The Latino Wild Card for Winning Iowa

Why you should care

Because he's going to bat for Iowa's largest growing minority group.

Who Cares: OZY's 2020 election coverage focuses on who votes and why. Who Cares: OZY's 2020 election coverage focuses on who votes and why.

Most of Des Moines is as White as the October snow. But La Placita, in the northeast part of Iowa’s capital city, is colorful, with murals depicting mariachi bands next to Latin boutiques, bakeries and groceries. It’s the capital within the capital for the budding Hispanic community here. And it’s where Rob Barron, founder of the Latino Political Network (LPN), casually holds court, picking at french fries beneath piñatas hanging from the ceiling like chandeliers.

At 40 years old, Barron is already a dean of Des Moines politics for the Latinx community. After working for former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin for 13 years, he was elected to the school board in 2013 — becoming the first Latino to win elected office in Polk, Iowa’s largest county. Through his network, founded in 2015, Barron has fostered a rise of Latino public officials, from about “eight or nine” to 24, he says.

Senate Holds Confirmation Hearing For Education Secretary Designee Duncan

Then-U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), left, speaks with Rob Barron during the 2009 confirmation hearing for Arne Duncan, education secretary for President Barack Obama.

Source Jonathan Ernst/Getty

That’s still underrepresentation in a state with more than 7,000 officials. There isn’t a single Hispanic mayor, and there are no Latinos in the state legislature. But the future beckons: More than a quarter of Des Moines school district students are Hispanic. And the growing diversity of Iowa — Hispanics now make up 6 percent, and the state’s largest minority group is expected to double in the next three decades — has ramifications for the entire country, given that the Iowa caucuses launch the presidential nominating process. Which has made Barron a crucial behind-the-scenes player, as almost every one of the roughly two dozen Democrats who has run for president this year has reached out, wondering how to gain a sliver of an advantage in a crowded field.

“He just knows how to reach out, get people excited and motivated,” says Harkin, who represented Iowa for 30 years in the Senate. “As Latinos get these positions, they energize other Latinos to get out of the woodwork and become more of a political force.”

[The iowa caucuses] can be affected by a couple thousand more people showing up.

Rob Barron

Back at La Placita, Barron meets with two Latinx candidates for city council, just five days before Election Day. His style is understated: he speaks shyly, but knowledgeably, and shrugs off praise. Marlu Abarca, a racial justice organizer at Barron’s alma mater Grinnell College, asks him for advice on filing her final campaign finance reports. Chelsea Chism-Vargas credits Barron for introducing her to a national candidate program that taught her “everything from fundraising to stump speeches to self-care.”

Past LPN events have included everything from general political strategy to “speed dating with a reporter” interviews with well-known local journalists. Barron’s biggest advice — for candidates to be true to themselves — sounds hokey … until you realize how many strategists would suggest candidates of color to be anything but in a predominantly White state like Iowa.

“I didn’t realize there was another avenue for change that wasn’t grassroots, that wasn’t organizing a protest, that I could be the leader, making those decisions, until I started going to LPN,” Abarca says.

Both Abarca and Chism-Vargas stress throwing out the traditional Democratic playbook of only knocking on the doors of those who have voted in past elections, a point Barron drives home. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Barron says. He counters that candidates should run for a mandate: “If you win, and it’s an unopposed race with 3 percent voter turnout, what confidence do you really have that the voters of the district chose you? But if you bring in hundreds, or thousands, of new people, and win competitive races, that brings you confidence.” The movement has a long way to go: Abarca and Chism-Vargas went on to lose their races in early November by considerable margins.

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A “family picture” of current and former Latinx elected officials and candidates, alongside Barron (fourth from right, top row).

And yet, Barron has noticed an uptick in presidential campaigns looking to harness the Hispanic vote. The Iowa caucus system “can be affected by a couple thousand more people showing up,” he says. In 2016, just 4 percent of the 171,000 Iowans who caucused for the Democrats were Latino. But it matters where those caucusgoers are, as the system relies on winning precinct by precinct. Family ties in Hispanic communities are famously strong, and Hispanic voters make up between a quarter and a half of the population in places like Storm Lake, Denison, Perry, Marshalltown and West Liberty. Their delegates count the same as Des Moines’, Barron notes.

The savvy campaigns — he particularly praises those of Julián Castro, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — prioritize Hispanic voters as a result. Castro personally endorsed Chism-Vargas’ city council race, while Sanders staffers planned to knock on doors for her in the hours leading up to Election Day. In the past, presidential campaigns would “really protect their resources: everything would go into getting their own name ID out,” Barron says. But this election, “they are more willing to devote time, resources, that could, in a bank shot kind of way, give them the support they need.”

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Barron (left) welcomes Rep. Joaquin Castro, presidential candidate Julián Castro’s brother, to the second annual Latino Voices Together Gala last month.

That could simply be the product of a crowded primary race, but it could also be a sign of the increasing clout of Hispanic voters. “There is nobody that’s not working on it,” Barron says.

Barron’s office at Grand View University, where he works as an administrator, is filled with pictures of his family and drawings from his two young children. And baseball paraphernalia. He wears a baseball watch, and his desk touts at least three signed baseballs, including one from Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett of the Kansas City Royals. His police officer father, who ran (unsuccessfully) for city council when Barron was a few months old, would drive him and his sister 200 miles each way to catch a Royals game each summer.

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Barron in first grade with sister Annie and parents Kris and Xavier.

Perhaps because of his law enforcement family, his four years living in Washington working for Harkin or his Midwestern congeniality, Barron believes more in changing traditional institutions than upending them. “I trust the system. There are times for revolution too. But I believe in the things we construct,” he says.

As a high school first baseman, he had a coach who always reminded him: Don’t show frustration on the field. Pitchers would take advantage of it. To him, Democrats are playing into Republican hands by getting emotional about Donald Trump — whose name Barron refuses to utter because he doesn’t want to give the president more attention. “Right now, I feel like we’re showing our frustration too much. That’s not me,” he says, willing to check his swing if it means winning in the long run.

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