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Meet the Syrian American poised to win state office in Iowa

'Representation really does matter': Meet the Syrian American poised to win state office in Iowa
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
15 April, 2022
The New Arab Meets: Sami Scheetz, who is running for Iowa House and will be the first Arab American legislator in the state.
Sami Scheetz would be Iowa's first Arab American state legislator. (Photo courtesy of Sami Scheetz)

If Sami Scheetz wins his race for Iowa House, he will become the first Arab American to hold political office in Iowa, a state with a small but historic Arab community.

“I’ll be the first Arab American state legislator in the state’s history, which is interesting given the history,” Scheetz tells The New Arab, referring to Iowa which has one of the oldest Arab communities in America.

Cedar Rapids is home to an old Arab church as well as the country’s oldest purpose-built mosque, whose simple white schoolroom prairie architecture leaves no doubt about its place in rural America.

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Though its sparse population means it is not considered the most important state for elections, its holding of the presidential caucus gives it outsized importance that might have given Scheetz the political bug early in life when he got involved in campaigns at 15, first as a volunteer, then later in high-level staff positions, most recently with Joe Biden’s general election campaign, following work on Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign.

So far, with no other Democratic candidates on the ballot in this solidly blue district in the Cedar Rapids area, Scheetz appears to be on the road to victory.

He is, however, still treating it like a real campaign, knocking on doors and listening to the concerns of voters. Extra campaign donations will go to the Democratic party, which appears to be sorely in need of help these days.

Long considered a swing state, which Barack Obama won in the general elections in both 2008 and 2012, Iowa has veered sharply to the right in recent years. After the state voted for Donald Trump in 2016, 2020 saw the party lose a senate seat, two house seats and six state legislators.

Even with what looks like a straight path to office, Scheetz still sees a big set of challenges in front of him. He is getting into politics at a time when the state has grown considerably more conservative, a trend that has led to tax cuts for the wealthy and budget cuts for public services.

When Scheetz was growing up in Iowa, his education gave him the skills that helped him get into Georgetown University and then find fulfilling work in political organising.

Similarly, his parents, who met in college after his mother came to the US from Damascus, were able to work their way into the middle class, thanks in part to their education. He says that’s one of the reasons he’s running for state legislator – to ensure others in his state are afforded the same opportunities.

Over the past decade, around the time Scheetz, 25, started getting involved in political organising, he has seen Iowa decrease its spending on education, healthcare and other public services, as well as pass laws weakening labour unions.

“This has been really harmful to the morale of the state,” says Scheetz. “My dad grew up in a really working-class family and was the product of public schools, and he was able to move out of the working class and become a lawyer. My mum teaches English to immigrants.”

He adds, “The way to have social mobility is through public education. It’s becoming a lot harder for working-class people to make it.”

With its dwindling public resources and with its push further to the right, it might seem like a good time for a young progressive to seek opportunities outside the state.

That’s what Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, who would become Scheeetz’s campaign chair, thought he should do once he’d finished working for Joe Biden’s general election campaign.

“He got to the point after the Biden campaign that he was wondering what to do next,” Walker recalls. “Here you have a young man with work experience at the highest levels in politics. I told him: you can do anything in the world. I encouraged him to leave. But Sami had such a desire to be in the state and be of service. He, like many of us, could see the turn the state was taking. He wanted to be part of the solution.”

As an Arab American, encouragement for Scheetz’s campaign goes far beyond Iowa []

They got to work, putting together a campaign with a progressive platform across the board. Scheetz was uncontested in the Democratic primary, and until now no Republican candidate has registered for the general election. So far, he has endorsements from US Representative Ro Khanna, a slew of unions, as well as the Sunrise Movement Cedar Rapids.

“That he successfully got through a primary without attracting an opponent speaks to his appeal. Hopefully, he can be a bright light,” says Walker.

“For one thing, he’s bringing a unique perspective with him to the office. He’s the son of an immigrant and a working-class father. This guy beat the odds and made it into one of the best schools in the country, speaks several languages and has experience travelling around the world. What you have is a new generation with such a good understanding of the world and realises what we can be.”

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As an Arab American, encouragement for Scheetz’s campaign goes far beyond Iowa. He is seeing widespread support for his historic race from Arabs across the country.

“One takeaway for me is that representation really does matter,” says Scheetz. “In my mind, there are really not enough Arab Americans standing up and running for office. Until that happens, our values and interests will be underrepresented as well.”

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews