It had been a while since a sitting chair of the Iowa Democratic Party visited the state’s most northwestern and conservative corner, so Ross Wilburn’s recent stop was noticeable.
“We don’t always get a lot of attention up here in Red Country,” said O’Brien County Democratic Party chair Karen Sterk.
Wilburn was the guest of honor at Saturday’s Northwest Iowa Democrats Dessert Social in Sheldon. He’s enjoyed the opportunity to meet party members from across the state on his road trip.
“We’ve got 99 counties, it’s an opportunity to come out and get to meet some of the chairs that I didn’t get an opportunity to meet in past campaigns as well as during my gubernatorial race,” Wilburn said.
Sterk said the gathering attracted more than 50 people, a significant amount in a county where Democrats are outnumbered by Republicans four to one. She couldn’t recall the last time that many Democrats had gathered in O’Brien County.
‘Fill in the blank’
Wilburn, 57, was elected chair of the Iowa Democratic Party in January. He is also a state representative for a district that covers part of Ames.
Wilburn is the first Black man to lead either of Iowa’s major parties, something that’s not new to him.
Some other distinct firsts include being the first Black mayor pro tempore and first Black mayor of Iowa City, and the first Black drum major in the Davenport Central High School Marching Band.
As he described it, for most of his life, Wilburn has always been the first Black “fill in the blank,” so he’s not phased by that or the lofty ambition of trying to turn the tide for Democrats in an increasingly red state.
“I never imagined serving as chair of a political party at the county or state level,” he said. “But after the November election, I just thought if there’s anything I can do to help us start winning back some seats in the Legislature to try and get a Democrat elected governor, then I’m willing to do it.”
Last November, Iowa Democrats wound up losing two US House seats, a somewhat close US Senate race, and Republicans were able to increase their majority in the Iowa House.
Still, Wilburn is hopeful for a comeback.
“We’ve heard the demise, the ‘end’ of each of the political parties over the years,” he said.
‘Let’s get to know each other’
Needless to say, Wilburn has his work cut out for him.
Part of his approach is doing what he did in Western Iowa: Getting out of the Central Iowa bubble to meet party members as well as other people across Iowa.
“Let’s get back to the business of getting people registered to vote and getting to know our neighbors and talking about issues,” said Wilburn, who is fully vaccinated for COVID-19. “And not just the hard value-driven issues, but let’s get to know each other, get to know our neighbors regardless of what party they are.”
Wilburn wants to have conversations with people who have different beliefs than him that don’t center around topics neither side will be swayed on.
“There are so many different stories out there for all of us,” he said. “So if all we do is argue with those more controversial issues—if those are all you are willing to talk about and not willing to think about other aspects of life and people’s lives and other stories, then we are not going to make progress; we’re going to continue to have rifts.”
Wilburn also wants to connect with younger voters who aren’t tied to a political party, but who focus more on issues. He views establishing those relations as invaluable and thinks it’s an opportunity to unite with them over common causes.
“The more they see and experience that Democrats are connecting with their concerns, they will end up voting Democrat,” Wilburn said. “Maybe they don’t end up registering as a Democrat, but the bottom line is to be able to have effective policy and put Democratic policy in place.”
Another ambition of Wilburn’s is to staff up the state party in non-presidential election years so that they are organizing year-round. He thinks a strong local framework will help Iowa’s potential federal candidates turn to the state party first for support.
“If a federal candidate sees, ‘Oh, they got the Get Out the Vote organized here, they’ve got some strong outreach to young Iowans, let’s plug into that,’ as opposed to feeling like they’ve got to come in and recreate a structure or wheel,” Wilburn said. “That’s the hope.”
The chairman thinks that type of year-round infrastructure could balance the relationship with the national party committees—Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—who have a heavy hand financially in Iowa’s campaigns.
“It’s just a tough needle we are going to have to thread, but I think it’s a matter of how we work in partnership with those national groups as opposed to ‘butt out of Iowa;’ we can’t have them butt out of Iowa, but we need to make sure Iowan voices are heard,” Wilburn said, noting it takes money to win campaigns.
‘Work to do’
During the 2020 campaign, there were calls—most prominently from former presidential candidate Julian Castro—for Iowa to be stripped of its first-in-the-nation status for several reasons, including the state’s lack of significant racial diversity.
With 2024 approaching, Wilburn says he’s committed to keeping the Iowa Caucus alive and staying first. He said he’s had conversations about this with other state party chairs, DNC chair Jaime Harrison as well as his with Jeff Kaufmann, his Iowa GOP counterpart.
“It’s important for many reasons,” Wilburn said. “Iowa is that rural, working-class family; that’s a voice that’s important for the national candidates to hear. Iowa offers equitable opportunity to reach that voice of middle America as well as the diversity that we have here in Iowa.”
Wilburn noted historically, Iowa has led the way in a number of civil rights and societal issues and thinks that current criticisms of Iowa don’t tell the full story.
“Well, you’re talking to the state chair who is African-American,” he said.
Conversations about which state should go first in the presidential-nominating process come up every cycle, and while Wilburn is committed to protecting Iowa’s position, he said it doesn’t matter unless Iowa Democrats put the work in to earn votes.
“If we’re not registering people to vote, if we’re not getting out the vote, if we’re not educating and connecting with Iowans on the issues, if we’re not doing the party-building and community-building right now, then it’s not going to matter,” he said.
“We’ve got to have that strong infrastructure in place. That’s the work of the party, that’s the work of me as the chair. I’m keeping us in the conversation for first in the nation, but that can’t be the emphasis right now because we’ve got work to do right now.”
by Ty Rushing