Ep. 54: Deidre DeJear

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another edition of The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We are two moms traveling America to chronicle what may be the most important set of elections of our lifetimes. The 2018 midterms. Today is the opening salvo in our coverage of the great state of Iowa. I was fortunate to spend almost a week there. And were looking forward to bringing many more Iowa voices. What you need to know upfront though, is that Iowa Democrats are fielding one of the strongest slates of candidates. People are calling it the dream team. One of these dream team members is Deidre DeJear. DeJear is the first African-American to win a statewide primary in the history of the state of Iowa. She's running for secretary of state against Republican incumbent Paul Pate. And these are two candidates with very different priorities and very different agendas. DeJear also brings a family legacy of civic engagement to this bid for office at a time when both access to the ballot and the integrity of our elections have never been more important. Well Deidre DeJear, thank you so much for spending time with The MidPod today. We really do appreciate it.

DEIDRE DEJEAR: Thank you for having me.

NICIE: Would you like to introduce yourself a bit for our listeners?

DEJEAR: Sure so my name's Deidre DeJear, I live in Des Moines Iowa, and I'm running for secretary of state here in Iowa and I'm really excited and thrilled about the race we we've been running. It's been over a year since we started campaigning and we've got less than 90 days ahead of us until Election Day.

NICIE: These are the final innings of the ballgame so to speak.

DEJEAR: I wouldn't say the final innings but we're we're in the last stretch.

NICIE: Now our listeners should know you made history with your primary win. Tell us about that.

DEJEAR: Yeah so in Iowa we've never had a candidate statewide on the ballot in a primary race that was African-American. And this go round we had two. One was running for governor and I was running for secretary of state. And so I became the first African-American to make it through a primary in Iowa. It's pretty awesome.

NICIE: Has Iowa ever had a statewide elected official who's African-American?

DEJEAR: We have not.

NICIE: So you will be a serious trailblazer if you get elected. How does that feel?

DEJEAR: Oh, I I don't know how it feels because it's not it's not reality. We are running a race in unchartered territory, and I don't stand alone in that fact because we have a record number of candidates running throughout our entire state. A record number of first-time candidates running throughout our entire state and we're all actually trying to build this plane as we fly it and so coming out of this general, there's going to be a lot of history made in the state of Iowa.

NICIE: Electoral politics as I understand it runs pretty deep in your family. Tell us a little bit about your your family legacy in the field of elections and civic engagement.

DEJEAR: Most of my family they're teachers, and they're engaged in civic life as it relates to working for police departments or the State Department and things along those lines. But there is one person who actually ran for office in my family and that was my grandma. That was the first race that I ran or I didn't run it she ran it that's the first race that I actually worked on. My grandma was a teacher and at about 25 years in teaching she was trying to get her students engaged in the the voting process wanting them to learn more and be interested in it and they really weren't connecting. And so she decided to run for Yazoo County Elections Commissioner so that she could better connect with their parents with the hope that information would trickle down and and be edified in in the lives of the students by seeing their parents participate. And and so my grandma ingrained in me early on the importance and the value of voting and and getting people engaged in the process. I have one other cousin who's an elected official in the state of Mississippi but outside of that that's that's really it.

DEJEAR: Most of our family they teach, and they police, and they do other things. They're really excited about me running and in fact I was on the phone with my grandma, a couple of days ago I have to do a a weekly check-in with her and she asks me the same two questions every time: "How's the money coming?" And "Are you working hard enough?" My grandma later went on to run for mayor, I think after about two or three terms in in elections commissioner, and she told me for the first time yesterday she said, "I didn't really want that job." She said, "I I just ran because I wanted my students to believe that they could do anything that they set their minds to." And so she's always been an awesome woman in my life and she's been an awesome woman in in the lives of her students, she taught for over 30 years and so so she's pretty amazing woman.

