Democrat Sara Sedlacek challenging Tom Sands in Iowa House district 88

Iowa House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tom Sands did not face a Democratic opponent in 2010, but Sara Sedlacek announced this week that she is running against the five-term incumbent in the new House district 88.

The new Iowa House district 88 covers most of Des Moines County outside the cities of Burlington and West Burlington, all of Louisa County, and a large area in Muscatine County, not including the city of Muscatine.

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This district is among the most evenly-balanced Iowa House seats. As of April 2011, House district 88 contained 6,238 registered Democrats, 6,189 Republicans, and 6,791 no-party voters.

Sands has represented Louisa County, most of Des Moines County, and parts of southern Muscatine County since 2002. He was raised and educated in Muscatine and has worked for many years as a banker and real estate appraiser in Columbus Junction (Louisa County). He also owns a corn and soybeans operation, although he does not farm actively. Sands served on the Columbus Junction City Council before being elected to the Iowa House.

Given the advantages of incumbency, Sands will be favored in this swing district. Raising money won’t be a problem for the Ways and Means Committee chairman. Sands belongs to many influential interest groups, including the Iowa Bankers Association, the National Rifle Association, the Louisa County Farm Bureau, the Iowa Corn Growers and the Iowa Soybean Association. If his race looks competitive, he will receive more help from conservative groups like the Iowans for Tax Relief PAC. Sands didn’t raise much money for his 2010 re-election bid, but previous reports archived here show that he collected substantial contributions in 2008, the last time he had a Democratic challenger. He does not appear to have a current campaign website. This site hasn’t been updated since 2005.

Sara Sedlacek of West Liberty (Muscatine County) works for the environmental education non-profit organization Backyard Abundance, which is based in Iowa City. She also is a part-time grant writer for Johnson County. Sedlacek grew up in neighboring Cedar County and attended the University of Iowa before starting a career in journalism. While still in her mid-20s, she became editor of the weekly West Liberty Index. Under her leadership the newspaper won several awards for weeklies in its class, including a prize for Sedlacek’s opinion columns.

Sedlacek worked briefly on Governor Chet Culver’s re-election campaign last year and also on John Wittneben’s successful House bid in northwest Iowa. She clerked for Wittneben during the 2011 legislative session, then moved back to West Liberty, where she and her husband purchased a coffee shop that had shut down in March of this year. Sedlacek told me by phone that they plan to reopen the business in the coming weeks. She will keep working for Backyard Abundance and Johnson County while her husband runs day to day operations at the coffee shop. Her campaign website is still under construction.

West Liberty is the largest town in the new House district 88, and it grew much faster than the Iowa statewide average during the past decade. Sedlacek will need to run up big margins in that part of Muscatine County to have any chance against Sands. Her knowledge of Spanish should help her campaign. In the 2010 census, 52 percent of West Liberty’s 3,736 residents identified as Latino. The smaller town of Conesville also has more Latino residents than non-Latino whites, while Columbus Junction is 48 percent Latino.

Side note: West Liberty was the first Iowa school district to adopt a dual language education model in 1998. The first cohort of bilingual students just graduated from high school. This site has more background on the program and details about its goals. Parents who want to take advantage of this opportunity can choose the dual language program when their children are in preschool or kindergarten. The program runs through junior year of high school, with half-day instruction in English and half-day in Spanish. After observing the model in action, one visitor to the West Liberty school wrote that he and his teaching student colleagues all wished they had taken more Spanish in high school and college.

Back to House district 88: Sands has the edge, having represented most of these voters for a decade. I am skeptical that Democratic turnout in 2012 will be as high as it was in the last presidential election, when Sands was re-elected with only 53 percent of the vote. But the incumbent shouldn’t take a sixth term for granted. Three Iowa House Democrats who had not faced Republican opponents in 2008 lost their seats in 2010.

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