If any clerks, pages or other young staff at the Iowa Legislature think they could benefit from a motivational life coach, they may want to pull up a chair next to new State Representative Timi Brown-Powers of Waterloo. The positive-thinking legislator loves encouraging others to discover their own leadership potential. She sees her election as another way to continue a life’s focus of serving people in her community, this time on a larger scale. In particular, she hopes to improve services for persons with disabilities, a passion she developed early on in life.
Born in California, Brown-Powers was raised in Des Moines in the Beaverdale neighborhood. Her father was a union rubber worker at the Firestone plant, and her mother had a small in-home business and later worked in the public schools system. “We lived that union life,” she recalls, her father working 3rd and 4th shifts, with occasional strikes impacting their day-to-day lives. Her grandmother, a paraplegic who babysat Brown-Powers, helped shape the direction of her life. Her interactions with her grandmother led her to volunteer in high school and college with programs that helped students with disabilities.
After graduating from Hoover, Brown-Powers went to DMACC for a year before transferring to UNI. She earned a BA in therapeutic recreation, and was a CNA all through college (and still is today – “when they need me they call,” she says). She then went to Covenant Medical Center for her internship, and has been there ever since for the last 27 years. There she has worked on a variety of issues with mental and physical disabilities, including a major brain injury project.
Her work brings her close to patients with significant needs for help. She took their stories to the Legislature several times on lobbying trips. So when Anesa Kajtazovic decided to run for Congress, Iowa Democratic Party leaders suggested to Brown-Powers that she run in the open Waterloo-based District 61. After some soul-searching, Brown-Powers accepted the challenge.
It’s not always easy for people without deep family connections in a town to run for office. However, she’s come to know many local families from her work at Covenant. She’s also been active in the local schools and the Blue Zone healthy community project to the point where she mentions, “My patients would tease me that ‘you’re always on the TV or in the newspaper.'”
Brown-Powers still ran a strong campaign with lots of door-knocking in the diverse Waterloo community, finding many residents along the way that she still interacts with now. Two Hispanic brothers she met on the doors invited her back to share a traditional meal with their family. Several voters she met with physical and mental issues she stays in touch with today. Not everyone was initially positive. One older man told a volunteer he wouldn’t vote for Brown-Powers because her “hair is crazy.” Undeterred, Brown-Powers returned to his house with her hair slicked back in a ponytail. That seemed to be enough, and the man promised to vote for her. She handily won the 3-way Democratic primary by 68%, and carried the heavily Democratic district in the general.
For her first legislative session, Brown-Powers sees education funding as the largest task on hand, a challenge she thinks will likely go on all year. Beyond that, her main focus will be starting the conversation on improving the mental health system and how Iowa works with persons with disabilities. “I’m working with a group of women in Black Hawk County with high-level disabilities, and they actually function really quite well,” she says of her work on waiver systems this year. “They want to get off of social security. They want to wean off of the waiver program, but our program is so cut and dry.”
She knows it’s not a project that can get done in a year, but she’s beginning the process with DHS. “I’m most passionate about persons with disabilities because that’s what I’ve done my entire life,” Brown-Powers explains of her drive on the issue. “Our system for persons with disabilities seems to inhibit anyone from growth. We encourage people to stay at home and not be empowered … But most people want to be productive people. There’s no system to provide them a stepping stone to keep growing. It’s either this way or that way. Long term changes would be good for Iowa – it would help our workforce, our community as a whole, and long-term it would save money.”
Brown-Powers enters the Legislature as part of an expanded class of female Democrats: just under half of the Democratic House members are women. “The women have added a nice mix to it,” Brown-Powers says of her new colleagues. “They’ve added some compassion and a different way of looking at things. It really appears that we have the same respect as anyone else.”
She hopes other women will join her and actively works to encourage young people wherever she can. She particularly enjoys speaking to students at high schools and colleges, where she “encourage[s] women to take that step forward.” Brown-Powers persuades them to be positive influences in their community and teaches them about how to speak out when they have an opinion and how to carry themselves professionally. Of course she wants to empower all young people, though she notes, “I have a soft spot in my heart for young girls. I want them to push themselves to be leaders … You can’t sit at your house and complain that something’s happening if you’re not willing to go out and help fix it.”
While in Des Moines, Brown-Powers visits her family often, who all still live in the capital city. She says her mom still cooks her a meal whenever she needs, and she occasionally gets in a basketball game with her brother and two nephews. She’s married to a retired firefighter, has a Navy veteran stepson, and a son who’s a freshman college student and avid hockey player.
by Pat Rynard
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