© 2022 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
IPR News

Iowa Democrats Choose Wilburn As New State Party Chair

John Pemble
IPR file
Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, announces with other sponsoring legislators the More Pefect Union plan. It has the goal of preventing violence between law enforcement and residents. 6/4/2020 Photo by John Pemble

The Iowa Democratic Party State Central Committee elected Rep. Ross Wilburn of Ames as its new state party chair on Saturday. His election follows a number of blows for Democrats at the ballot box in Iowa last November, including now-President Joe Biden losing to former President Donald Trump by about 8 points

Rep. Wilburn has been a member of the Iowa House of Representatives since 2019 and in 2006 became the first Black mayor in Iowa City history. He has also served as city council member in Iowa City. Wilburn also served in the Iowa Army National Guard

Wilburn is the first Black Iowan to serve as chair of the IDP.

Wilburn takes over for outgoing chair Mark Smith of Marshalltown who served in the role since February 2020. Smith took over after former chair Troy Price stepped down following the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

Democrats suffered many losses in the 2020 general election, including the inability to defeat incumbent Republican U.S Sen. Joni Ernst and losing two congressional seats. Democrats also lost seats in the Iowa House of Representatives last year.

California Sen. Kamala Harris marches into the 2019 Polk County Democrats Steak Fry in Des Moines with Iowa House Rep. Ross Wilburn.
Clay Masters
Rep. Ross Wilburn dancing with then-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris at the Polk County Democrats' Steak Fry in Des Moines in September 2019.

Big Ticket Races in 2022

While making his case to the central committee before his election he said Iowa Democrats have to engage and convince "the working class, farmers, factory workers and our diverse constituencies that our party is on their side and will be at their side."

“It's going to involve not just planning for the next election but looking several elections out,” Wilburn told reporters during a virtual press conference on Saturday afternoon. “It's not just about looking at the state and federal offices. We've got to get Democrats elected at the local level."

There will be two big elections in 2022: the re-election race for Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and a race for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Chuck Grassley. Sen. Grassley, who would be 89-years-old at the start of his next term, told Iowa Capitol Dispatch last year that he would make announcement about his decision to run for an eighth term eight months to a year before the election.

The Future of the Iowa Caucuses

Another big question hanging over Iowa Democrats is whether the state will stay at the front of its party’s presidential nominating calendar after the debacle that was the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

The Democratic National Committee elected Jaime Harrison from South Carolina at its virtual winter meeting on Thursday and national Democrats are eager to discuss the calendar.

“I look forward to working with him,” Wilburn said about Harrison. “So we can always make the case that Iowa should be first in the nation.”

Wilburn said that work will really start in March.

Iowa's decades-long lock on the nominating process has been under threat since last year's disastrous caucus, when results were delayed for days due in part to a faulty smartphone app that was supposed to make things easier for precinct captains when they reported results.

The IDP released an audit to the public in December that it commissioned following the caucuses last Feb. 3, and it showed multiple problems, but that the DNC played a major role.

Meanwhile, Iowa Republican Party chair Jeff Kaufmann, who was re-elected to the post in early January, said he’s laser-focused on maintaining Iowa’s position as the first in the nation caucus state and hopes to again work closely with officials in the Iowa Democratic Party to protect that status.

Wilburn will continue to serve in legislature while chair

Wilburn says he plans to step down from his current job as Diversity Officer and Associate Director Community Economic Development at Iowa State University Extension and be a full-time paid chairperson of the Iowa Democratic Party. He will continue to serve as representative of House District 46 in the Iowa legislature.

The other nominations for the Iowa Democratic Party chair were Prakash Kopparapu, Jodi Clemens and Lou McDonald.

June Owens was re-elected as co-chair of the IDP.