Iowa Rep. Ras Smith helped pass policing changes in Iowa. By all accounts, he's just getting started.
This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2021 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
Ras Smith wasn't yet sold on running for the Iowa Legislature when he and his wife, Amelia, drove to the Iowa Statehouse in 2016.
But, after making the trip from Waterloo, Smith said he found Democrats were under the impression he'd already made up his mind.
"I get introduced to the caucus as the guy who was going to run for House District 62. And my wife was like, 'Did you tell them you were running?'" Smith said. "And I'm like, 'No, this is just an exploratory thing!'"
But his future colleagues were right. Smith ran and won his first term in 2016. Four years later, the 33-year-old lawmaker has begun to make his mark in the Legislature in a range of ways. Most memorably, he helped to bring racial justice activists and his Republican colleagues to the table to pass major policing legislation during a summer of protests.
Smith is one of the Des Moines Register's 15 People to Watch in 2021.
"I’m thankful that life doesn’t always give you choices at times like that because I’m not sure if I would have made the right one, the one that was supposed to be made," Smith said. "So I’m glad I had that initial ‘This guy’s going to do it’ from the caucus. I’m glad that things worked out the way they did because I believe I’m supposed to be in this space right now."
Colleagues and friends agree Smith brings a unique perspective and capabilities.
"Being one of only five Black legislators, being the youngest by far legislator in our caucus, he has a very needed voice in our group," said Rep. Amy Nielsen, a Democrat from North Liberty and a friend of Smith's. "And I think he’s really learning to use it."
High-profile fights; respect for colleagues across the aisle
When Smith arrived at the Iowa Statehouse in January 2017, Republicans had just taken full control of Iowa's state government — control they still enjoy. Within the first weeks, Republicans began enacting major conservative changes to Iowa laws, passing restrictions on abortion and overhauling the state's public union collective bargaining law.
"When you get thrown in the trenches with someone, you get to know them pretty quick," Nielsen said. "We did come in at the same time, and I guess kind of bonded over being baffled and outraged and excited and frustrated all at the same time in those first few weeks."
Smith was quickly thrown into the spotlight when he was chosen to lead House Democrats' opposition to a sweeping gun rights bill. Smith, a hunter and gun owner, spoke against a "stand your ground" provision in the bill that he said would create a greater risk for Black men "who look like me but may not dress like I do when I'm here Monday through Thursday."
"While I agree that we are all created equal, I do not agree that all Iowans are treated equally or protected equally," Smith said on the House floor, donning a hoodie and headphones over his suit to illustrate how someone could wrongly perceive him as a threat. The legislation passed anyway.
Smith also set to work forging personal relationships across the aisle, bringing his background as a youth counselor to the Statehouse.
“I mean, this is basically a giant high school, right?” he said.
Smith has found places where he can work with Republicans, including supporting changes to how Iowans can earn their high school equivalency diploma and deregulating businesses, including mobile barbershops.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton, said Smith doesn’t make his disagreements personal — they’re always about the policies.
"After hours we’ve been known to go get a cheeseburger together and just talk, and so it’s hard to have animosity politically when you’re friends that way," Kaufmann said.
Smith’s outgoing nature helps keep the work fights separate from his personal life.
"If we’re at a reception after work, he’s one of the people that can just go up to one of the Republicans and start a conversation," Nielsen said. "They talk, they laugh, they have a good time, and the next day he’s right back in there fighting tooth and nail against them. That’s not always an easy switch to flip, but he’s able to really kind of take everything in stride and keep working."
'I got tired of seeing faces that I thought could be mine'
When George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man, was killed by a white police officer in May, it sparked nationwide protests. Smith thought he could use his relationships to get something done in Iowa.
While activists in Iowa and around the country demanded police departments be defunded, Smith wanted to focus on building consensus. He developed a plan to ban police chokeholds, allow the Iowa Attorney General to investigate deaths caused by a police officer and prevent officers from being hired in Iowa if they have a history of misconduct.
