The race for Iowa Secretary of State is normally pretty sedate, but this year is an exception, as the enthusiastic crowd that packed Old Brick on Tuesday afternoon loudly demonstrated. That’s because the office controls voting in the state, and voting in the November general election is critical to bringing change to the state and the country — a reality emphasized by featured speakers U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Democratic Secretary of State nominee Deirdre DeJear at the Iowa Democratic Party’s “All Hands on Deck” early voting rally.
“This is an inflection event in the history of America,” Harris told the crowd at Old Brick, comparing the impact of the upcoming election to that of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
“This is a moment where we are all, individually and collectively, being required to look in the mirror and ask a question, that question being: who are we?” the California Democrat said.
She warned that a great deal of money was being spent to maintain the status quo, but said “people power” could overcome big spending, provided voters show up on Election Day.
Harris was the reason CNN had a camera at Old Brick, in case something cable-newsworthy happened. (It didn’t, and Iowa City didn’t rate a mention in CNN’s coverage of Harris in Iowa.) She’s widely considered a likely Democratic candidate for president in 2020, and her careful, incisive questioning of Brett Kavanaugh during the recent hearings on his Supreme Court nomination has increased her national profile.
But if CNN only had eyes for Harris, DeJear was the one who drew the biggest response from the crowd.
“I want us to think just a little bit beyond the space of this room. Because we’ve gathered in spaces like this before,” DeJear said, when she addressed the crowd. “We’ve talked on Facebook, and defended our points to the death. We have shared news articles, we have marched, we have cried, we have suffered.” But none of that matters, she said, “unless we get out the vote.”
“There’s this notion that voting is like stretching — you don’t have to do it, but if you don’t, it’s going to hurt later,” DeJear said. As the crowd laughed, she added, “We’ve been there.”
Making voting easier, and increasing voter turnout, have been at the center of DeJear’s campaign. In 2017, Iowa became one of 24 states that have imposed new restrictions on voting since 2010. Voting restrictions have been popular in states with a Republican governor and Republican-led legislature, as the GOP’s share of registered voters shrinks and its base continues to become older and whiter.
Studies have shown that these restrictions disproportionately affect likely Democratic voters, especially members of minority groups. The justification typically offered for the restrictions are they are needed to prevent in-person voter fraud, even though the most reliable evidence shows that such fraud only accounts for between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent of votes.
DeJear pointed out it would take legislative action to overturn the new restrictions, and said if elected she would advocate for that action, just as current Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, advocated for passage of the 2017 restrictions.
It’s no surprise that DeJear would want to make voting easier for everyone, especially low-propensity voters. Improving people’s ability to access important resources is something she’s been doing since college.
As an undergraduate at Drake University, DeJear co-founded Back 2 School Iowa, a nonprofit that works to encourage kids to stay in school and connect the resources to facilitate that. After Drake, she’s worked with numerous nonprofits, including those focused on voter education and engagement, and she developed the Financial Capability Network, which helps low- and moderate-income individuals with training in financial literacy.
In 2008, DeJear started her own marketing and project management firm, Caleo Enterprises (“caleo” is Latin for “ignite”), that specializes in providing affordable business services for entrepreneurs.
“In my career, I’ve seen that people are often disconnected from their ability to attain success,” DeJear told Little Village after the rally. “A lot of that is lack of resources and lack of knowledge. And what I’ve always done is to aim to be that connecting point for them, be that bridge, so they can literally do what my grandma used to tell me all the time — and still does — that you can do whatever you set your mind to.”
DeJear’s grandmother has been an important inspiration for her. As a teenager, DeJear worked on her first political campaign, when her grandmother ran successfully for County Elections Commissioner in Yazoo County, Mississippi.
DeJear grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, before her family moved to Oklahoma when she was in middle school.
“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.”
It was at Drake that DeJear had her first chance to vote.
“I remember going into the voting booth, around the corner from my school. It was the 2004 election, Bush-Kerry, and I just felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders,” she recalled. “I felt like my vote was going to make the difference in the race. That feeling — the importance of the vote, how critical it is — has never left me.”
“I want people to feel that their vote is as important as I feel mine is.”
“When you look at our small municipal elections, we’re seeing five to 10 percent of people turning out — in the primary election in June, 13 percent of people turned out — I know we can do better than that,” DeJear said. “We’ve got to reinstill the value of the vote in people.”
DeJear, who lives in Des Moines, has managed two successful school board campaigns in Polk County and worked statewide on Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. This campaign is her first time as a candidate.
“I knew there needed to be changes and improvements in the Secretary of State’s Office,” DeJear said.
In addition to overseeing elections, the office provides essential services to Iowa businesses, such as handling issues related to incorporation and licensing. DeJear had experience dealing with the business side of the office through her job at Caleo, and the election side through her volunteer work on voter empowerment.
“My original goal was to get a candidate elected, and I didn’t realize I’d be that candidate,” DeJear said. “But that’s how things ended up and I’m glad I made that choice.”
DeJear’s victory in the June 5 primary election made Iowa history. She became the first black person to win a major party’s nomination for a statewide office.
DeJear and the incumbent Pate will be appear on the ballot in the Nov. 6 general election, along with the Libertarian candidate, Jules Ofenbakh.