The Challenge to Break The “Political Glass Ceiling”

“When will Iowa elect a woman to Congress?”

From Roxanne Conlin to Lynn Cutler, from Bonnie Campbell to Elaine Baxter to Marianne Miller-Meeks and Joni Ernst, Iowa get a scornful finger wagging for being unable to break past the proverbial “glass ceiling” with respects to women advancing beyond elected state government and representing Iowa in Congress, or serving as Governor.

Lynn Cutler ran for U.S. Representative in the 1980’s. (Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier file photo)

Recently, the Business Record, Juice, and the Des Moines Register had articles about the status of women in the political and business world. For the record, I do feel we’re due for some history-making in this area. Most Iowans know that we’re not backwards or “behind in the times” but our inability to shift our attitudes and cultural mindset could be pointed as a reason we haven’t gotten over that hill yet.

But there is something that we are ignoring, and yet need to be addressed, much less initiate conversations about…

Why is there no discussion about encouraging more minorities (African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, in particular) to be elected to high-level office in Iowa?

It has been a decade since an African-American has served on the Des Moines City Council (Preston Daniels was mayor) and the Polk County Board of Supervisors (Nathan Brooks and Tom Baker). Waterloo has had an African-American serve on their City Council since 1974. LaMetta Wynn served as Clinton’s mayor from 1995 to 2007.

There are four African-Americans currently in the Iowa Legislature. I can name them without looking it up (Helen Miller, Deb Berry , Ruth Ann Gaines, and Ako Abdul-Samad). All four are in the Iowa House. (NOTE: Miller and Berry decided to leave the Legislature. Phyllis Thede and Ras Smith are currently in the Iowa House.)

Thomas Mann was the only African-American to serve in the Iowa Senate (’83-’91). The only time an African-American ran for a top state office was Almo Hawkins (as Jim Ross Lightfoot‘s running mate) for Lieutenant Governor in 1998.

In 1967, Cecil Reed of Cedar Rapids presided as interim Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, as the regular speaker was absent for a short period of time.

Thomas Mann is the only African-American to serve in the Iowa State Senate. (Iowa Legislature file photo)
Thomas Mann is the only African-American to serve in the Iowa State Senate. (Iowa Legislature file photo)

I find it disappointing that there is no conversations about the lack of African-Americans and other minorities Iowa serving in top state elected offices or Congress.

In the last state legislative session, there were 35 women out of 150 seats (50 Senate, 100 House). For African-Americans, it is four. Matt McCoy is the only state lawmaker representing the LGBT community. Compare that to 1973, there were 10 women in the Legislature, and 1 African-American. That ’73 legislative class of lawmakers included Terry Branstad, Steve Rapp, Chuck Grassley, Art Neu, and Don Avenson, all recognizable names in state politics.

There has been an increase in women serving in elected position on the city, county, and state levels in Iowa. Not as quickly and progressively as many would hope, but nonetheless, more than it was 40 years ago. At the same time, no credible progress has been made to encourage and push for an increase of minorities in the same capacity here.

The recent topic about electing a woman to Congress deserves discussion. For the record, I hope it will come to fruition. But if we’re going to get a failing grade to not sending a woman to Congress (along with Mississippi), then don’t you think we should get a failing grade for ignoring and failing to elect a Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and an African-American as well?  Mississippi has elected African-Americans to top state positions and Congress. 

Mary Berdell was Waterloo’s first African-American city council member. Berdell was also blind. She served from 1974-76. (Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier file photo)

It’s not just African-Americans. The growing population of Hispanic-Americans in Iowa is evident in communities like Marshalltown, West Liberty, and Spirit Lake, to name a few.

This is not an opinion, but it is a fact: Iowa has a history of women serving in public office. The only goal that hasn’t been achieved is Congress. This is also a fact: no African-Americans has served beyond the Iowa State Senate, and there has been no more than three African-Americans in the Iowa House at the same time…ever, until Ruth Ann Gaines was elected in 2012 to make it four.

Urban areas like Waterloo and Davenport, with the large population of blacks in those cities, have yet to elect one as mayor.

I strongly feel that these conversations must take place as well with respects to African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and other community of groups, regardless of ethnicity and  background.

If we can exude as much passion and commitment to putting a woman in Congress from Iowa, then we need to start doing the same for others.

In closing, here is a clip from the British comedy classic “Yes Minister” where Minister Jim Hacker and secretary Sarah talk about the lack of women being promoted up through the ranks of the Civil Service. 


One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s