Two candidates are running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for Senate District 17, an open seat.
The seat includes Des Moines.
This is one of 10 competitive primary races across the Des Moines metro area. The two candidates are Izaah Knox, a nonprofit executive, and Grace Van Cleave, a small business owner.
The winner of the primary will likely join the Iowa Legislature next year. Republicans have not put forth a candidate yet. Two other candidates, however, will appear on the November ballot without facing a primary challenge. ToyA S. Johnson is running as a Libertarian, and Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz is running unaffiliated.
To help voters, the Des Moines Register sent surveys to every candidate in a competitive primary. The candidate responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Candidates appear in alphabetical order by last name.
Who are the Democratic candidates for Senate District 17?
- Age: 45
- Town of residence: Des Moines
- Party affiliation: Democrat
- Education: BA Journalism – Drake; Masters in Education – Drake; Doctoral Candidate ABD Ph.D. – Iowa State University
- Occupation: Nonprofit executive director
- Previous elected offices held: None – Appointed to the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission
- Major civic activities: currently serves on numerous boards including the Drake University Community Advisory, American Heart Association, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and Pro Iowa Advisory council
Grace Van Cleave
- Age: 39
- Town of residence: Des Moines
- Party affiliation: Democrat
- Education: B.A. Kenyon College, 2004
- Occupation: Small Business Owner
- Previous elected offices held: None
- Major civic activities: InvestDSM block captain, Polk County Democrats volunteer, Precinct Captain, Elizabeth Warren for President, Junior League of Des Moines
What distinguishes you from your primary opponents?
Knox: I am a dependable and dedicated community member. I have lived in the district for nearly two decades — serving our neighborhood associations and volunteering at our community events. I have a proven track record of creating solutions for people in our community to find upward mobility and opportunity. My wife and I have been dedicated to raising our kids in a once abandoned home in the River Bend neighborhood. I have authentically and sustainably supported our public school students, teachers, and staff through my work at Urban Dreams. Whenever necessary, even if it is difficult or scary, I have always shown up and fought for civil and human rights, including women’s rights.
Van Cleave: My campaign theme is Give Choice a Voice. My January launch video was about reproductive justice. This fundamental right is my centerpiece organizing issue. I am asking Democrats to join the fight of our lives: protecting choice. I offer an urgently needed skillset if we are to reclaim the majority. I bring nearly a decade of national fundraising experience at EMILY’s List, America Votes, the Democratic Governors Association and other roles across five states. I served then-Governor, current USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Heartland PAC and Presidential campaign. I came to Iowa to help Democrats win and am leading by example.
Democrats are expected to be in the minority during the next legislative session. How would you work with Republicans to advocate for your policy positions?
Knox: I will always put my community first, and look forward to building relationships to connect the residents of SD17 more closely with all legislators, including Republicans. I have a history of working, on behalf of members of my community, to get things done with Republicans. In partnership with Future Ready Iowa, I helped to create a successful apprenticeship program targeted to benefit individuals living in 50314 and 50317 at Broadlawns Medical Center. I was appointed to the Governor’s FOCUS Committee on Justice Reform which offered incredible recommendations and I look forward to working to get these through as our State Senator. Additionally, I am a member of the Minority Unemployment and Outreach Committee led by Debi Durham. I am a bridge-builder. I have a vast amount of experience successfully working with people by engaging in civil discourse and treating people with dignity and respect.
Van Cleave: I reject the premise Democrats will fail. Our constituents want bipartisan work on many issues from water quality and campaign finance reform to the workforce crisis and cannabis legalization. I grieve for the loss of the old Republican Party that compromised, working together with Democrats. I will be ready for the return of that politics when it arrives. Today’s Republicans only understand shows of strength, which is why Democrats must organize the people and resources necessary to create real political change. To be clear: I’ll spend a lot of time figuring out ways Democrats can win, govern and lead.
Access to affordable child care is a struggle for many Iowa families. How should the Iowa Legislature address this issue?
