As Des Moines businesswoman Deidre DeJear plans her run for Iowa Secretary of State in 2018, she’s highlighting the fact that she already has plenty of experience in the role’s two main jobs: encouraging voting and helping small businesses. She ran voter turnout efforts for Barack Obama’s campaign in Iowa in 2012, and operates her own company that helps other small businesses get off the ground.
However, the act of voting itself was never really a part of her family’s priorities when she was growing up. Not because they weren’t involved in the community, but because her father didn’t even have the chance to vote for part of his life in Jackson, Mississippi.
“When my dad was born, he didn’t have the opportunity to vote,” DeJear explained to Starting Line. “It was only when he was older that black individuals got the opportunity to vote. Even then, voting in Mississippi in the 1970’s was tumultuous in its own right. It was one of those understood things that we were cut out of the system for so long, that even when granted the opportunity it still didn’t feel like we were welcome as a people. Although my dad pushed on hard work and community service, voting wasn’t one of those things we talked about it.”
DeJear was born in Mississippi, but had to grow up quick after mother died three days after giving birth to DeJear’s youngest sister. That taught her a lot of resolve, DeJear said, in having to quickly help take care of her two siblings. When she was 12, her father remarried and the family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
She came to Iowa by way of Drake University. Originally wanting to pursue a career in broadcast news, DeJear picked the college in Des Moines after they were the first to respond to her applications with a “Choose Drake” packet. DeJear had never been to Iowa before, and after spending several cold winters here that she was unaccustomed to, she wasn’t sure if she’d stick around.
“It was the warmth of the people who kept me here,” DeJear said of what convinced her to stay in Iowa. “Drake really nurtured me as a student, and nurtured me as a young woman, as a professional, and helped me become the woman I am today.”
She voted in her first election in college – the 2004 Kerry/Bush campaign – and got involved in Obama’s Iowa Caucus campaign after that. During college she worked at a bank, where she assisted small businesses with marketing their services and products. DeJear later started her own small business to help with simple first-step marketing tools, leaving the bank in 2011 and later marrying her husband, Marvin.
In 2012 she got back into political campaigns on Obama’s reelection operation, starting as a field organizer and later becoming the African American vote director for Iowa.
“By and large, African Americans supported the president, but that didn’t mean they were going to go out to vote,” DeJear said. “We increased our voter support … We registered more than 5,000 African American voters. We also increased our percentage in the voting bloc as well. In that process, I was really starting to understand how disconnected people were with government.”
She stuck with campaigns for a bit, running two successful school board races, including the then-youngest Des Moines school board member, Dionna Langford. DeJear never really considered running herself, saying she was more of a “head hunter” for candidates, but that changed after the 2016 election.
“It wasn’t until November 9th, after the election and I was upset – not for the obvious reasons, it was because I felt like people were disconnected, they weren’t turning out, they were uninterested in politics,” DeJear said. “After the election it wasn’t so much of complaining about what happened, but how can we change this, how can we be better?”
The Secretary of State’s office seemed an ideal spot to change that.
“It is no longer acceptable to rely on campaigns, candidates and parties to bolster this idea of civic involvement,” DeJear stated. “It’s time to establish that for ourselves … I feel like the Secretary of State’s office is that space where we can do that. They oversee elections. They’re the gateway for small business development. They can really make sure all people are getting connected despite their socio-economic status, their party, their religion.”
DeJear noted that voter turnout has been declining in recent years, something that Iowa used to pride itself on. Many Democrats are worried that the Republican legislature’s new restrictions on voter ID and limitations to the early vote window might exacerbate that problem when they’re enacted. DeJear is concerned as well, but she also knows that she can’t pass laws as the Secretary of the State – she can still do her best to implement it in a way that maintains access to the ballot box.
“They can be hurdles for some people,” DeJear said of the new voter laws. “Maybe not for the majority of people, but for some people it’s a hurdle … My job is to figure out how to help people overcome those hurdles. We need to make sure that voting is accessible, that voting is done with upmost integrity and that voting is inclusive.”
The other, less-talked about part of the Secretary of State’s job has to do with small business registration and management. DeJear said that many small businesses don’t even know of the opportunities the office can provide.
“We can’t afford for more businesses to be closing their doors than opening their doors,” she said. “The Secretary of State is the gateway for small businesses and for non-profits. I think that office owes it to small businesses to connect them with the resources to not only start off, but to sustain themselves.”
DeJear is set to announce her campaign this Sunday at Drake University (1:30 PM in the Olmsted Center). She’ll first face a Democratic primary of one or two other candidates for the right to face off with Pate. That campaign, she believes, won’t just be about getting elected – it’ll be a tryout of sorts for her ability to succeed in the job.
“When you’re running for this office, it’s almost like you’re auditioning,” DeJear said. “Because if you’re running for Secretary of State, you should care about turnout. You should care about voter engagement. So you have to come up with a plan to turnout voters. I’ve done that.”
by Pat Rynard