A city vote tinged with politics in Cedar Rapids. But what's new?

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People who agree on all sorts of things can still get tangled up in prickly partisan politics.

A description of your Thanksgiving dinner? Nope. It’s Cedar Rapids’ mayoral runoff.

As the Dec. 5 vote looms, attorney Brad Hart continues to hammer the notion that former City Council member Monica Vernon’s recent runs for Congress and as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor hurt her ability to fill the nonpartisan mayor’s role.

Hart is a Republican but has contributed to and voted for candidates on both sides of the aisle. He’s claiming the nonpartisan label, but has spent a considerable chunk of his campaign cash with Victory Enterprises, a campaign consulting firm best known for strategizing on behalf of Republican candidates.

This is what passes for separation in a contest between candidates who agree on most issues.

During this past week’s final mayoral forum, Hart and Vernon agreed the city should keep speed cameras on I-380, sell its downtown hotel, offer night bus service and retain “City of the Five Seasons” as its municipal motto. Neither candidate is eager to close one of the city’s golf courses to save bucks, but each is ready to lead a delegation to speak with United Technologies executives about their pending purchase of Rockwell Collins.

They differed on whether to reconstitute the long-dormant Affordable Housing Commission, with Hart in favor of filling its ranks and Vernon insisting such a move would let elected leaders off the hook on housing issues. Vernon voted against the closure of Second Avenue SE, but Hart pointed to the importance of the Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa Medical Pavilion, the project that closed it.

Vernon has been ticketed by speed cameras, but Hart has not. Maybe that will be decisive.

But like so many other things, from Starbucks cups to our choice of Greek yogurt, politics has oozed in.

I asked Vernon during the forum whether her 2016 campaign for Congress against U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, where she accused him of having a “Steve King record,” among other things, and her place on the 2014 Hatch-Vernon gubernatorial ticket, which dubbed Branstad-Reynolds “the most scandal-plagued administration in history,” had burned bridges the city would need on multiple issues.

Vernon recounted her concession call to Blum on election night. Blum, she said, promised her he would continue to work for Cedar Rapids flood protection funding.

“The most important thing to remember is what we’re doing this for. We’re doing it for the people,” Vernon said. “To me, I’ve suited up. I’ve gone into battle for flood protection. I’m proud of it.”

I pointed out to Hart Cedar Rapids has had multiple mayors in recent years with partisan political backgrounds. Paul Pate was a Republican state senator, secretary of state and a candidate for governor before he led the city. Kay Halloran was a Democratic state lawmaker. Mayor Ron Corbett was GOP speaker of the Iowa House. I asked Hart if he could cite an example of how their partisan experiences diminished their mayoral effectiveness.

“Todd, I’m not going to sit here and say what I didn’t like about Kay Halloran’s time in office,” said Hart, refusing to answer a question I didn’t exactly ask. He may be new to this politics stuff, but he’s learning fast. Halloran, by the way, endorsed Hart this past week.

“Ron had never lost an election,” Hart said, taking a veiled shot at Vernon’s defeats. “And all three of those mayors ran well before politics became so partisan and angry.”

Politics are partisan angry right now, to be sure. But partisanship and anger hardly are recent inventions. They’ve been around, like potatoes and gravy, like swift boats and junk bonds. Politics was a very tough business, with nasty campaigns, divisive rhetoric and bitter policy battles long before our Trumpian masters blew through the last guardrails.

Speaking of forums, I covered a Republican gubernatorial primary debate in 1998 between Pate, Jim Ross Lightfoot and David Oman. Early on in the forum, Lightfoot pulled out a knife to illustrate how Oman had been stabbing him in the back on the campaign trail. So even back in the day, the elbows, and knives, were sharpened.

Hart is betting on people’s revulsion at the sight of our current broken politics. That’s a decent wager. You can hardly go wrong promising a break from all the cringing. And he has the advantage in this atmosphere of being a newcomer to elected office. Vernon’s long tenure on the council and her runs for office give her an experience edge and a base of support, but familiarity and contempt may join forces.

Still, there are dangers to criticizing a woman who ran for office at a time when determined women are stepping up in large numbers to run for office. Democrats, in particular, are motivated and energized, which could matter in a small-turnout runoff.

Regardless of what drives voters, the truth is partisan politics long has been tangled up in city hall politics. About as long as people have been bickering over turkey and stuffing.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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