What the Iowa Democratic Party needs to do ASAP

Amber Gustafson is a progressive activist and was the 2018 Democratic candidate in Iowa Senate district 19. -promoted by Laura Belin

Dear Fellow Iowa Democrats,

It’s a new year and with that comes new perspectives and new outlooks.

In November of 2020, I put my name forward to run for Iowa Democratic Party chair and with it I shared a plan to help our party regain our footing in our state. It was with determination and optimism that I stepped forward to offer my services to our party. But since my initial announcement, my family’s circumstances have come to bear on my plans for 2021.

It is with great regret that I have chosen to withdraw my name for consideration as chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.

Unequivocally, the chair position in 2021 is one that requires at minimum 40 hours a week of dedicated and focused effort. At many points throughout the year, it could easily require double that. It is because I so firmly believe that anything less would be a disservice to the role and to the Democrats of our state, I am bowing out. I would strongly have my doubts about the ability of any person who would attempt to do this incredibly important work as a part-time gig.

As many people close to me know, I have a son who has ADHD and is on the Autism Spectrum. He also has severe anxiety disorder which has been exacerbated by this pandemic. While my two younger children have chosen to transition back to face-to-face school, my son, who is a junior, has chosen to stick with 100 percent online school. My husband and I are supportive of his choice but because of his need for two to four hours a day of support to complete his schooling, my next five months (and possibly longer) will be dedicated to helping him earn the credits he needs to graduate from high school.

And I am not alone. The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on millions of moms just like me - thousands of us who have had to cut back our hours, those who are struggling to balance working from home with wrangling kids’ online learning, many of whom have had to delay education goals or their re-entry to the workforce, and many who have just quit all together to care for children or loved ones. I have seen my single-mom friends worn to a frazzle trying to hold it all together. I have seen marriages crumble and fall apart. I’ve seen mental health breakdowns. I’ve wept with friends who are mourning loved ones cut down by this deadly disease.

It is important to me to note, however that the answer to my situation and that of millions of caregivers like me, is not a full and open return to school alone. It is a well-organized, science-based public health effort to tamp down the virus with proper mitigation strategies AND broad testing & vaccination followed by a full and open return to school. Anything less will only prolong not just the the need for mitigation but also the preventable deaths and disabilities that come along with COVID-19.

That said, I do plan to continue my advocacy for issues I care about. I will continue to serve my community and work to help others. I will also continue to work on my master’s degree through Drake University’s online masters program.

Of particular interest to me will be working to make sure that Iowa’s Children’s Mental Health Program is actually funded. As you can imagine, it is near and dear to my heart and since the newly-elected state representative for Iowa House district 38 ran on a platform of “children’s mental health,” I expect there will be ample opportunity to work together to finally secure the funding that has never been needed more for our kids.

I will continue my work and advocacy for gun safety issues with Moms Demand Action as I also continue my work on the boards of Project Iowa, Reach Out and Read Iowa and Ankeny Dollars for Scholars.

I am overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity to run for chair and the experience, relationships, and conversations I’ve had along the way. And because I believe in leaving anything better than you found it, I want to share some of the insights I’ve gained in the hopes that our next chair and our State Central Committee can take them into account.

The State Central Committee is an Overlooked Gold Mine.

I had the honor of sharing many hours-long conversations via phone and zoom with well over half the members of the Iowa Democratic Party's State Central Committee (SCC). For those who don’t know, our SCC is made up of members elected from our four Congressional districts and our constituency caucuses (Black Caucus, Disability Caucus, Stonewall (LGBTQ) Caucus and more) elected by the voting members of their groups.

I had heard many cautionary tales about the infighting and conflict within the SCC, but what I found was a group of passionate, committed and highly knowledgeable volunteers who care deeply about Democratic politics in our state - not just because they want to win, but because they know that Democratic policies will save lives and businesses and will increase the quality of life of every Iowan.

Some of our SCC members are fairly new to the scene, having been elected just about a year ago. Others have been organizing and advocating since Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses - and many even before that! They bring a vibrant and effective mix of wisdom and vision to the table but their skills and input have been overlooked.

