Elections bring more diversity to Iowa Legislature

This+years+election+results+bring+diversity+to+Iowa+with+ethnicity%2C+religion%2C+sexual+identification+and+individuals+with+disabilities.+

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This year’s election results bring diversity to Iowa with ethnicity, religion, sexual identification and individuals with disabilities.

Laura Belin , Guest Columnist

Editor’s note: This article is from Iowa Capitol Dispatch from Nov. 17, 2022. 

People of color, Iowans who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, and those adhering to a non-Christian faith tradition will hold a record number of seats in the Iowa Legislature next year.

Racial and ethnic diversity

Just four years ago, four Black representatives in the 100-member House were the only people of color serving in the Iowa Legislature.

The incoming Legislature will have a dozen lawmakers whose race or ethnicity will make the Statehouse more diverse.

Record representation for Black Iowans

Prior to Nov. 8, only 19 Black Iowans (17 Democrats and two Republicans) had ever been elected to the state Legislature.

After winning the race in deep blue Iowa Senate District 17, Democrat Izaah Knox will become the second Black Iowan to serve in the 50-member state Senate and the first since Thomas Mann, Jr. completed his second term in 1990.

Knox told Bleeding Heartland in a telephone interview that his win was “exciting” and a little “overwhelming.” Although “it’s a great accomplishment, there’s still too much work to do.” He was happy to see candidates representing many kinds of diversity on his ballot when he voted. That’s a “step in the right direction” for Iowa.

The outgoing Iowa House has six Black members, tying a record set in 2009 and 2010. Five sought another term, and four were successful:

  • Democrat Ruth Ann Gaines won in House District 33 (Des Moines), where she was unopposed.
  • Democrat Ako Abdul-Samad won in House District 34 (Des Moines). He will become Iowa’s longest-serving Black legislator.
  • Democrat Ross Wilburn won in House District 50 (Ames), where he was unopposed.
  • Republican Eddie Andrews won in House District 43 (Johnston and a small area in Des Moines).

Democrat Phyllis Thede lost her reelection bid in House District 94 (Bettendorf).

Two newly elected Democrats will join the House caucus in January. Jerome Amos, Jr., was unopposed in House District 62 (Waterloo), where state Rep. Ras Smith opted not to seek reelection. Amos told Bleeding Heartland it’s important to have “representation for people who look like me.” As a member of the Waterloo City Council for the last seven years, he represents people of all colors and political parties. He plans to approach his work as a legislator the same way to get things accomplished for the community.

He’s had other opportunities to be the first Black man in various positions, and he takes pride in those achievements. But “I’m a firm believer that we’re all in this world together, we all need to try and work together to make things the best for everyone.” He hopes to have conversations across the aisle to find some common ground.

In his retirement speech to Iowa House members, Smith observed that leaving the Legislature was a bit like a break-up. He added, “It’s not me, it’s you”— an apparent reference to the Republican majority passing small police reforms but rejecting legislation to address racial profiling, and later enacting a policing bill expected to exacerbate racial disparities.

I asked Amos how he planned to find consensus, in light of that track record. He cited his life experience in communicating with others: “It takes a lot for me to get frustrated. I’m willing to sit down with someone and have a conversation.” They may agree to disagree and walk away, but he’s not going to get frustrated. He knows that at the Statehouse, people in power may want to do certain things, “but that’s not going to stop me from using the voice that I have.”

Democrat Mary Madison defeated her Republican opponent in House District 31, covering parts of West Des Moines. She welcomes the growing diversity in the Legislature, as well as in Congress, because “when we collaborate, we bring the diverse ideas and innovations.”

If elected officials listen to each other, it will benefit the state and the country, Madison added. Because “each member has a lot to offer.” Even though we may live in the same place, we have different experiences. She appreciates the opportunity to serve.

More Latino representation

Republican Mark Cisneros became the first Latino to serve in the Iowa Legislature after winning in 2020. He was just reelected in House District 96 (Muscatine area).

Many Latinos have run for the Iowa Legislature as Democrats, but the first to win was Adam Zabner. He was unopposed in House District 90, covering part of Iowa City, where Zabner was born and raised after his parents immigrated from Venezuela. In a written statement released after the election, he said he was proud to be chosen to represent the district and looked forward to serving the community.

More Asian American representation

Until recently, Democrat Swati Dandekar was the only Asian American to have served in the Iowa Legislature. (The Senate has been all white since she stepped down in 2011.) Republican Henry Stone, who describes himself as Amer-Asian, won a state House race in 2020 and was just reelected in House District 9 (Emmet, Winnebago, and most of Kossuth County).

Democrat Megan Srinivas, the daughter of immigrants from India who settled in Fort Dodge, was just elected in House District 30 (Des Moines). After winning a hard-fought primary, she had been heavily favored for the general election.

Srinivas tweeted that she is “so honored to be the youngest woman of color ever elected to the Iowa legislature.” She is among at least 15 Americans of South Asian heritage to win state legislative or congressional races this year.

First Arab-American legislator elected

Democrat Sami Scheetz broke another barrier on Nov. 8. Having won in House District 78 (Cedar Rapids), he will be the first Arab American to serve in the Iowa Legislature. His mother immigrated to this country from Damascus, Syria.

