An opening, but not yet a mandate

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Progressives in Iowa City are excited, and rightfully so, but shouldn’t be lulled into believing that electing a city council majority is the end game.

Tuesday was historic for Iowa City municipal politics. In its most boiled down sense, the contest before voters was progressives vs. corporate interests — and, for the first time in long time in city races, the progressives overwhelmingly won.

A slate, known as the “core four,” displaced two incumbents to claim a strong majority on the city council. The group has promised to reshape city policies, especially in terms of development and investment priorities. Think of it this way, if the new council had been making the decision on the Chauncey project, it wouldn’t have been approved. No doubt the dust-up surrounding three worker cottages would have played out differently as well.

Jim Throgmorton, John Thomas, Rockne Cole and Pauline Taylor celebrate their election to the Iowa City City Council during a campaign party for the Core Four group at The Sanctuary Pub, in Iowa City, Iowa, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.
Jim Throgmorton, John Thomas, Rockne Cole and Pauline Taylor celebrate their election to the Iowa City City Council during a campaign party for the Core Four group at The Sanctuary Pub, in Iowa City, Iowa, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Clearly, this election outcome was a game changer. The election itself, however, offered fewer clues for the future.

Only 15.18 percent of eligible voters contributed to the massive shift. Looking only at municipal races in Iowa City since 1989, only two — 2009 and 2011 — have ended with lower voter participation.

Turnout fell well below Iowa City’s 22-year average of 22 percent.

Obviously, the progressives fulfilled their mission of getting more of their voters to polls than the opposition. But the next few years will determine whether or not this election marks a significant shift in thinking or is merely a low turnout aberration.

For now, my money rests on aberration.

Some voters were turned off by a guest column penned by Matt Hayek, the outgoing mayor not seeking re-election. Hayek highlighted previous council accomplishments and warned that members of the progressive slate had engaged in lawsuits against the city and would squander city funds on “pet causes.”

“… If this slate wins … We will return to the anti-growth, micromanaging city hall of eras past. We will lose the critical progress made by recent councils with the help of talented professional staff. We will jeopardize the city’s long-term ability to fund important social services for our most vulnerable populations. …”

Between such blatant fear mongering and ongoing outrage toward the Iowa Board of Regents for their university president selection, progressives were fired up to accomplish … something.

A racially-charged misstatement by one incumbent added fuel — as did the apology that arrived via the city clerk two weeks later.

The determination by another incumbent that local police aren’t “too aggressive in their interactions with all citizens including youth of color” stood in stark contrast to video of a black youth being forcibly detained by an officer at the recreation center.

Yet, only 15 percent voted.

Newly minted council folk will, of course, now have an opportunity prove their critics wrong. But governing won’t be easy.

Thanks to state property tax cuts and previous council decisions, they face a funding handicap. Riding the euphoria of such a long-awaited win, supporters may lose patience.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on November 7, 2015. Photo credit: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette