‘We can do better, because we’ve done better’: Deidre DeJear on Iowa’s future, LGBTQ rights, abortion access and legalizing cannabis

Democratic candidate for governor Deidre DeJear answers questions during a fundraiser at the Chauncey in Iowa City, July 14, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

“I just want to get back to basics,” Deidre DeJear told the people gathered on the fifth floor patio of the Chauncey on Thursday evening, in response to a question about what her first three priorities would be if elected governor. The Democratic nominee named funding public education, guaranteeing the right to choose an abortion and funding mental health services.

Audience questions came during the second half of the hour-long fundraising event hosted by the Tuesday Agency. The first half featured DeJear in conversation with author and journalist Lyz Lenz.

Lenz started with a couple of lighthearted questions including whether DeJear preferred Casey’s or QuikTrip. DeJear did not hesitate in choosing Casey’s, although she said she does hesitate getting a slice of pizza if it looks like it’s been on the carousel for a long time.

“We need leadership in public education,” DeJear said, as Lenz moved the conversation to more serious topics. Voters across the state and political spectrum told DeJear that supporting public education — including and stopping Gov. Kim Reynolds’ efforts to create a voucher program that redirects tax dollars to private schools — is a top priority, the candidate said.

DeJear pointed out that Reynolds and other Republican leaders use fears stoked by rightwing media to distract from real issues the state is facing. Lenz brought up the “divisive concepts” bill Reynolds signed into law last year, which restricts how topics related to race and gender can be addressed by schools. The governor claimed the new restrictions were needed to prevent Critical Race Theory from being taught to school children, even though no schools in Iowa had that advanced approach to legal analysis as part of their curriculum.

“It was one of those bills, as we see often in this state under this leadership, that was written in another state,” DeJear said. “They have the tendency on the other side right now to create problems that really don’t exist, rather than addressing the problems that do exist.”

“The problems with our education system have nothing to do with Critical Race Theory. In fact, Critical Race Theory wasn’t even a factor, but they used that as a factor to stoke fear in our parents and point blame at the failure of this administration to truly provide an education system that is preparing our students for a limitless future.”

Democrat candidate for governor Deidre DeJear speaking with Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter at the Chauncey, July 14, 2022. Jason Smith/Little Village

The bill banning transgender girls and women from competing in girls’ and women’s sports in schools and universities — “another bill that was presented and passed in other states” — was another example of this tactic.

Drawing on her experience volunteering as a coach for the girls’ basketball team at East High School in Des Moines, DeJear said, “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that trans girls have no part of the equation as it relates to the lack of competitiveness in girls’ sports. If [Reynolds] really wanted to make girls’ sports more competitive, she would just make sure that girls’ sports had money.”

That was part of DeJear’s response to Lenz’s broader question about the “real fight here in this state for LGBTQ rights.”

“We know that our LGBTQ community, no matter how much the other side wants to make them our problem, they are not our problem,” DeJear said. “The problem is that we don’t have an inclusive government that sees them for who they are. And that’s critical. That’s critical whether we’re talking about the LGBTQ community or we’re talking about any of other communities throughout the state that aren’t seen.”

“So, what do we need to do? One, we create spaces where they can be seen. Two, we have laws that reflect them being seen. And the other part of it is that any time we’re problem-solving our way through challenges, it’s important to have more folks at the table than not that either have professional experiences on the issue and lived experiences on the issue.”

DeJear said she favors the same approach when it comes to environmental policy, when asked by an audience member what she would do about climate change and reducing pollution from industrial-scale farming practices.

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“Our landowners need to be in the same room as the farmers, so does Big Ag, so do our educators and our activists and our environmentalists,” DeJear said. “All of us have very similar goals in what we want to accomplish, but unfortunately what’s happening is that that conversation isn’t in the same room.”

