Reflecting on 2021 and the work ahead

State Representative Ras Smith, a candidate for governor, recalls his highs and lows and poses some tough questions for Iowa Democrats.

As we prepare for upcoming holidays and the close of 2021, I am reminded to once again take inventory of the year, and to reflect upon my work. What has it meant? Is it aligned with my mission-driven commitment? What lies ahead?

I continue to find beauty in the struggle.  

Standing on the picket line beside my father during the United Auto Workers strike at John Deere this fall is a moment I will never forget. There was no place that I would have rather been than standing for dignity in work, for truth and for accountability—fighting to preserve my family’s past, present and future.  

My family’s path to Iowa started with my grandmother not asking for permission to make a bold decision. In 1957, when my dad was 7, she fled the segregated South in search of a better life for her family than the one on the sharecropping plantation in Tchula, Mississippi. 

It was Iowa that provided the opportunity for my grandmother to go from sharecropper to housekeeper. Here, she was able to lay the foundation for her son to work as an assemblyman at John Deere for more than 40 years, and later, for his son to serve in the Iowa House and to run for governor. That is the Iowa I believe in.  

Over the past six years, I’ve experienced the highs of leading the bipartisan unanimous passage of a law banning police chokeholds, to receiving the Iowa Democratic Party’s Rising Star and Progress Iowa’s Harkin Hero awards. And I’ve endured the lows of sitting through hateful subcommittees like the bill to ban teaching any part of the 1619 project, to the countless death threats that I have and continue to receive in my mailbox, along with all the members of the Iowa Legislative Black Caucus.

This year, my odometer has quickly moved higher and higher, a visible reminder of the tens of thousands of miles my team and I have trekked across the state and the thousands of people I’ve had the pleasure to get to know—from every political party—connecting through our shared struggles, common needs, and hopes for the future and futures of our children. I value the friendships I’ve cultivated and lessons I’ve learned from so many Iowans, and I’m filled with gratitude for these irreplaceable experiences.  

As a public servant, it’s been my belief that we can lead with empathy, truth, vulnerability and transparency. For me, this has served as a compass, even in the midst of unforeseen challenges. 

I never expected to be given as equal a shot as my white counterparts. Because that’s reality. I’ve been a Black man in Iowa my entire life. What I didn’t expect was to be treated as insignificant by the donor class of my own party. After months of phone calls, letters, repeated outreach, to not receive a call back or be given an opportunity to meet has felt disrespectful.

I can’t help but wonder if the party that I’ve dedicated all of myself to over the past six years would be perpetuating the narrative that I “can’t compete” or actively recruiting others to jump into a race with qualified candidates, if the front runner for the Democratic nomination for governor of Iowa were white.

With the recently-formed alliance by Iowa Democrats working to reimagine the party’s function and organization, we must ask ourselves the tough questions:

  • What do we want the future of our party to look like? And should those making decisions at the highest level reflect the incredibly diverse Democrats in Iowa – from every region, every race, every socioeconomic background and from many generations?
  • Should the cost of having a voice in the future of our party be $25,000+?
  • Do we truly want diverse candidates from working class backgrounds? If so, do we believe not investing in these candidates in 2022 is strategically wise?

I walk into the new year with greater understanding of the importance of self-reflection, because “without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” – Margaret J. Wheatley

About the Author(s)

Ras Smith