NICIE: That is incredible. And I read that you said not that long ago something to the effect about the experience of African-American voters getting infranchised in Mississippi and around the country during the civil rights era that people were cut out for so long from the process that it's taken time for them to feel welcome in the process. I thought that was incredibly thoughtful and I was wondering if you could say more about that.

DEJEAR: It's interesting that you asked that question. I I kind of started out with a race that African-Americans have only been voting for 50 some odd years, and I got that number based on the Voting Rights Act being signed. And I made a post on Facebook and said something to that effect and someone corrected and said, "Well you can't neglect the 15th amendment," and of course being African-American I knew about the 15th Amendment and that it gave African-Americans the opportunity to vote. But even after that amendment was passed in our Constitution, voting still came with conditions. Folks had to take poll tests and literacy tests, there were poll taxes and there were folks that would be threatened to have their jobs taken away if they exercised their right to vote or they would wake up with a burning cross in their yard because they exercised their right to vote and so it wasn't until the Voting Rights Act was signed that all those conditions were taken away and and that is when you saw more and more African-Americans attempting to participate because the thought was that they were free to do so.

DEJEAR: But it it hasn't really been embedded in our culture because exercising their right to vote came with a price. And so growing up in many of our households, we didn't talk about voting, we didn't talk about exercising that right because there was hurt associated with it. Even in my own household, my parents talked to me about hard work, talked to me about the importance of getting an education, of of serving my community. But we never really talked about voting. And so one of my goals is to embed voting into all cultures, all demographics. I mean, we have a an enormous swell of young people who want to get engaged in the process not just black young people white young people, Latino young people, and we need to give them a reason to vote 'cause many of them don't understand the price that's been paid to exercise their right to vote. They don't get the struggle if you will from back in the day and so we have to make it real for them in this moment so that they understand the importance and and the value of their participation and how they can add value by participating.

NICIE: Yeah. So tell us how you would use the platform of secretary of state to enact that vision. What are the steps that you would like to take to the people of Iowa?

DEJEAR: One of the first things I did when I was looking into this role 'cause I wanted to figure out if I could do it. I looked at the Iowa Code and the Iowa Code says that the secretary of state is the commissioner of elections and campaigns, and so this is the job, the duty of this role to commission people to participate in our elections, whether they be candidates or they be voters. And so I want that role to do what what it's initially intended to do, to ensure that people are getting registered to vote. We have over 2.4 million eligible voters in our state and only 1.9 million are active. There's a study that was done not too long ago by our research division out of Target who really was looking at the study of 18 to 29 year olds and their participation in the process and registration since the parkland massacre has increased throughout the entire country. In Pennsylvania it's up about 16 percent, in our neighbors in Minnesota up four and a half percent, but in Iowa we're at a loss, negative point three participation amongst 18 to 29 year olds. One of the important components that I believe it's a requirement as it relates to getting people engaged in the process is meeting them where they're at. I want to go to our students' schools. I want to go to our communities' churches. I want to go to our communities' organizations where people are already convening and encourage them to participate in the process. We have amazing organizations in our state like LULAC, and The League of Women Voters, and the NAACP and we have active parties.

DEJEAR: I want to convene all of those organizations that have a vested interest in seeing people get out to vote so that we can combine our resources and use a grassroots approach throughout our entire state because we have over 99 counties. All of our 99 counties have active organizations that are getting folks engaged. But if we can convene like-minded groups in our specific regions throughout the state, I think we'll do a much much better job of increasing the vote. And that's just from an organizing vantage point. You know I organized on the Obama campaign and I've run some other school board races and so organizing is is at my route. But then there's other technical ways to get people engaged, like automatic voter registration. When someone goes to get their driver's license or their ID in the state of Iowa and they're an eligible voter, I want them to be automatically registered to vote. If they don't want to vote that's fine, they'll just have to opt out. But I want to get the best data of who our registered voters out there are so that I can better connect with them. So when it's time for them to vote I can say where their polling location is, I can share that information with them. I can share what the time of the polling location hours are and I can share with them who's going to be on their ballot so that they're best prepared to make the best decisions for them, their families, and the values that those two entities represent.

