City Council Election: The Grand Unifying Theory

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After the epic battle and record setting turnout of last month’s school bond vote, the November 7 Iowa City council election is feeling decidedly anti-climactic.

Iowa City council used to be the office that attracted Some Dude self-starter candidates, forcing low-turnout primaries to eliminate them and narrow the field to the Serious Contenders, usually two progressives of varying strength and two anointed old guard Chamber of Commerce Candidates, who would almost always win.

But in recent years the lines have become more clear, the self-starters have vanished (or run for county supervisor instead), and the progressives have gained strength, capped with the 2015 sweep by the “Core Four” that overthrew the Chamber faction and installed the first progressive-led council in modern city history. Not only is there, for the third cycle in a row, no primary – there are only three candidates for the two at-large seats for the first time since 1991.

This anti-climactic mood has been building, rather NOT building, for months, and throughout those months I’ve developed and privately shared a Grand Unifying Theory about the local Johnson County politics of 2017. Now that we’re at end game, I’m ready to share it in public.

Salih, Hall and Botchway at a joint campaign event

Because the Core Four – Mayor Jim Throgmorton and council members Rockne Cole, Pauline Taylor and John Thomas – hold over until 2019, it is not possible for the Old Guard to win back control of Iowa City government this year. So instead, they appear to have decided that their priority for 2017 was the school bond. You spend some money, you build and improve some schools, you build some houses near those schools, you make some money.

But to pass a 60% bond vote, you need a broad based coalition, what I call the (former mayor) “John Balmer to John Deeth” alliance of all the pragmatists – progressives who want to build schools and developers who see new and improved schools as good for business.

Both sides have done this before on similar issues and both sides were willing partners against a divided opposition of absolutist anti-taxers, an increasingly isolated far left that opposes anything that could possibly benefit business simply because it could possibly benefit business, and individuals with individual grudges.

It’s hard to work with a divided coalition, as the No side found out with its mixed messaging, so unity is important. And unity is difficult if your erstwhile ally in the school bond Yes coalition is getting ready to fight you tooth and nail two months later in the city council election. So it served the interest of both the Chamber conservatives and the pragmatic progressives to put the city council election on the back burner.

Progressives made a half-hearted search to find a challenger for Susan Mims (who is switching from an at large seat to the district B race), but that fizzled. Meanwhile, the old guard has essentially conceded the seat of the retiring Terry Dickens, making only a token effort behind a so-far invisible Angela Winnike (whose seemingly hip “Downtown Mayor” role is really just a Downtown Association PR angle).

Dickens was first elected, along with Mims, in the record low turnout 2009 election that was decided on filing deadline day when they drew opposition only from three obscure students. Dickens will go down in Iowa City history as the last of his kind, an unreconstructed Love The Hawkeyes Hate The Students townie who literally ran for the council because he wanted to force the homeless to stop begging in front of his jewelry store.

There will be no more Terry Dickens or Ernie Lehmans or Dean Thornberrys or Dee Vanderhoefs, because even the old timers know that there’s no longer a majority in Iowa City who will vote for someone like that. They know that to win, they need to win over some of the soft-liberal vote with someone with some University ties, like a Tim Conroy (who came close in 2015 but very noticeably sat this cycle out) or a Mims. And the chamber crowd knows that if there’s going to be ANY hope of re-taking business control of the city in 2019, they need to mollify the soft liberals and be seen as socially progressive.

Which boxes them in for this year because of who the progressives are running.

Incumbent Kingsley Botchway, a Core Four ally seeking re-election, has had a solid first term, first with two years on the short end of a 2014-15 council with a 5-2 old guard majority, then as mayor pro tem on the current 5-2 progressive council. He’s taken a lead on issues like affordable housing, food insecurity, and racial equity, which mesh well with his day job as the school district’s Director of Equity & Engagement. (Tangent: That’s a job once held by former mayor Ross Wilburn, who’s now in the governor’s race.)

Rookie candidate Mazahir Salih is seeking to become the first member of Iowa City’s growing Sudanese community to win an election. She arrived in America 20 years ago, settled in Iowa City a few years later to earn a medical technician degree, and helped found the Center for Worker Justice, which has been a powerful engine for helping and organizing the labor, immigrant, and low wage community.

America may be in backlash mode. but Iowa City is ground zero for backlash to the backlash. Electing an immigrant who wears a headscarf is exactly the kind of middle finger to Trump message the People’s Republic would love to send. In the long term big picture, the local business conservatives know they need to not be seen as Trump conservatives.

And since the old guard can’t retake control till 2019, a 6-1 council split is no worse than a 5-2 split. They figure it’ll be easier to win three of the four seats in 2019 than to win two of the three seats this year. So it’s smarter for them to cede the Dickens seat rather than beat up on Salih, the immigrant woman, or on Botchway, the only African American council incumbent.

But it’s still OK to beat up on a student.

Tangent: Well worth a read is Iowa University Towns and the Twenty-sixth Amendment: The First Test of the Newly Enfranchised Student Vote in 1971, an academic look at that year’s elections in Ames, Cedar Falls and Iowa City.

Executive summary: Cedar Falls elected a student mayor, the old guard triumphed in Ames, and multiple Iowa City student candidates splintered the votes and lost in the primary.)

Ryan Hall was a late entering self-starter in the District B race but he’s annexed the progressive opposition to Mims. Hall is hoping to become the first student to win a council race since David Perret won a second term in 1979. (No, Mid-American minion Michelle Payne’s part time classes don’t count.) Hall has an environmental and Americorps background, is a fast learner, and already seems much more up to speed than most past student candidates have been.

The bugaboo of students taking over the city has been the scare tactic of the townies since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971, a prejudice that peaked during the three 21 bar elections (2007, 2010, 2013) and the 2011 run by Raj Patel, a successful businessman who lost solely because he was 20 years old.  Botchway, 28 when he won his first race four years ago, was the youngest winner since Perret, and despite the law degree even he faced some age-based resistance.

Kingsley and Mazahir – they both tend to be first-namers – are both are in Work Like You’re 30 Points Behind campaign mode, despite the seemingly weak Winnike bid. The Botchway, Salih and Hall yard signs appear in clusters of two and three, but  the Mims signs stand alone.

It’s clear that the priority of the Establishment (I laugh so hard at getting called “establishment” just because of one vote at one caucus) is keeping Mims as a voice on the council, to carry the ball through 2018 and into what will inevitably be a brutal 2019 contest. 

The Mims tagline is “trusted experience,” and the squash a fly with a sledgehammer attack is beginning:

Susan’s opponent, Ryan Hall, is a 24-year-old University of Iowa undergrad who moved to Iowa City a year ago. Based on his presentations so far, there is little difference between their political leanings (sic). It does not make sense to replace her proven skills and deep awareness of our community with an unproven candidate. 

And the age old scare tactic: 

Efforts to rally undergraduate non-voters to support Hall based on his age alone is building momentum.

As I always note: Individual students come and go, but the student community is a permanent part of the Iowa City community, and a part of the community that has gone unrepresented for almost 40 years. When our community looks at its diversity, the diversity of the student population is too often overlooked, and a student would be a welcome addition to the council. So what if the old timers are shut out. Lots of parts of the community were shut out during their decades in power.

So we play out this election for field position, and the stakes are whether the establishment faction needs three out of four or a clean sweep to regain control in 2019.

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