This answer also points to the limitations that DeJear would face as governor. It’s unlikely that Republicans will lose control of the Iowa House and Senate in November’s election, even if DeJear is elected. They are reliable supporters of Big Ag, as are many Democrats in the state Legislature, and have been consistent opponents of environmental regulations. Large-scale agribusinesses in Iowa have not demonstrated any willingness in recent decades to change the practices that dump nitrates and other pollutants in the state’s waterways, and are unlikely to change course because of an invitation to meet with environmentalists.

In addition to opposition from Republicans and special interests to her agenda, DeJear would also face declining state revenues if elected, because of the bill Reynolds signed this year replacing the state’s personal income tax with a flat tax.

“Their argument is that they are overtaxing Iowans,” DeJear said. “My argument is that they are not putting Iowa taxpayer dollars to use. And we see the gross underfunding and defunding of our public systems. They are starving our systems to the point that we won’t be able to handle it, and when they come with their mediocre suggestions and solutions we will have no choice but to say yes.”

“We will no longer settle for their tenacious complacency. We won’t. We can do better, because we’ve done better.”

Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Eric Van Lencker and his wife Tanya at the Chauncey fundraiser, July 14, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

DeJear did identify one potential source of new tax revenue that Iowa is currently ignoring: legalized cannabis.

“We know that a majority of Iowans want to see recreational cannabis in the state,” she said. “We know that a majority of Iowans want to see extended access to medical cannabis in the state. We also know last year, over the course of eight to nine months, Iowans went to Illinois and spent $26 million. And that wasn’t on shoes.”

“And we did not get any benefit from it. So, it is time that we not only legalize it in this state, but we also create some regulations around it because we know that it is happening.”

Although Libertarian candidates for governor in Iowa have called for the legalization of cannabis, DeJear is the first gubernatorial candidate from one of the two major parties to back the idea. Many states have already legalized recreational use, so Iowa can draw on those experiences to avoid pitfalls, she said.

“Imagine what resources we can put into mental healthcare” with the additional tax revenue, DeJear said. “Imagine what resources we can put into education. Imagine a paid parental leave program in this state, so when people have babies they don’t fear losing their jobs.”

DeJear’s most passionate answer of the night came in response to Lenz’s question about preserving access to abortion, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, and the Iowa Supreme Court has reversed itself and declared there is no fundamental right to an abortion protected by the state constitution.

DeJear said decisions regarding terminating a pregnancy should be made between patient and doctor, while Reynolds is currently pushing for a ban on almost all abortion.

“I’m of the mindset that let’s use our laws to protect, rather than regulate women, because this is a trajectory that is not good for anybody,” DeJear said. “Because at the end of the day, this is more about freedom than anything else.”

She compared the current situation to the state of voting rights following the Supreme Court “gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965” nine years ago. Since then Republican-led states had introduced more and more restrictions on voting. That is likely to happen not just to abortion rights, but because of other recent Supreme Court decisions, the ability of states to regulate guns (“our tight to be able to go into a grocery store and purchase groceries for our family, and come home safely,” DeJear said, alluding to the mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York supermarket by a white supremacist) and the ability to fund public schools without diverting tax dollars to private, religious schools.

“We’ve got to do better,” DeJear said. “And this is the opportunity in this election cycle… [W]e’ve been here before. There are women in this space, there are men in this space, who fought this battle already. Who presumed we wouldn’t have to do it again. We wouldn’t have to do it again. But here we are.”

DeJear said she drew inspiration for the fight from a quote from Coretta Scott King.

“Coretta said, ‘Freedom is never really won. You earn it and you win it at every generation.’ And so, while millennials and Gen-Zers may not want to be in this fight, we got to do it. Because there’s folks that did it for us, and if we are to honor the blood, sweat and tears that they put out, we’ve got to breathe life into the future 50 years from now. So that our little ones, when they experience challenges, they will be able to see the work that you all did and know that they can do it as well.”

The Deidre DeJear for Governor campaign hold a fundraiser at the Chauncey in Iowa City, July 14, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village