Deidre DeJear worked on her first campaign while she was still in high school. Her grandmother, Mattie Washington, was running for a seat on the Election Commission in Yazoo County, Mississippi, and a young Deidre Howard spent the summer of her sophomore year helping with the campaign.
Washington already had a long history as a public school teacher and community organizer in that rural Mississippi county when she decided to run for office. She was then, and remains today, a major influence on her granddaughter.
“She really instilled in me the value of doing for others,” DeJear told Little Village. “Her empathy towards individuals was contagious, and it still is.”
By the time her grandmother ran for office, Deidre’s family had moved from Jackson, Mississippi to Tulsa, Oklahoma following the death of her mother, shortly after Deidre turned 8. Her father and his brother, who was already living in Oklahoma, had decided to start a home healthcare business in that state.
DeJear was used to spending summers in Yazoo long before the campaign.
“I volunteered to assist my grandmother, every summer she taught summer school,” she recalled.
Washington’s summer sessions went beyond the classroom. DeJear said her grandmother organized field trips for students to such places as New York and Washington D.C., so they could see more of the world beyond the rural corner of Mississippi.
Those summers with her grandmother also opened her eyes to the challenges of life in rural area, DeJear explained. The Howards had lived in Jackson, Mississippi’s capital and the state’s only large city. Her time in Yazoo helped acquaint her with life in rural America, especially the challenges faced by rural families in need.
Mattie Washington spent her career making sure the basic needs of the kids she taught were met, both in and outside school.
“She was creating safety nets for her young students,” DeJear said. It was an example she would follow after enrolling at Drake University.
As an undergraduate, DeJear co-founded the Back 2 School Bash, which collected school supplies for students at Des Moines-area schools who would otherwise have trouble affording them. The annual event evolved into the nonprofit Back 2 School Iowa.
DeJear had never spent time in Iowa prior to enrolling at Drake in 2004. She’d developed an interest in broadcast journalism in high school, and was impressed by Drake’s program. She was also interested in politics, and Iowa offered the promise of a parade of national politicians during caucus season.
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“I came to Iowa to go to Drake, and I ended up choosing Iowa as my home,” she said. “I just love the state and love what it has to offer to people.”
Although DeJear majored in broadcast journalism and politics, she turned to business when she graduated in 2008, setting up Caleo Enterprises. Caleo, which is Latin for “ignite,” started with a focus on providing marketing support for small businesses, and has expanded to offer business development support and financial coaching for entrepreneurs.
Starting her business led to an important moment in then-Deidre Howard’s life. It’s how she met Marvin DeJear.
“My husband was one of my first clients,” DeJear said, smiling.
Marvin, who earned an MBA and Ph.D. in Higher Education, Community College Leadership at Iowa State University, is currently senior vice president of talent development at the Greater Des Moines Partnership.
Also in 2008, DeJear began volunteering as an assistant coach for the girls’ basketball team at East High School in Des Moines. It evolved into a full-time position, and DeJear served as an assistant coach for the Scarlets through 2014.
“That was an outlet for me,” DeJear explained. “I’m a creative person, and while some people may not recognize it, basketball is a very creative game.”
She’d grown up in a sports-loving family, and played basketball in high school. But it was more than love of the game that made DeJear want to volunteer at East. It was also the opportunity to work with students.
“I am inspired by our youth,” she said, regarding her decision to take the coaching position. “I’m inspired when I know we can create opportunities for our young people.”
DeJear was coaching during 2011, when the girls’ team at East capped a perfect season by winning the state championship. Shareece Burrell, now an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, was a freshman player on the 2011 squad.
According to Burrell, “Coach Deidre” had a big impact on her and her fellow players.
“She was someone who would push us to be better each and every day,” Burrell told Little Village. “She wasn’t just coaching us, she was always encouraging us to be better individuals.”
As a former basketball coach, the bill our gov signed does nothing to make girls sports more “fair” or “competitive”. This bill not only unnecessarily harms kids, it gets us further from the solution. The fact of the matter is our state is underfunding youth sports. 1/ pic.twitter.com/LfznS94zlK
— Deidre DeJear (@DeidreDeJear) March 4, 2022
DeJear worked with the players both on and off the court, helping them with their studies, organizing community volunteer opportunities for team members, assisting them with the college application process.
She also served as a role model for the young players. During Burrell’s four years on the team, DeJear was the only woman on the coaching staff.
“That representation meant so much to us,” Burrell said, “because we had a Black woman as a role model to look up to. She helped us see that we could potentially be where she’s at one day.”
After Burrell graduated from East, she played Division I basketball at Bradley University in Illinois, where she earned a degree in sports communications. She then attended the University of Northern Iowa, completing a master’s in women and gender studies. In addition to her coaching job at Mount Mercy, she recently started a nonprofit in Cedar Rapids, Restore the Millenials, to provide mentoring and support to young adults who feel disconnected from their communities.
DeJear stayed in contact with Burrell throughout her college career, offering encouragement and support, and the two remain in touch today. DeJear has stayed in contact with most of her former players.
“All of them are productive citizens, doing amazing work,” she said proudly.
While coaching and building up Caleo, DeJear became more active in politics. She worked on Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign in Iowa. She also managed campaigns for two local school board candidates. In 2018, DeJear decided to run for office for the first time.
After the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, she felt a new urgency to work to protect access to the ballot box. The Secretary of State is, of course, Iowa’s chief election official. But the office also provides important services for entrepreneurs starting new businesses. The Secretary of State’s duties combined DeJear’s interest in ensuring voting rights and fostering business development.
DeJear campaigned on expanding access to voting, and expanding outreach to potential entrepreneurs to make sure they understood how the Secretary of State’s office could assist in new business ventures.
