Democrat Liz Bennett kicks off campaign for state Senate, reflecting on the less-divided Iowa of decades past

State Rep. Liz Bennett watching a speaker at her campaign for Iowa Senate kickoff event in Cedar Rapids, Sept. 28, 2021. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

“I’m running for state senate to make sure that every single Iowan gets a fair shot in Iowa,” Liz Bennett told the people crowded into a room at The Bohemian in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday night for her campaign kick-off event.

The Cedar Rapids Democrat is in her fourth term representing Cedar Rapids in the Iowa House of Representatives, and announced in July she is running for the state Senate seat currently held by Rob Hogg. Hogg announced in June he would not run for reelection.

Bennett wasn’t the only Democratic candidate in the room on Tuesday night. The two candidates running for the Democratic nomination for governor were there to support Bennett.

Rep. Ras Smith of Waterloo and Deirdre DeJear both discussed Iowa as a land of opportunity for their families.

Smith spoke about his grandmother, who was living in Jim Crow-era Mississippi as a sharecropper. In 1957, “in the middle of the night… she threw my dad and his siblings in the back of a station wagon and left Tula, Mississippi, and came to Iowa.”

“She came because it was the right thing to do.”

Smith said his grandmother made a life in this state, as did his father.

“And then fast-forward that his son is able to stand before you today as a candidate for governor,” he said. “That’s the Iowa I know.”

Rep. Ras Smith, Democratic candidate for governor, at Liz Bennett’s campaign kickoff event, Sept. 28, 2021. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

DeJear, who was born and grew up in Oklahoma, was the first member of her family to come to Iowa when she enrolled at Drake University.

“I came to Iowa seeking an education, and what I found was a home,” DeJear told the crowd.

She talked about finding support from people that enabled her to build a life, a career and become active in politics, first working on the campaigns of others — from Barack Obama to local school board candidates — before her own run for Iowa Secretary of State in 2018. DeJear made history with the campaign, as the first Black Iowan to be nominated for statewide office by a major political party.

DeJear touched on the changes in state policy in recent years that have reduced opportunities in order to further Republican political goals.

“I’m of the mindset that it’s time for us to re-instill belief in what we’re capable of,” she said.

Deidre DeJear, candidate for governor, speaking at Liz Bennett’s campaign launch, Sept. 28, 2021. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

Bennett’s own speech sounded the same themes as Smith and DeJear.

“We have seen a turn over the past several years that does not mesh with what I saw when I first moved to Iowa 20 years ago,” she said.

Bennett was born and grew up on the Illinois side of the Quad Cities. In 2002, a then-20-year-old Bennett moved on her own to Cedar Rapids, where she attended college, first at Kirkwood College and then Cornell College, and began working to advocate for marriage equality.

Bennett recalled going to towns around eastern Iowa to doorknock on the issue, and said looking back she might have expected to be rejected by people based on her appearance — she had a red mohawk at the time. But that didn’t happen, because people were willing to listen and engage with her.

That probably wouldn’t happen now, as ideological divisions have sharpened due to exploitation by some politicians, Bennett said. It is necessary “to move the state of Iowa back in the direction of our shared values.”

Speaking to Little Village earlier in the week, Bennett said one of her strengths as a legislator has been working to build connections with even extremely conservative Republicans.

“I think I’ve been able to find common ground with people whose positions are very different than mine, while standing firm for my values and the values of the people I represent,” she said.

The Liz Bennett for State Senate kick-off event, Sept. 28, 2021. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

Bennett is the first openly LGBTQ woman to serve in the Iowa Legislature, and she feels that by engaging in conversations with members who have little or no previous contact with anyone openly LGBTQ has helped change attitudes.

Proposed bills during this year’s legislative session that would have targeted transgender students that went nowhere, which Bennett pointed to as a sign of her success in working across the aisle — although she acknowledged there remains a lot of work to do to secure the rights of LGBTQ Iowans.

One issue Bennett is still working on is banning the gay/trans panic legal defense, in which defendants attempt to justify violent crimes, including murder, by claiming that the emotional distress caused by finding our their victim was gay or transgender forced them to commit the crime.

Bennett has worked hard to build a consensus in the Iowa House to ban that defense in the state, and the House unanimously approving a bill doing just that last year. The Iowa Senate, however, failed to take action on it.

Speaking at the event on Tuesday, state Sen. Claire Celsi, a Democrat from West Des Moines, pointed to the gay/trans panic bill when talking about Bennett’s effectiveness in the House.

“We need her in the Senate to help finish the job,” Celsi said.

The senator also said that when a bill from the House arrives in the Senate, “my first question in my caucus is who voted for it. I want to know who voted for that bill or who didn’t vote for it. The first person I look for on that list is Liz Bennett, because is the conscience of her caucus.”

State Sen. Claire Celsi (right) hugs Rep. Liz Bennett, Sept. 28, 2021. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

Bennett listed priorities, such as fully funding schools and guaranteeing clean drinking water, that “over the past years that I’ve been involved, we’ve seen an administration that has systematically taken away the resources that we have needed to fund these priorities.”

“We’ve seen tax cuts for the richest corporations in Iowa and we’ve seen regular, middle-class Iowans shouldering the burden,” she continued. “That’s not right.”

Bennett said she is confident that most Iowans are ready for a new direction — including making sure big businesses pay their “fair share,” and that the criminal justice system is reformed to address systemic racism — to give everyone “a fair shot,” as she said.

“I think that’s what Iowa values are all about — a fair shot,” Bennett said.

Bennett was the third Democrat to announce a run for Hogg’s seat. One of the others, Sami Scheetz, has withdrawn as a candidate, and is now running for Bennett’s House seat. The other candidate, Breanna Oxley, a teacher at Roosevelt Middle School who is making her first run for office, is still in the race.

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