Rita Hart

Iowa Press | Episode
Mar 10, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, the newly elected chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, Rita Hart, discusses the future of the Iowa Democratic Caucuses, as well as the job she has ahead of her to help rebuild the party after several years of Republican statewide electoral gains.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



The new leader of the Iowa Democratic Party has her work cut out for her to try to get democrats winning again. We sit down with Chair Rita Hart on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite was founded 30 years ago in Dubuque and owned by 1,200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to the communities we serve.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at iowabankers.com.


For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, March 10th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest on this edition of Iowa Press is a former State Senator, a former candidate for Lieutenant Governor in 2018, a former congressional candidate in 2020 and earlier this year was elected to lead the Iowa Democratic Party. Rita Hart is a farmer from Wheatland. Welcome to Iowa Press.

Hart: Thank you, Kay. Happy to be here.

Henderson: Also joining the conversation, Erin Murphy, the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: So Rita, shortly after that election to the State Party Chair, within about a week the national party made it official and stripped your party's caucuses of their first-in-the-nation status. So, we wanted to start with tell us what is the next step for Iowa democrats regarding their caucuses?

Hart: Well, I want to be clear about that. Out in Philadelphia they passed a resolution that did create the first-in-the-nation slate of states and Iowa is not on it. But it's not a done deal.

Murphy: What do you mean by that? Why is it not done? It seems like a fairly done deal to everybody outside of Iowa. Why do you not consider it a done deal?

Hart: Well, it's interesting because things are taking place that one entity doesn't have control of over the other entity. So, for example, Iowa has a state law that we need to follow and New Hampshire has a state law that they need to follow. And Georgia has to, they have been granted a waiver, but there has to be action taken in order for that to actually become reality. And on the republican side of things they are facing challenges on their end too with Nevada and Michigan and, again, those conversations are still taking place. And so, we are intent on continuing these conversations. It's a happy thing that here is an issue that both republicans and democrats in Iowa are definitely in sync on and so I look forward to continuing to work with the republicans and continue to make the case for Iowa as we see what happens next.

Murphy: So, a little less than a year from now when Iowa democrats meet for those caucuses, what is that going to look like? What will you do? And will that include the party stating their presidential preference?

Hart: So, we'll see what happens. We'll go through this process and we'll see in June this might look a little different, in August it might look a little different than that. And so, we'll continue to monitor that and to work with folks and continue to have those conversations. I want to remind you that this process has been going on a long time already. Scott Brennan and others have been doing a great job for making the Iowa case for almost two years now. And so, we'll continue to do that. One thing that I am happy about though is that we are going to put in a new process, no matter when the caucuses take place we're going to revamp the way democrats in Iowa indicate their presidential preference. And so, we're moving forward on that no matter what and I think that that's such a positive thing for us that we're creating a process that more people can participate in. It's going to be a mail-in process where people, democrats indicate that they want to make a presidential preference. So, they'll receive a card in the mail and then they will have a certain time period to return that. And that is going to open that up, again, to be much more accessible to folks, people who have not been able to participate before, people who work third shift, people with small children, people who are more home bound for whatever reason, this is going to be perhaps the most accessible process in the entire nation. So, we're excited about that and we'll continue to work towards making that reality.

Henderson: So, how do you prevent someone from mailing in a "presidential preference card" and then also attending the Iowa Republican Party caucuses on caucus night?

Hart: So, that is a good question, Kay. I think that that's something we will of course have to be diligent on and that is not, all the details here have not been worked out. But we're going to take a very thoughtful approach to that. We're going to work with the republicans on that. We're going to use the technology that is available and we're going to make sure that this process is secure.

Henderson: So, let's say you are unsuccessful in getting the Democratic National Committee to change the rules and so South Carolina goes first, New Hampshire goes second, Michigan and I guess Nevada goes third and then Michigan. What happens then if you folks say, I don't care, I have the caucuses? Are you willing to give up having delegates at the Democratic National Convention, which is one of the sanctions?

