Ras Smith's departure raises tough questions for Iowa Democrats

State Representative Ras Smith suspended his campaign for governor on January 5, saying he had reached “the heartbreaking conclusion that there are barriers that one campaign cannot overcome, no matter how hard we work or how faithfully we represent the majority of hardworking Iowans.”

In a written statement and recorded video message, Smith thanked Iowans who welcomed him a candidate for governor, saying the campaign “has reaffirmed for me the magnitude of mission-driven work that lies ahead.” He added, “Unfortunately, this process has also exposed a drastic disconnect between the current political system and the people.”

Smith wrote in a Bleeding Heartland commentary last month,

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.

Speaking to Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Todd Dorman, Smith observed that he received the Iowa Democratic Party’s “rising star” award in 2019.

“At that time, Troy Price, the chair of the party, said Ras Smith is the future of the Democratic Party. And so if there’s a narrative among Democrats that we can’t be competitive, without seeing what dollars are on hand, I’d put up my legislative resume’ against anybody’s, from Nate Boulton’s to Todd Prichard’s to Fred Hubbell. The only difference is I’m not wealthy enough to self-fund my race. […]

“I’ve been struggling,” Smith said. “And I believe in being transparent and authentic in the work that I do. I’ve been struggling to have sit-down conversations about my campaign with institutional donors to this party historically. I’ve been struggling to get them to answer a phone call and have a meeting with me. And I wonder why? I wonder what I’ve done to make these folks not want to entertain a Ras Smith candidacy?

“I wonder along the way what misstep did I make? Did I not shake a hand at the right event? Did I not pass the right policy to not show up? I’ve got a case full of plaques that they said I was doing a dang good job. But when it comes to the fact that I call to have a conversation, I don’t even get a return phone call back. No answer back,” Smith said.

During a January 6 news conference, Iowa Democratic Party state chair Ross Wilburn expressed pride in the kind of campaign Smith ran. As the first Black candidate for governor to qualify for Iowa’s primary ballot (in 2018), Wilburn said, “I understand the challenges that Ras faced, and any statewide candidate. It’s a tough haul.”

Following up, I asked Wilburn about Smith’s comments. Does he feel major Iowa Democratic donors are open to candidates of all kinds? Wilburn said running statewide is “a lot different” from a campaign for a legislative district or city office. “There’s a lot of generous donors out there.” He said he hadn’t debriefed with Smith and wasn’t familiar with any specific conversations he had had with donors.

Smith’s departure leaves Deidre DeJear as the only candidate actively campaigning against Governor Kim Reynolds, and perhaps the only one who will appear on that line of the Democratic primary ballot in June. State Representative Chris Hall is rumored to be considering the race as well.

Candidates for state offices must report their 2021 fundraising and spending to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board by January 19. DeJear has support from some large donors; Roxanne Conlin hosted a recent event for her campaign. She also has the backing of several political action committees, which should help her fund a statewide campaign.

Nevertheless, Iowa Democrats need to consider the questions Smith raised here:

  • 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?

Final note: I am seeking to confirm whether Smith plans to seek re-election to the Iowa House this year. The redistricting plan put him and fellow Democratic State Representative Timi Brown-Powers in the new House district 61. Much of the area Smith currently represents is in the new House district 62, where no incumbent resides.

Appendix: YouTube video and full text of written statement released by Ras Smith’s campaign on January 5

“When my team and I launched my campaign for governor last summer, we invited all Iowans to join our movement with the message “come as you are.” We believe that there is a place for everyone in our collective vision for the future of Iowa. 

And over the past seven months, you have welcomed me into your homes, your communities, your struggles, and your aspirations. You have allowed me to come as I am, and it’s been a privilege. Knowing you better has helped me to know Iowa better and love Iowa more. It has reaffirmed for me the magnitude of mission-driven work that lies ahead to ensure Iowa is a state where all of us can not just survive — but thrive. 

Unfortunately, this process has also exposed a drastic disconnect between the current political system and the people. I have come to the heartbreaking conclusion that there are barriers that one campaign cannot overcome, no matter how hard we work or how faithfully we represent the majority of hardworking Iowans.

Today I am announcing the suspension of my campaign for Governor of Iowa. I am profoundly grateful to our countless friends, supporters, and donors, and invite you to stay connected as we continue to work to bring meaningful change to this state. My faith guides me in not being tethered to an outcome, but instead to remain committed to the work.

I return to the Iowa Legislature next week where I will focus on continuing to amplify the voice of the people. I strongly believe that people are Iowa’s greatest resource. As I’ve traveled the state, my team and I have heard over and over that Iowans want leaders with shared experiences and who understand working class challenges. What they do not want is the most wealthy and elite to be solely at the table making decisions on their behalf. 

We have a lot of work to do, Iowa. And I’m here for it.”

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin