Can Deidre DeJear’s team, maybe even the Obamas, re-awaken the soul of Iowa?

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

JEFFERSON, Iowa, July 18, 2022 — When Deidre DeJear accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor of Iowa at the state convention last month, she reminded the crowd that she came to this state 18 years ago “on a hope and a prayer.”  She’d been “a little girl from Mississippi,” African American, who won a scholarship to Drake University in Des Moines. Four years later, she graduated in broadcasting and politics, became successful in business and public service, and now was beaming from the podium where she raised her hands and yelled, “Folks, we’re here! We’re here!” 

Then the 36-year-old DeJear, from Des Moines, said something that put it all in perspective, a line that I think will resonate with people across this state, if they hear her repeat it.  

“My story being possible in Iowa,” she said, “ensures that all our stories are possible.” 

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Deidre DeJear and Eric Van Lancker, the Democratic Party’s nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, at the recent state convention.

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DeJear speaking at a rally at Des Moines Roosevelt High School.

But is it really possible that she could beat powerful Gov. Kim Reynolds, the 62-year-old Republican incumbent, in the general election on Nov. 8?  Reynolds is in her sixth year as governor, after serving six years previously as lieutenant governor to Terry Branstad. She succeeded him when President Donald Trump appointed Branstad to become U.S. ambassador to China.

Yes, it’s still possible, even with new polls showing the governor has expanded her lead.

I recall how my old friend Jerry Kelley, who had served as the very popular mayor of Indianola, Iowa, from 1995 to 2010, decided to run for one more term and got beat.  Everybody was shocked.  “Well,” said Kelley, when I called to commiserate, “in politics, everybody’s got a shelf life.” 

Reynolds, who is now from St. Charles just south of the Des Moines metro area, has already had a long run in public service — four terms as treasurer of Clarke County, then an Iowa State Senator, and for a dozen years now as lieutenant governor and then governor. 

Her story is a good one, even redemptive, in her recovery from alcoholism, earning her college degree late in life, and learning gubernatorial duties from the ol’ master Branstad, who was the nation’s longest-serving governor by the time he went to China. “I’m real proud of Kim Reynolds,” he said recently. “She’s built on everything I taught her.” 

I’m the rare Democrat — and I am one now — who agrees with Reynolds on the abortion issue. 

But beyond that, she sure seems vulnerable to me. 

There is her questionable, seemingly iron-handed leadership during the COVID pandemic, which has killed more than 9,700 Iowans.

Since 2011, Branstad and then Reynolds have presided over a veritable dismantling of state government. Isn’t it about half the size it once was?

Public education in Iowa — from the Regents institution down through K-12 — seems under attack and Iowa’s once-proud record of leading the nation is gone. The long-accepted practice of collective bargaining for public employees has been eviscerated. Reynolds wants to use taxpayers’ money to bolster private K-12 schools and homeschooling.  When Iowa legislators balked, Reynolds encouraged and endorsed opponents to run against several of them in the recent primary elections — even some in her own Republican Party.

While I generally give her credit for her economic development advocacy, she apparently is leaning toward accepting, even encouraging, these proposed carbon sequestration pipelines crisscrossing the state.  That would probably mean using eminent domain to commandeer farmland for the benefit of the private pipeline development companies, for debatable environmental benefit.

And we’ve recently learned that Iowa Public Radio has been stolen from us.  I don’t understand the intricacies of why that’s happened, and whether Reynolds and Republicans are directly responsible, but it happened on her watch, and it seems all hush-hush to me. 

Wow.  Doesn’t that sound like a whole lot of big-government overreach — which Repubicans are normally the first to bitch about — by a governor who might be trying to stretch her shelf life too long? 

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DeJear meets the grill team of Greene County Pork Producers and Lamb Producers at the county fair in Jefferson this past weekend.

The first polling in this race last March — by the highly-respected Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll — seemed to verify dissatisfaction with Reynolds.  DeJear, despite still being unknown then by 60 percent of the public, was only eight points behind Reynolds.  That seemed to me to say more about Reynolds than it did about DeJear. 

However, in the new Iowa Poll on this race just released today, Reynolds has lengthened her lead to 17 percentage points, 48-31, with four months left in the race.  But this poll, unlike the one in March, included a minority candidate Rick Stewart, a Libertarian, who polled 5 percent, most of his support coming from voters who’d likely otherwise support DeJear. The Register points out that the Reynolds campaign’s cash-on-hand is 13 times that of DeJear.  Another strong sign for Reynolds: Her job approval ratings by Iowans has again climbed above 50 percent, after a long run below that. 

So maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. 

And yet. 

I remember 1998, when Tom Vilsack, the Democrat, came from more than 20 points down in September to upset the front-running Jim Ross Lightfoot, the Republican.  It was a stunning, historic political comeback. 

The Republicans then had had a 30-year lock on the governor’s office. Vilsack was able to tap into the notion that it was probably time for a change. 

Many Democrats have that same notion now.  And many hoped that State Auditor Rob Sand would run for governor this cycle, that his statewide popularity would take him to Terrace Hill.  He considered it, but with very young children now, he opted instead to run for re-election as auditor. 

Several other Democrats considered a run, too, including Rep. Ras Smith, an Iowa House member from Waterloo who, like DeJear, is Black.  But Smith and most others backed off before we started this election year of 2022. 

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DeJear, walking the Greene County Fairgrounds, with Mike Holden, a Democratic candidate for the board of supervisors, and the party’s county chairperson Chris Henning. 

After watching Deidre DeJear in action in recent weeks, and after finally getting an opportunity for an interview with her Saturday afternoon in Jefferson around her visit to the Greene County Fair, I have the feeling she’s not inclined to back off from anything. She has faced bigger challenges in life — much bigger — than she’s dealing with now. 

Her personal story is a great one, and she hasn’t told it well enough.  “I’ve stayed more with the issues that people have told me they want to hear about,” she told me. 

I answered that she really needs to tell her story to the people of Iowa, and that if she does, they’re going to give her a chance.  Iowans are fair that way. 

So, she let me pull it out of her. 

Deidre Howard was born in Jackson, Miss., to Debra and David Howard, her father a salesman for used Oldsmobiles.  When Deidre was 8 and her brother was 4, their mother Debra delivered a baby sister.  Three days later, Debra Howard suffered a pregnancy complication, had a brain aneurism and died. The shock and grief were as awful as you’re imagining.

Three years later, in 1996, David Howard remarried.  He and his new wife Emma moved their family to Tulsa, Okla., where David built a career in selling, setting up, operating home health care agencies across that state, mostly handling the human resources work.  

Deidre, in fourth grade when they made the move to Oklahoma, grew up and excelled at the huge Union High School, where she was one of 1,200 students in her senior class. 

If you’ve met her, you know that now she’s a tall, strong woman.  Was she an athlete? 

“My dad was a good football player, my step-mom was a good basketball player, and I’ve always loved sports,” DeJear said, “but I wasn’t a very good athlete myself.  I was out for track — I threw the shot put — but I was never a runner.  I played softball and basketball, but I wasn’t very good.” 

She’s smart and was a good student, and as her college years approached, her counselors guided her toward schools that were offering the kind of financial aid she would need.  Drake University in Des Moines offered a Presidential Scholarship, and David DeJear said the choice was easy for his daughter.  “They offered you the most money,” she recalls him saying, “and that’s where you’re going to school.” 

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DeJear, again at Roosevelt High School.

How did she feel in 2004, at 18 years old, heading off to a place she’d never been, specifically as a young Black woman coming to overwhelmingly White Iowa.?

“I was scared as hell,” she said. “I’ll never forget when my parents drove me to Des Moines and dropped me off at Drake.  I didn’t know anybody.  But I had my new ‘Sponge Bob’ sheets — Sponge Bob was ‘in’ then and I was so proud of them — and I made my new bed with them.  When I crawled in that night to go to sleep, those new sheets smelled so good, but then I thought, ‘Oh, this doesn’t smell like home!’ And I remember right then having a talk with myself, saying, ‘Well, it may not seem like home, but this is how it is now — learn to deal with it.’ And I did.” 

Drake University, she says, “was so good for me.  I had such strong support there from everybody.” 

There was the financial aid she needed, including on-campus jobs like working on the student orientation staff, refereeing basketball in intramural sports, serving as a resident advisor in the dorms.  There was plenty of academic direction as she majored in broadcasting & politics. 

“The best thing Drake did for me was give me pathways into involvement in the community and state,” she said.  “They gave me so many opportunities, and I’m so grateful for that.”  

The university guided her toward a student internship in the marketing department at Bankers Trust, and after her graduation in 2008, that turned into a full-time job she worked for five years. 

“They taught me a lot about marketing, doing community development work, arranging sponsorships, doing graphic design and more,” she said. “There was a real demand for skills like that in 2008. Remember, we were in a real recession that had stopped a lot of businesses, especially small business.  As the economy started picking up again, there was new energy. And there were a whole lot of start-up companies with young entrepreneurs needing all kinds of help.” 

She helped Bankers Trust identify and help those young aspiring business people, and saw even more need. So, with her bosses’ encouragement, she founded her own company, Caleo Enterprises, to help offer similar services for the vast number of small businesses needing help.  On her jobs with Caleo, she operated solo — “I wanted to keep my overhead low” — but would bring on sub-contractors when her clients needed them. She partnered with Wells Fargo and non-profit agencies like United Way to offer her business consulting services. Some of those programs she established with companies and county government agencies still operate today. 

“I got the opportunity to work on projects that meant a lot to me,” she said. “In the recession, a lot of women were lacking access to services like reproductive health care.  I helped organize a network of midwives and doulas to meet those needs.” 

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The columnist says hello to DeJear, who was strolling the State Capitol grounds just before the “Yankee Doodle Pops Concert” by the Des Moines Synphony, leading into the Independence Day holiday celebration.

Along the way, Deidre Howard won the “Miss Black Iowa” crown in 2009-’10.  And she met an intriguing new business client, Marvin DeJear, an Iowa State University graduate from a family raising cattle on their ranch in Okmulgee, Okla. The DeJear family is Black, with Native American roots, too.

“Marvin was working in business, and he also wanted to start a small construction company,” Deidre said. “He needed a little help getting in set up.” 

They fell in love and married.  Marvin, now 46, has three degrees from Iowa State, including bachelor and master’s degrees in business and a Ph.d. in education, and is now senior vice-president for talent development for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, which serves as the umbrella group for Chamber of commerce and economic development work in the metro area. 

“So we’re both Black people who came to Iowa for college educations, and never left,” Deidre said. “And what really pulls us together now as a couple is that both of us love service work.” 

They co-founded a “Back 2 School Iowa” initiative that raises money to help students buy school supplies.  Deidre has also served as an assistant girls basketball coach at East High School in Des Moines, starting first as a volunteer and then becoming a paid assistant.  She said most of her focus has been on mentoring the players, but she’s learned a lot, too. One lesson: “You don’t know Iowa until you’re at a high school girls basketball game on a Friday night.”

The couple, who do not have children, live with their two dogs on the east side of Des Moines.  Deidre, who grew up active in the St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Tulsa, said she now is not a member of a specific church. “I do a lot of ‘church-hopping’ on weekends now,” she said. “Any given Sunday, I’ll be in a church somewhere, including all over Iowa, or watching services online.  I am a woman of faith, for sure.  It has grounded me, in so many different ways.”

Her interest in politics began stirring in her Drake student years.  She was involved on campus in 2007 and ’08 leading up to that cycle’s Iowa Political Caucuses.  And she volunteered in some city council and school board races.  In 2012, she became the Iowa director for African American votes for the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama, and she worked on that all over Iowa. 

By 2017, she felt she was ready to become a candidate herself, and she decided her race was for the Iowa Secretary of State position long held by Paul Pate, a Republican, former state senator and former mayor of Cedar Rapids. 

Why that position? 

“By 2017, we were starting to see a lot of voter suppression efforts,” DeJear said. “I was very concerned and wanted to work on that. The Secretary of State is in charge of voter registration and elections in Iowa, and it’s also the state agency that works most with small businesses.  So that position serves two of my biggest interests.” 

DeJear worked the whole state while campaigning and narrowly winning over fellow Democrat Jim Mowrer in the 2018 primary election.  In the general election, Pate beat her by 8 points, but here’s a key to remember — DeJear received more than a half million votes statewide.  To be precise, 583,774, for a down-ballot position. 

In 2020, she served as Iowa chairperson for the presidential campaign of Kamala Harris. 

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Deidre DeJear and Eric Van Lancker at the rally in Des Moines Roosevelt’s stately auditorium.

In August of 2021, she decided she was ready to run for governor, no matter the plans of any other candidates, no matter the huge challenge that she knew Governor Reynolds would be. 

Those issue that she says Iowans now care most about are public education, healthcare that is accessible and affordable, “making sure all 99 counties are prospering, not just the areas around the larger cities,” restoring reproductive rights and healthcare for women, protecting the right to same-sex marriage (“Mind your business,” she says, “and love who you want.”), and getting state government more involved again in working with farmers, conservationists and others in cleaning up and restoring the environment. 

She told Greene County Democrats on Saturday that her insistence on stronger state economic development programs for small towns and rural Iowa is based on this: “You know, I live in Des Moines, and it’s a good community.  I can live there, I can work there, and I can play there — without ever leaving town.  And that’s how I want it to be in every Iowa community, big or small. That’s how it should be. And you shouldn’t have to work more than one job to be able to do that.”

