A record number of candidates of color were on the 2021 ballot in Polk County. Here’s how they did

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By Melody Mercado, Des Moines Register

Polk County voters had a record number of diverse candidates to choose from on Election Day, with 15 people of color running in mayoral, city council and school board races across the county.

Candidates told the Des Moines Register they ran for numerous reasons. Some were driven to seek election by the racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd last year by a Minneapolis police officer. Others expressed the need to provide diverse perspectives in local policy.

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While the candidates’ results were mixed, local races still experienced record turnout for local elections in Polk County, with 21% of registered voters turning out to vote, up from the county’s previous high of 17%, set in 2019, according to WOI-TV.

How did those votes translate for candidates of color? According to an analysis from Sean Bagniewski, chair of the Polk County Democrats, 10 of the 15 candidates of color won their races.

In Des Moines, first-time candidate Indira Sheumaker unseated two-time Ward 1 incumbent Bill Gray. Sheumaker, who ran on a platform of defunding the police, will be the first Black woman to sit on the Des Moines City Council in decades.

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Others included Southeast Polk School Board candidate Whitney Smith McIntoshDes Moines School Board candidates Maria Alonzo-Diaz and Teree Caldwell-Johnson as well as West Des Moines City Council incumbent Renee Hardman also saw success at the polls.

“If you look at the numbers on their own, there are now more women elected to city council seats in Polk County, there are more people of color elected than there were before last Tuesday — so it’s progress, but not as much as we had hoped,” Bagniewski said.

In a snapshot of the state, the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP chapter reported one member of its leadership team, Anita Rollins, won a seat on the Ames City Council. Two additional members are currently in runoff elections in Cedar Falls and Cedar Rapids.

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Additionally, Waterloo voters reelected Mayor Quentin Hart, who is Black, despite opposition from a political action committee that opposed his reelection and instead supported “pro-law enforcement candidates.” Voters there also elected four City Council members — three of them Black newcomers — who ran against the PAC’s favored candidates, giving the City Council a Black majority for the first time.

And West Liberty, in Muscatine County, elected what many believe to be Iowa’s first city council to have a majority of Latino members.

Although not all of the candidates of color won their races on election night, some are calling the experience valuable as they gear up to run again in the future.

‘I will run again’

Voters in Ankeny passed on electing Michael Moore, who would’ve been the city’s first Black mayor, but Moore says he’s not discouraged. In fact, he plans to run again.

Moore, who received about 40% of the votes, told the Register that, as a first time candidate, he was proud of the number of votes that he was able garner on Nov. 2.

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He said he was especially proud of his turnout numbers considering his opponent, Mark Holm, raised more than double the contributions.

“For a first shout out, it’s not too bad. I may be good at this,” Moore said. “It’s encouraged me to sharpen my tools a little bit and build a better team around me and go for it … I will run again.”

Originally, Moore was inspired to run for office after becoming more involved in the community following Floyd’s murder. At first, he was worried about the negative comments he might receive as a candidate of color, but said he’s been very blessed with the support he’s received.

“As people are, like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t win; stay strong,’ I asked if they would vote for me again and they said yes,” Moore said. “That’s the true words of encouragement that I needed.”

Other first-timers, like Des Moines City Council candidate Justyn Lewis and Ankeny City Council candidate Bill Lu shared similar sentiments, expressing content at the number of votes they each received along with interest in running again in the future.

Lewis, an at-large candidate for the Des Moines City Council, received about 45% of the vote, laying down what Lewis called a strong foundation.

“I’m happy we got a good base and infrastructure. What I plan to do is continue to show up and continue to go to meetings and meet with folks and look at other ways that I can get involved,” he said.

Will he run for office again? Yes, but he wasn’t ready to say for what political office, saying anything is on the table.

“We had over 8,000 people … 8,000 votes … when we go look at other races, when we look at other seats … that’s that’s a winnable total,” Lewis said. “I’m encouraged.”

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Lu, who ran for one of two open seats on Ankeny’s City Council, wanted to be elected to the council as “a trusted neighbor that people are comfortable approaching with their issues.”

Lu, who was born in Shanghai before moving to the United States as a child, would have been the first person of color elected to the council. He received almost 23% of the vote, finishing third among four candidates, which he called “pretty amazing.”

Now that Lu, who currently works as an officer with the Des Moines Police Department, is moving to dayside hours at his job, he says he will be able to commit even more time to volunteering and being active in the community — all in anticipation of running again for city council.

“This first year was just getting my feet wet and learning … it was really good to be a part of that experience and know the kind of in and outs of how it goes,” Lu said.

Melody Mercado covers Des Moines city government for the Register. Reach her at [email protected] or Twitter @melodymercadotv

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