2 millennials challenge longtime incumbent in District 5 race for Cedar Rapids Council

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CEDAR RAPIDS — New faces are up against a three-term incumbent, who’s seen the city through the flood and a post-flood resurgence, in the District 5 race for Cedar Rapids City Council.

The field is made up of two millennial-aged challengers — Ashley Vanorny, 32, an IT analyst, and Keith Wiggins, 34, a businessman. They are trying to unseat Justin Shields, 75, a retired Quaker Oats worker who was first elected in 2005.

Affordable housing is a top issue in this district, which primarily represents the southwest quadrant. Early voting is underway, and Election Day in Nov. 7.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Candidates used the recent controversy over Crestwood Ridge Apartments, an affordable housing complex in which City Council wavered in the face of neighborhood opposition but ultimately gave approval, to explain their views.

“(People in need of housing) are lost in a paradigm where there seems to be no help for them,” Vanorny said, who has a volunteer leadership role in the Junior League of Cedar Rapids, which helps bridge the gap in finding housing. “I know affordable housing is something as a whole Cedar Rapids has to invest in.”

City leaders must better explain and communicate with those directly impacted to avoid “destructive conversations” and “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) resistance. She said she never would have wavered in supporting Crestwood Ridge.

Shields initially opposed Crestwood when it failed to win council approval in 2016, criticizing the plan’s lack of details. But he was swayed when the project was resurrected in 2017, providing the final “yes” vote the project needed to pass.

“As part of society we have to look out for those that can’t take care of themselves,” Shields said, noting drugs, alcohol and mental health struggles. “I believe in supporting those people. I voted that way on (Crestwood), and I would vote that way again tomorrow. I think it was the right thing to do.”

Wiggins noted neighborhood opposition to Crestwood topped 1,000 signatures on a petition, which he said was ignored.

“That’s a huge voice. When you have over 1,000 signatures, that’s a lot of people speaking and not being heard,” Wiggins said, adding better outreach and communication is needed. “Again, I do support those programs. I think the location was probably not the correct location for that type of program, especially with (the number of) signatures.”

Affordable housing is a matter of living within your means, Wiggins said, such as when he lived in a trailer for two years in an undesirable area as a single dad with three kids after getting laid off.

TOP ISSUES

Shields, a longtime Cedar Rapids resident, has been a labor union champion, mayor pro tempore of the City Council and serves on an advisory committee for an Iowa State University-city partnership on economic development.

His top issues include continuing street upgrades, including possibly extending a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax for street repairs, and providing the latest training and equipment for city staff, police and firefighters to mitigate crime, and jobs and education.

Wiggins, who left Cedar Rapids and returned, is a combat veteran who’s owned his own business and worked in commercial real estate. He hasn’t held an elected position, although he served on the city’s Civil Rights Commission and was appointed to the state’s Iowa Capital Investment Board.

His priorities are retaining younger residents, upgrading infrastructure and finding efficiencies in the budget.

Vanorny, a Cedar Rapids native, is also new to politics but decided to “rise to the occasion” when her calls and emails attempting to engage her representatives went unanswered. As she began attending meetings, she realized she disagreed with votes on some issues.

Affordable housing, flood protection and public safety are her top issues, she said.

flood protection

An area where the candidates differ is how to cover a gap ranging from $233.5 million to $336.5 million to pay for a flood control system with an estimated cost of $700 million to $725 million.

One of the biggest variables is whether the city should continue to rely on the $78 million authorized by Congress for east-side flood control but never allocated, or should the city develop alternative plans?

Shields said the city should remain focused on pressing the federal government to release its share of the money.

“I never gave up on the federal government,” he said. “I think eventually they will come through on the commitment they made.”

Wiggins called it a collaboration issue and getting the “right people and right minds working together.”

“I’m a process improvement guy — Six Sigma,” he said, referring to a management system developed by engineers. “I’d like to ... eliminate the waste and identify why it’s not working and why there’s a gap and working to diligently to improve that.”

Vanorny said the city needs “to take this into our own hands,” particularly investigating the extension of the local-option sales tax and directing a portion of the proceeds to flood protection.

“We can’t count on state or federal funds. Things are kind of in limbo right now,” she said, adding flood protection is critical to attracting and retaining businesses. “If we are not doing this, (businesses) are going to view us as a riskier investment because we are not protecting their business.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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