Cedar Rapids voters show penchant for new faces

It's not unusual in this city for voters to shun experience

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Fresh beat out experience in Tuesday’s mayoral runoff election — but that’s not unusual in Cedar Rapids, observers said Wednesday.

While Monica Vernon touted her accomplishments while serving on the city’s planning commission and City Council, lawyer Brad Hart highlighted his lack of elected experience and value of a fresh perspective.

His message resonated with voters, propelling to about an 8-point lead in the unofficial results.

“I think Monica Vernon is the same old stuff we’ve had and we need something new,” said Joe Burg, 49, in explaining his vote for Hart.

A day after a larger-than-expected runoff election turnout sent Hart, 61, to victory, observers were analyzing how and why he bounced back from a distant second in the regular election Nov. 7 — including the impact of partisan politics, endorsements and a national anti-establishment wave.

Vernon, 60, had a commanding lead Nov. 7, earning 30 percent of the vote compared with 20 percent for Hart in a field of eight candidates. Vernon won 31 precincts; Hart won only five.

But fortunes changed in the runoff for Hart, who won 54 to 46 percent.

Twenty-three precincts swung from Vernon to Hart. He won 33 precincts compared with seven for Vernon, with one tie. Of the top 10 highest turnout precincts, he won nine.

This marks at least the third time the top finisher on election night lost in a runoff in Cedar Rapids, including Chuck Swore in a 2013 at-large race and Larry Serbousek in a 1992 special election for mayor. In both cases, the newcomers emerged victorious.

Cedar Rapidians have a history of choosing “fresh faces” over known quantities, said outgoing Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, who is running as a Republican for governor and did not seek re-election.

Three recent mayors — himself, Kay Halloran, and Lee Clancey — all emerged victorious as outsiders over perceived establishment candidates, he said.

“There’s a reason people support term limits, and it’s to bring in new people from time to time so the system doesn’t get stale.” Corbett said.

However, three incumbents, along with a newcomer in an uncontested race, won in the last city election in 2015.

Others said an anti-establishment sentiment sweeping the country where experience is viewed as a detriment influenced the election.

A Facebook page called the Iowa Conservative Union promoted posts criticizing Vernon’s support for the city’s acquisition of what’s become the DoubleTree Hotel and what it considers an overbuilt downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library after the 2008 flood.

The viral posts days before the election may have influenced results, said state Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, who supported Vernon.

“What concerns me is, is it going to be a thing where everyone we elect has no experience whatsoever?” asked Hogg, noting he respects Hart and looks forward to working with him. “Look at our president. It’s not working out so well. It’s a situation where any hard vote under hard circumstances someone makes becomes a disqualifier.”

Jim Conklin of the Conservative Union said the group criticized Vernon for her spending habits, not personally, and didn’t endorse Hart. He took issue with the idea voters have become anti-experience. Rather, they don’t support records of “frivolous spending,” he said.

“I feel not so much Hart won but Monica lost,” he said. “People had no confidence in her ability to be fiscally conservative or socially conservative.”

Others — including Hart — point to the role of endorsements.

Hart, who lacked the name recognition of Vernon, said he thinks the extra month and forums with just two candidates gave voters more time to get to know him and his positions, including a need to expand city attention beyond the New Bohemia District and making sure Iowa’s second largest city gets its fair share of resources.

Of 11 current or former City Council members, 10 endorsed Hart — including Scott Olson, who finished third in a run for mayor. Gary Hinzman, another mayoral candidate, voiced a robocall urging a vote for Hart. Hart said he believed he had a strong case for winning over those who initially supported Olson, Hinzman and another mayoral candidate, Kris Gulick, although did not specifically target them in door-knocking or calls.

“Just the fact they weren’t on the ballot anymore, and it was Monica or this Hart guy,” he said. “Maybe, they just viewed me as a different, better alternative whether because of the endorsements or not.”

The weekend before the election, Vernon, who gained attention as a Democratic candidate for higher office, released endorsements from six local Democratic lawmakers. A Linn County Democrats email blasted constituents urging them to vote for Vernon.

Hart said party politics have become angry, and questioned if it worked in his favor in the non-partisan city election. Hart, a Republican, has not been active in partisan politics.

“She played on her connections and relationships with the Democratic Party and Hart basically didn’t really want anything partisan connected to his campaign,” Linn County Auditor Joel Miller said. “He is an establishment person, but he stayed away from being painted by partisan labels, and was able to act as kind of the anti-establishment guy.”

Vernon said she had not analyzed why voters decided how they did.

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


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