By Robert Maharry, Courtesy of the Times-Republican
A Marshalltown mayoral candidate said she’s running for office because the city isn’t a great place to live but instead “dirty, full of drugs and illegal immigrants.”
Serina Stabenow faces incumbent Mayor Joel Greer in the Nov. 2 city election. Stabenow made the comments in a recent email response to Marshalltown voter Sue Blaisdell, who reached out to local candidates with questions.
Blaisdell and others shared the contents of the email with the Times-Republican, expressing concerns about Stabenow’s views about the city, immigrants and the recently constructed Buddha statue.
“I was really sickened when I found out that Buddha (sic) and made a home in marshalltown and I was furious. I went to many prayer meetings prayed about this and I believe God will take it down,” Stabenow wrote.
The statue, which is located southeast of Marshalltown near Highway 30, was completed in August and ranks among the largest Buddha statues in the United States. More than 1,000 people celebrated its completion in a ceremony that also attracted 30 Buddhist monks from around the country. JBS played a critical role in developing and facilitating the project, with more than 20 percent of its workforce belonging to the Theravada Dhamma Society.
Tay Tun, the liaison for the Theravada Dhamma Society of Iowa in Marshalltown, said he was shocked and saddened to learn of the remarks.
“What I see about the United States is we can pursue our happiness, religions, and that’s why we are here,” Tun said. “I don’t know if that person had some kind of personal experience and was negatively affected, or what she might have been through, but our religion is just to be peaceful,” Tun said.
Despite the comments, he feels the Marshalltown community has been extremely supportive of the Theravada Dhamma Society of Iowa, with many visitors of all spiritual backgrounds coming to visit the statue since its completion and expressing their pride that it was built here.
In a phone interview with the Times-Republican, Stabenow acknowledged and reiterated the comments in the email, which was also sent to other city candidates. The assessment that Marshalltown is a “dirty town full of drugs and illegal immigrants” is fair, Stabenow said.
Approximately 36 percent of Marshalltown’s population is of Latino or Asian descent, according to the latest Census figures. Stabenow believes members of those communities will support her platform, which includes investigating fraud related to insurance and charitable donations made after the 2018 tornado and ensuring mental health services are adequately funded for all residents of the city.
“I think they’ll agree with me. I have numerous friends that are Hispanic. We grew up together, (and) we’re best friends. I don’t care what color your skin is,” Stabenow said. “When I was a landlord, I had more problems with white people than I did with any others. The drugs are high in Marshalltown, and drugs don’t discriminate.”
Marshalltown Immigrant Allies Co-Organizer Maria Gonzalez said while the comments are disturbing, it’s another reason to celebrate diversity in the community.
“Marshalltown is a community of different races, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, economic statuses, language origin and genders, but we all bring our different knowledge, experience and interest to better our community for the benefit of our community,” Gonzalez said. “With Immigrant Allies, we believe that to strengthen our community, we must embrace our diversity because at the end of the day, we have more in common than our differences.”
Gonzales said the mayor position is a “service job,” and she hopes that the candidates will make an effort to connect with those already contributing to the community.
“Marshalltown tends to be special in Iowa. Many towns around us don’t have this type of diversity. It’s easy to point fingers and try to divide people instead of building a partnership that requires us to move forward,” Gonzalez said. “At the end of the day, Marshalltown has proven that we’re stronger together, and we’re stronger when we back each other up. Anyone who’s running for mayor needs to be aware of that.”
Stabenow said that God had persuaded her to seek the office, and despite her concerns about her own busy schedule, she “didn’t take no for an answer.”
“And although I am not a politician I know some things that are not right in this town and the more I dig the more it saddens me that there are people behind evil doings that even called themselves a Christian,” she wrote in the email. “I have a passion for Marshalltown and to make it a great town (sic) bring a good jobs bringing good food and be proud to call this place home.”
Greer, the mayoral incumbent, stressed the need for tolerance and acceptance in a brief statement.
“My hope is that during this campaign, all of the candidates will learn to be sensitive to our diverse population and the need to include all members of our community,” Greer said.
Blaisdell offered her own thoughts on the situation.
“My advice to everyone: Slow down. Make sure you don’t hit ‘Reply All’ when you should hit only ‘Reply,’” she said, before shifting her focus to Stabenow specifically. “She clearly says she’s too busy for this job, and I believe her.”
— Trevor Babcock contributed reporting to this story.