If you’re not in the room where decisions are being made, you might not like what choices others are making for you. That’s the advice a Cornell College professor gave Liz Bennett about eight years ago. “Women your age take for granted all of the things that you have,” she recalls as the words the instructor said that lit a fire in her to get engaged in politics. Now Bennett is in the room, one that makes some of the most important decisions in the state: the Iowa House of Representatives. The 32-year-old was elected to House District 65 in Cedar Rapids last year.
Bennett aims to serve as both a voice and an inspiration to many younger people around the state who were once disillusioned with the political process. She also hopes her election gives hope to gay youth in Iowa. “To my knowledge, I’m the first openly LGBTQ woman elected to the Iowa General Assembly,” Bennett says. “It’s important to me that I’m here so that kids that are out, maybe in rural Iowa, know there’s somebody here in the Statehouse particularly who cares about them … Maybe they’ll see that they could have a really great future.”
Bennett grew up in the Quad Cities, raised by a police officer father and a stay-at-home mother. They were a middle class family that Bennett says prioritized her and her brother’s education. With many veterans in her family, along with a grandmother who was the first female in her local Optimist Club, Bennett says, “I’ve seen a lot of volunteering and an imperative to serve and give back to the community.”
She moved to Cedar Rapids about 13 years ago, taking up a job at a restaurant, working as she attended Kirkwood Community College. She later got a scholarship for Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, and started studying women’s studies and political science there. But for a long time she wasn’t too engaged in the political process beyond just voting.
“In some ways I’m a member of the Nirvana Generation,” Bennett explains. “I grew up with a lot of people who – though being interested in politics, listening to a lot of music that was really political – a lot of us felt disconnected with the political process. I think many of us grew up feeling like we didn’t have a voice. We couldn’t change anything and everything was completely corrupt.” That changed, however, after the advice from her college professor and the classes she attended at Cornell College.
In 2007 and 2008 Bennett got involved in that year’s highly competitive presidential caucus. She and her restaurant co-workers, about seven in all, none of whom had been to a caucus before, researched and went to their first one to support Barack Obama. Living in Republican-leaning Marion at the time, she says, “being in a gymnasium with all of these other people who are Democrats who are excited was really life-changing for me.”
Now feeling like she had a voice in the process, Bennett got more involved after the 2009 Varnum decision that legalized gay marriage in Iowa. She started as a canvasser for One Iowa, then later joined the marriage equality group as an organizer. She joined the Linn County Democrats’ central committee and got selected for and went to the Democratic National Convention in 2012. When Tyler Olson announced he was running for governor, leaving his house seat open, Bennett saw it as an opportunity to ensure other people like her had a voice. “A lot of times people making decisions for working people and for students are not working people themselves,” she says of her decision to run.
During her campaign Bennett says she encountered “Iowa nice in action.” While knocking on doors in her diverse Cedar Rapids district, she preferred to ask people their most important issue to “figure it out from the ground up.” Those opinions would differ widely from neighborhood to neighborhood. “It really made me think about acknowledging privilege in people’s viewpoints and how that can affect our analysis of policy,” she says.
Now in the Legislature, Bennett is eager to fight for many of those issues. “I’m really concerned about school funding,” she explains, calling Republicans’ 1.25% increase in school funding “unacceptable.” Mental health funding, minimum wage and wage theft are other priorities she thinks House Democrats may get some traction on, even though they’re in the minority. She’s also looking at several environmental topics, like expanding Iowa’s solar industry and updating laws on bonding for hazardous materials transportation with oil pipelines.
One bill Bennett is co-sponsoring is legislation to ban conversion therapy for gay youths. She also notes that “There’s still some people banging the tired drum of trying to take marriage equality away from families in Iowa.” She’s working on building up personal relationships with other representatives who believe that way, hoping to connect on other levels to bridge the divide.
While in session, Bennett is on-leave from her job at GoDaddy, where she’s worked since organizing at One Iowa. She lives in a rented house in Des Moines with three other colleagues: Representatives Sharon Steckman, Mary Wolfe and Kristen Running-Marquardt. “Maybe we could have a reality show,” Bennett jokes.
This is the third in Starting Line’s “New Legislator” series. Learn about some other freshmen legislators here:
by Pat Rynard