Anesa Kajtazovic took her brand new exploratory campaign into the 1st District's biggest county Wednesday, meeting potential supporters for coffee and speaking to a Hawkeye Labor Council meeting.
The two term Waterloo legislator is in the first week of a 20 county in 20 day listening tour and what she's hearing so far seemed positive. Two dozen people showed up for a mid-afternoon event, many staying the full two hours. Most were new faces, but longtime Linn County activists Harvey Ross and Norm Sterzenbach Sr. were also on hand.
Linn County is home to three potential Democratic primary rivals: former legislator Swati Dandekar, attorney Dave O'Brien, and city council member Monica Vernon. Rep. Pat Murphy is the lone Dubuque candidate, and Kajtazovic would be the only candidate from Black Hawk. Those three counties together make up about two-thirds of the district's vote.
At 26 Kajtazovic is half the age of her potential opponents, yet comes to politics with a compelling story and experience beyond her years. "With hard work you can make your dreams come true in America," she says; "I'm very lucky to get a second chance at life." And that resonates with a deeper meaning once you know Kajtazovic arrived in Waterloo at age 10 in 1997 from a refugee camp in Bosnia.
"Coming here as a refugee wasn't easy, but it was probably harder for my parents. When you're a kid you adjust. But when you arrive with limited English skills, and your diploma isn't worth anything, you take any job you can." Her parents took factory jobs, her father working two at times. Anesa's first involvement in policy was helping her mother navigate the health care system after a workplace injury.
Kajtazovic worked her way through UNI in three years with a double major. While there, she began her political involvement, interning for fellow Black Hawk County legislator Bob Kressig in 2006, and also helping the man she hopes to replace in Congress, Senate candidate Bruce Braley.
An unusual combination of circumstances led Kajtazovic to become a candidate herself in 2010. She didn't discuss the details, but I remember the back story well.
Republican Tami Weincek had upset longtime legislator Don Shoultz in the Democratic banner year of 2006, for one of the few GOP gains anywhere in the nation. Democrat Kerry Burt regained it in 2008, but quickly got mired in ethical issues. Privately Democrats unsuccessfully pushed Burt to step down. Republicans had recruited former Waterloo mayor John Rooff in anticipation of an easy pickup.
Kajtazovic was the only Democrat with the nerve to step in for a primary challenge to Burt. She quickly rallied support, and Burt bailed after the formal withdrawal deadline. Kajtazovic then went on to beat Rooff by almost 20 points in the worst Democratic year in two decades.
So, attn: anyone dismissing Kajtazovic's chances? She's heard it before.
"I was told it was not possible for someone my age," said Kajtazovic, who at 23 became the youngest woman ever elected to the Iowa legislature. "There were a lot of doubts - 'can you handle that job?' I think I've more than handled it."
At the coffee shop, Kajtazovic and questioners focused on lunchbucket issues: jobs, education, and health care. "With Republicans, all they want to talk about is taxes," she said of her experience in the legislature. But a lot of the business community I've talked to, they want skilled workers."
One exception was the Edward Snowden/NSA issue, raised by a questioner. "It's obviously damaging and a concern," said Kajtazovic, adding that Congress should play a greater NSA oversight role.
Kajtazovic plans a grass-roots campaign like the ones that have succeeded for her in Waterloo. "Some people in Washington DC and Des Moines think it's all about getting the right consultants. Give me a break. I completely disagree. It should all be about hard work, the person and their values."
Kajtazovic sees her age and atypical background as a strength. "A lot of people are looking for a new vision and new ideas. More and more people are feeling disenfranchised and disappointed. We're becoming more and more diverse and Washington needs to be more representative." These themes seem similar to the framework Cedar Rapids Rep. Tyler Olson is using is his campaign for governor, so it's likely that youth vs. experience, and the definition of "experience," will be on the minds of voters in both races.
"Diversity makes us stronger," Anesa Kajtazovic says, "but we have a long way to go." Hey, Iowa? Here's a good start.