Democrat Ross Wilburn scored a crushing victory in today’s special election for the Ames-based House District 46.
It helped, of course, that he ran unopposed.
After taking 97.4% of the vote tonight, Wilburn will join the Iowa House for next year’s legislative session, which will bring the number of Iowa’s black legislators up to five.
But while Wilburn will improve the limited diversity of the Iowa Statehouse by his mere presence, he’s also helping expand it in his mindset and job experience.
“My name is Ross Wilburn. My preferred pronouns are he, him and his,” Wilburn led off with in his speech at the nominating convention in June.
Wilburn, the former mayor of Iowa City, has served as the diversity officer at ISU’s extension and outreach program since moving to Ames. He’s had considerable experience helping others in his community learn about diverse backgrounds and different perspectives, and looks forward to sharing that with his future colleagues in the Iowa Legislature.
“It’s important not only for people of color, in particular youth of color, to see [myself in the House], but also for young white youth to see someone who’s different from them in government,” Wilburn told Starting Line today. “I think that’s just as important … and to find out where they may make some connections with me, something they might not realize we have in common … We may reach the same conclusion with someone, but hearing a side of an argument that you may not have heard or considered before, how it impacts different communities, raising those questions, I think is an important piece of that.”
Wilburn hopes to provide a different perspective on topics like the environment, criminal justice and education, pointing out to fellow legislators things like how climate change impacts different communities in unique ways.
“One of the things in the diversity trainings that I do is looking for other ways that we have cultural difference,” Wilburn explained. “I may walk into a room or community where visibly I may look different from folks, but I may look around and see a couple people wearing retired veterans hats. I may strike up a conversation with them since I served in the Army National Guard. It’s a place of connection.”
That, he hopes, allows him to strike up some helpful relationships with some Republicans in order to work together to get legislation done.
“I look forward to trying to connect with some of the Republicans in the House who are willing to at least sit down and have a conversation,” Wilburn said. “If all we do is have a conversation where we know we’re going to have a dramatic disagreement, that may exclude some areas where we share a particular point of view in common. If we can have successes in areas where we have agreement, it gives us the opportunity to try to work through harder issues where there’s a difference in value, in point of view.”
Much like his other lines of work, relationship building will be key to Wilburn’s initial introductions in the chamber. He’ll start up in his first legislative session this coming January.
“It starts with relationships. Me getting to know them, but equally important, them getting to know me,” Wilburn said.
Though he was unopposed in this election (Wilburn won a three-way nomination battle for the heavily-Democratic district at the special convention in June), Wilburn still spent much of the summer out knocking on doors.
“It was important for me whether I have an opponent or not to get out and listen to folks,” he noted, saying that what he heard from voters confirmed his concerns on Medicaid privatization, health care access, clean air and clean water issues and limitations on collective bargaining.
The county party organized also around his race, and presidential campaigns sent countless staff and volunteers into the district to pitch in – even without a Republican opponent.
“It also shows how committed Democrats are to not only take back the Iowa House, but to try and mobilize to make sure that Donald Trump has just one term,” Wilburn said.
And Wilburn already has plans to pay that help forward. He said that several other Democratic county chairs in Iowa have invited him to speak at their events in the near future. The House is now back to a 53-47 Republican majority, giving Democrats a good shot at flipping the four seats they need to retake the majority in 2020, something that Wilburn plans on helping out with around the state.
Wilburn will now fill the seat that Lisa Heddens stepped down from after being appointed to a county supervisor position earlier this year.
by Pat Rynard