‘Being black isn’t enough’
Iowa helped launch the nation’s first black president in 2008. But a dozen years later, racial identity takes a back seat as a young – and rising – black political figure in state politics makes his choice.
WATERLOO, Iowa – Ras Smith vividly remembers the mix of emotions that washed over him on the night of the 2016 election: elation at winning his first bid for elective office and becoming one of a handful of African Americans in the Iowa Legislature, followed by despair as he realized that Donald Trump had captured both his home state and the presidency.
Smith was in such a bad mood he shut down his own victory party.
“‘What was the point of winning this, if he won, too?’” he recalls thinking. “‘How can people vote for me, and he still wins? How can we go from Barack Obama to this?’”
We Count: Untold Voters Stories
As America prepares to make its choice in the 2020 elections, CNN ventured into the lives of voters around the country who are often overlooked in the traditional narratives about politics. We start this series with a look at black voters in the early caucus state of Iowa.
Today, Smith is still in politics. The 32-year-old Democrat is serving his second term in the Iowa House, representing Waterloo and a cluster of communities in the northeastern part of the state. He’s also the chairman of Iowa’s first Legislative Black Caucus, made up of the five African Americans who serve in the state’s 150-member General Assembly.
And he’s spent much of the last year agonizing over his choices ahead of Iowa’s Democratic caucuses on February 3, which kick off the 2020 nominating season.
A dozen years after Obama’s barrier-breaking win, the Democratic presidential field started out as the most diverse in history – including, at one point, two African-American senators, an African-American former governor, an Asian-American entrepreneur and a native of American Samoa.
Now, as the caucuses near, just three remain: businessman Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Deval Patrick, the first African American elected Massachusetts governor. And none of them is considered a top candidate.
Smith says supporting a candidate who looks like him has never been the most important criteria in today’s bitterly divided political climate.
“We need somebody who can connect with the American people on every front and really, truly represent not where we are but where we want to go,” Smith said during an interview last fall in the kitchen of his trim, three-bedroom home here. “We need … our Moses.”
It’s a dilemma that has confronted many in Waterloo’s African American community, who take pride in what Obama’s presidency represented but say they are willing to opt for hard practicality and bypass candidates of color to achieve a bigger priority: ending Trump’s presidency.
That debate is playing out around the country, as the Democratic field jockeys for the support of African Americans, one of the party’s most reliable voting blocs. In poll after poll this election season, black voters have eschewed candidates of color to favor Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden.
A Washington Post-Ipsos poll released in January showed 48% of registered black voters supporting Biden – more than twice the number backing any of his rivals. And nearly 6 in 10 moderate or conservative black voters favored Biden.
“Electability is overriding the whole thing,” said Felicia Smith-Nalls, who joined Smith and a group of other African American professionals at a Waterloo cocktail lounge one evening last fall to watch Monday Night Football and talk politics.
“This year, it feels like we are all playing chess,” said Smith-Nalls, who works as the city’s neighborhood services coordinator and is considering backing Biden. “It’s not who I want, it’s who will Trump voters support?” In January, she was still weighing her choices.
Snapshot of our country
African Americans make up just 4% of Iowa’s nearly 3.2 million residents, US census figures show. But they constitute roughly 16% of Waterloo’s 68,000 residents, making this longtime manufacturing town bisected by the Cedar River one of the most diverse communities in the state.
The city’s mayor, Quentin Hart, is African American, as is the chairwoman of the county’s Democratic Party, Vikki Brown.
Smith grew up on the city’s heavily African American Eastside and still lives there today. The first sizable numbers of black people to move to Waterloo came to work on the railroads before World War I. Later, jobs in manufacturing and meatpacking drew more black residents making the migration from Southern states.
Both of Smith’s parents grew up in the city. His father worked for more than four decades on the assembly line at John Deere, which began making tractors in Waterloo more than a century ago. His mother serves as pastor of Waterloo’s Faith Temple Baptist Church and lectures in the social work department at the University of Northern Iowa.
To Smith, Waterloo and Iowa are a microcosm of America: a mix of urban and rural, conservative in many ways but progressive in others. In 2009, Iowa became the third state in the country -- and the first in the heartland -- to legalize same-sex marriage.
