'People's Republic' hopes to improve GOP outreach

Iowa City leaders say bad reputation among Republicans is unwarranted

People gather during a rally in support of low-wage workers on the Ped Mall in Iowa City on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. A list of 150 Johnson County businesses who have pledged to honor the $10.10 minimum wage, which was voided by the state legislature this spring, was distributed at the rally. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
People gather during a rally in support of low-wage workers on the Ped Mall in Iowa City on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. A list of 150 Johnson County businesses who have pledged to honor the $10.10 minimum wage, which was voided by the state legislature this spring, was distributed at the rally. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa City leaders are trying to shake their bad rap in state politics.

The community has a well-known reputation as a liberal bubble in a right-leaning state. With state government under Republican control, city officials worry our leftist accolades are obstructing their lobbying efforts in Des Moines, a pressing concern as policymakers wrestle with questions about local control.

“My general impression is that for many Iowa legislators, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, Iowa City does not have a very good reputation,” Mayor Jim Throgmorton said during a council work session last month.

I can imagine why conservative lawmakers are skeptical of policy ideas coming out of Iowa’s liberal enclave. While outsiders use the “People’s Republic of Johnson County” nickname to mock us, political activists here use it proudly and not altogether unironically.

Yet what happens in Des Moines has significant impacts on city government. Iowa City Council members kept that in mind when they hired a new lobbying consultant and put forth the city’s 2018 legislative priorities over the past few weeks.

City leaders said they were careful to select a lobbyist who has experience with both Republican and Democrat legislators. The firm they hired also represents the Des Moines and Waukee city governments, as well as with a diverse set of corporate interests, including Mediacom, Wells Fargo, and Facebook.

“We’re going to be working with both the caucuses on both sides to try to find out if somebody does have a problem with Iowa City, what it is, and address that,” said Jim Carney, the city’s legislative consultant.

Last year, lawmakers passed several laws to block local government policies. They banned local minimum wage increases, like the one the Johnson County Board of Supervisors imposed in 2015, and also cracked down on discriminatory rental policies primarily used in college towns like Iowa City.

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The Republican-controlled Legislature could visit several other local control issues during the upcoming session which may have a direct impact on Iowa City.

One potential statehouse showdown could be over so-called sanctuary cities, which several Republican lawmakers want to outlaw. Not coincidentally, Iowa City is the only city in the state considered a sanctuary city by advocates.

While Iowa City has carefully avoided the sanctuary city label, the council passed a resolution last year directing city staff not to spend resources on immigration enforcement, except during public safety emergencies or when required by state and federal law.

The proposal appeared to have widespread support in Iowa City, but council members were flooded with comments from out-of-town critics after a right-wing political group sent out robocalls about the issue.

Iowa City officials hope to convince lawmakers in Des Moines those policies reflect the will of the people, and therefore should be respected.

“Other things we do in Iowa City are exercises in Democracy, where we’re living out what the people of this city believe in,” Throgmorton said.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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