“What we saw was a murder,” he said. “And for me, it was about making sure that never happened in the state that I love. Because I got tired of seeing faces that I thought could be mine.”
Smith organized a news conference on the steps of the Statehouse with other Black lawmakers and racial justice activists to outline his plan. Then he had a series of meetings with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, Democratic and Republican legislative leaders and other Black lawmakers to hammer out a deal.
At the same time while he was meeting with Republicans, Smith kept in touch with activists to make sure their perspectives were included.
"He’s the one who brought us into the fold on that legislation and invited us to have a seat at the table, which I was always really grateful for and appreciative of," said Jaylen Cavil, an organizer with Des Moines BLM.
By the time the legislation was introduced, the consensus he sought had been formed. A police policy bill passed the Legislature unanimously and was signed by Reynolds within a span of 24 hours.
"To say he took a prominent role in the policing reform bill is an understatement. He wrote that bill," Nielsen said.
Smith said the legislation shows what Iowa lawmakers can do when they work together. Now, the goal is to build on that energy.
"That is the status quo now, and I think my peers know me well enough to know that if that’s the expectation that we’ve set together, when we come back to the table — whether we’re talking about water quality or climate change or small business incentives — I expect us to be able to move big rocks and have difficult conversations and come out on the other end better than we were," Smith said. "Because if we can do it on race, if we can make movement in the state of Iowa talking about race and police reform and criminal justice reform, then I feel like we can do anything, man."
Vacuumer, father, hunter, gardener, chef
After four years in Des Moines, Smith has developed his own habits — and quirks.
He does his best speech-writing while vacuuming, Amelia Smith said. She remembers being with him in Des Moines when he was stumped about what to say at an event that night.
"I said, 'Is there a vacuum here?' We were actually at an Airbnb and he found a vacuum and he literally vacuumed the living room and came up with a speech for an event that was that night," she said.
He stays up working until midnight most nights and keeps a notebook on his bedside table to jot down ideas so he doesn't forget them.
Issues that hit close to home get him the most fired up. When Waterloo's Tyson Foods pork processing plant saw a COVID-19 outbreak this spring, Smith was one of the loudest voices raising concerns about worker safety. More recently, he's called on the governor's office to release records of her communications with the company after lawsuits alleged plant managers made bets on how many workers would get sick.
Smith's two daughters, Maria, 7, and Samara, 3, are mostly used to their dad's routine of being in Des Moines during the legislative session. When they visit him at the Statehouse, they feel right at home, Amelia Smith said.
"When we go there, they go right up and they sit in Ras’ chair and they’re running around and they don’t seem intimidated or shy when we’re there, which has always been kind of interesting to both of us," she said.
When he's not working, Smith loves to garden and go pheasant hunting with his dog, an Italian Spinone named Luigi.
He's also "an amazing chef," Amelia Smith said.
"Anytime I can get him home to make dinner is like the best night on Earth for me because I do not love cooking and he does," she said.
Smith said he didn't set out to be a lifelong politician and doesn't plan to do this forever. But with the 2022 election on the horizon, he also hasn't ruled out a run for higher office.
"I think because of his drive to make a difference that he’s going to look for an opportunity in which he can make the biggest difference," Amelia Smith said. "So whatever office or whatever job or capacity that is, I think he’s going to go for it."
'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2021" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by newsroom staff from scores of reader and staff nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 3.
Meet Ras Smith
TOWN OF RESIDENCE: Waterloo
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in exercise science, University of Northern Iowa. Master's degree in leisure, youth and human services, with an emphasis on youth development, UNI.
CAREER: Smith is an Iowa state representative (2017-present) and consultant for Communities in Schools of Mid America. Before that, he held jobs as a site manager at George Washington Carver Academy, owner of Rise Advocacy Services and youth counselor at Four Oaks.
FAMILY: Wife, Amelia; daughters, Maria, 7, Samara, 3; dogs, Tuxedo, 13-year-old Boston terrier, and Luigi, 2-year-old Italian Spinone.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.