NICIE: Is that a point of contrast with your opponent you're running against a Republican incumbent? Tell me what you see as the key differences in your platforms.

DEJEAR: The key differences are priorities. You know our secretary of state has spent the vast majority of his time as secretary of state trying to find voter fraud in our state and trying to find ways to resolve the voter fraud in our state. The studies have been done in hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent and there has been no malicious intent for someone voting fraudulently in our state. It hasn't been proven they haven't been able to find it. And so when when that word came out he didn't stop, what he decided to do was to commission a voter ID bill that was passed in our House and in our Senate that was intended to confuse the process and make it convoluted so that people were less likely to vote. They shortened the the days of early voting we previously had 40. Now we have 29.

DEJEAR: There was no justification for it. They also have some very technical ID requirements and there's three different ways to get people to participate and which makes it even more confusing to the point where we've had some dry runs in our state, the poll workers were confused in these elections, the press was confused in these elections, and and our own secretary of state was confused as he was speaking to college students attempting to educate them on how the process has changed and so with such a critical election coming up, our current Secretary of State the incumbent has made it a priority to make things more confusing as a result of his actions rather than making it a priority to get more people engaged in the process. And so that's the stark contrast between the two of us. My intent is to increase our voter turnout. His intent is to make the voter process more technical and more confusing.

NICIE: And I did review a poll that showed that in Iowa voter ID of some sort does have majority support. To the extent that voter ID laws have some level of public support and are being upheld in the courts, what's the way to make voter ID the least burdensome that it can be for individuals who want to exercise their right to vote?

DEJEAR: So the poll that you're referring to I believe it asked the question "Would people be in favor of some sort of a voter ID requirement in our state?". Of course the motivation around that is to make voting secure. That's very very important. The individual's voter file data being secure is important. The actual results, how an individual votes ensuring that that's secure is important, but voter I.D. is not doing that. That's not what it's accomplishing. What it's doing is making burdensome requirements on folks who don't have the resources or the wherewithal to meet those requirements. When I when I talk to people who once have been in favor of a voter ID bill, when I actually talk to them about what what voter I.D. does, they're persuaded against it because we have at least 125,000 registered voters in our state that don't have an ID, that don't have a driver's license. And those are just registered voters. Many of our aging populations that are living in assisted living facilities and nursing homes, they don't have anybody sometimes caring about their social security let alone their right to vote.

DEJEAR: They don't have the transportation to go get a driver's license or an ID or the necessary requirements to exercise their right to vote. When we think about our folks in poverty in our state who don't have the money to pay for an ID one may say well, "You need an ID to drive, you need or a driver's license to drive, you need an ID to buy cigarettes, you need an ID to fly, you need an ID to do all of these other things" and and my response to them is that someone could live their lives, never drive, never buy alcohol, never fly, and never buy a pack of cigarettes. But that should not infringe on their ability or inability to exercise their right to vote because those things aren't a part of our constitutional right. But voting is and it's the fundamental aspect of what our country was built upon and when we started carving people out of the process, we're compromising the integrity of our democracy.

NICIE: So is the point that when somebody registers, they are typically verified? So there should be no need for them to verify themselves again at the polling place?

DEJEAR: Correct. So when someone registers to vote, they can put the last four their social, they can put their ID number, they can put their driver's license number. Everybody has a Social Security number who's eligible to vote. And so those are the three numbers that people can put down. They can put all or or one. They also are putting their address, if they've recently moved they're putting their previous address, they're putting their their first, their last name and on all of those things they're signing and they're dating and so they're putting all of the information that's required in there and then when they vote they're verifying that information with the poll worker at least previously how our how our process worked before, you know they would come in the poll worker would ask them what their address is and ask them what their first and last name is and that is how they were able to vote. And so, in my experiences working in both presidential and races and small races like school board, it's hard enough to get someone to vote once let alone twice. While I believe it's so important to maintain the security of our elections, the focus in that security has been domestic and our state and we were one of those states in which there was an attempt by a foreign intrusion on our elections process and so I would rather focus on that as a means of securing our elections while also promoting voting in our state at the same time.

