Deidre DeJear Has Hope for Iowa
Iowa's Democratic gubernatorial candidate thinks the state is ready for change
Welcome to the mid-week edition of the newsletter Men Yell at Me. This is a newsletter about the places where our politics and personhood collide, written from inside Iowa. Two weeks ago, I wrote about Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, who has become something of a GOP hero and delivered the response to Biden’s state of the union. This week, I interviewed Reynold’s Democratic challenger, Deidre DeJear. DeJear has not yet held political office (although she’s worked with plenty campaigns), so this interview focused on getting to know her and her vision for Iowa. If you want to know more about her positions on policy issues, her website is very comprehensive.
A few days ago, a friend texted to tell me they were moving. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said. “I can’t live here.” That was the morning after Iowa’s governor gave a response to the State of the Union.
Despite the hand-wringing, most Iowans are staying. A July 2021 Des Moines Register poll showed that 72 percent of Iowans have not seriously considered leaving the state. The Register reported:
Younger Iowans were more likely to consider leaving the state, with 34% of Iowans younger than 45 having either seriously considered or at least thought about moving, versus 21% of Iowans 45 or older.
Democrats are also more likely to have thought about moving than Republicans.
The partisan breakdown: 36% of Democrats have considered moving. Among Republicans, 12% have considered it. Just under a third of Iowans unaffiliated with the major parties, 31%, have given thought to moving.
And the poll found that Iowans are staying, not just for family and Casey’s pizza, but to help be part of the change.
After Iowa State Senator Ras Smith ended his campaign, Deidre DeJear is currently the only Democrat running against Iowa’s incumbent governor, Kim Reynolds, and that’s because she wants to be part of that change.
DeJear was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and grew up in Oklahoma. DeJear came to Iowa as a student at Drake University, and there, she attended the Harkin Steak Fry and got involved in politics. In 2008 and 2012, she worked for the Obama campaign in Iowa. In 2018, DeJear ran against Paul Pate for secretary of state and lost. And in 2020, she worked for the Harris campaign.
DeJear lives in Des Moines, with her husband and two dogs, and owns a consulting company, Caleo Enterprises, which works with small businesses just getting started and more established businesses looking for change.
As a Democrat and a Black woman without a large corporate fundraising base, DeJear is still fighting for name recognition and campaign donations in a state that voted for Donald Trump and where the former president remains popular. In February, columnist Rekha Basu pointed out DeJear’s history of winning in Iowa and called out Iowans for not flocking to the campaign. The title of the article: “When will the Iowa Democratic Party stop waiting for a 'Great White Hope' and see Deidre DeJear?”
Despite the fact that DeJear isn’t a household name to most Iowans and her comparatively small campaign, she’s polling well. While polling shows Reynolds leading, with 51 percent of likely midterm election voters saying they would support her 43 percent say they would support DeJear, despite not knowing much about her. That number is surprising and shows that DeJear is being underestimated in this race and that there is a huge potential for an upset.
Last week, I hopped on a Zoom with DeJear to talk to her about her vision and hope for Iowa and Iowa's history as a progressive state. DeJear’s force of personality and her fervent belief in a state that too many people are willing to dismiss reveal that she’s a candidate that no one should write off.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
LL: How did you get started in politics?
DD: It started at my first political event. It was the Harkin Steak Fry. I was a young college student working with the young Democrats. Fast-forward from there, I am volunteering as a college student with the Obama campaign. And then I worked on the campaign in 2012, and in between I was working on school board and city council races, and I did nonpartisan voter registration. And I just really got involved in the Democratic process. And that is why I ran for secretary of state, and that’s how I met then-Senator Harris. I was traveling not only throughout the state but across the country to try and raise money for the secretary of state race. I was out in California at a meeting for a philanthropic organization that raises money for candidates, and Senator Harris was there. And the first question that she asked me was, “How are you doing?”
And you know, I had my iPad with my presentation. I had everything I was planning on saying and all my plans outlined. But she said, “How are you doing?” Which was the one thing no one had really asked me.
And she taught me an important lesson that if I am not taking care of myself, I can’t take care of Iowans.
That’s how I met her, and when my secretary of state race ended not the way I wanted it to, she called and let me know that I wasn’t done.
LL: You’ve worked on two nationally successful campaigns. What have you learned about Iowans?
DD: I have worked on campaigns at every level, from a school board race for a University of Iowa grad to national campaigns for Obama and Harris. So, I have worked on small races, for example, the school board campaign I worked on, involved electing the youngest member to the Des Moines school board. And all the way up to the presidential level. The one thing that threads those races together is that Iowans are involved in the democratic process. We are asking the tough questions. And Iowans tend to see the issues before they see the party, and I appreciate that.
LL: So, that hits on a story we tell about Iowa, that we are an independent state. We’ve been known as a purple state. But I am not sure that’s true anymore. And it’s presenting challenges, especially to your campaign.
DD: You know, you have to think beyond larger races and look at the local level and see what’s happening. We’ve seen a record number of people running for school board, a record number of people running for city council. And that’s a testament to the hard work Iowans are doing. They are paying attention to the races where the rubber meets the road.
Also, another thing to focus on is that there was a lot of concern that Republicans were going to move the goal posts and circumvent Iowa’s gold-standard redistricting process and that didn’t happen.
But our vision of the state is currently being led by a governor and her insistence on carving out rights for just a select few in the state of Iowa. Versus a vision that includes all Iowans.
