‘Big shoes to fill:’ Johnson hopes to replace Abdul-Samad in Iowa House

Rob Johnson

By Ty Rushing

February 19, 2024

Rob Johnson knows no one will truly be able to fill the footsteps left by Ako Abdul-Samad, but he hopes to continue to the longtime Des Moines lawmaker’s legacy as the next representative of Iowa House District 34.

“People always say, ‘Those are big shoes to fill with Ako,’ and I always tell people, ‘We’re not going to be able to fill those shoes, but what we will be able to do is walk the path he helped pave,’” Johnson told Starting Line.

Abdul-Samad, 72, has represented a portion of Des Moines in the Iowa House of Representatives since 2007. However, Abdul-Samad announced that he was retiring last week and Johnson announced his candidacy on Monday.

Johnson, like Abdul-Samad, is a Democrat in the heavily blue district. No other candidates have officially announced yet, but June’s Democratic primary will determine the likely winner of the general election in November.

Originally from Chicago, Johnson moved to Des Moines in 2006. He has immersed himself in the worlds of community activism, nonprofit work, and politics working primarily behind the scenes in support of other candidates, including one of Abdul-Samad’s reelection campaigns. Johnson has also worked for several Democratic presidential campaigns and Deidre DeJear’s secretary of state and gubernatorial campaigns.

Being a candidate is a new experience for Johnson, but he is running because he wants to make a difference in Iowa.

“Honestly, when I sit back and look at it, I’m tired of seeing what I see in this state,” he said. “We got people who are struggling to pay bills every day living paycheck to paycheck. We have a public school system that is severely underfunded and we have educators that are underappreciated. [And] don’t forget, we have a mental-health system right now that is in dire need of resources and our sacred right to vote is under attack.”

A big part of Johnson’s campaign message is increasing voter turnout not just in his district, but across the state.

“Iowa has seen a decrease in voter turnout and we want to be part of the reason why people are excited about voting and being engaged in our democracy and our civic duty again,” Johnson said.

His other campaign philosophy is about taking care of people. This is something he already does as a private citizen, which he thinks will resonate with voters.

“We’re going to show up for our community—we’ve been there,” Johnson said. 

For the last three years on his birthday, Johnson has hosted gas giveaways allowing anyone to drive up to the pump and fill up for free. Thousands have taken him up on his offer for a free fill-up and he’s given out $50,000 worth of gas during these events and has plans for more.

“When we talking about living paycheck to paycheck, we’re engaging ourselves in helping people turn their weeks around,” Johnson said. “A full tank of gas can last somebody an entire week and now that extra money they have goes into their pocket to do something else.”

While the gas giveaways are his most public way of helping others, Johnson—who is also a pastor—noted his community work extends beyond helping folks fill up at the pump.

“I’m the person they call at 2 a.m. or midnight to show up at the hospital when there’s a tragic incident or a shooting or there’s a mental health situation happening in our community,” Johnson said. “We’ve done funerals and weddings—we continue to show up in our community.”

Getting things done in the Iowa Legislature as a Democrat is difficult with Republicans fully in control of both chambers, but, if he were elected, Johnson thinks he can navigate that to accomplish his legislative goals.

“Take a look at everything we’re doing in our community right now. That doesn’t happen without collaboration. That doesn’t happen without teamwork. That doesn’t happen without organizations,” he said. “We’re coming into this as someone who is a collaborator, as someone who organizes, as someone who reaches out and works with others to get things done for our community.

“It won’t stop if we are voted [into the Iowa House]—it’ll actually increase—and we’ll have an opportunity to do it on a bigger and better scale.”  

AT A GLANCE:

Name: Rob Johnson

Position: Candidate for Iowa House District 34

Age: 36

Residence: Des Moines

Experience: Has worked in the nonprofit sector since 2014, and worked on campaigns for various Iowa political candidates.

Family: Son, Elias, 2.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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