NICIE: Let's talk about that. I noted that Iowa was on the list that the Department of Homeland Security put out in terms of the states that were targeted in 2016. What do you think are the steps that need to be taken in order to safeguard the vote in 2018 and beyond?

DEJEAR: We have to add an election security division to the organizational structure of how that office is run because we know that there are rooms where people sit and they're paid to hack systems. And from my vantage point because that is ever-evolving we need someone not only who has the security clearance through the Department of Homeland Security to be able to access the details around infractions but we also need someone that is constantly abreast of how we stay a couple of steps ahead in protecting our elections data and our elections files as it relates to the individual voter.

NICIE: Is your opponent the incumbent opposed to having a dedicated office for Election Integrity in Iowa?

DEJEAR: He has not proposed it. So I can't say that he's for it.

ICIE: Will you have the opportunity to debate him and surface that point?

DEJEAR: I hope so. He at this point in this on this day he has not agreed to any public debates and or forums. And there have been invitations sent. So this is a midterm election. We've got congressional folks on the ballot. We've got gubernatorial races. All of our executive offices are on the ballot including Secretary of State, Secretariat, and State Treasurer. And so this is a down ballot race Secretary of State is, and most people don't know exactly what the Secretary of State does. It's important for them to know it because it hinges on all of the other elections hinges on the secretary of state's office doing its job and doing it to the best of that person's ability. And so for me this race has been about one, the issues that I think are important, but also educating voters on what this office does so that they are moved to work their way down the ballot because it starts with Congress, then it goes to the governor's race, and then it goes to the other executive races and I want people to feel comfortable walking their way down the ballot and selecting someone that they believe is going to best represent their values. But that only happens if we talk about this race and talk about what this office does and a debate or forum does nothing but add value to a person's education as it relates to this race and so it's my hope that he will agree at some point in time but to date he has not.

NICIE: Now one of the other things I got to sample in Iowa while I was there was this amazing tradition of the soapbox at the state fair. I'm just struck by kind of getting the feel of the reality of what Iowa's political culture is like and the fact that you guys are the first in the nation caucuses in the presidential process. There really does seem to be a pretty amazing political culture there. Tell us a little bit about the soapbox and what it was like for you to to speak at it for the first time.

DEJEAR: The soapbox you're you're on this stage surrounded by hay and you're surrounded by people who wanna hear what you have to say and you get about 15 to 20 minutes to talk about your issues and talk about what you believe is important and and why you're running for the race that you're running and so this is my first opportunity as a first-time candidate to get on the the state fair soap box and it was, it was a blast. People aren't necessarily looking for the soapbox all the time they may just be walking up and down. So they just stop and they listen and so it's a it's a really really cool thing so we probably started off with maybe about 30 people sitting there and by the end there were you know over 50 folks who had just ended up stopping and just interested.

DEJEAR: And so you know this idea around politics in our state has always been there's always been a space where it's OK to talk politics. It's OK if we disagree, it's OK if we're not on the same side all the time. Iowa presents opportunities for us to be able to do that, whether it's through the soapbox, whether it's through our caucuses, whether it's through our state party events that happen throughout the year. Other folks have been given lots of treats because they get presidential candidates that'll come in their backyard, come in their living room and and sit and talk and so there's definitely a open dialogue around politics in our state and we want that tradition to continue. We we want the vote to be depoliticized and just bring it back to basics and so I'm really proud to be in a state where we can do things like what we do like the Iowa soapbox and the Iowa caucuses. They're they're a lot of fun.

