Meet Several of the African American Legislators Making History in the Iowa House

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DES MOINES, Iowa — The few Iowa legislators of color are all members of the Iowa House of Representatives and they’re making history daily.

Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, said former representatives like Willie Stevenson Glanton and Wayne Ford really paved the way for more people of color to take office in the Iowa House of Representatives but the momentum was not the same in the Iowa Senate. Thomas Mann was the first and only African American elected to the chamber.

“It gave us a path to follow to bring about other legislators and inspire a lot of us to say no we need to expand the faces of people of color in both houses unfortunately after Tom Mann that never happened,” Rep. Abdul-Samad said.

Representative Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, said that lack of representation is what inspired her to run for state office.

“People need good leadership and they need people to look up to and they need to feel proud. I am proud not only that I can represent African Americans like myself, other people of color, but I can also represent white people. I am a representative of all,” Rep. Gaines said.

Abdul-Samad said he hopes the minority presence at the Capitol continues to grow.

“Iowa is not a state where you just have caucasian people. It is a state that has a diverse community, it has a large immigrant community. When you talk about immigration, you’re talking about Latinos, you talk about individuals that live here. And if you’re not at the table then you’re the menu. We want to be at the table, we don’t want to be the menu,” Abdul-Samad said.

To make sure people of color are represented in legislation moving through the Capitol, Rep. Abdul-Samad, Rep. Gaines, Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, Rep Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, and Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf formed the Iowa Democratic Party Black Caucus toward the end of the last session.

“The five of us don’t agree on everything, but it’s important for us to have a unified voice on the areas that we do agree on so that we can help advocate in both parties,” Rep. Wilburn said.

Gaines said each bill will now include a minority impact statement.

“So that it is studied and it is known to the committee that is voting on passing it the negative impact that it will have on minorities. And we are going to have to fight. It’s going to be difficult and a lot of times we are not going to be seen or heard but we are going to keep it up and keep recruiting more people of color to run for office,” Gaines said.

Representatives Abdul-Samad, Gaines and Wilburn said as legislators they continue to fight racism because they feel more change is needed.

“I entered the classroom in 1971. I exited the k-12 classroom 2011 and I was dealing with a lot of the racial issues that I was dealing with when I got there. 40 years and in some cases nothing had changed,” Gaines said.

Wilburn said he knows what it’s like to be judged for the color of his skin.

“I’ve been followed around a drug store and just to make sure that I was I went from aisle one to aisle eight to two to seven and then when I met in the middle I turned around and asked the clerk you know can I help you and so even back in the 1980’s when I was in college that was something that I experienced,” Wilburn said.

Abdul-Samad said he believes it is their duty as representatives to challenge discrimination.

“We stand on the shoulders of individuals that have fought for us to have human and civil rights. It is our duty to be able to fight now and when racism rears its ugly head we can’t minimize it. We have to address it and attack it head-on,” Abdul-Samad said.

Wilburn said during Black History month he feels it is important to recognize the history being made all around us.

“I was the first black mayor of Iowa City. And that is something within our generation. It’s not just about the past. It’s about the history being made daily,” Wilburn said.

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