as of now, GOP leadership plans on taking it all the way to a Supreme Court that may be far more conservative in just a few months.
Iowa is also home to Steve King, one of the most racist congressmen in the country (we profiled his challenger several weeks ago), and is being hit particularly hard by Trump’s trade war, which could begin to loosen rural voters’ entrenched support of the GOP. Maximizing voter turnout this year and going forward is absolutely crucial — and having a Secretary of State that actually cares about voter rights is an essential part of that.
With the legislature up for grabs, DeJear also recommended two other candidates running in the state this November.
Lindsay James is a first-time candidate who is running in Iowa House District 99, which is currently held by Abby Finkenauer, who is running for Congress (her name may sound familiar, as Progressives Everywhere endorsed her months ago). James is a college chaplain whose faith inspires her progressive beliefs and community service. Her resume is incredibly impressive and frankly makes me feel lazy; James serves as the Director of the Loras College Peace Institute, chair of the Community Development Advisory Board, elected county official and a board member for the NAACP and the Children of Abraham. She has endorsed Medicare for All.
Jackie Smith is a retired speech pathologist who is running for State Senate after over 30 years of serving her Sioux City community in the classroom. She now owns a small store in Sioux City and served eight years on the County Board of Supervisors, and is very focused on both education and job training. Smith is running in District 7, which was already considered a top pickup opportunity before its Republican incumbent retired.
Progressives Everywhere has already endorsed Iowa’s Democratic candidate for governor, Fred Hubbell, whose election should help squelch the battle over that awful abortion law.