Hart: So, I think this is a conversation that we're not looking at that right now. And so again, this is not a done deal. We're not in that situation as of yet. I think there's a lot of opinions about this. And so, I'm going to continue to work with the republicans to make sure that we're doing what is best for Iowa. And if we are faced with things like that I'm going to listen to a lot of democratic voices on what they think is the right thing to do going forward.

Murphy: You talked a little bit about the new mail-in presidential preference system. We wanted to ask you a little bit more about that. And you mentioned the security. That was one of our questions. How do you ensure -- this is a new process obviously -- what are the plans to have in place, what are the systems that will be in place to ensure that it is secure and that you have accurate results to report that night? And also, what are the costs associated with this? Has that been determined yet?

Hart: So yeah, we're just getting started on looking at all of those things. We are going to look at -- we actually are soliciting some groups that actually do this, that have expertise in this, that have a history of understanding how to conduct such a mail-in campaign. And so, we're just getting started on that process and we'll see, first of all, how long it's going to take to get that process, to find out what is possible. But it's important that we do it right.

Murphy: And I don't want to trigger any bad memories, but will this involve an app of some kind?

Hart: You know, again, we're going to do the very best job that we can to be as prepared as possible and I have confidence that there are entities out there that can help us do this in a very secure fashion.

Henderson: Let's say the Iowa Caucuses are on a first week of February next year on both the democratic and republican sides. Do you start mail-in voting on that night? Or are you going to start it in January? What is the schedule here? Is that still in flux?

Hart: That's still in flux as well. But I would anticipate that it will start before that and then we'll see what kind of, as it gets closer, as these decisions are made, as we know the situation that we're dealing with we'll make that decision.

Henderson: Couldn't you sort of abide by party rules by starting on caucus night and then announcing the results after these other early states are done?

Hart: I think there's all kinds of possibilities here.

Henderson: Is that something you're considering?

Hart: I'm not considering anything because I'm considering that we're going to see what happens here with these other states and see what is possible. But a lot of those ideas have been bandied about. I think we're going to be listening to all of them.

Henderson: So, there are voices in your party who say, enough already, we should be done with these things, they're not helping us be successful at the state level. What is your answer to those people who say this is just wasted motion, let's get on with the business of electing Iowa democrats to Iowa offices?

Hart: Well, I want to be clear that that is the main job is to elect more democrats. That is my job as the head of the party and that is all of my focus. And so, I would say to them that we have got that as priority number one and nothing is going to get in the way of that.

Murphy: So, speaking of that in electing more Iowa democrats, the party is coming off a string of tough election cycles, with maybe the exception of some mixed results in 2018, but the other recent cycles have not been overly successful for the party. Part of I think digging out of a hole is figuring out why you're in the hole in the first place. How much of that has taken place? And in your view, in what you know having been around this state, why are Iowa democrats in this hole now?

Hart: It's a great question and I think you'll find lots of answers to that. And yeah, I think that there has been a lot of soul searching and rightly so. I think that politics in general is interesting to all kinds of folks and so you're seeing that kind of question being asked by many and a lot of research has gone into this I think. Me personally, I have read as much as I can about what research has been done on this. I think it's clear and I think democrats recognize how clear it is, I think it's one reason why I got a lot of encouragement to run for the State Chair position because we know that, for one thing, we've got to do better in rural Iowa. We've got to do better in these rural counties and that democrats have suffered from an image problem and we've got to concentrate more on grassroots efforts there. And I think that is why they were encouraging to me, to vote to have the leader of the party who lives on a farm, who is a farmer, who lives in a county that voted for Obama twice and then flipped and voted for Trump twice, to have my background of being very much a champion of our small towns, of our rural areas, working on the rural economy with the local community members to make a difference. That is the kind of message that we have to get as a party to all of rural counties, that we are the party of the working class, that we always have been and that we are really taking that very seriously. But then there are other issues too that we have to concentrate on. We've basically got to take a look at the entire structure. But I really think if we do a much better job with our grassroots efforts we're going to see some elections turn around for us.

Henderson: So, for viewers who aren't familiar, Wheatland is in Clinton County.

Hart: Correct.