From my conversations, I’ve learned that in the past, the SCC has been functioned primarily as an advisory body, giving advice and consent to the work of the IDP executive staff. The SCC has historically met only quarterly (previously in person, now virtually) and there has been not enough collaboration between members of the SCC, the executive board and the executive staff leading to siloing of information, a lot of reinventing the wheel and frankly, a lot of fantastic volunteers who have been sidelined rather than utilized.

Every SCC member I spoke to expressed a desire to be more fully engaged, to be better informed, to have an opportunity to be more hands-on, to work more collaboratively with other members of the SCC and our county party chairs.

Our next state chair should see this desire for greater inclusion as an enormous asset that, when properly marshaled, could make our party not just good but great. The answers to where we go from here are in the hearts and minds of the members of the SCC. Let's unleash their potential!

As a footnote, I would add our county party chairs to this goldmine as well. They are brilliant and they keep showing up even in deep red rural counties! Invite them in!

We Have to Get Our Data House in Order.

This comes at no surprise to anyone who has worked with the state VAN/Votebuilder. IDP must hire a dedicated database guru whose full-time job is maintaining and improving our database. We need someone who knows the ins and outs of how to really make VAN hum, a person who understands list segmentation through activist codes, a person who can create data entry guidelines and train volunteers - a person who can help us get better at identifying our voters and registering new ones.

I strongly recommend hiring year-round, dedicated data specialists for our four Congressional districts too. Data is the future of voter and volunteer organization. We must get better at it.

Fixing Our Social Media is Crucial.

I want to be careful to explain that this point is not aimed at anyone on staff at IDP. The problem of our social media is much larger and it comes from a lack of strategy at the top. First, let’s identify what social media is not. It is not: political ad buys in election years, reposts of press releases, or an annoying fad the kids are into.

Social media is the front-facing personification of your brand to your intended audience. It is a vast person-to-person network of neighbors and friends interacting with and sharing content they find interesting, entertaining and compelling. It is a powerful source for informing, engaging and motivating people who like your brand. Yes, even in rural Iowa where more and more people are turning to Facebook as their source of news and information over TV, radio, and the newspaper.

Until we have a strong, 365-day social media strategy on multiple platforms and multiple channels we are ceding ground - not just to the Republican Party (whose Facebook following and level of target engagement far outpaces our own) but to crackpot conspiracy theorists and alt-right agitators who pick off voters we could otherwise reach.

I will be emailing a social media analysis completed as part of my coursework in the Drake University Master of Arts in Communication, Public Policy & Advocacy program to the members of the SCC early next week, along with some higher level recommendations on how to improve our brand presence. I hope they, along with the new chair, will take the recommendations into consideration as they move forward.

We Have to Address the Nate in the Room.

Through my conversations with members of the SCC, I have spoken to Asian Americans, Indigenous Americans, Americans with Disabilities, Veterans, Women, Retirees, LGBTQ folx, Latinx Americans, rural Iowans, and many others who can claim membership in one or more constituency caucuses.

Nearly every one of them expressed a heartfelt desire to be more respected and valued for their contributions to our party. Many of them told me of sad and upsetting situations they’ve experienced where they have been harassed, threatened, excluded, passed over or treated inappropriately by a fellow Democrat.

Now disagreement and dissension are to be expected in a group like this. As a matter of fact, dissension is a feature, not a bug in Democratic politics. I pray that we never seek effortless consensus. The Republicans are right now showing us what happens to our country when a political party throws away healthy internal debate for unquestioning cult-like devotion. So we need to continue to celebrate and encourage hard conversations and diversity of thought.

But for too long, the Democratic Party in Iowa and elsewhere has done everything from turn a blind eye to bad behavior to throwing their hands up in defeat when one of our own is credibly accused.

Whether it is inappropriate text messages and touching, or ignoring requests for disability accommodations or repeated online racial aggressions, Democrats, the party of Hillary “Women’s rights are human rights” Clinton and Tom “Americans With Disabilities Act” Harkin has got to do better.

