A race for mayor that confounds predictions, rakes in bucks

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As Election Day creeps into Cedar Rapids like fog, the hazy race for mayor is all questions and no answers.

Who’s the favorite? Who knows?

Will voters show up? It’s tough to say after a campaign featuring great discussions of important stuff but also lacking the sort of hot issues that drive folks to the polls.

Will there be a runoff? With eight candidates, a deep and diverse field, chances for any one candidate to break out and grab more than 50 percent of the vote seem slim, at best. A two-candidate faceoff on Dec. 5 seems likely. I don’t know if there’ll be snow.

Will there be surprises? Low turnout, big field, anything’s possible.

There’s no public polling to guide us. And rumors of internal campaign polls have been few and far between. If candidates are doing private surveys they haven’t provided results worth whispering about. Sorry, horserace fans.

We could count up endorsements. Or maybe tally yard signs.

We also could read the tea leaves, also known as cash. Campaign finance disclosures were filed this past week.

In that respect, business attorney Brad Hart is the breakout star. He raised $88,355, including a $7,000 contribution to himself, and he loaned his own campaign $3,000. He outraised his nearest rivals by more than $40,000.

So a guy who has led numerous nonprofit boards and fundraising campaigns is not shy about begging for bucks. Who knew? His givers’ list reads like a who’s who of local business types, movers, shakers and captains of capital.

Three big donations to Hart stand out — a $10,000 contribution from Cindy and John Bloomhall, chairman of the board at Diamond V, $6,000 from Ann and Chuck Hammond, president and CEO of Raining Rose, and $4,500 from Suzy and Chris DeWolf, CEO of Lil’ Drug Store Products.

Hart spent $54,800 on media and campaign consulting through Davenport-based Victory Enterprises, a firm known for its strategic help to Republican campaigns. He spent more money with Victory than his rivals spent on their entire campaigns.

Although Hart has a clear advantage, there also are signs some donors are sensing a close contest. Bets are being hedged. Candidates with overlapping social, political and professional circles are pushing donors to split their giving.

John Smith, chairman of the board of CRST and prolific campaign contributor, gave $500 each to five candidates, City Council member Kris Gulick, Hart, former correctional services district chief Gary Hinzman, City council member Scott Olson and former mayor pro tem Monica Vernon.

Developer Hunter Parks gave $250 each to Gulick, Olson and Vernon along with a $1,500 contribution to Hart. Gilda and Barry Boyer, retired president and CEO of Van Meter Industrial, hosted a fundraiser for Gulick in September, donated $50 to Vernon and gave $350 to Hart.

Current Mayor Ron Corbett isn’t endorsing, but he is giving. He donated $50 each to Hart, Olson and Hinzman. He contributed $100 to Vernon.

Even in the race for a non-partisan office, there always is a whiff of partisan politics. Vernon, who twice ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Congress and as lieutenant governor on the 2014 ticket, received $500 from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell and $100 from former U.S. Rep. Berkley Bedell. She received $4,000 from labor unions, although the Plumbers and Pipe fitters also tossed $1,000 to Hinzman.

Olson, a Republican, received $50 gifts from state Reps. Ken Rizer and Ashley Hinson. But he also got a $500 donation from John Frew, the convention complex and Westdale developer who formerly was chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Chet Culver.

Lead Cedar Crossing Casino investor Steve Gray gave $1,000 each to Hart and Hinzman.

Gulick reported $11,329 remaining in his campaign account, which could come in handy if he makes it to a runoff. Leave it to the CPA to sock away money in reserve.

There are, of course, factors beyond money.

Vernon may have the best name recognition among voters after her political campaigns, eight years on the City Council and years of community involvement. Her old council district includes some of the southeast side precincts famous for higher turnout in municipal elections. But will her partisan losses act as a drag on her municipal comeback?

Olson narrowly lost the 2005 mayoral race, serves on the council and has been a polished, prepared and detail-oriented candidate this fall. But how many voters have been paying attention?

Gulick has been a steady presence on the City Council since the form of government changed and has been the go-to voice on fiscal issues. But has his profile been high enough to catch voters’ attention?

Hinzman has a long history in Cedar Rapids as police chief and as director of correctional services for the 6th Judicial District. The nonprofits he founded to help at-risk youth and adults drew well-deserved praise. But his career ended with a state audit report that questioned his budgeting practices and ended some of his nonprofit ventures. Will the high-profile episode mar his chances?

Jorel Robinson, a productivity specialist at GoDaddy, and Lemi Tilahun, a former Democratic senate and White House staffer, each have implored young voters and others without a seat or voice at the council table to turn out and vote. Will they buck history and succeed?

How many voters will gravitate to Lifeline Ministries Pastor Tim Pridegon’s hopeful, faith-based call for “love, peace and unity?”

Maybe it comes down to what sort of mayor Cedar Rapidians want. The city charter’s prescription for a so-called weak mayor, a council member with a big title but no real power, was turned on its head by Corbett after the 2008 flood. It’s clearly what voters wanted, a more assertive, executive mayor.

Is it still what they want?

“I don’t need to be in front of every audience as the mayor,” Hart told our editorial board last month. “I will be at everything the mayor needs to be at, but if other council members want to represent the city at events and ribbon cuttings, and more important things, fine, great.

“Ron probably always planned to run for office again, and that’s not my plan. I will be and do whatever I need to do as the mayor,” Hart said.

“I would say, if you want a caretaker, or you want someone who just manages, I would not be the person,” Vernon told us, praising Corbett while saying she would bring a “new style.”

“The mayor in this form of government needs to be a strong leader, but also bring everyone along,” Vernon said.

Make sure to vote Tuesday. Help answer all these questions. Heck, bring someone along.

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

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