Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett will not seek re-election, fans flames of gubernatorial run

'I want to see how things play out over the next few months,' he says

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The two-term mayor of Iowa’s second largest city, Ron Corbett, said Monday he won’t seek re-election and confirmed speculation he’s considering a run for governor.

Corbett, 56, a Republican who was elected seven times to the Iowa House and served as its speaker in the 1990s, has been traveling the state for the past year with his “think tank” Engage Iowa to discuss “conservative” solutions for statewide issues, including water quality, education and tax reform.

“I am giving serious thought about running for governor,” Corbett told The Gazette following a morning news conference. “I want to see how things play out over the next few months.”

Many had anticipated current Gov. Terry Branstad would not seek another term, creating an opening in 2018.

But President-elect Donald Trump tabbed Branstad as his pick for ambassador to China, meaning that Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will succeed him — pending his confirmation as ambassador. That would give her the presumed advantage of being a sitting governor heading into a Republican primary.

Party leaders had said Reynolds would have the full support of the GOP, but that tune changed slightly Monday.

“The party will always remain neutral in a primary,” Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, said in a Monday conference call with reporters.

“Now that we seem to have momentum ... to turn this state more red, I think we’re going to have more excitement,” Kaufmann said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of primaries at a lot of levels. There’s a lot of Republicans who want to get involved and hear their voice. Whether we’re talking a federal office, a statewide office, a legislative office — any time we have a lot of people who are wanting to go in front of the voters and voice their opinion, I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s actually a sign of the health of our party.”

Branstad was more direct in his thoughts about a possible Corbett run for governor.

“I think he’s making a big mistake,” Branstad said. “I think he should have run again for mayor. He’s going to probably turn it over to the Democrats.”

Branstad said Reynolds should have to “earn it” but has proved her mettle, adding she’s smart and ready.

Reynolds said she is not surprised Corbett is considering a run, and plans to wait and see how the field shakes out.

“We don’t have open races very often,” she said. “It wasn’t a surprise. I’m looking forward to serving Iowans in one capacity or another.”

Jimmy Centers, a former communications director for Branstad and Reynolds who is supporting Reynolds, said Corbett would have an “uphill climb” and highlighted baggage he’d bring into a primary, such as lack of name recognition in western Iowa and use of union-friendly project labor agreements, which have been unpopular with many Republicans.

“As an incumbent Republican governor, there’s all sorts of institutional advantages,” Centers said. “That’s not to say a primary will not or should not happen, but that’s going to weigh on the minds of candidates.”

Corbett left the Iowa House in 1999 to be more involved with his young family back in Cedar Rapids. He served as president of the former Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and later held a senior position at international trucking firm CRST.

Corbett got back into politics after the 2008 flood.

He was elected mayor of Cedar Rapids in 2009, promising to end a “culture of delay” in City Hall that was impeding recovery from the flood.

He scored a landslide victory that year after incumbent Mayor Kay Halloran chose not to seek re-election. Corbett won again in 2013 in another landslide victory.

Corbett helped reshape City Hall, including recruiting Jeff Pomeranz, the former West Des Moines city manager, to take the same role in Cedar Rapids. Corbett championed an “open for business” mind-set to spur investment in flood-ravaged areas and helped persuade voters to approve a 1 cent local-option sales tax to repair long-neglected city streets.

“I’m proud we restored our community pride,” Corbett said.

Corbett backed some controversial policies as well, including automated speed cameras to patrol the S-curve on Interstate 380 and tax incentives to lure private development.

One of the biggest tasks facing the city — constructing a flood protection system — remains in progress eight years after the major flood. The city has fortified its water treatment plant and got critical services out of harms way, but the city still is trying to secure federal money to help pay for walls to hold back the Cedar River.

“Even though we don’t have all the walls and levees constructed at this time, we’ve made so much progress,” he said.

Ann Poe, who serves on the City Council and is a Democrat, said the role of mayor goes beyond party politics and Corbett was effective doing the job he was elected to do.

“We would not be where we are without his leadership in terms of flood recovery, bringing our businesses back and our community back,” Poe said. “He’s done it and he’s done it very well. ... His leadership will be missed.”

Corbett said while he will be thought of as a “lame duck” mayor, he plans to get things done in 2017, mentioning plans to pass another budget free of a property tax rate increase, working to address gun violence in the city, continuing to work on economic development initiatives and making strides on flood protection.

“It’s not my intent to take my foot off the gas when it comes to 2017 and continue to lead and move Cedar Rapids forward,” he said.

Almost immediately, Cedar Rapids City Council member Kris Gulick announced plans to run for mayor and several others said they are considering a run.

The next election for Cedar Rapids mayor is in November 2017.

Rod Boshart and James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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