Henderson: The city of Clinton used to be a big democratic stronghold along with places like Ottumwa and Dubuque and Fort Madison. Those places have been lost to democrats. It's not just rural Iowa, it's mid-sized cities in Iowa. So, how do you reach voters there who have left your party?

Hart: I don't know if they have left the party as they have just been disillusioned, right, and then they're looking for change, looking for something else. And so, you win those people back by connecting with them, by listening to them, by having these conversations and by fighting for the things that they care about. For instance, right now I think it's very troubling to all of us who live in rural Iowa that we've got a republican trifecta in the legislature that has gone after public schools by taking taxpayer money and putting into private schools. That is concerning to everybody who lives in a small town and knows how important these public school systems are to keeping our towns alive. We have to talk to them and listen to them about how important it is that they have the health care services that they need. I'm always struck by the fact that I'm lucky I live four miles outside of a little town of Wheatland that has a grocery store where I can buy fresh meat and a head of lettuce. Most of our small towns don't have that luxury and that should not be a luxury. So, these are the kinds of issues that we need to be out talking to our fellow democrats in these rural counties.

Henderson: So, I do want to circle back. Governor Kim Reynolds made no secret of the fact that education savings accounts that are state-funded for private school parents to cover private school expenses were priority number one for her and she won significantly. She campaigned for legislative candidates who shared that vision. Why did then rural Iowa vote for Kim Reynolds and all of these legislators?

Hart: It is a curious matter. But I think part of that is the way we get our information. She didn't come to rural Iowa and say hey, I'm going to take your taxpayer money and put it in these private schools. Specifically to them she talked about other things. And they get their information -- and I do think that there is a big emphasis on the national messaging and that is where we have, it's harder to combat a national message that is emphasizing other things that perhaps take center front for these voters out in rural Iowa. So, it's a task that we have to take very seriously on where the information is coming from and what is the message that they're receiving?

Murphy: You have colleagues in neighboring similar Midwest states that have had more success at the statewide level with the Democratic Party, just to the north and northeast in Minnesota and Wisconsin they have elected democratic governors recently. Are there any lessons in what has taken place there -- you said you've done research -- is there any lesson to take from Minnesota and Wisconsin? Or is it as simple as are the demographics more favorable there with the Twin Cities and Madison and Milwaukee? Are there just higher shares of democratic voters in those two states? Is there anything to be learned there?

Hart: I think there is lessons to be learned there and I am having those conversations with the folks in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I think those are important conversations to have. We can learn a lot from success and they have seen success lately. And so, we'll continue to have those conversations and pick up -- the states still are, they are very much alike and yet they are very, very different and so we're going to keep that Iowa flare, recognize the challenges that we face here in Iowa that are not similar to Minnesota and Wisconsin and yet we definitely want to look at what has been working well elsewhere.

Murphy: Along those lines, are there enough democratic voters left in Iowa to win these statewide races? It has been since Senator Harkin's last victory that an Iowa democrat won a race for either Senate or Governor, they've won some statewide office races, but at the top of the ticket are there just not enough voters in Iowa City and Des Moines anymore to carry a democrat at the top of the ticket?

Hart: Again, I think if you look at registration across Iowa we're still a third, a third, a third. There's plenty of hope here. And it just makes the job that much more interesting to recognize that this is something we have to work at and that we have to learn from our mistakes and we have to make sure that we're doing something every single day that is going to make our case to the people of Iowa. As we look at the issues that democrats really care about, that we are talking about Main Street, Iowa, those are the issues that we want to talk about, the issues that matter to people who are working hard every day, people who are looking for a better child care solution, people who are making sure that their parents can remain out in rural Iowa when the closest hospital is in danger of being closed. Those are the things that we've got to make our case with. And I think we've seen politics turn on a dime here in Iowa and so that is maybe why people like politics, that there's always drama involved and what is going to happen around the corner. So, we're going to work hard to make sure that we make change happen.

Henderson: President Biden hasn't yet officially announced he plans to seek re-election, but the expectation is he will. Should he campaign here? And also, in the context of the 2024 campaign, what is your message to candidates you're trying to recruit to run on the Iowa ballot?