In the primary, DeJear faced Jim Mowrer, who was the better known candidate. Mowrer had twice been the Democratic nominee challenging the incumbent congressman Steve King in western Iowa. DeJear won. But in the general election, she fell to Republican incumbent Paul Pate by almost 8 percentage points.
Even though she lost, DeJear made history in 2018. She was the first Black candidate to win a major party’s nomination for a statewide office in Iowa.
Campaigning as the Democrats’ candidate for governor, DeJear is impressive. She has an engaging personality, is an excellent speaker, has outlined policies to address many of Iowa’s most pressing problems and can draw on a compelling life story when trying to connect with voters.
“If my story is possible, then all our stories are possible,” DeJear often says at events. But most Iowans who aren’t active in Democratic Party politics have never heard her story.
DeJear’s campaign has been limited due to limited success in fundraising. As of the end of September, there had not been a single campaign commercial on TV, despite the fact she was the presumptive nominee all year long.
There was another Democrat running last year. Ras Smith, who represents Waterloo in the Iowa House, declared his candidacy in June 2019. He quit the race at the beginning of January, citing a “drastic disconnect between the current political system and the people.”
Smith explained what that meant in a post he’d published on Bleeding Heartland two weeks earlier: “I never expected to be given as equal a shot as my white counterparts,” Smith wrote. “Because that’s reality. I’ve been a Black man in Iowa my entire life. What I didn’t expect was to be treated as insignificant by the donor class of my own party.”
Smith, who received the Iowa Democratic Party’s Rising Star award earlier in 2019, wondered if donors would have been so reluctant “if the front runner for the Democratic nomination for governor of Iowa were white.”
According to DeJear, she is receiving adequate support from the Iowa Democratic Party, although she acknowledges that her campaign is having to do more with less. Fundraising started off very slow, but has improved over the course of the campaign. In July, the DeJear campaign had $505,315 on hand. The Reynolds campaign, however, had $5.2 million in the bank at that time.
Reynolds began spending some of those millions on TV ads in September. Neither of the two campaign ads that debuted that month mention DeJear.
The only Democrat even mentioned in the first ad is President Biden. The second does feature a Democrat, Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, although the commercial never tells viewers who she is.
“And defunding the police has to happen,” Bush says in a brief clip showing her standing in front of the Capitol steps in Washington D.C., followed by a montage of images that frighten Fox News viewers. Then Gov. Reynolds smiles reassuringly at the camera. “Aren’t you glad you live in Iowa?” she asks, implying she is all that stands between viewers and the fears she is trying to stoke.
The only reason for Bush, whose district is nowhere near Iowa, to be featured prominently in the ad is because Bush is a Black woman with shoulder-length hair and Deidre DeJear is a Black woman with shoulder-length hair.
Reynolds apparently expects viewers to be so blinkered they can’t tell the difference between two Black women, or so racist they assume all Black people secretly agree with each other and can’t be trusted to protect “real” Americans, or be willing to ignore the non-subtle racist appeal.
DeJear has never supported defunding the police. But people who watch the ad probably don’t know that, because the Iowa Democratic Party hasn’t aired any TV commercials promoting its candidate or challenging Reynolds.
Except for Steve King, no leading Republican in Iowa has ever paid a price for pandering to racism. And it was national Republicans who rejected King, not Iowa Republicans.
After remaining silent during King’s eight terms in Congress, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) decided four years ago that King’s white nationalist language and connections were just too odious to tolerate and cut off funding for him.
“We must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms, and I strongly condemn [King’s] behavior,” the committee’s chair declared on Oct. 30, 2018.
Iowa Republicans continued to support King. Three days after the NRCC condemned King, Chuck Grassley issued a new video endorsement for him. (“Iowa needs Steve King in Congress. I also need Steve King in Congress.”) Reynolds kept King as co-chair of her 2018 election campaign, and he was on stage as a featured speaker at her final campaign rally that year.
King was reelected in 2018, but national Republicans stripped him of all committee assignments in Congress, setting the stage for Iowa Republicans to abandon him during the 2020 primary. Iowa Republican leaders never had to explain the decades of support they provided for King. There’s no reason to think any of them will criticize the governor’s “Scary Black Woman” ad.
Polls showed Reynolds with a double-digit lead over DeJear as the campaign entered its final stretch, but DeJear says there’s momentum the polls haven’t captured, and there’s a focus on the Reynolds administration’s failure to address Iowa’s problems that she didn’t see during her 2018 statewide campaign.
“We’re not talking about the political headlines this time. We’re talking about bread-and-butter issues that impact everybody — rural, urban, suburban, Black, white, LGBTQ.”
DeJear said she sees “new energy” among voters — young and old, Democrats and Republicans — who are opposed to Reynolds’ intention to impose a six-week abortion ban and divert public school funds into a voucher-style program to pay private school tuition.
“This governor has gone too far,” DeJear said. “This type of extremism doesn’t sit well in our state.”
DeJear talks about creating a more inclusive approach to governing, in contrast to Reynolds’ focus on the coalition of corporate interests Terry Branstad created, and the social conservatives Reynolds appeals to by banning transgender girls from school sports and supporting rightwing efforts to ban library books of which they disapprove.
“If we want people to be their best, we have to set them up for success,” DeJear said. “When we talk about education, healthcare, mental healthcare access — these are basic components, fundamentals things. There should be a pathway for people to enter in order to get access to those things.”
“And that pathway is getting smaller and smaller for the vast majority of Iowans. Why? Because our current leadership is not working hard enough.”
As she enters the final month of the campaign, DeJear acknowledges there’s still much work to do to get her message out. But then she refers back to what she said at the beginning of the campaign, “Iowa is worth the work.”
This article was originally published in Little Village’s October 2022 issues.