It’s probably not election season if you don’t encounter Stacey Walker: He’s worked on a number of Democratic campaigns, including Barack Obama’s 2012 run, but he can also be found watching election results roll in with the crowds at The Mill. As a correspondent for Little Village, he contributed an essay last fall called “The Loneliest Number: Being Black in Iowa” and interviewed Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley early in their campaigns. Now, Walker has a campaign of his own: Last week, he formally filed papers to run for District 2 Linn County Supervisor. The Cedar Rapids native and friend of LV talked about the origins of his political interest and how race informs his campaign on a daily basis.
What motivated you to run for office at this time? What would being an effective supervisor for Linn County look like to you?
You know, most politicians would give you an answer here about how they never intended to run for public office, but that public office chose them. I’ll spare you the coy and unoriginal answer and be real. I’ve always intended to be involved in public service. I truly believe that holding public office is still a very good way to have a positive impact on society. When I learned that my longtime county supervisor and political mentor Linda Langston did not intend to seek reelection, I did a lot of thinking about how I might be an effective leader as a supervisor, how my skillsets could be a value add to the county, and how I could affect change for the most vulnerable communities. After careful thought, I realized that I was the right person for the job and that it was time to continue to build on the progress that our county has made. My core motivation is rooted in a progressive vision for what Linn County can be, and that is a county that truly cares about the needs of its citizens, and not just some of its citizens, but all of them.
An effective supervisor is one who knows how to listen. Supervisors do a lot and they need to be able to take in a lot of perspectives to be able to make an informed decision. Effective supervisors must also be able to work with other elected officials in city government and in state and federal government. Creating a good society requires everyone to be engaged and that means every elected official across every form of government, and more importantly, it requires our citizens to be engaged as well.
When did your political involvement begin? You originally majored in business but switched to political science in college. Did your interest in politics even predate that?
My interest in politics does predate college. As a young kid I remember being fascinated by elected officials of color because it was such a rare thing to see. I remember Dale Todd being one of the first African American commissioners in Cedar Rapids. I remember seeing Alan Keyes on WGN News, which was a Chicago news station that sometimes aired in Cedar Rapids. I remember Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who was even more intriguing to me because I thought we looked alike. I remember when Barack Obama first came onto the scene after being elected to the Illinois Legislature.
I have a very good memory of learning about political science as an academic discipline in 7th grade. We were reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and were discussing the different political approaches of civil rights leaders. I made a comment to my teacher Mr. Dierks about how cool it would be to study these types of approaches and their effectiveness and do it for a living. Mr. Dierks looked at me and said, “You can study it, Stacey. It’s called political science.”
When I got to college however, I was told by so many well-wishing family friends and mentors that studying political science would not lead to a good paying job. I was told to study business, medicine or law. I chose business and planned to go to law school after undergrad. However, I left Drake University after my first semester because it wasn’t a good cultural fit for me. When I got to the University of Iowa, I took a course in American Politics taught by Peverill Squire. It was so interesting to me and I was so engaged that I think it was one of the few college courses that I aced. I changed my major from business to political science shortly after and have never looked back.
You’re a native of Cedar Rapids and graduated from UI. You’ve also lived in Washington, D.C. where you were involved in nonprofits and education, among other things. What did that experience away give you, and what made you decide to return to Iowa?
Iowa is a great place to grow up, to live, to work and raise a family. With that said, I encourage everyone to explore as much of the world as possible. Travel and time away really helps broaden your perspective in a way that is invaluable in the global society in which we live. In addition to these experiences, I was able to travel the world during my summers in college, working with the children of deployed service members of the United States Air Force. These are experiences I’ll never forget. Travel and time away is really one of the best educations you can give yourself.
Among the many things I learned, the biggest takeaway is seeing for yourself just how similar we all are. You sort of gain a new appreciation for others. If you’re lucky you get to experience people living in extreme poverty; you get to see what it’s like to grow all the food you eat; you might get to see what communities with universal college and healthcare look like; you get to see the hustle and bustle of big cities and the easy going nature of small towns. You learn that at the end of the day, we’re all human with the same fears, the same desires and aspirations. We want to be safe, we want to be treated equally, we want our kids to have a good life, and we want to pursue happiness in whatever form that may be, so long as our happiness doesn’t harm others.
When you couple this humanist outlook with Iowa Nice, it makes for a great perspective, and one we so desperately need in our politics. I came back to Iowa originally to be closer to my grandmother who was nearing the end of her life and to work on some local campaigns. I stayed in Iowa because my state can use more young talent to continue the march toward progress.
In addition to political work, you’ve had a great deal of involvement in entrepreneurship and business, including through your work with Patel Endeavors. What do you see as being the relationship between business and communities?
Ravi Patel [president of Hawkeye Hotels] is one of the foremost social entrepreneurs in the Midwest. Working with him over the years has proven my theory that private enterprise can be used for social good. Societies are at their best when there is a healthy balance between services offered and provided by government and by business. Societies are likely at their worst when there is a great imbalance between these two entities. Capitalism has yielded some of the wealthiest societies in the history of the earth, but it has also created extreme poverty. Capitalism must be checked by regulated markets so that we do not exploit workers or create inescapable class structures. It is the role of lawmakers to pursue policies that are not overly punitive to business, but also bolsters the government’s ability to protect the welfare of its citizens.
There is a national conversation happening right now, on both sides of the aisle, about the issues that matter to Americans. But conversations about local issues can often seem to transcend political affiliation — issues around schools or development, for instance, get a different kind of engagement than the national issues. What would you say are the big issues facing Linn County, and issues that matter to you personally?
There are many important issues facing counties right now. A big one is the question marks surrounding what will come from Governor Branstad’s decision to privatize health care services, many of which were traditionally provided by counties. In his move to a managed-care system, counties will need to work with state officials in determining how best to proceed to work with private companies now charged with managing the delivery of services. Largely seen as a cost saving measure, counties will likely face the need to eliminate positions, close down mental health service facilities and take other measures to comply with the Governor’s wishes.
Another big issue that counties may need to address is the question of whether or not to raise the minimum wage. I believe that the state legislature should take up this issue, to avoid having 99 different minimum wages across Iowa if the counties do it themselves. However, if Republicans in the state legislature refuse to take up this issue, then I think it is only right for counties to consider this important issue. The Iowa Policy Project estimates that an increase in the minimum wage would directly benefit nearly 20,000 residents of Linn County. 54% are women and 52% are full-time workers, and nearly a quarter of these workers are 40 years or older. We’re talking about families here doing their best to get by in a world where the cost of living continues to rise while wages remain stagnant. We can do better as a society.
In your essay last fall for LV, you addressed the racial imbalance in local institutions, including school boards, police departments or city councils. You ask, in that piece, “If there are few to no people of color at the highest levels of our community leadership, who then will be our advocate?” How does that question inform your political work?
I think about the significance of this campaign quite often. The campaign in and of itself means a lot, much in the same way that Carletta Knox Seymour’s city council bid meant for African Americans and Liz Bennett’s race for the Iowa House meant for members of the LGBTQ community. Somewhere in Oakhill Jackson there’s a young African American kid looking up to me who is now considering a life in public service. He now has a model; he now knows that it is possible. I try to balance this awareness with knowing that if I’m successful in my bid for supervisor, I will represent a wide array of people, and not just those from any given community. With that said, many people in the African American community who have never seen an African American Supervisor or City Council member might feel a little more comfortable bringing their concerns forward as they can expect to find a representative who might be able to better relate to their experiences. This is why diversity in leadership matters. Our government works best when all of its citizens are served.