Elections bring more diversity to the Iowa legislature

Iowa Writers' Collaborative.  Linking Iowa readers and writers.People of color, Iowans who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, and those who adhere to a non-Christian faith tradition will hold a record number of seats in the Iowa legislature next year.

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

From left: Izaah Knox, Megan Srinivas and Sami Scheetz are among the newly elected state legislators. (Photos courtesy of their campaigns’ Facebook pages)

Record showing for Black Iowans

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

After winning the race in Iowa’s deep blue Senate District 17, Democrat Izaah Knox becomes the second black Iowa to serve in the state’s 50-seat Senate and the first since Thomas Mann Jr. completed his second term in 1990.

Knox told Bleeding Heartland in a phone interview that his win was “exciting” and a little “overwhelming.” While “it’s a great achievement, there’s still too much work to be done.” He was happy to see candidates representing many types of diversity on his ballot as he voted. This is a “step in the right direction” for Iowa.

The outgoing Iowa House has six black members, a record from 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 re-election bid in House District 94 (Bettendorf).

Two newly elected Democrats will enter the House of Representatives faction in January. Jerome Amos, Jr. was unopposed at House District 62 (Waterloo), where State Assemblyman Ras Smith opted against re-election. Amos told Bleeding Heartland it’s important “to have representation for people who look like me.” As a member of Waterloo City Council for the past seven years, he has represented people of all races and political parties. He plans to approach his work as a legislator in the same way to get things done for the community.

He’s had other opportunities to be the first black man in various positions and he’s proud of those accomplishments. But “I truly believe that we are all in this world together, we all need to try and work together to make what’s best for everyone.” He hopes to have conversations across the aisle to find common ground.

In his retirement speech to members of the Iowa House, Smith noted that leaving the legislature was a bit like a breakup. He added, “It’s not me, it’s you” — an apparent indication that the Republican majority will pass small police reforms but oppose legislation to combat racial profiling and later enact a police law expected to reduce racial disparities aggravated.

I asked Amos how he planned to reach consensus given this track record. He quoted 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.” You may agree to disagree and walk away, but he won’t be frustrated. He knows that those in power at the Statehouse may want to do certain things, “but that’s not going to stop me from using the voice I have.”

Democrat Mary Madison defeated her Republican opponent in House District 31, which covered parts of West Des Moines. She welcomes the growing diversity in the legislature and in Congress, because “when we work together, we bring in diverse ideas and innovations.”

When 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 if we 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 re-elected to House District 96 (Muscatine area).

Many Latinos have run for the Iowa legislature as Democrats, but the first to win was Adam Zabner. He faced no opposition in House District 90, which covers a portion 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 have been elected representative for 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. (Since her resignation in 2011, the Senate has been all white.) Republican Henry Stone, who describes himself as an Amer-Asian, won a state house race in 2020 and just finished 9th in House District (Emmet, Winnebago and most of them ) re-elected Kossuth County).

Democrat Megan Srinivas, the daughter of immigrants from India who have settled in Fort Dodge, has just been elected to House District 30 (Des Moines). After winning a hard-fought primary, she had been heavily favored in 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 under at least 15 South Asian Americans are winning Legislative or Congressional races this year.

First Arab-American legislature elected

Democrat Sami Scheetz broke through another barrier on November 8th. After winning in House District 78 (Cedar Rapids), he will become the first Arab American to serve in the Iowa Legislature. His mother immigrated to this country from Damascus, Syria.

Scheitz tweeted Shortly after the election: “I’m incredibly proud to be going to the Iowa State House. When I get there, I will be one of Iowa’s youngest members of Congress 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. To be the first Arab-American representative of this vibrant community that has been based in Cedar Rapids for over 120 years is of particular importance to 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 is also a hundred-year-old Arab Christian church in my district. So there has been a vibrant Arab community here for over a century and to finally have representation in our state legislature that mirrors that of Cedar Rapids is incredible.”

Scheetz told the Cedar Rapids Gazette in June that he will seek to counter the “sharp and damaging” anti-immigrant rhetoric of Iowa Republicans and do other things to promote diversity and inclusion.

So far, former state senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat who did not run for re-election in 2018, was the only LGBTQ person in the Iowa Senate. Rep. Liz Bennett, who has been the only outqueer member of the Iowa House of Representatives in recent years, has just been elected to Senate District 39 (Cedar Rapids).

Speaking to Bleeding Heartland over the phone, Bennett said the growing diversity in the state legislature is “really exciting.” Because Iowa Republicans have used “very damaging” rhetoric toward LGBTQ people, and youth in particular, it’s critical for them to “know that there are people in their legislature who care about them and are committed to them.” ‘ and may have had similar experiences.

Bennett hopes the day will come when a politician’s sexual orientation or gender identity won’t matter. When she first ran for Iowa House, she was more interested in speaking out on other issues, such as clean energy and economic equality. But “at a time when LGBTQ kids have become political football for the GOP, having someone from the community with a mic in the Senate is even more important.”

As a member of the minority faction, Bennett may not be able to push many of the policies she wants. But maybe kids who feel like everyone around them agrees with the hostile commercials could learn about her work and “understand that not everyone in Iowa thinks that way. There’s a place for them here.” That kind of support “can mean the difference between life and death for a pre-teen or teenager.”

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

“There are members of our current legislature who are working to demonize, ostracize and exclude queer Iowans from participating in everyday life. They equate happy adults living full lives with pedophiles to fuel division through fear of the unknown. They promote the zero-sum mentality that there can be no ‘equality’ and that more rights for one group must mean fewer rights for another.”

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