Black Iowans: 'Fight starts with our voice being used at the ballot box,' says Deidre DeJear, Democratic challenger for governor

Gubernatorial candidate Deidre DeJear, one of a handful of Black women running for governorships across the country, addresses the needs of Black Iowans.

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Get to know Iowa’s Black candidates. In this question-and-answer session, Black Iowa News interviewed Deidre DeJear, a Black businesswoman, who is running for governor. She’ll face Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. DeJear was born to a large family of educators in Jackson, Mississippi, and was raised in Oklahoma. DeJear attended Drake University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She has been married to Marvin DeJear for 10 years. The couple has two dogs, Macy and Maurice, and a herd of cows in Oklahoma.

Get to know Iowa’s Black candidates. In this question-and-answer session, Black Iowa News interviewed Deidre DeJear, a Black businesswoman, who is running for governor. She’ll face Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. DeJear was born to a large family of educators in Jackson, Mississippi, and was raised in Oklahoma. DeJear attended Drake University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She has been married to Marvin DeJear for 10 years. The couple has two dogs, Macy and Maurice, and a herd of cows in Oklahoma.

If elected, DeJear would become Iowa’s first Black female governor. She has already made history as the first Black candidate nominated by a major party for a statewide office during her run for secretary of state in 2018. She served as Iowa African American vote director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

Black Iowa News: What motivated you to run for governor?

Deidre DeJear: “I can tell you it’s just been a process of things. You know, I firmly believe in our democracy and in the beginning when our constitution was drafted and signed, it was slated to be for “We the people” of the United States. And we know that in those times, it has not always been about “We the people.” I mean, even in the first election to elect our first president, only white male landowners could vote, so it was very narrow in how democracy was actually working. And over time, we have made edits to our constitution to ensure that “We the people” means something. At the end of the day, we all should have access to life, liberty, and happiness. And when I look at this election cycle, and the challenges that regular everyday Iowans are dealing with, we are at another moment in time where government is impeding on people’s pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

There’s this fallacy out there that you’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul. It is possible to make sure Paul is good and Peter is good. And when we look at the leadership that we have right now that is literally standing in the way of Iowan’s pursuit, we have to interrupt that because that is not democracy. Working government is the fundamental mechanism in which our constitution and our pursuit is able to become a thing. And that mechanism is not working for people.

And the number one person in office right now is not putting people first.

And so, this is an opportunity for our state to — rather (than) take monumental steps back — we can move forward. But we do that with new leadership. And in my life, I would have never imagined that I’d be running for governor, but I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. Every one of my steps that I’ve taken thus far has really prepared me for this moment in time in which we are thinking about moving the state forward — less on the back of one person — but more on the backs of all of us because we’ve seen how that works.

Over these last couple of years, we’ve seen how despite the impediments that our current administration in the state has put in our way, people have been able to come together in ways to figure out at least some short-term approaches to try to mitigate the damage that she’s causing. And so, when I look across the state, I see the hard work and dedication that so many others are trying to put in — to just continue to put people first, despite our current leadership. And I just want to bring that to fruition throughout this entire state. And I don’t believe that government should be standing in the way, but that government should be creating those pathways for folks.

I’m running for that office because I want to create pathways for everybody: We’re the field of opportunities, and our rural communities are challenged right now. Our Black and Brown communities are challenged right now. Women are challenged, students and parents and our workforce across the board. Everybody has a shared struggle right now. And it’s possible for us to move forward because we’ve seen incremental progress happen in the state in the past, under Republican and Democratic leadership, it hasn’t been perfect, but it hasn’t been like this, and we can stop it.”

Black Iowa News: What specific differences do you hope to make once you’re elected?

Deidre DeJear: “I want to make sure that we, one, resolve the challenges with our education system. Iowa was the state 100 years before Brown vs. Board of Education (that ended segregation). We had these segregated schools. Because a Black father by the name of Alexander Clark had a young girl, Susan, she was in private church school, and he was realizing it was important for her to access the public school if she was going to get a stronger education.

And what Iowa came to terms with is that every child, no matter their race, no matter their gender, no matter their zip code, should have access to a quality education system.

Iowa has been a leader in our education system because of that principle . . . we’ve led, but now, we see incremental challenges just surmounting, and I want to resolve those because it’s disproportionately impacting Black folks. It’s disproportionately impacting Latinos, refugees and our rural communities and our students with disabilities. We’re seeing astronomical challenges happening with our students.