LL: You seem to have a lot of hope for Iowa. And I have to say, it’s hard sometimes, and people are exhausted, and we are entering our third year of a pandemic. So what drives your hope?
DD: You know, you talk about exhaustion, and yes, people are exhausted. They’ve been living with fear and so much uncertainty. I think it’s important when people feel exhausted to look back and see how far we’ve come and the progress that has been made. For example, if you look at the progress Iowa has made on marriage equality. That was a long, hard battle. Hard won. And people came out on the other side knowing that all that exhaustion was worth it.
So, it’s important if you are exhausted to take a step back and recharge. But you got to get back in there. And my job right now is getting people reinvigorated. Reinvolved. Because democracy doesn’t work if people don’t participate. And there might be these messages out there that your voice and your vote doesn’t matter. And the Republicans, with their insistence on making it hard for people to participate, send that message. But I’m out here reminding people to jump back in.
Because it wasn’t just with marriage equality that Iowans have led on. One hundred years before Brown v. the Board of Education, Iowa integrated schools. So you have to remember that no matter your race or gender, Iowa does have a history of inclusion.
LL: Also, didn’t Iowa legalize interracial marriage before Loving v. Virginia?
DD: Yes, and you remember in 2007, Iowans sent Barack Obama to the White House. So, it’s moments like this, when you are down, that you have to remember what the Iowa Constitution says in Article I, Section 2: “All political power is inherent in the people.”
And so I’m out here reminding Iowans not only of what we have to do but what we have already done. And what we are doing to overcome the challenges facing our state.
“We’ve seen a record number of people running for school board, a record number of people running for city council. And that’s a testament to the hard work Iowans are doing. They are paying attention to the races where the rubber meets the road.”
LL: One of the reasons Iowa has been making headlines this past year has been the lawsuits against Tyson and the strikes at Deere and other manufacturing plants. It seems, despite political differences, that workers are rising up and demanding better. What do you see as the crucial challenges facing Iowans and what’s the state’s role here?
DD: This is a huge moment for workers’ rights. People are rising up demanding better across the state. And we just have to create pathways for success. We have to create better pathways from high school to college to better paying jobs.
But right now Iowans are also facing challenges with more than just workers’ rights. Iowans are facing challenges accessing healthcare, mental healthcare, childcare. Care, care, Iowans need care.
LL: So why governor?
DD: It’s such a vital role in the state. We’ve seen it. The governor can provide welcome, create pathways, and work with leadership to problem-solve. I mean, we see these challenges right now. Our teachers are leaving the state or our teachers are leaving the education profession. And just last week, our governor signed a bill with a 2.4 million increase in spending. When, no, we know that our teachers and our schools need more than that. That wasn’t enough. So that’s just an example of the things I am going to change and fix. And that’s why governor.
LL: Why do you think more people aren’t running? Why do you think you don’t have more primary challengers?
DD: I can’t answer that question for you. But what I can tell you is what we are doing to go out there and rally people around this race. We are getting out there and meeting people and we are taking the virus seriously and other people’s safety, but we are getting out there. And people need to know, regardless of whether they run or not, there is a place for them in democracy.
LL: I was surprised by some recent polling. Because although the headlines were that Kim Reynolds is popular, so many Iowans who were polled said they would vote for you, despite not knowing who you are. What do you think is driving those numbers?
DD: People believe in what this state can be.
Two questions I ask on this campaign is, Why do you stay? And so many people have so much good to say about their communities. Another thing I ask is, Where can government come in to help? And so much of what people have to say about their communities is affiliated with where they need help. And because so many people believe Iowa can be better, they recognize that the current leadership is not leading us down that path. She’s fixated on carving out rights for a select few Iowans, on giving the wealthy tax breaks. And Iowans see this and know we can be better. We’ve seen Bob Ray. We know we can do it, and we know this leadership is not getting us there.
LL: What do you think Iowans should know about you?
DD: I am a small business owner. And if you know anything about owning a small business, you know they are problem-solvers, they are resilient, and they have a lot of hope as well. Because there is a lot of uncertainty in the economy.
LL: What are the biggest challenges facing the campaign?
DD: Running for office is a big challenge in and of itself. So we are trying to reach out to as many Iowans as we can. And we are doing what we can to get that done. Our eyes are on the prize.
LL: So if you are out there doing the 99-county tour, what are your favorite spots in the state?
DD: No, you can’t get me to pick favorites. No, ma’am.
This state is so different wherever you go. We have different terrains. There is rural Iowa, urban Iowa. It’s all so different.
But I will say, at 1am, my favorite place in Iowa is my bed.
LL: Okay, okay. So, if you can’t pick a favorite place, tell me the biggest challenge facing Iowans? What are people telling you?
DD: Well, that’s mental healthcare. People are on waiting lists for mental healthcare. We have less than 100 state beds at the state mental hospital. We are behind the curve on that.
Education is a big issue as well.
Workers’ rights, whether they are nurses, teachers, meat-packing plant workers. People feel like they can’t advocate for themselves. And the strength of our state is tied to the strength of our workers.
Also, affordable housing. People need affordable housing.
And lastly, connectivity. We still have a problem with broadband in this state. Right now, we have a lot of people who have been given permission to work from home but don’t have access to the kind of internet they need to get that done. And this is an issue because that’s a huge draw for this state. You can work here and live on your couple of acres. So if we want to draw people into this state, we need to give them the infrastructure.
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