The Mayor of Des Moines Wants You to Know His City Is More Interesting Than You Think

Frank Cownie has opposed the governor of Iowa on immigration, welcomes refugees, and deals with employment gaps.

DES MOINES, IowaWhen Cownie Furs opened in 1907, Des Moines was what you'd expect from the capital of agricultural Iowa: a quiet manufacturing town with very few people who weren't white. That store on Ingersoll Avenue is still there more than 100 years later, but the faces walking past the family-owned staple look a lot different today.

Sitting in his store, Frank Cownie, the tall, gray-haired mayor of Des Moines since 2004, proudly describes a city that stands out in the region for its urban renewal, roaring commerce, and growing diversity. Des Moines is not that white town anymore. In a few decades, it won't be even majority white anymore. With its open-door policy toward refugees and immigrants, and longstanding African-American population, the face of the city is starting to match the face of the United States. But as in any changing metropolis, there are some growing pains. This interview with Cownie has been edited for length and clarity.

In the last several decades, Des Moines has gone through a surprising demographic transition. It's really not this farm town like people think, is it?

Des Moines I think to a lot of folks is a really surprising place. People probably see Des Moines and Iowa as a really pretty WASP-y, generic, agricultural, heartland kind of place. And that probably 50 years ago was pretty true. A lot of this change came through the work of former Gov. Bob Ray, who welcomed people from Southeast Asia, especially from Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam. I'm sure out in rural Iowa it looks pretty much like it did 40, 50 years ago, but it is changing, albeit more slowly. But in Des Moines, we see a lot of Latinos that are coming from all over South America. We're seeing people from Southeast Asia. We have a lot of folks fleeing from Africa. And we have a lot of people from Bosnia. So, Des Moines has been pretty open-armed and receptive to people from all over the world.

When the news about immigrant children on the border came up, Gov. Terry Branstad said he didn't want them in the state. But you said you wanted them in Des Moines. What's the difference between you two here?

I don't want to contrast myself with any other political leader. I just had my own compassion and feelings about people. Especially in the case of children, who were looking for refuge and escaping some really serious situations, we can't turn our backs on folks like that knowing the kind of circumstances they fled. There might be terrible gang violence going on, there might not be any opportunity there for employment or education, and they see that maybe there's a chance in the United States where they could achieve that and live to be adults and have productive lives. It isn't like children who are seeking refuge are coming here as terrorists. I'm not a person who is going to turn my back on people who are in need.

The Latino population in Des Moines is the fastest-growing demographic. What does immigration reform mean for the Latino community here?

There are borders that we certainly protect a lot more seriously. If you look at the border to the north, you and I could take a canoe and pretty much go anywhere we want. We could go to Ely, Minn., and paddle to Quetico and nobody is probably going to say much of anything. We want to be protective, we want to be sure we're not getting an influx of folks who have bad intentions, but in the meantime I think that we have to be careful and look at open opportunities for people to have a future in the United States. We're doing background checks, but there ought to be a path for a future in the United States for people who are seeking it. We have to put them through a reasonable process, but we ought to accept people from everywhere.

One of the criticisms of Des Moines has been the lack of Latinos in public-sector jobs, specifically in administrative jobs. How are you trying to address it?

We've got a pretty diverse base of folks working in all the departments in the city. But we've got to keep an eye on it. There ought to be some balance, and we accept people as they apply. At the end of the day, if you and I were employers, you almost wish you could drop a screen, and you interview people based upon their ability to do a job and they're ability to be trained to do a job, regardless of their age, their sex, their race, their sexual orientation. That shouldn't go into it. I want to know what their ability to do the job is, and make sure that they're good citizens and have good intentions, regardless of any of those other things. But we want to make sure our applicant pool is diversified, that it is representative not only of Des Moines, but of America.

Do you have any sort of programs to help Latinos and other minorities get a leg up?

We work with the immigrant populations. We have low-interest loans up to $50,000 for people who have good business ideas to try to help minorities get started in business with a good idea. We bank them and try to help them along. We help them set up their books and show them how to keep track of stuff. If they need more ideas in marketing, we'll connect them to try to make those things happen. We've been very open with folks from all over the world, old businesses and new businesses, to try to help sustain that and grow it and give all these populations a level of comfort.

There is a lot of data on the income disparity between white and black households in Des Moines. It's near the top of U.S. metros. Is there a plan to deal with the disparity?

A lot of it has to do with education. We have to provide a good, strong support system as they are growing up, make them feel like they have a chance to get an education, and point them in the direction of a good job. We need to show them a path to a life where they can be productive members of society, happy with what they're doing, educated to get a good job, and have the ability to have their own family and raise a family. Through the schools and through the faith-based community, we can collaborate and work together to give those people a leg up and try to take care of those disparities. But a lot of it has to do with these people are moving in here and they don't have the education. The better jobs here are white-collar jobs. They're insurance or financial processing or IT. They're skilled manufacturing jobs, trade jobs. And they just don't have those skills. So, let's help them get there.

National Journal recently visited Des Moines to see how an increasingly diverse population—a majority of public-school students are now minorities—and booming economic development have changed this once-sleepy town. This interview is part of a Next America series about the reality of 21st-century Iowa.