NICIE: I gather that split-ticket voting has been enabled by the current legislature for this for this election. So, what do you think the impact of no party line voting will have?

DEJEAR: A part of our voter ID law was taking away straight party voting you know previously if someone wanted to vote for all Democrats on their ballot they could circle Democrat or if they wanted to vote all Republicans they could circle Republicans and and that would vote them all in, every Republican on that ballot, every Democrat on that ballot. And so that part has been taken away. We don't know what the impact of that is, or or what it will do in the fourth district or in the third. And so even more motivated to get more people exercising their right. The educational component is so important to talk about walking your way down the ballot, 'cause even in my primary race there were 20,000 voters that voted for the governor's race that did not vote for the secretary of state's race, and that was just in the primary and so I can only imagine what it will look like in November. And so our job as a campaign a part of our strategy is educating people on what their ballot looks like and we can't wait until the ballots get ready so that we can have the sample ones out to show people and that's going to help a lot.

NICIE: You mentioned your time working for the Obama campaign in Iowa. You were one of the first candidates that former President Obama has endorsed in this 2018 midterm cycle. And I'm wondering what that was like for you. And also just any key lessons that you take away from your experience working on the Obama campaigns.

DEJEAR: I was really proud to get the endorsement of President Barack Obama. I volunteered on his campaign in 2007, 2008 as a a campus organizer, and then went on in 2012 to work statewide. And one of the biggest lessons that I learned from him and this was one-on-one was his value of people, and his notion around civility being the heartbeat of our country, and it being our pulse it being everything that we're about. And to me it brings home the the kind of the temperament that I should have because there's a lot going on on a national level, a lot going on in our state here in Iowa, most of which is out of my control and and out of most people's control. But at the end of the day if I can just stand and be civil with an individual and respect that individual for who they are and the fact that they are a human being breathing on this earth, I think that that goes a very very long way because it's easy to lose sight of that in the midst of everything that's going on, and I value just being in the presence of our former president and and learning that valuable lesson because I'm using it every single day on this campaign and his endorsement was a treat because it's also a salute to the secretary of state's office and this race and the importance that it holds to our entire electoral process.

DEJEAR: And so I'm just really excited about his support and all of the other support that we're getting throughout the country because it means a lot. I always tell folks it took a village to get us through their primary. People did not expect us to win. I was a first-time candidate, a black individual, a woman, running against someone who had run twice in our state for Congress and had spent over five million dollars in our state. I had spent nothing. And so in a state that's 91 percent white, the Democratic Party chose a woman who's an African-American to represent them in this role, and I couldn't be more elated. So winning by 3500 votes was a remarkable experience in that really challenging race. And I'm so proud of the village that took us through that. Now it's going to take all of the villages to to get us through this November election, but we can do it. We can do it because our values mean something to people and there's a tremendous stark contrast between myself and the current secretary of state in office.

NICIE: Well Deidre DeJear thank you so very much for spending time today. This has been great and we direct our listeners, tell us how they can find out more about your campaign and your race.

DEJEAR: Sure. So I'm on Twitter. I'm on Facebook. I'm on Instagram. I'm even on Snapchat. So DeJearforIowa is our website, D-E-J-E-A-R for Iowa, and then Deidre DeJear is our names on Facebook, Twitter, so on and so forth. So that's how they can get ahold of us, that that's how they can learn more, and we encourage people to want to learn more and to share it with people if you, if you're not in Iowa and you've got family here, tell them about us because it's going to go a long way.

NICIE: That's Deidre DeJear, Democratic candidate for secretary of state in Iowa. Tune in Friday for our interview with Sean Casten, Democratic challenger in Illinois' sixth congressional district. And next Tuesday, for our district profile of Maine's 2nd Congressional District where Democrat Jared Golden is trying to unseat incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin. Thanks for listening to The MidPod, see you next week.

Eunice Panetta