“If you were to shine a microscope from outer space … I think if you were to hit Waterloo, I think that’s the best snapshot of where our country is,” Smith says.
The city has wide racial gaps. The black unemployment rate, for instance, is nearly four times that of white Waterloo residents, according to Census Bureau estimates. Almost two years ago, a financial website, 24/7 Wall Street, cited large black-white gaps in income, unemployment and homeownership to declare the larger Waterloo-Cedar Falls community the worst metro area in the country for African Americans – an unwelcome distinction that comes up repeatedly in conversations with the Smith and other black residents.
Smith straddles Iowa’s worlds.
Although he grew up in a black Waterloo neighborhood, he graduated from a predominantly white high school in neighboring Cedar Falls before heading to college. His educator wife, Amelia, is white, and together they are raising four biracial girls, their two daughters and Amelia’s two nieces, who are all under the age of 8.
He knows intimately the pain of gun violence. A little more than six years ago, his older brother Myron shot his own wife, wounding her -- before fatally turning the gun on himself. Smith marked the tragedy with a tattoo on his left bicep that says “Big Mo,” his brother’s nickname, and includes the logo of a Cadillac, the car his brother drove.
But Smith also is a gun owner and loves to hunt pheasant.
“I’m Iowa. I think I really am Iowa,” he says.
“I can drive 20 minutes in that direction and find a place to hunt,” he says, gesturing toward the east. “I can drive downtown and get a beer. I can be in an all-black community or an all-white community within steps. But at the end of the day, we all have someplace common to go.”
Iowa and Obama
Iowa played a key role in electing the nation’s first black president.
Waterloo was Obama’s first stop in the state as a presidential candidate in 2007, just hours after he kicked off his campaign on a frigid February day in neighboring Illinois.
And his victory in the Iowa caucuses the following year cemented Obama’s status as a top-tier contender for the Democratic nomination, offering a rebuke to those who questioned whether a black candidate could win an overwhelmingly white state. Obama went on to twice win Iowa in the general elections.
Smith says he wasn’t very interested in politics until he met Obama at a campaign rally at his old Cedar Falls school. He was 19 at the time.
Obama “came to the line and shook my hand and said, ‘What’s up, man? How you doing?’ ” Smith recalls. “I’m thinking, like, ‘Whoa. This guy’s running for president, and he’s super cool.’ ”
Smith’s vote for Obama was his first for a presidential candidate.
But Iowa’s politics have seesawed dramatically since Obama’s two victories here. Nearly a third of Iowa’s 99 counties flipped from voting twice for Obama to supporting Trump in 2016, handing him the state.
Smith says Obama’s presidency may have been too much, too soon, for the nation.
“Honestly to me, Donald Trump represents what America is, who we’ve been. Not our greatest moments,” he says. “There’s this myth that we made this huge regression when we went to Donald Trump.”
“No, I think we overachieved when we elected Barack Obama,” Smith continues. “I think Barack Obama served as this idea of where America wants to get to, and sometimes leadership doesn’t match where our country is.”
Trump won just 8% of the African-American vote in 2016, exit polls show. But the President and his reelection team have sought to court black voters, running ads in black newspapers and touting African-American unemployment rates, which have fallen to record lows during his tenure in office.
At a recent launch event for the “Black Voices for Trump” coalition, Trump argued that Democrats were too focused on issues like impeaching him to help African Americans.
“We’re going to make 2020 a year of change in black communities all across the country," Trump declared.
But Smith says Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants, Muslims and African countries and verbal attacks on lawmakers of color is penetrating all parts of American life.
Smith steers clear of political talk at home. But his daughter, Maria, who will turn 7 in April, knows who Trump is. “She thinks he’s scary. She thinks he’s mean, and she doesn’t think that he likes her.”
“How did my daughter, who’s never met Donald Trump, get that from TV? I mean, the president is supposed to be the most unifying part of our country.”
His mother, Belinda Creighton-Smith, was determined to develop a proud black identity among her Iowa-raised children. Smith’s full name is RasTafari, taken from the royal title (Ras) and first name (Tafari) of the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, revered by followers of the Rastafarian movement. Another brother is Rameses, for the Egyptian pharaoh.
But, throughout his life, Smith has felt the sting of racism in his home state.