Knox: I feel the pain of finding a childcare provider that you feel comfortable with and can afford. My wife and I work full-time, and all three of our kids have, or are currently, attending daycare. We must implement free, full-day PreK beginning at three years old throughout the entire state of Iowa. It is proven to be a workforce solution as much as it is an educational readiness solution. We also need to make adequate funding available for school and community-based childcare with non-traditional hours. I will fight as Senator to create accessible, affordable, educational, and safe childcare environments for our most important investment, our children.
Van Cleave: Childcare is a significant post-pandemic barrier to many women returning to work. Gov. Kim Reynolds’ focus on loans for facilities and loosening rules to increase the danger level for children is misplaced. Moms in my district tell me options are important, but affordability is the barrier. Instead, expand eligibility for child care assistance from 145% of the federal poverty level to 250%. End the child care cliff and ease families out of the subsidy as salaries increase. A diversity, equity and inclusion focus at childcare helps kids ward off some of the toxic intolerance too many hear at home.
Iowa lawmakers spent a considerable amount of time debating the role individual parents should play in public education. What rights should individual parents have and how do you balance that with the mission of public schools to serve all students?
Knox: As Malcolm X stated, “education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” This statement is just as true now as when he said it. As our state senator, I will fight to adequately and fully fund all of Iowa’s public schools. Public schools should have the discretion to get those funds into the classroom so that teachers have all the tools they need to teach and students have everything that they need to learn. I have two daughters in Des Moines Public Schools and I work inside the public schools. We need a senator who has experience creating, implementing and scaling successful programs for students.
Van Cleave: The public school system exists in large part for a civic purpose, which is to allow children to learn to view their own ideas, experiences and political, cultural and social reality in a critical way. Questioning is foundational to learning at any age. The state has an interest in maintaining a consistent baseline for the education provided with state dollars. I reject the premise of the current politics on this. As any parent who has navigated an IEP can tell you, parental involvement is transformational and effective in a child’s life – always has been.
What should the state do to manage climate change?
Knox: Recycling is near to my heart. I believe that as a state, we need to invest in and implement green energy initiatives to ensure we are protecting our planet for future generations while creating good, 21st Century jobs. We also need to put statewide systems in place to improve recycling and reuse. Finally, our state needs to ensure we are holding ourselves responsible for protecting the water that our children and families drink and bathe in every day.
Van Cleave: Iowa should bring back the Iowa Power Fund for another round, restore wind energy education programs, expand the wind energy tax credit, partner with utilities to build a more distributed power grid, build small wind infrastructure, incentivize large solar projects in communities and small solar for homeowners with generous refundable tax credits like those used in affordable housing, develop next-generation biofuels and the crops that support them, strategically deploy electric vehicle charging stations throughout the state and actively recruit the companies already involved in the manufacturing and distribution chain. LEED building requirements also help.
What should the Legislature do to help the state create more opportunities for Iowans with severe disabilities to live in their communities?
Knox: People with disabilities are our residents and deserve all of the same rights, amenities, and opportunities as anyone else in our state. We need to do more to be inclusive. The disability rights community has a saying, “Nothing about us without us.” And that means we need to involve people with disabilities in the conversations and decisions concerning them.
Van Cleave: I support a complete overhaul of the wage structure for direct care or direct service providers (including child care) that results in funding for an immediate 30 percent wage increase to be passed through to workers by any entity receiving state or federal funds to support provided services. Our health care workforce crisis is perpetuated by a low-wage environment, which is why I support an increase in the Iowa minimum wage to $15 per hour — the first in 15 years. The imperative to carry out community integration in Medicaid is less about cost savings and more about better services for individuals served.
Would you support the total elimination of the state income tax?
Knox: No. Van Cleave: No. My tax priority is freezing the property tax for seniors on a fixed income. I support repealing the tax cuts passed this year and reinstating a progressive income tax that includes a millionaire’s tax, increased corporate taxes, and work to keep creative loopholes from draining existing resources. Creating upward pressure on the sales tax, which is what Reynolds has done, unfairly taxes low-income residents of which my district has a high proportion, as they pay a larger percentage of their overall income in taxes as a result. I support the continued expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.