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Former chef Kamal Hammouda spices up local election as a third-party candidate

Hammouda attends a virtual forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Hammouda attends a virtual forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.

Independent candidate Kamal Hammouda is shaking up the race for Iowa House District 76 by joining Democrat Sarah Smith in her challenge of Republican incumbent Dave Maxwell.

Voters looking for new leadership in District 76 are deciding between Smith and Hammouda. However, having two candidates challenging Maxwell may lead to the “spoiler effect,” where neither Smith nor Hammouda are able to garner enough votes to overcome Maxwell’s lead, ultimately leading to Maxwell’s reelection.

Hammouda, 68, Grinnell resident and owner of beloved restaurant Relish, recognizes the difficulty of winning the election as an independent, but he doesn’t think that should prevent him from running against Maxwell—a candidate he said is out of touch with the district—regardless of how his candidacy may affect Smith’s campaign.

Hammouda is not concerned that his campaign will divide the electorate in favor of Maxwell or act “as a spoiler” for Smith. Hammouda pointed out that he announced his candidacy months prior to Smith, and that, if anything, Smith’s campaign is more so a spoiler against his candidacy.

“Is my candidacy gonna hurt [Smith]? That’s her problem, not mine,” Hammouda said. “If she didn’t run, I would’ve had a damn fine chance of beating Dave [Maxwell].”

In explaining his choice to run as an independent, Hammouda said that both parties have been co-opted by the divisiveness of national politics. To put it simply, he said: “Both national parties are evil.”

Hammouda said his initial inspiration in running was to represent a voice often unheard in Iowa: the Muslim immigrant community. If elected, Hammouda would be the only independent and the only immigrant in the Iowa House of Representatives. He would be just one of two Muslims in the entire Iowa Legislature.

Is my candidacy gonna hurt [Smith]? That’s her problem, not mine. – Hammouda

Democratic challenger Sarah Smith, 44, also lives in Grinnell and works as the Director of Outreach Programs and Events at Grinnell College. Smith said she believes that her campaign is strong enough to withstand any voters Hammouda may draw away.

While Smith said that she and Hammouda have similar views about how to help the Grinnell community directly, she also said that Hammouda hasn’t reached out to voters in District 76 outside of Grinnell. “I have very intentionally spent a ton of time on all the other towns in the district. … I hope that voters are smart in looking at the fact that Kamal [Hammouda] is not reaching out to other towns outside Grinnell,” Smith said, pointing to her socially-distanced campaigning done throughout rural communities in Poweshiek and Iowa county.

Hammouda disputes that his campaign is too Grinnell-focused, describing his campaign as reaching out to constituents “one vote at a time,” whether that be within Grinnell or outside of town.

He also said his individualized campaigning has drawn many traditional Republicans and Democrats to support him, though Hammouda did acknowledge his support comes primarily from independent voters. Despite supporting policies viewed as left-wing, such as minimizing corporate welfare, Hammouda even said he’s received support from voters who supported President Donald Trump in 2016.

Smith also said she believes that her support across party-lines will carry her to victory. “There are a lot of yards throughout the district where my sign sits right next to a Trump-Pence sign. … People see me for me and not a party,” Smith said. She added that being a lone Democrat in a family of Republicans has given her a unique perspective on the issues, a perspective not clouded by partisan politics.

I hope that voters are smart in looking at the fact that Kamal [Hammouda] is not reaching out to other towns outside Grinnell. – Sarah Smith

Smith pointed to her service on the boards of the Grinnell-Newburg School Foundation and the Grinnell Regional Medical Center as an example of her advocacy on behalf of the Grinnell community. She also brought up her endorsement by EMILY’s List—a political action committee supporting pro-choice candidates, and One Vote At A Time, a group of female filmmakers advocating the reduction of gun violence, as testaments to her campaign’s strength against both Maxwell and Hammouda.

Maxwell, 77, has consistently beaten Democratic challengers by 10+ point margins since his initial election in 2012.

Maxwell did not respond to requests for comment, but Chris Varney, Chair of the Poweshiek County Republicans, points to Maxwell’s widespread connections to communities across District 76, particularly in rural areas like Deep River, where Maxwell is from, as the reason for his success. Varney said that, during the pandemic more than ever, voters are looking for an experienced candidate like Maxwell.

Looking back on Maxwell’s past electoral victories, Varney said he doesn’t think that this election will be any different. “The fact that it’s a three-candidate race, I don’t think will matter much,” he said, certain that neither Hammouda nor Smith will draw away support from Maxwell.

Though he can’t say for sure, Varney also thinks there’s a possibility Hammouda could draw away votes from Smith and expand Maxwell’s margin of victory.

In the end, he says, “It doesn’t matter what the margins are, I think Dave is going to win.”

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About the Contributor
Nina Baker, Staff Writer
Nina Baker is a fourth-year Russian major with a Russian, Central European and Eurasian Studies concentration from Lakeville, Minnesota. When she's not reporting for The Scarlet & Black, she loves taking long walks, reading, and learning foreign languages.
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