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Democratic Rep. Ras Smith Launches 'Historic' Bid For Governor In Downtown Waterloo

Kate Payne
State Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, formally launched his campaign for governor at an event Tuesday, sharing a vision of Iowa that's welcoming and inclusive, with a higher quality of life for all.

Democratic candidate for governor Ras Smith is laying out a vision of Iowa that’s diverse, equitable, and that can transcend current partisan divides. Smith, a three-term state representative, formally launched his “historic” campaign in his hometown of Waterloo Tuesday afternoon. If elected, he would be the state’s first Black governor.

At an open air amphitheater on the banks of the Cedar River in downtown Waterloo, Smith became the first candidate to officially join the race to become the state’s next governor. At a time when some Iowa Democrats are questioning to what extent their party can remain competitive in the state, Smith made the case for a vibrant Iowa that he says shares common struggles across party and county lines.

A rising statehouse leader known for building amicable relationships on both sides of the aisle, Smith led the charge to unanimously pass police accountability legislation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Smith lays out vision for diverse, welcoming Iowa

Speaking to a crowd Tuesday that included Democratic statehouse colleagues and famed local civil rights icon Willie Mae Wright, Smith said there’s more work to be done for the state to live up to what he sees as a history of inclusivity and innovation.

“Our heritage is our path forward. See, Iowa desegregated schools before the federal government. We developed agriculture that feeds the globe. We recognized that love is love, before any other Midwestern states,” Smith said. “That's the Iowa I know.”

The son of a pastor mother and a union John Deere factory worker father who was born on a sharecropping plantation in Mississippi, Smith was raised in the Black community in East Waterloo, grew up hunting and fishing in rural Iowa, and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa.

If elected, Smith would be just the fifth Black governor in U.S. history, making his candidacy “historic," in the words of Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart.

Smith said he and his wife Amelia are proud to raise their two children in Iowa, but says far too many don’t feel welcome building their lives in the state, let alone engaging in its politics.

Among the bills Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed into law stemming from this year’s session are a series of voting restrictions and a measure that limits the ability of schools and government agencies to discuss racism and sexism.

“Our leaders are using their words and policy to tell you that you don't belong here. That your Black life doesn't matter. They don't want you to participate because of who you are. Your decisions about your body aren't your decisions. That diversity and inclusion aren’t valued. That if you're an immigrant or refugee then you're somebody else’s problem,” Smith said. “But I say, come as you are.”

Smith says he sees “common struggles” across Iowa’s rural-urban divide

Smith says still others, in rural and urban Iowa, can’t afford to build a life in the state.

“It’s the 17 years at the local convenience store, never making more than $17 and hours, with no retirement or the ability to pay for your kids’ college. It’s that parent at graduation that knows that their child has already planned to never make Iowa home again. It’s that family group chat that says, ‘can you chip in $25 to help pay for grandma's medicine again this month’,” Smith said.

Kate Payne
Waterloo civil rights icon Willie Mae Wright cheers on state Rep. Ras Smith during his campaign launch event. If elected, he would be the state's first Black governor.

Democrats have suffered considerable electoral losses in rural Iowa in recent cycles, seeing former President Donald Trump and downballot Republicans run up the margins in counties that voted for President Barack Obama twice. Politicos point to dwindling populations, the loss of union manufacturing jobs and the decline of local media outlets as factors working against Democrats in rural Iowa.

But Smith argued that the state’s rural urban divide is overblown and that Iowans in communities of all sizes share “a lot of common struggles” that he hopes to address.

“A lack of access to seeing your kids to school without them having to be on the bus for hours and hours and hours. I see a lack of access to technology and broadband. A lack of access to opportunity to start a family, to raise a family” Smith said. “We have Iowans, all across the state, surrounded by miles and miles of corn and soybeans, but somehow still living in a food desert.”

Smith calls for legalizing marijuana, empowering local governments

Smith’s speech Tuesday was light on policy specifics, but in an interview with IPR ahead of the event, he said that improving quality of life and expanding the state’s economy will entail rethinking criminal justice and drug policy, including legalizing marijuana and expanding medical uses for the drug.

“Regulate it like alcohol,” Smith said. “We shouldn't be incarcerating people for something that 12 hours west, right, they can…they can build an industry. But I also believe it comes with communicating and understanding how this helps people.”

Smith also said the state should reform how it handles criminal sentencing and probation, especially for those convicted of nonviolent crimes, saying that the state’s patterns of incarceration are “ruining lives” and are “not fiscally sustainable."

When it comes to Iowa’s agriculture industry, Smith said he wants to incentivize conservation practices and push the state’s producers to become more climate resilient. He also advocated for empowering local governments to make land use decisions, like whether they want a new livestock operation in their community, arguing that the Reynolds administration has elevated the interests of corporations over those of employees and residents.

Kate Payne
Kids chalk a sidewalk with campaign messages at a gubernatorial campaign launch event for state Rep. Ras Smith.

Asked about the nature of his candidacy as a Black man, Smith said he has a lifetime of experience of dealing with racism and bigotry in Iowa. He detailed parents who said they would “disown” their daughter if he dated them, but then ultimately became his “fishing buddies."

Smith says his campaign is about helping Iowans transcend their partisan political identities to address common struggles and achieve shared goals.

“Iowans are not in this box, right? That we can think broadly. That we can be greater than we’ve been before and empower people no matter what they look like or where they come from,” Smith said. “So it’s less about who I am than what we want to build as a state.”

Other Democrats are considering getting in the race, including State Auditor Rob Sand. Reynolds is expected to run for re-election, though she hasn’t formally announced her plans. A spokesperson for Reynolds did not respond to a request for comment.