Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks with Reps. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo and Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, after signing a police reform bill on June 12, 2020. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
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Katie Akin, Iowa Capital Dispatch 

State Rep. Ras Smith, a Waterloo Democrat running for governor, says Iowa could be at a pivotal, historic moment, akin to when the state desegregated schools or legalized gay marriage before most other states.

“Our heritage as a state is marked by moments like this,” said Smith, who is two months into his campaign. He advocated for a state that is “radically inclusive.”

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Smith met with the Iowa Capital Dispatch over Zoom on Aug. 20 to discuss the first weeks of his gubernatorial campaign, his policy priorities and his vision for Iowa Democrats.

Who is Ras Smith

Rep. Ras Smith is a Democrat who has represented Waterloo in the Iowa House since 2017. 

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Smith, 33, grew up in Waterloo as the son of a pastor and a John Deere factory worker. He earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s in leisure, youth and human services from the University of Northern Iowa.

Before his election to the House, Smith worked with a social services program in Waterloo.

Legislative record and lessons learned

Smith said his biggest takeaway from five years in the Legislature was that “relationships matter.”

Although Republicans control both chambers and the governor’s office, Smith pointed to Democratic successes made possible through collaboration, like blocking a private school voucher program and the June 2020 passage of a police reform bill. Smith led the effort on the policing legislation, known as the “More Perfect Union” Act.

Smith said that he didn’t believe the Legislature’s 2021 action on policing would “move our communities forward.” The most recent bill creates new penalties for some riot-related crimes and gives police officers qualified immunity in legal disputes.

“I think all it does is it panders to … the legislation that we’ve seen in Republican states that’s been pushed across the country,” he said. “That’s a trend, right? It’s trying to make law enforcement a political tool, as opposed to a community service organization.”

“I’m not running to be an obstructionist governor,” Smith said. “I’m running to continue to build on the successes that I had as a legislator. I’m utilizing those pre-existing relationships.”

Smith acknowledged that Republicans are likely to maintain their Senate majority for the foreseeable future — the GOP holds 32 of 50 seats. He emphasized that Democrats need to leverage their across-the-aisle relationships to move forward. 

“We have to stop allowing this extreme partisan divide to get in the way of doing good work for the people of Iowa,” Smith said. 

Although he’s willing to work with Republicans, Smith speculated that Iowa Democrats may have a path to a House majority. Democrats last controlled the House in 2010. In the 2021 session, Republicans held 59 of 100 seats.

“We have an uphill battle,” Smith said. “We have a lot of seats to claim … I think it’s doable.”

Policy priorities: Education, jobs and climate

Asked to identify his top policy priorities, Smith spoke about expanding the services of Iowa’s public schools, creating higher-paying jobs and working with farmers on long-term climate solutions.

Smith said Iowa’s public schools could be the origin for “more inclusive services” for students and their families.

“If we want to tackle the health care crisis, or the lack of access to health care in rural Iowa, sometimes that means building a health care clinic attached to your school building,” he said. 

On employment, Smith stressed the need for higher wages. He said the conversation about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was a good start, and the state should support small businesses as they prepare to pay more. But, he said, the fight for $15 is just the first step. 

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“[We should] start moving folks from talking about $15 an hour to $50,000 a year,” he said, “At $50,000 a year, you can start breaking some of this generational poverty that we know exists in Iowa.”

Smith said Iowa farmers hold solutions to the changing climate crisis. He suggested more programs to encourage farmers to plant buffer zones and grow climate-friendly crops.

“Right now, we incentivize ‘get big or go home,’” he said. “We need to incentivize sustainability.”

He also spoke about the need for reliable rural infrastructure and support for students of color and LGBTQ youth.

On being the first Black governor, if elected

Smith said that his race is just a facet of his identity as an Iowan. He spoke about still being able to relate to farmers and hunters, emphasizing the importance of shared experiences.

“In this state, to get anything done, it takes everybody,” he said.

Even so, Smith said that he has repeatedly faced racism in Iowa.

“But I’ve also had coaches that are white men from rural towns step out in front of me, not just beside me, to challenge (racists),” he said. “So both those things can be true, but I know what the goodness looks like.”

As the state grows, there will be more nonwhite Iowans who need to feel included, valued and empowered, he said.

“I don’t ever want to focus on trying to be the first anything,” Smith said. “My hope is that I wouldn’t be the last.”

On Gov. Reynolds: ‘She’s a different person’

Smith praised Gov. Kim Reynolds for her support and speed on the More Perfect Union Act, and he identified Reynolds’ insistence on broadband expansion as admirable. But Smith said he felt his relationship with the governor had deteriorated over the course of former President Donald Trump’s tenure.

“It’s disappointing when you feel as though you built maybe a little bit of rapport with an individual, and see such a drastic shift in the way they conduct business, the way that they seem to have, at least, a common set of shared values that seem to deteriorate based on who’s president and the political sphere,” he said.

Smith clarified that he believes the shift occurred “because it’s been beneficial” to Reynolds.

A spokesperson for Reynolds did not respond to a request for comment.

State of the race

Smith was the first well-known Democrat to announce his candidacy for governor. Des Moines business owner and former secretary of state candidate Deidre DeJear is also running. 

Reynolds has not officially announced her run for reelection.

The Iowa GOP released several statements after Smith’s announcement, condemning his record in the House and criticizing a campaign video that featured wheat and potato fields instead of Iowa’s most prominent crop, corn.

“When he had the opportunity to lower taxes and make a paycheck go further, he voted against it every time,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Republican Party of Iowa.

Parting words

Smith acknowledged the path ahead would be challenging and that it will take a long time to solve many of the generational issues that Iowa faces.

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“This is work that takes a long time to do. It’s going to be done well beyond our lifetimes … Sometimes you have to crawl, sometimes you have to walk, sometimes you have to sprint. I think this is a moment, though, where we get to sprint.”

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