And so, what I want to do is make sure that we’re setting our students up for success, that they truly have a limitless future when they’re graduating from an Iowa public school. That means 30 hours of pre-K to every family in this state for their children. That should just be undoubtedly something that should just happen automatically. Right now, parents have 10 hours, and when I’m talking to kindergarten, first grade and second grade teachers, they’re having to do the work that pre-K should have been doing because of the lack of accessibility and the fact that we’ve lost more than 40% of our childcare providers over the last couple of years.

I also want to make sure that we’re preparing our systems so that we’re not only getting our students readily available for the kindergarten and the first grade experience, but we’re also making sure that when they graduate from high school, that they have some options. If they choose to go work a job, I want them to only have to work one job to make ends meet.

When we talk about our Black communities, I was a part of the One Economy report and helped to commission that through the Director’s Council. And what we learned specific to the Black community, because that was our focus on that report, in Polk County, all of Polk County makes $63,000 a year. Blacks make $33,000 a year. That’s a $33,000 difference. And it’s challenging to make ends meet with $33,000 a year, and that’s median household income. That’s not individuals, that’s median household income.

And so, in order for us to make sure that we’re truly setting our students up for success, we need to make sure that they’re getting that preparatory education, whether it’s career readiness, or college prep, because not everybody’s going to go to college. Not everybody’s going to go to a community college or four- year institution. For the ones who do, they will be prepared for that. For the ones who choose to work, there will be access to opportunities for them.

That means we need to bring the trades back into the schools . . . barber school and cosmetology school . . . so that those students can access those jobs post-graduation. We also have to make sure that we’re recruiting teachers to get back engaged into our schools. The gutting of collective bargaining took our teachers’ voices away, in more ways than one. And now we’re not only losing our teachers in general, but we’re disproportionately losing our teachers of color as well. And the teachers, when we see in our larger education system, specifically, in places like Des Moines, where you have majority-minority youth and not necessarily the staff to support their cultural needs, and their cultural identities, that poses challenges to their ability to get educated, and so we’ve got to resolve challenges in the education system.

I’m a small business owner, I believe in small businesses. I started my business to help other small businesses get started, and small businesses are getting the short end of the stick right now. Our governor’s given $208 million to entities like Facebook to come and set up shop here and create 50 jobs now. I know we all like Facebook. You know, we all like our small businesses, too. Our small businesses in the state of Iowa provide jobs for more than 50% of the workforce. And to be frank, we’ve got more than 50,000 businesses that are one to 19 employees, and that’s where we see a majority of our communities of color resting. Imagine if we got that $208 million and figured out ways to invest in 50,000 small businesses throughout the state, plus other federal resources that we could access and obtain, to make sure that those businesses were not only providing for their families, but they’re contributing to their economy. They’re creating jobs. They’re able to help people get health care by hiring them as full-time employees. There’s childcare resources available. So your part-time workers don’t have to make that hard decision of staying at home or going to work on the account that they can’t get a sitter for their kid.

So these are some of the economic decisions that I think we’ve got to do. And some of that means making sure the government is up first in supporting these businesses. I want to make sure that 15% of our procurement goes for (state of Iowa) targeted small businesses. Those are veteran-owned businesses, Black and Brown-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses in general, and women-owned businesses. We’ve got to make sure that we’re investing in those. That also means that we have to make a conscientious effort to make sure that those demographics are applying to be Targeted Small Businesses, that the process is clear and apparent. And it’s accessible.

People will know that the government wants to do business with Iowa-based businesses as well. I want no less than 50% of our procurement to go to Iowa-based small businesses.

Business owners have to know that this state is willing to invest in them, and that also means giving them access to low-dollar loans and grant opportunities.

We know many of our businesses of color, Black and Brown businesses, and our women-owned businesses are having challenges getting access to capital. We see that disproportionately happening among Black business owners, they are four times more likely to be denied for a business loan and two and a half times more likely to be denied for a loan in general. And so, the state can be a resource there for those individuals who are in between to give them access to this type of capital. It’s a resource that’s available right now. But it has to be not only available, it has to be accessible to the communities who need it the most.

