As the Cedar River rose, a wave of political moves followed

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett (left) greets Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad during a tour of flood protection progress in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett (left) greets Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad during a tour of flood protection progress in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Back on Tuesday, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett compared his city’s anxious wait for the Cedar River’s flood crest to a candidate’s wait for results on Election Day.

“We’ve done everything we could,” said Corbett, who has waited through many Election Days.

“Tomorrow, we’ll wake up on the winning side,” he prognosticated, correctly.

Truth is, the flood had much more in common with Election Day politics than anxious waiting. As the Cedar rose and then receded, a strong political current was simultaneously swirling around the flood event. Candidates and campaigns jockeyed for high ground, convinced a flood roughly 40 days and 40 nights from Election Day might somehow alter the arc of the fall campaign.

And it’s not just in local races. Take Wednesday, when Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton took time out from her packed schedule to make two phone calls to Cedar Rapids area leaders.

The first was a brief morning chat with city leaders, including Corbett, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and council member Justin Shields. A longer late afternoon call led by Clinton included local Democratic officials and candidates, including 1st District Congressional hopeful Monica Vernon, state Sens. Liz Mathis and Rob Hogg, state Rep. Kristen Running Marquardt, Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson, and city council members Ann Poe and Shields.

In the calls, according to Corbett and Mathis, Clinton praised Cedar Rapids’ 2008 flood recovery and called the city a national leader in flood planning. Clinton said she would reach out to the Obama administration and press for releasing long-delayed flood protection funding. She also pledged to support Cedar Rapids’ flood mitigation as president.

Later, Corbett said he got a call from Jerry Abramson, the White House liaison to local governments.

“We keep getting batted around like a pinball in a pinball machine,” Corbett said, recounting what he told Abramson about federal funding. “He said he’d look into it and get back to me.”

Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign has yet to contact the city, Corbett said.


Clinton’s second call came in the middle of a visit by Gov. Terry Branstad, who has not completely ruled out seeking a seventh term, and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is likely to run in 2018 if the ‘stache finally rides into the sunset. It was their second trip to town in a week.

It seems like there might be some guy around here thinking about running for governor.

“It was a team effort by everyone, and because of that effort, we were successful,” Corbett said Wednesday during one of the city’s daily, televised flood briefings. The mayor spoke at every briefing, often setting the optimistic tone that defined the city’s response.

“You did it. You saved your city,” Corbett said.

They may also have saved the mayor’s gubernatorial ambitions.

Had the city’s flood defenses failed, it would have been tough for Corbett to shake the notion, however mistaken, that he and city leaders left Cedar Rapids without flood protection years after 2008. That narrative was already emerging as the flood event began, but was swiftly washed away as much of the city’s core stayed dry behind HESCO barriers.

Did the successful flood response make Corbett a Republican contender? It’s way too soon to know, and even big stories have limited shelf life.

Did it enhance his image as a leader who can handle a crisis? It would be tough to argue it didn’t.

In reality, it’s been a lack of cooperation by federal officials that has delayed authorized but never appropriated funding for permanent flood protection. Sensing an opportunity, and perhaps a flood of great publicity, candidates for Congress and U.S. Senate rushed to fill the protection breach.

Nowhere has the flood of 2016 made a bigger splash than in the 1st District congressional race. Vernon, a former Cedar Rapids City Council member, anchored her campaign to her experience helping the city recover from the Flood of 2008. At the end of August she launched a TV ad along those lines called “Rebuild.”


But the Cedar rose again, and so did Republican U.S. Rep. Rod Blum’s luck. The flood threat coincided with U.S. House work on the Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA. The massive bill addresses, among other things, flood control projects.

So Blum and U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat who represents the 2nd District, managed to add an amendment to the bill directing that federal officials “shall expedite” funding for Cedar Rapids’ project. A win, although expedite may have a different meaning in glacial Washington than it does here.

“I am grateful to my colleagues in the House for their support of my bipartisan amendment,” said Congressman Blum. “Passing this amendment sends a clear message from the U.S. House that we consider the Cedar Rapids project a top priority.”

Blum also should thank Democrats who insisted they would not back a continuing resolution averting a government shutdown without funding to help clean up Flint, Michigan’s drinking water system. WRDA became the vehicle for Flint, and, as it turned out, Cedar Rapids.

It gave Blum, painted by Vernon as an extreme GOP partisan and obstructionist, a chance to revisit his image. It was an attention-grabbing moment in a race that’s had very few.

Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is also on the ballot this fall, along with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, added similar language to the Senate WRDA bill, which passed earlier.

Grassley and Ernst also sought a review of how the Army Corps of Engineers decides which projects get funded. That’s the dreaded cost-benefit ratio I discussed on Tuesday.

“It is a necessity to more accurately quantify future benefits and the protection of citizens when making benefit-cost ratios. We also need to find a way to expedite these flood projects so it doesn’t take 20-40 years to study, design, build, and complete,” Grassley said in a speech released by his office.


His Democratic opponent Patty Judge, who has run on her 2008 role in response and recovery as lieutenant governor, didn’t let Grassley off easy.

“The fact is, federal funding for flood protection is another victim of a dysfunctional system in Washington fueled by partisan games. Instead of leading on this issue and championing federal funding for this project, Chuck Grassley has sat idly by,” Judge said in a statement.

Judge might ask Grassley if “more accurately quantify” means figuring in climate change, and it’s effect on more frequent heavy precipitation events.

Will any of this stuff have a big effect on the real Election Day? Maybe not. These races are being steered by numerous issues, complexities and organizational efforts. The flood may be a drop in the bucket.

But it gave some candidates a golden chance to look can-do and bipartisan in the midst of a high-profile saga drawing tons of media coverage. One town’s near-disaster is a politician’s priceless photo-op.

And it happened just as voters began casting early ballots. In Iowa, the political crest will last for weeks, and there’s no holding it back.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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