Top Democrats: New state party chairman faces difficult task

Newly elected Iowa Democratic Party chairman Mark Smith talks with state central committee members Rosemary Schwartz of Vinton and Paula Martinez of Des Moines on Feb. 15 in Des Moines. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Democratic state Rep. Mark Smith had some plans for when he retired from the Iowa Legislature.

He was going travel, take some bicycle trips and spend time in a cabin on his 93-year-old mother’s farm in southern Iowa.

Instead, Smith, 68, was elected chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party on Saturday.  “Some of them will be on hold,” he said of his retirement plans. “I will be throwing my heart, soul and mind into winning elections in November.”

Some may wonder if Smith has lost his mind for taking on this job.  The Iowa Democratic Party has spent the past two weeks as a national laughingstock and target of anger and scorn after a breakdown in reporting delayed the announcement of caucus results.  The former chairman, Troy Price, announced his resignation Wednesday even as the party was preparing for a partial recanvass of caucus results.

Smith, chosen over three other candidates by the party’s state central committee, said Saturday that his first job will be to “restore the faith” in the party.

That won’t be an easy task, top Iowa Democrats say.

“We need to build a unity within the party so that we’re making sure that our primary goal is to elect Democrats and that is going to be difficult for a multitude of reasons,” said Sandy Opstvedt, a longtime Democratic activist and Democratic National Committee member from Story City.

She said the national media had been controlling Iowa Democrats’ view of what happened in the caucuses. The result has been a lot of anger and misinformation on social media. At the same time, Democrats across the state have been praising the way individual precinct caucuses were run, she said.

“There were no disputes. People sat and talked among one another. They respected each other,” Opstvedt said. “… I just think that we have to rebuild the elements of damage and we’re doing that in the committee, finding out what went wrong.”

Sean Bagniewski of Des Moines is chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party. (Photo courtesy of Sean Bagniewski)

Polk County Democratic Chairman Sean Bagniewski said in an interview that keeping Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status requires the state party to be “really frank and honest about what happened and do a real investigation on what happened.”

Bagniewski had expressed frustration on social media in the days after the Feb. 3 caucuses that Polk County’s results were not being reported by the state party, even though the paperwork had been hand-delivered.

He said the party has to be transparent about “where the responsibilities are — and I mean there is responsibility to go around — and then have a really clear plan to really assure Iowa and the rest of the country that could never happen again.”

Smith said Saturday that he will move forward with the previously announced independent review of the caucus process. Meanwhile, a recanvass of results of 143 precincts was underway starting Sunday.

One of Smith’s first tests as chair is likely to be how clearly and openly he communicates about the findings of the recanvass and the investigation that follows.  Price and other state party officials were widely criticized for inadequate public communication about reporting failures on caucus night and the days that followed. Price said the first priority was the integrity of the process, which is appropriate. But the perception of the caucuses’ integrity suffered from the lack of communication, which allowed misinformation to fester.

The fact that DNC Chairman Tom Perez issued angry statements about the Iowa caucus process doesn’t bode well, some leading Iowa Democrats say privately.  Some even suggest, given the stakes and the work needed to win in November, that trying to save Iowa’s status isn’t worth the effort.

Bagniewski says while letting Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status go would be the easy route, he’s for trying to preserve it.  He said turnout in Polk County’s caucuses was on par with 2008 and generated about 10,000 new voter registrations.  “If you want to talk about fundraising or party building or voter registrations, the caucuses did their job,” he said.

Opstvedt said the effort will take “a great deal of networking” and that Smith will have to work well with not only DNC leadership but members from other states.  “And it’s not going to be an easy task,” she said. “And it’s not going to be an easy task at this level, either.”

A goal for Smith and other state party leaders will likely be to stave off any major decisions at this year’s national convention about the caucuses or 2024 calendar changes.  The DNC in the past has chosen to create commissions to study changes rather than have calendar battles in the election-year conventions.

“I don’t want to minimize the issues that we have but I want to emphasize that I will be a strong voice, that we are capable of resolving those issues and that it’s important for us to be first in the nation,” Smith said in an interview.

State Rep. Mark Smith is a Democrat from Marshalltown. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa House Democratic Caucus)

Smith, who spent his career as a licensed independent social worker, has a soothing demeanor that might help as he works to smooth ruffled feathers inside the party. He also has five-and-a-half years of organizing and fundraising experience as leader of the Iowa House Democrats.

He says he’s faced difficult odds before.  “My wife (Karen Lischer) and I were Marshall County chairs for a little-known state senator named Tom Vilsack in his run for the governorship of this state. In 1998. And we worked very hard, and that was the first Democrat to be elected governor of the state in 32 years here,” he said.

There’s another entry for Smith’s to-do list:  Hitting up the first governor and recent Iowa Lottery winner for a donation. (Smith just laughed at that suggestion and said the Vilsacks have been very generous to the party.)

So have people been asking Smith if he’s gone crazy for taking on the job as state party chair? If so, he’s not admitting. It.  “I have been getting lots of comments from people for stepping up and offering the leadership that I have to offer,” he said.