I asked her if Gov. Reynolds, as powerful as she’s become, is now guilty of the governmental “overreach” that I alleged earlier here. 

“Her style,” DeJear answered, “is punitive.  We see that in more regulations, more retaliation, more restrictions.  We don’t see comprehensive investment in the programs and policies that really address the issues that matter most to the people of Iowa.” 

In another setting, I heard DeJear say that the Reynolds administration has become “all about profits, not about people.” 

So, how goes the campaign? 

“I feel good about it,” she answered, two days before the lastest Iowa Poll came out.  “We’re hitting all our targets.  We’ve raised more than $1 million from 24,000 contributors, with an average of $36 or $37 apiece. That’s going to enable us to start doing some paid media, which we haven’t done any of yet.” 

The recent fundraising success has allowed her to hire three more staff members.  One of those, in the last month is the new manager of the campaign, Lavanna Martinez, a New Jersey native who has come aboard from heading a non-profit in North Carolina.  In politics, Martinez is most noted for her work both in Iowa and nationally in the 2020 presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg. 

DeJear said that her choice of Eric Van Lancker, the Clinton County auditor, to be her lieutenant governor running mate, is giving her new reach in eastern Iowa and also with county government officials statewide.

She appears to be at-ease and comfortable out on the campaign trail, even in conservative rural Iowa. Is that difficult for her as a Black woman? 

“People see it when I’m out there, especially out in the state,” DeJear said. “I’m a walking bit of irony.  A Black woman from Mississippi running for governor of Iowa!  But think about this, I started growing up in Mississippi, which is very rural and very conservative.  Then I moved to Oklahoma, which is very rural and very conservative.  In fact, when I was in Oklahoma, there were more churches than gas stations, and that’s really something for an ‘oil state’.  Those places are so conservative I often tell people I didn’t know what a real Democrat was until I came to Iowa.”   

She reminds people that “Iowa has made space for black people all through its history.  Almost 100 years before the Brown v. the Board of Education decision, in 1868, do you know what Iowa did? Desegregated its schools!  And during the Civil Rights movement, a lot of Iowans came to Mississippi to get involved in that movement.  Once I was here, I learned how Betty Andrews in Des Moines had helped start up the ‘I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa’ celebration (an annual festival saluting Black arts, culture and history), and I took that very seriously.  This is my state, and I’m proud of it.” 

She said she doesn’t “pay so much attention to whether I’m talking to D’s, or R’s or I’s.  The ‘I’ after our names that I’m more concerned about stands for us all being Iowans.  I’m out there to find our common ground.”

You know, her campaign has been counted out from its beginning.  And that’s not fair or right.  It’s been difficult for DeJear and staff to loosen up and have fun as they share their concerns, plans and dreams.  But I heard and saw something on that Saturday in June when she and Van Lancker accepted their nominations at the Democratic state convention, and that evening at a rally they had in the auditorium of Des Moines Roosevelt High School.  

The Des Moines drum & drill corp, The Isiserettes, had everybody up clapping, swaying, even dancing.  Van Lancker, a bowtie-wearing former radio & TV news guy, was telling what he called his cornball “dad jokes.” 

DeJear introduced family members from Oklahoma, gave a few glimpses into her personal story, and then launched into the future she wants to lead Iowa in building.   Some of it sounded like the Iowa we once knew, when we were ranked No. 1 in the nation in public education. 

“We no longer have to settle for the tenacious complacency of the other side,” she said, with her voice and animation growing. “It’s not going to be easy, folks.  This campaign is not just historic because an African American woman is running for governor.  It’s historic because we’re raising the question about whether democracy is alive, or is it dead?  That question is going to be answered in this election, in this year.  The time is now.  Are you all ready?  Are you all willing?” 

Over all this, I see a long shadow, two of them, actually.  

It’s time for Barack & Michelle Obama to make another visit to Iowa.

The writer can be reached by email at chuck@offenburger.comor you can comment publicly on the story by using the handy form below here.

4 thoughts on “Can Deidre DeJear’s team, maybe even the Obamas, re-awaken the soul of Iowa?

  1. I Loved the article about your very talented Deidre De Jear!!! You are the master of interviewing! I wished I could vote for her.
    Love,
    Molly

  2. I was glad to get to know more of DeJear’s back story. She is humble and reticent to share too much. Thanks!

    Chris Louscher, Algona IA

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