Many folks on SCC and many others involved in Democratic politics in Iowa have expressed a righteous feeling of frustration about the current circumstances surrounding State Senator Nate Boulton. They feel that his promotion to leadership within the Iowa Senate minority is a slap in the face to his victims - especially from a party that claims to stand for the rights of women. I don’t disagree.

State Senator Zach Wahls, the new minority leader, says he’s trying to do what he can with the cards he’s been dealt (just eighteen Democratic senators heading into the 2021-2022 General Assembly). I don’t disagree with that either.

I suspect that the heartburn Iowa Democrats are feeling about the Nate situation is less about Nate specifically as much as it is about the message that this sends to Democrats who might choose to harass, discriminate or behave inappropriately in the future, namely, that there is really nothing the party will (or can) do so… you know…. whatever…

I definitely do not disagree with that point either.

The party has got to find the intestinal fortitude to give marginalized groups their human rights.

Yes you read that correctly. Women, people with disabilities, racial minorities, older adults, LGBTQ Iowa Democrats are asking the party to grant us our human rights - the same rights we have in any other space to not be discriminated against, harassed or demeaned. The party needs a specific and detailed policy. We need a system for accountability.

We need to send a strong message to our fellow Democrats that hate and harassment have no home in our party.

Until we do, a large portion of Democrats will not feel safe in our organizing spaces. We will not feel welcomed or included in this party. And our party will be weaker for it.

At the December 2020 SCC meeting, a motion was passed to create a committee to develop and strengthen the existing policy on the books. I applaud their efforts and I hope something good comes of it.

But I hope and pray that the policy does not end up being something that the SCC votes on. Because we should never as a body vote whether our fellow Democratic are eligible for human rights. The policy should be instated by fiat. Not by popular vote. This is a bedrock value for Democrats and our party needs to reflect that.

Our new chair will need to work on getting this policy adopted and most importantly enforced. They will need to advocate to make certain this policy has teeth and that the accountability in it is clearly communicated to everyone who is subject to it.

And while a putting a policy in place may not undo the harm that unbecoming behavior has caused up til now, it will go a long way in mending hurt and setting the tone for the future.

It has been my great honor to have these conversations with so many smart and passionate Democrats. My only regret is that I did not have the opportunity to speak with every SCC member and all the county party chairs. I am deeply appreciative of the time you spent sharing your hearts with me and I look forward to more ways and opportunities to work together in the future. Please reach out if I can be of any help to you as you move forward.

While I share your disappointment that the timing is not right for me, Covid will not last forever and I am still young(ish) enough to hold back and wait for a future opportunity to serve my party and/or the people of our state. I am grateful for that.

With deepest appreciation, #keepgoing


  • Going forward

    Regarding the section in the article labeled addressing "The Nate in the Room:"

    By all means, the party should address incidents of harassment and being ignored. Those should be a core constituency. But specifically addressing the Nate Bolton incident, if a person has apologized for the incident, need he be banished forever?

    It seems like we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we discard otherwise talented people if they committed ANY transgressions. We need to keep things in perspective, consider the severity, the sincerity of the apology and reassess.

    In my mind, we needn't make Mr. Bolton a punching bag forever.

    Beyond that, this was an instructive column.

    — Dale Alison

    • Stop protecting rape culture

      An apology is not atonement or redemption, but it can be a start. Show me where Nate Boulton apologized.

      I can show you where he victim-blamed: https://www.bleedingheartland.com/2018/12/12/nate-boultons-victim-blaming-is-harmful-and-unnecessary/

      People are not asking him to be banished forever. I have only seen people asking him to be held accountable for his actions, which would be promoting someone who lives Democratic values of defending the people and not Nate who has never apologized and who has victim blamed.

      I have seen comments from men saying his non-apologies show that he did not harass women. You cannot have it both ways - that while he did not deny the incidences, they didn't happen because he didn't apologize and that his non-apologies are sufficient and everyone needs to move on.

      Sexual assault is not any transgression.

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