Scheetz tweeted soon after the election, “I am incredibly proud to be heading to the Iowa State House. When I get there, I’ll be one of Iowa’s youngest legislators and one of only a handful of Arab-Americans to serve in elected office, nationwide.”

He told Bleeding Heartland last week, “I’m honored to have the trust and support of Cedar Rapidians. Being the first Arab American representative of this vibrant community that has been in Cedar Rapids for over 120 years is particularly meaningful for me.”

Speaking to the CBS affiliate in Cedar Rapids after the election, Scheetz noted:

“The oldest mosque in North America is in my district in Cedar Rapids. There’s a hundred-year old Arab Christian church in my district as well. So there’s been an Arab community that’s been vibrant here for over a century, and to finally have representation in our state legislature that reflects that from Cedar Rapids, it’s incredible.”

Scheetz told the Cedar Rapids Gazette in June that he will seek to counter the “sharp and harmful” anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from Iowa Republicans, and work to promote diversity and inclusion in other ways as well.

LGBTQ representation

Up to now, former state Sen. Matt McCoy, a Democrat who did not seek reelection in 2018, has been the only out LGBTQ person to serve in the Iowa Senate. State Rep. Liz Bennett, who has been the only out queer member of the Iowa House in recent years, was just elected in Senate District 39 (Cedar Rapids).

Speaking to Bleeding Heartland by phone, Bennett said the growing diversity in the state Legislature is “really exciting.” Since Iowa Republicans have used “very harmful” rhetoric toward LGBTQ people, and particularly youth, it’s vital for them “to know that there are people in their Legislature who care about them, and who are standing up for them,” and may have had similar experiences.

Bennett hopes the day will come when a politician’s sexual orientation or gender identity is irrelevant. When she first ran for the Iowa House, she was more interested in talking about other issues, such as clean energy and economic equality. But “during a time when LGBTQ kids have become a political football for the GOP, it’s even more important to have somebody from the community in the Senate with a microphone.”

As a member of the minority caucus, Bennett may not be able to move forward many of the policies she would like. But maybe kids who feel that everyone around them agrees with the hostile commercials might learn about her work and “understand that not everybody in Iowa thinks these things. There is a place for them here.” That kind of support can “make the difference between life or death for a pre-teen or a teenager.”

In the lower chamber, Democrat Elinor Levin was the winner in House District 89 (Iowa City). Asked about the significance of her victory, she told Bleeding Heartland:

“There are members of our current Legislature who work to demonize, to ostracize, and to remove Queer Iowans from participation in daily life. They equate happy adults, living fulfilling lives to pedophiles in order to foment division through fear of the unknown. They promote the zero-sum mentality that there is no possibility of “equal rights,” and that more rights for one group has to mean fewer rights for another.”

This has to end, and it’s my turn to be one of the people standing up and pointing out the fallacy of their logic.

Religious diversity

For the past eight years, Abdul-Samad, who is Muslim, has been the only Iowa lawmaker who identifies with a faith tradition other than Christianity.

Srinivas will become the only Hindu member of the state Legislature.

In addition, three Jewish people won legislative races in the Iowa City area: Zabner, Levin, and Janice Weiner, who carried Iowa Senate District 45. The last Jewish Iowa lawmaker was Ralph Rosenberg, a member of the House during the 1980s and the Senate through 1994.

Levin observed that even though non-Christian people or those with no religious affiliation make up more than a fifth of Iowa’s population, “our morals, needs, and concerns are not interesting to so many of our leaders.” When certain ideas are proposed, people with lived experience outside of Christianity can ask questions like, “How would you respond if a Jew expected this law to be based on their moral code? How would you feel if a coach led a group of students in a blessing in Hebrew before competitions?”

Asked about the significance of her election, Weiner said, “Representation matters, especially at a time when leaders in our state speak and act as if we are homogenous. We are not — we are a mix and the diversity is increasing.” Buena Vista County is on track to become Iowa’s first “majority minority” county before long, she noted. “We need to be present, we need to be a part of the discourse.”

Like Levin, Weiner feels that “being present and having a voice ensures that we can make clear why it is not acceptable to impose one theology, one ideology on all Iowans. That voice has never been more important.”

Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray pointed out that 63% of religious hate crimes in the U.S. are motivated by anti-Semitism. Jews make up about 2.4% of the U.S. population but far less than 1% of Iowans. From that perspective, Weiner said, “We know what it is like to be a minority and to be targeted — and that can help us stand up for, work with, and defend others as well.”

Iowans with disabilities

One candidate whose race is not yet resolved has the potential to bring a unique perspective to the statehouse. Democrat Josh Turek has competed in four Paralympics and is a three-time medalist in wheelchair basketball, as well as a former professional player in Europe. His day job and volunteer work are related to expanding opportunities for children and adults with disabilities.

Unofficial results show Turek seven votes ahead of his Republican opponent in House District 20 (Council Bluffs and Carter Lake). The race is headed for a recount.

Turek told Iowa Starting Line this fall that he decided to run for office in part because people with disabilities have little representation in government. As a result, current officials know little about the challenges facing the community, especially those without much money.

At Numotion, Turek said he saw people unable to get basic needs filled because of cost or lack of coverage from their health care plan and he thought to himself, “somebody’s gotta step up and do something about this.”