In high school, he says, players on opposing football teams shouted racial slurs at him. One spat on him. As recently as 2016, crosses were burned in Dubuque, about 90 miles away from Waterloo. That year, he had an encounter with police that he still can’t shake. Smith says he was leaving a campaign function at a local church — carrying a batch of rice pilaf to his car — when police bore down on him.
“The second I unlocked the car, maybe six or seven police cars surrounded me”; because, officers said, he matched the description of a crime suspect. Despite wearing a campaign shirt that bore his name and providing his identification, Smith says, the officers insisted on running a background check before letting him go.
“I’m thinking, ‘OK, but you’ve allocated six officers, so whoever committed this crime is long gone, and I’m here and you’re checking to see if that’s really rice pilaf in my container.’ ”
Smith left the encounter unscathed but angry, an emotion he says he swallowed to avoid a confrontation.
“You have to weigh how you are going to feel internally against the value of going home and getting the opportunity to wake up and do this again tomorrow,” he says.
Smith is perhaps best known in Iowa politics for an impassioned speech on race he delivered nearly two years ago from the floor of the Iowa House. At the time, lawmakers were debating a gun bill that included a stand-your-ground provision, allowing Iowans to use deadly force to defend themselves or others against perceived threats.
“While I agree that we are all created equal, I do not agree that all Iowans are treated equally or protected equally,” he said. Smith then pulled a gray hoodie over his dark business suit and donned headphones to illustrate how easily a black man could be perceived as a “threat.”
The people who burned the crosses in Dubuque, he added, “may see stand your ground as a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Despite his protests, the gun package — with its stand-your-ground provision intact — passed the House and now is Iowa law.
‘Being black isn’t enough’
At the Iowa Legislative Black Caucus’ first public meet-and-greet — held last September at a black-owned barbershop in West Des Moines — the lawmakers tick off the issues that concern them all: education, housing, gun violence, disproportionately high incarceration rates for black men.
But when it comes to the caucuses, the views of this all-black group diverge.
Two lawmakers had endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris; the California Democrat would drop out two months before the caucuses. Another, state Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines of Des Moines, backed Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Gaines, who has a family member with a behavioral disability, says Klobuchar’s mental health platform resonates with her. “I look for a candidate I can identify with and who I feel like could identify with me,” Gaines says. “Being black isn’t enough.”
Over the course of the 2020 primary season, Smith would meet most of the Democratic candidates -- ranging from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who dropped out last September. Smith says he developed a friendly relationship with another unsuccessful candidate, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, attending the second presidential debate in Detroit last summer as a guest of the Texan.
But Smith, who considers himself a moderate, says he’s grown increasingly alarmed by the leftward drift of some in his party. The “Medicare for All” national health proposals from Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders stand little chance of passing a US Senate that’s likely to remain Republican in 2021, he says.
Smith, who has worked as an advocate for at-risk students and now is the top Democrat on the Education Committee in the Iowa House, says the free college plans also espoused by Sanders and Warren seem “far removed” from the day-to-day lives of many African Americans he knows.
“For a black person in Waterloo, free college sounds great, but we’re just trying to get them to graduate from high school alive,” he said during an interview last fall, weighing his choices.
By late October, Smith had made his decision: Biden. He soon took a job with the campaign, as Iowa coalitions director.
“We need somebody who is a better fit for the times we are in,” Smith said during a phone conversation with a CNN reporter, explaining his endorsement. “Preaching to the choir is great for caucusing, but in the general election, we have to get out and talk to people on the fence. I don’t know who, outside of Joe Biden right now, can pull those people who are on the fence.”
A turning point for Smith came on a warm day in September, when the young state representative had his first extended, one-on-one interaction with Biden at a nature center in Cedar Rapids. He then listened to the former vice president address supporters.
In the middle of Biden’s speech, Smith recalled, an eagle soared overhead and Biden stopped, looked up and said: “ ‘There goes my Beau,’ “ referring to his late son who died of brain cancer in 2015.
“He got extremely emotional in front of a few hundred people,” Smith said. “That really resonated with me. His resilience.”
“It was a great example of how you can be human, be strong and be a leader at the same time. You can be down on the mat and get back up over and over again, and that’s what it’s going to take to beat Donald Trump.”