OTTUMWA — For most of the 48-minute session, Deidre DeJear was fervently scribbling in a spiral-bound notebook.
Issues from the crowd arose left and right, and she wanted to be there for all of it.
DeJear met with about a dozen citizens at The Coal Palace on Thursday as the Democrat continued the exploratory phase to see if replacing Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds can become more than an idea next year. Reynolds has yet to declare if she'll run, but is expected to seek re-election.
But that's still a way off. Right now, DeJear wants to be able to listen to potential constituents and meet them where they are.
"There is just so much bad around us right now, and even though it may sound cheesy, focusing on the good is going to interrupt the chaos," DeJear said. "And that's incredibly challenging to do. This is not just about a Democratic, Republican, Independent fight right now. We're doing this together, and we need to elect people that align with our values throughout the entire state."
DeJear is seen by supporters as a champion for both education and small business, being highly involved in both endeavors in her hometown of Des Moines. DeJear was born in Mississippi, relocated to Oklahoma, then moved to Iowa to attend Drake University.
In the last 15 years, she worked with small businesses to craft growth strategies and marketing plans, and is the vice president of the League of Women Voters in Des Moines. She co-founded the nonprofit Back to School Iowa to support youth in continuing their education.
Earlier this week, DeJear made stops in Muscatine and Fort Madison before stopping in Ottumwa to complete the week. At each place, the same issues crop up.
"They're seeing their businesses closed. Our institutions were fragmented before the pandemic, and the pandemic further exposed those inadequacies," she said. "We also see consistency in terrible broadband service, lack of access to mental health care. What I'm adamant about is we resolve our challenges by finding solutions."
DeJear asked residents what they like about Ottumwa, but also what they saw as shortcomings.
"I was born and raised here. I can go to Wal-Mart and see 20-30 people that I know every time, and conversations happen," one man said. "We just need more economic ... more factories that would pay better wages. A lot of companies here won't get off the minimum wage. If people were paid a livable wage, then we'd see more of our housing rebuilt that has been dilapidated over the last 40 or 50 years."
Another man expressed his concern for education in the state, claiming the Republican Party is treating teachers and schools "as the enemy."
"We have brilliant young people in this state, but if there are no jobs here, they should leave. You have to go where the jobs are," he said. "I don't know what the Legislature thinks we did wrong. It seems their purpose is not to help anybody, but to punish who they perceive as their enemies."
DeJear then asked about the challenges the community had with COVID-19 in the last year, and a teacher spoke out about the lack of guidance at the end of the school year.
"So the governor signed that bill on a Wednesday. Thursday morning we didn't know what we were supposed to do. There was zero guidance," she said. "It just became another divisive issue. The longer I teach, the more concerned I get about how the curriculum will change."
Other residents were frustrated by their elected state officials, who they claim show disregard for their constituents with the lack of visits.
Voting restrictions also were brought up in the conversation. The state recently passed laws that would close polls an hour earlier and shorten the absentee-voting period by nine days, among other measures.
"I'm from Mississippi, the scene of so many civil rights crimes where there were poll taxes, people were threatened that they would lose their jobs if they went to vote," DeJear said. "I think 2022 is a paramount time for us to show up as Democrats.
"We are the inclusive party, not the exclusive party," she said. "We are the party that brings people along. We're not going to bat 100% every week, but if we focus on the good, and bring people in, it's only going to make us stronger."