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Politician parents

West High students reflect on how having parents involved in politics has impacted their life experiences.
Sila Duran
Some West High students have the unique experience of having politician parents.

For most students, election season means an influx of debates on television, campaign signs in neighbors’ yards and a Tuesday off from school. However, a select few have a larger, more personal connection to the chaos of election time: their parents are involved in politics.

Zola Gross ’23 is accustomed to the activities that election time brings. Her dad, West High Principal Mitch Gross, also serves as a Coralville City Council member and has worked in numerous campaigns from the local to federal level. Since Zola was born, her house has hosted campaign staffers, events and even presidential candidates like 2020 Pete Buttigieg.

“We’re always knocking on doors, making or delivering signs and going to speeches,” Zola said. “[We’re at] anything you think you have to make a public appearance at.”

Sophomore Kenton Huynh’s mom, Hai Huynh, is also a member of Coralville’s City Council. When Hai started campaigning, Kenton felt a shift in his family life.

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“She would stay up really late sometimes on a call with other nominees for the City Council talking about … plans that they had,” Kenton said. “That was when she needed [me and my siblings’] help the most, like helping out around the house, and also just helping with her campaigning.”

Rachel Zimmerman Smith is a West High parent and serves as the Johnson County Attorney. Smith understands the toll campaigning can take on a family and took her family life into consideration before running for County Attorney.

“[My family] talked about it before I made the decision to run because it affects everybody and you’re committing yourself to this job,” Smith said. “It’s more than just showing up from eight to five.”

Smith valued her family’s input before running, but she found it even more important while campaigning.

“My family has definitely been involved. Both my kids and my husband, but also my parents, brothers, sisters and cousins. They’ve all been very supportive,” Smith said. “[They help with] door knocking, going to parades, wearing my T-shirts and practicing speeches.”

[My family] talked about it before I made the decision to run because it affects everybody and you’re committing yourself to this job.

— Rachel Zimmerman Smith, Johnson County Attorney and West High parent

One of the most exhilarating moments for a politician and their families is when they hear the results.

“On the day the votes were coming in, we went to this restaurant, and we waited there. It took a long time, but at the end when my mom’s name was called, there was a lot of excitement,” Kenton said.

After the excitement of an election, elected officials and their families assume public positions. From the Obama family’s Easter Egg Roll in 2011 to living room chats with Iowa Senator Zach Wahls, Zola has had unique opportunities to interact with many politicians. Through these experiences, Zola has learned the importance of being cautious in the public eye.

“You get to talk to some cool people, but at the same time, you have to be on your best behavior at all times. Even at school in the hallway, I feel like I have to think about what I’m saying,” Zola said. “[Having a parent in politics] is so public. You can literally google things about our life because of my parent’s political background. I’ve just gotten used to it.”

Because of her position, Smith understands her kids will have different experiences in public.

“Whenever there’s something in the news, like a crime or something happening with schools, my kids might hear things differently than other kids,” Smith said. “Somebody might be criticizing the attorney’s office while one of my kids is right next to them. That’s part of having a public job.”

Kenton wishes more people understood the inner workings of being involved in politics. He admires the amount of resilience his mom’s position takes.

“It’s hard to have to make those decisions for a large group of people. And sometimes, when things aren’t going the way you like, you have to try to fix it, but it doesn’t always work,” Kenton said. “Being in a position of power like that … takes a lot of work. And if you really want it, you have to work hard for it.”

Outside of the office, Smith has noticed how her unique perspective plays a large role in the values she instills in her kids.

“Every day, I see the results of people not making good choices that can be dangerous, not only in a criminal record but also in personal safety. So I tend to be a little more, as my kids would say, ‘overbearing,’” Smith said.

Being in a position of power like that … takes a lot of work. And if you really want it, you have to work hard for it.

— Kenton Huynh '25

Zola says her exposure to politics has impacted her interests in the long term.

“[My dad’s involvement in politics] always kept me interested in history. I have an obsession with JFK, and that started because my dad loves JFK. I’ve definitely been interested in the factual side of things and how things came about in terms of presidents and politics,” Zola said.

Furthermore, all this exposure has given her insight into her future career aspirations.

“[Politics] is something I’ll always be interested in, but it’s just too intense all the time for me. I need something a little more chill,” Zola said. “Even if the public doesn’t know about it, there’s always something happening behind the scenes.”

Although Kenton appreciates the lessons and opportunities his mom’s work has provided him, he stresses that her position doesn’t consume his identity.

“I wish [other students] knew that your life doesn’t have to change that much just because your parents are in politics. Your parents’ jobs don’t define who you are, and you can still be whoever you want,” Kenton said.

Even with all of the challenges that come with a family being involved in politics, Smith hopes that her kids will ultimately understand why she’s passionate about her job.

“I’m doing it to make the community better for them and their kids and just making the world better,” Smith said. “That’s not something you understand all the time when you’re a teenager … but hopefully someday they will.”

This story was originally published on West Side Story on November 18, 2022.