And then lastly, I’ll say mental health care and health care are incredible priorities. No matter where we go across the state and rural Iowa, urban Iowa, suburban Iowa, people are talking about lack of access to health care. They’re talking about driving 45 miles to go get the care that they need. Their hospitals are closing down and there’s a lack of accessibility to the specialty care that they need. But in our urban communities, they’re living right next door to the hospital and can’t get the care that they need because of the lack of accessibility to these types of institutions. And so, we’ve got to come to terms with that reality because I’m a firm believer that a healthy Iowan is a healthy Iowa and that means all of Iowa.

And, the disparities that we see in our healthcare system, again, are disproportionately impacting communities of color. Unfortunately, our rural communities, people with disabilities, and we’ve got to fix that because that’s what the government’s job is to do to make sure that there’s a healthy pathway for every single Iowan across the state.

I also want to make sure that mental health care is accessible to everyone throughout this state, and we’re seeing a lack of accessibility there. People are waiting six months to see a psychiatrist. We have less than 1,000 mental health beds in a population of more than 3 million, that is just unconscionable.

And meanwhile, our cops are becoming quasi mental health care practitioners. And that’s not what they signed up for. And our prisons are becoming quasi mental health care facilities. And that’s not what they were intended for. And we’re not resolving the problems that we’re seeing in regular everyday people’s lives, perpetuating the problem. We’re breaking up families. And that’s not what government should be in the business of doing. We’re causing more harm right now to people than good. Much of this was exacerbated by the pandemic, but needless to say, it was already in existence. But it is difficult to ignore considering the exacerbation of the pandemic. Our current governor is ignoring all of those challenges.”

Black Iowa News: What else do you feel passionate about?

Deidre DeJear: “Voting. It’s our most fundamental right. We’ve got to expand access to voting, and we have to have automatic restoration of voting rights for people who have paid their time and had felony convictions. We also have to have automatic voter registration in the state where people, when they go get a driver’s license or an ID, they can register to vote at that time, but we also have to expand the practices that have kind of been reversed from historical voting practices in the state.

I think if we can resolve the challenges with our systems, especially when it comes down to our criminal justice systems and our mental health care systems, the other side of that token is making sure that you have a strong and healthy and economically-sustained society. And we have to work towards that part, too. That’s how we decrease recidivism.

But that also means we’ve got to create that space in this state that lends opportunities for people to be successful to get jobs and again, only have to work one to make ends meet.”

Black Iowa News: Are there other areas specific to Black Iowans you want to address?

Deidre DeJear: ” . . . the fight starts with our voice being used at the ballot box. And I know we don’t always get all the wins that we want, all the folks elected that truly understand our challenges as a Black community, but needless to say, we’ve got to keep pushing. And this is one of those election cycles where we have a strong opportunity to not only push, but push through so that our interests are of the utmost consideration. We need leadership with not a narrow view of what success looks like, but a wide view, an expanded view of what success looks like. And that means we need leaders who not only have lived and professional experiences, but also understand what they don’t know. And understanding what you don’t know, we have opportunities to bring people together for collaborative thought. Other people with lived experiences and professional experiences that can help us collectively resolve problems. That’s the governor that I want to be, and I want to hear people’s voices primarily — first up — at the ballot box. But this journey continues after we’re successful. This journey continues when we’re leading. I still need to hear the voices of Iowans across the state. And that’s inclusive of the Black community. We don’t do this by ourselves. We do this together, and I don’t do it without my people.

Let’s get this done. You know, this race is winnable. Reynolds only won with 50.3% of the vote, 37,000 votes. And that was with less than half of our African American community participating, less than half of our Latino voters participating, 45% of independents and less than half of the 18-to 34-year-olds showing up, and I know we can do better than that. So, let’s go out there and get it done. That’s 37,000 votes plus some and multiplicity. So let’s go get it done, and let’s do it together. And on the other side, we’ll keep working together. So we get more things done and move this state forward for everybody.”

Black Iowa News: What else do you want readers to know?

Deidre DeJear: “I accept talent, treasure and time. We’re really proud that most of our contributions are coming from Iowans who set records for fundraising related to the number of contributions that are coming in. And, we’re getting new contributors every day. And our average contribution is just $36 right now, and so as much as people can chip in, if they want to do $10 a week or $10 a month, they can do that, too. It goes a long way.”

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