Hart: So, the message is that democrats have a lot to be proud of here. President Biden has provided us with a string of victories, especially with a strong infrastructure bill that is really making a difference here to Iowa, to Iowans. He has a strong record of delivering for the people of the nation and that is no different here in the state of Iowa. And so that is the case that I'm going to be making with anybody who is intending to run, that this is the time. And I think that, you know, most people in Iowa are not that political. They have jobs to do. They are busy. They've got kids to take care of and they want to be good citizens and they want to be knowledgeable to go into the voting booth and make a good choice. But they really are counting on the rest of us to do the hard work of the political process here. And so, that is when you have good candidates who truly have the people in mind, you've got candidates who do put people over politics, that's what speaks to all of us. And I think that is what is going to make a difference. And if we can get good candidates like that and if we can encourage those people who have their priorities straight to run for office we're going to start winning some elections.

Murphy: So, those good candidates, if you're able to get them, will have to run against sometimes political messaging that can make it tough for democrats. The latest example is the republicans using the term woke as an attack on democrats and acknowledging here that that word is probably now defined differently by different people and not even remotely close to what it was originally intended to be. But as far as it is still a very real impact in elections and political messaging and getting through to those voters who, as you noted, aren't necessarily tuned into everything 24/7 like some of us are. How do Iowa democrats in particular, for lack of a better way to put it, win that political messaging battle and get through to voters in a way that you think would make your candidates more successful?

Hart: Well, it's not easy. That's why not everybody gets into this business, right? But it's so important. And so, I think this is another example of taking a concept that is really based in good policy in that social justice is important to all of us. Justice is something that we all want, it's a basic human value that we hold high. And so, when we're having this conversation around a word and try to turn it into a negative thing when the concept is based in something that people do value, I think that is when people get turned off on politics and you start bandying those words about and labeling people accordingly, people get quickly tired of that and don't have time to mess around with that concept. So, again, it's about proving, the proof is always in the pudding, right, that you've got to get out there and get involved, you've got to talk about the things that truly matter to people and be the kind of person, be the kind of candidate, be the kind of leader that truly has the interests of everybody in mind, not just the well off, not just the well connected, not just the people who are greasing the wheels, but everybody in the state of Iowa. And that is what people are looking for.

Henderson: To put a finer point on it, how do you respond to republicans who say, democrats don't share your values? Like parental rights, that is the watch word at the Capitol this year.

Hart: Sure, and I guess my response to that is, that's just simply poppycock, right? People, democrats care about parental rights. And I think that that has been in the fabric of the institutions we're talking about. That is what local school boards are all about. That is why you have school boards because they are parents, they are community members and they have meetings and they invite parents to come to those meetings and talk to them and they do influence the actions of a board and of an administration. That is crucial to our public education system. So, to think that democrats don't care about that is just simply nonsense.

Henderson: We have about a minute left. As I mentioned at the beginning, in 2018 and 2020, you were on the ballot but didn't win. Why does that perspective bring to your current job that you think informs the way you will guide the party?

Hart: Well, I can be really honest in saying that was a really tough experience. We worked really very hard and then there was -- who goes into a congressional race thinking oh, I'm going to end up in the record books as being in one of the closest races in all of U.S. history, right? So, it wasn't an easy task. But it just did nothing but solidify my belief that we have got to keep putting one foot ahead of the other and that people want good leadership and it is my job if I'm going to step into this role as the Chair of the Democratic Party, is to be part of a situation where we can agree to disagree, where we can bring a notion of civility back into politics, that good people can do that as long as we lock hands and say yes, we're going to maybe come from different places on this but we're going to end up in a good place because we're going to do this for the good people of Iowa.

Henderson: Speaking of ending up, our conversation has concluded for this edition of Iowa Press. Rita Hart, thank you for joining us.

Hart: Thank you so much. It was a great pleasure.

Henderson: On behalf of everyone at Iowa Press, thanks for watching. You can find Iowa Press episodes online at iowapbs.org.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite was founded 30 years ago in Dubuque and owned by 1,200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to the communities we serve.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at iowabankers.com.