Who's who in the Iowa House for 2020

The Iowa House opened its 2020 session on January 13 with 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats, a change from last year’s 54-46 split due to State Representative Andy McKean’s party switch shortly before lawmakers adjourned last year.

The House members include 67 men and 33 women (23 Democrats and ten Republicans). Although 34 women were elected to the chamber in 2018 (a record number), State Representative Lisa Heddens stepped down last summer, and Ross Wilburn won the special election to serve out her term in House district 46.

Five African Americans (Democrats Ako Abdul-Samad, Ruth Ann Gaines, Ras Smith, Phyllis Thede, and Wilburn) will serve in the legislature’s lower chamber; the other 95 lawmakers are white. No Latino has ever been elected to the Iowa House, and there has not been an Asian-American member since Swati Dandekar moved up to the state Senate following the 2008 election. Democratic State Representative Liz Bennett is the only out LGBTQ member of the lower chamber. To my knowledge, Abdul-Samad (who is Muslim) is the only lawmaker in either chamber to practice a religion other than Christianity.

After the jump I’ve posted details on the Iowa House majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing House committees. Where relevant, I’ve noted significant changes since last year.

Some non-political trivia: the Iowa House includes two Smiths (both Democrats), while the other 98 members have different surnames. As for popular first names, there are six Davids (four go by Dave), four Marys (one goes by Mary Ann), three Roberts (a Rob, a Bob, and a Bobby), three men named Thomas (two go by Tom), three Johns and two Jons, and three men each named Gary and Brian. There are also two Elizabeths (a Beth and a Liz) and two men each named Bruce, Chris, Jeff, Michael (one goes by Mike), Ross, and Charles (a Chuck and a Charlie).

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Newest Iowa House member Ross Wilburn on his work, inspiration

State Representative Ross Wilburn took the oath of office on September 6 to represent Iowa House district 46, covering part of Ames in Story County. Republicans did not field a candidate against him in the August 6 special election to fill the seat vacated by Story County Supervisor Lisa Heddens.

In a September 6 telephone interview, Wilburn said he hasn’t been assigned to committees yet and probably will not know those assignments until November. He’s interested in many aspects of the legislature’s work, including human services (he has a master’s degree in social work), local government or transportation (he’s a former Iowa City mayor and city council member), and veterans’ affairs (he served in the Army National Guard). Education is also a high priority for Wilburn and of great importance to his constituents. Iowa State University is the dominant employer and community presence in Ames. Wilburn is diversity officer and associate director for community economic development at ISU Extension and Outreach.

Wilburn told me he’s looking forward to returning to public service and getting to work for constituents. The issues that came up most often during his conversations with voters this summer were mental health care, Medicaid privatization, public employee collective bargaining rights, and adequate funding for K-12 as well as higher education.

During his swearing-in ceremony, Wilburn recalled that when he first decided to run for city council, he was visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and was near the marker where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Reflecting today on the Iowa legislators who came before him, Wilburn recalled the example set by Willie Stevenson Glanton. The second African-American woman admitted to the Iowa bar, Glanton was the first woman to serve as assistant Polk County attorney and in 1964 (the year of Wilburn’s birth) became the first African-American woman elected to the Iowa House. Wilburn had the opportunity to meet Glanton during his time on Iowa City’s council and was inspired by her.

The Iowa House now has a full complement of 100 members again: 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats. Wilburn is one of five African Americans serving in the chamber, along with fellow Democrats Ako Abdul-Samad, Ruth Ann Gaines, Ras Smith, and Phyllis Thede. This year’s House Democratic caucus was the first in Iowa legislative history to have a majority of women, but Andy McKean’s party switch in April, Heddens’ retirement, and Wilburn’s election shifts the balance back to 24 men and 23 women. (Ten women and 43 men are part of the Iowa House Republican caucus.)

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Kim Reynolds thumbed her nose at ISU students for nothing

Democrat Ross Wilburn will be unopposed in the August 6 special election to represent Iowa House district 46. The deadline to file nominating papers was on July 12 at 5:00 pm, and Wilburn is the only name on the Iowa Secretary of State’s candidate list.

A spokesperson for the Republican Party of Iowa told the Des Moines Register’s Stephen Gruber-Miller that the GOP would not field a candidate for the special election, but did not indicate why. The Libertarian Party of Iowa also declined to compete for this district; Libertarians have occasionally nominated candidates in House district 45, covering other Ames neighborhoods.

In all likelihood, Wilburn would have won this election regardless of the timing or the competition, given the political layout of House district 46. The strongest potential GOP candidate, Ames City Council member Tim Gartin, took himself out of the running early, and several Democratic presidential candidates have either headlined events for Wilburn or had their staff help knock doors for him.

If Republicans weren’t planning to play for this seat, it was exceptionally foolish for Governor Kim Reynolds to set the election on the first Tuesday allowed under state law. She could have scheduled the vote for late August or September, when most Iowa State University students would be back in Ames.

All Reynolds accomplished by picking August 6 was reinforcing the narrative that she doesn’t care about constituents who don’t politically align with her. She could have shown her commitment to fair play by picking a day that would give more House district 46 residents a voice. Instead, she used the levers of power to depress Democratic turnout–for nothing.

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Ross Wilburn nominated for Iowa House district 46 special

Ross Wilburn will be the Democratic candidate in the August 6 election to represent Iowa House district 46. Delegates to a special nominating convention in Ames on June 29 chose Wilburn on the second ballot.

The former Iowa City mayor, who has worked for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach since 2014, recently told Bleeding Heartland that if elected to the state House, he wants to address problems with privatized Medicaid, climate change, and gun violence. Other priorities for Wilburn are strengthening public school districts, restoring collective bargaining rights for public workers, and making Iowa more welcoming and inclusive for marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ community, people of color, veterans, and people with disabilities.

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