Since early January, when Iowa’s 2021 legislative session gaveled in, Waterloo State Rep. Ras Smith has been traveling the state to see what Iowans are looking for from their leaders during difficult times. In visits to towns from Decorah to Perry, he heard a recurring theme: the most pressing issues on Iowans’ minds were far different than what was being debated and voted on in the Capitol.
It comes as Smith, one of only six Black Iowa legislators and a former food distribution manager, has become a key voice on racial equity and worker’s rights during last summer’s racial justice protests and COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking facilities. He’s been in the public eye often, with appearances on Iowa Press, leading roles in frequent press conferences, and interviews like this Wednesday where he watched and reacted to the verdict of the Derek Chauvin trial.
“That guilty verdict is important, it justifies, it shows that our fights for equity are true,” Smith said in a video shared on social media. “But real accountability, real change, true justice is what gets us through a lifetime. And so our work must continue. Our understanding that the arc of justice does not bend on its own. We have to apply pressure.”
Now, with the end of session in sight, Smith has been to Marshalltown, West Liberty, Decorah, Elkader, Perry and some others, with additional virtual visits. He said his trips have highlighted the state’s need for good public education, health care, minimum wage, and opportunities during a time when Republicans have instead slashed those systems and propped up partisan, extreme legislation.
“In this moment, we have so many, so many hurting people across our state. We’re doing our best to make sure we meet them where they are and come to them and try to figure out what they need from us as leaders in our state to really improve their quality of life,” he said in interview with Starting Line.
In Decorah, Smith looked at Luther College’s solar infrastructure to see how renewable energies can be brought into residential communities. In Elkader, he spoke with small business owners about the impact of no statewide mask guidance. In Perry, he heard about COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking facilities.
I was blown away by the solar fields in Decorah. Thanks to @marschja, Andy Johnson and @KaylaForIowa for the learning experience. @luthercollege is leading the way with a goal to be carbon neutral by 2030. Iowa has incredible leaders in clean energy! pic.twitter.com/I3rYXSH8w9
— Ras Smith (@rassmith62) April 10, 2021
The legislator is scheduled to be in Western Iowa in the next couple of weeks, with additional trips planned.
What’s blatantly clear to Smith is the “huge disconnect” between everyday Iowans’ concerns and the priorities of the Republican majority in state government, he said.
“We need to be focused on the unique concerns of Iowans, not paydays from donors, not paydays from different policy initiative groups that have no real vested interest in our state and its people,” Smith said.
“I think really we’re not having those real conversations because that’s not what the overarching agenda is for Republicans … And if it if it was, I think we’d see more hands on effort from it. And so part of this is also having a conversation with folks about what leadership should look like in the future of this state.”
Smith said he’s going out and intentionally speaking with non-politically engaged Iowans. At nearly every stop, the lawmaker said he’s heard about issues like education and broadband, not about this session’s more divisive bills.
“Nobody I’ve talked to, even Republicans are saying like … you know, hey, are you guys going to take up some things to really stomp on the rights of the LGBTQ community across the state?”
“No one is asking for that type of stuff. They are asking about affordable housing. They’re asking me–what are we going to do about electric cars? They’ve actually asked me how are we going to pay for broadband … But it seems to be completely out of line with what most people are talking about on the ground.”
He’s also finding that Iowans are distinctly disinterested in big government—Iowans are looking to subtract partisan identifiers from their daily lives.
“A lot of these folks are noticing the way that the state government has kind of been through their own local issues or how the rhetoric from the top right nationally, but also on a statewide level is starting to filter into some of the local things that never were political before,” Smith said.
The past several years in Iowa have been distinct in that the Republican Party has moved toward overriding local control on decisions like public education and public health mandates during COVID-19, policing and free speech.
Democrats say that allowing state government to squash local policy decisions is a move contrary to traditional Republican tenants. Past sessions in Iowa saw the GOP-controlled legislature deny counties to oversee or control concentrated animal feeding operations and advance a bill that stops local governments from passing housing ordinances that would forbid discrimination on income source.
“We all kind of have this yearning for government to evolve and provide a foundation and empower all of us to be successful, and then really kind of get the hell out of the way,” Smith said.
“And I tend to agree with them. Make sure that our communities are strong. We have strong schools that make our students globally competitive, make sure that we have access to health care, make sure we have opportunities and jobs, and we can kind of do the rest on ourselves.”
An element of Smith’s statewide visits have also been to promote a visible campaign for a bill he introduced in the legislature called the Iowa Worker Bill of Rights—a robust list of demands for the state’s employees. The bill won’t advance this session but Smith said he’d reintroduce it next year.
“In Iowa, thousands of workers are going back to their jobs without the guarantee of safety, protections for their wages or the assurance that if they or a family member falls ill, that they will not be supported. It is time to show our workers that they are essential and not expendable,” Smith said during a public service announcement on the bill.
We must protect Iowa's most valuable resource: Our people.
Tomorrow I'll be discussing workers' rights at 10 a.m. at Wiese Park in Perry and at 12:30 p.m. at La Carreta in Marshalltown. Join us in person or virtually on Facebook.
— Ras Smith (@rassmith62) February 26, 2021
The workers’ rights concerns have been highlighted by COVID-19 inequity. Smith also said that Iowans have noticed the lack of COVID-19 policy out of the legislature this session—a concern that Democrats have been voicing since January. Smith is optimistic that the pandemic’s exposure of problems that have existed in spheres like public education and manufacturing will move into future legislative agendas, however.
“On the meatpacking plant side of things, a lot of folks are like, this is not new,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of energy that exists in wanting to really use this time, this moment to really catapult our state into this next chapter of what it looks to be Iowa.”
by Isabella Murray
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