Johnson County Democrats to add diverse perspectives to Iowa Legislature

The potential legislators will bring Jewish, LGBTQ, and Latino perspectives to the Republican dominated Iowa House and Senate.


Matt Sindt

Elinor Levin, Iowa House of Representative candidate for District 89, speaks at an event in the Iowa Memorial Union Leadership Room on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2022.

Natalie Dunlap, Politics Editor

Iowa legislative candidates Elinor Levin, Janice Weiner, and Adam Zabner are set to bring underrepresented perspectives into the Iowa Legislature if elected in November.

Candidates say their backgrounds will provide unique approaches and knowledge to the legislature that many current lawmakers lack — should they be elected following the Nov. 8 election.

Adam Zabner

Zabner, the uncontested Democratic candidate for Iowa House 90, said his background as a Spanish-speaking Latino makes him aware of issues that may otherwise not be noticed by a candidate.

“I’m naturally going to hear from more young people,” said Zabner, 23. “I’m naturally going to hear from more Latino people. You know, I don’t have the barrier of language and talking to people for whom Spanish is their primary language. And so, that’s going to change the type of issues that constituents and folks in Iowa are bringing to my attention and asking me to work on.”

Stephanie Gutierrez, a University of Iowa student studying political science and public affairs, said in her hometown of Chicago, her alderman and commissioner share her background. But in Iowa, most officials she’s met are white.

RELATED: Fresh faces will represent Johnson County in 2023

“Just seeing someone like Adam come up to power and he really wants to work for our population, it’s just so awesome,” she said.

Gutierrez has been working with Zabner to register voters in Spanish at different Mexican-American grocery stores in Iowa City. She said having government documents available with a Spanish translation would be helpful.

Recently, Zabner helped a Spanish-speaking resident resident, whose driver’s license had been flagged when trying to register online, register to vote. The system has a glitch that if a resident obtains a license before becoming a citizen, their ID will be flagged when registering to vote even after obtaining citizenship.

“I drove to his house with a paper form and we got him registered,” he said.

Zabner said this was the type of situation that wouldn’t have come across his plate if it wasn’t for his background.

Zabner said without an opponent he has more time in his campaign to support other Democrats running in more competitive races.

“All over the state we have candidates that are really changing, or trying to change, what the Iowa Legislature looks like and what type of person serves in the Iowa Legislature,” Zabner said.

Zabner went door knocking a few weeks ago for Suresh Reddy,  a South Asian candidate running for the Iowa House in Johnston, Iowa. “I think trying to break the mold of what we have seen in Iowa could be a really positive thing,” he said.

Elinor Levin

Levin is running in Iowa House 89. Republican Jacob Onken joined the race in August after being nominated by party convention. No Republicans ran in the primary. With Democrats outnumbering Republicans in Johnson County, Levin is likely to take the seat.

Levin said if elected she’ll likely be the only open member of the LGBTQ community in the House. Currently, Rep. Liz Bennet, D-Cedar Rapids, is the only openly LGBTQ member in the House, but is running for Senate.

Levin said it will be a lot of pressure if she is the only LGBTQ representative.

“I do feel the responsibility and the great honor of being able to say, ‘Here’s reality. You’re afraid of something, here’s reality,’” she said. “And like I said, my experience is completely different from anybody else in the community, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t stand up and say we are not a boogeyman. We are not coming for your families. We are not coming for your traditional marriage. We are not coming for your children.”

In the last legislative  session, a bill prohibiting transgender girls from participating in girls athletics became law. Some legislators, including Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, suggested felony charges for educators who distribute “obscene material” in classrooms and libraries, including books such as “The Hate U Give,” “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” and “Gender Queer,” which feature characters of color and LGBTQ characters.

Weiner and Zabner are both Jewish, and Levin is non-religious but grew up alongside a Jewish family.

Janice Weiner

Weiner, a Iowa City Councilor running as a Democrat for Iowa Senate District 45, said she was surprised to learn there hasn’t been Jewish representation in the Iowa Legislature for nearly 30 years. Weiner is running against Republican Harold Weilbrenner.

“Having someone who is Jewish in the state Legislature doesn’t mean that I am just representing Jewish people. It’s just something that informs who I am, and how I view the world and how I approach issues,” she said. “And I think that’s really valuable, because … there seems to be so much focused on essentially one religious’ viewpoint.”

Most legislators, especially the Republican leadership, come from a Christian ideology. According to reporting from the left-leaning blog Bleeding Heartland, Muslim legislator Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, is the only member of the Iowa Legislature who identifies with a religion other than Christianity.

“If you look at the abortion issue, that tends to be viewed through one religious lens, an evangelical Christian lens,” Weiner said. “ …  Abortion bans are basically not accepted in our religion because we highly value the life of the pregnant person.”

Weiner said the fact that religions have varying and conflicting positions on abortion tells her it should be looked at through a scientific lens rather than a religious one.

The GOP is working to amend Iowa’s constitution to say abortion is not a protected right. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade through the Dobbs decision, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has challenged previous decisions that struck down the 24-hour wait period and the “fetal heartbeat bill,” which would ban abortions up to six weeks. Abortion is currently legal in Iowa for up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Other issues that touch religion, like the restriction of books, also concern Weiner.

“If you look at some of the tendency is to want to pull books from the shelves, Jews in particular have not-so-distant historical experience with that. That didn’t end well,” she said. “And in the various countries that I have served and lived in, I have never seen that sort of approach pay dividends or end well.”

Zabner, Levin, and Weiner are all new candidates running for the first time. Johnson County will see new representation at the state level following the retirement of Iowa City Democrats Sen. Joe Bolkcom and Rep. Mary Mascher. State Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, is running for Congress against Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, so she is not pursuing reelection in the Iowa House.

While 2022 candidates are still hoping to boost certain aspects of identities, Iowa has seen success increasing female representation in recent years in both parties.

Reynolds became Iowa’s first female governor in 2017, and she is currently running for reelection against Democratic business owner Deidre DeJear — the first time both of Iowa’s gubernatorial candidates have been women. This is also the first time a Black candidate secured a party nomination for governor in Iowa.

At the federal level, in 2018 Democrats Rep. Cindy Axne and former Rep. Abby Finkenauer became the first women to be elected to represent Iowa in the U.S. House.

Going into the 2022 election, three out of four representatives are women, and two of them, Miller-Meeks and Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson, are being challenged by Democrats Bohannan and state Sen. Liz Mathis, respectively. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who does not face reelection this year, was the first female senator elected from Iowa, assuming office in 2015.

Conversely, one of the Senate’s longest serving members, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is being challenged by Democrat Adm. Mike Franken. Leading up to the Democratic primary, Franken, a white man, highlighted how he could appeal to the GOP because he was raised in rural Iowa and would be the most senior military officer ever elected to the U.S. Senate. Finkenauer, who lost to Franken, had highlighted ways she was different from Grassley as a young woman from a union family.