Some Coralville candidates say TIF critics offered them financial, campaign support

Contributions not illegal, but unusual in town with history of minimal campaign spending

The new Von Maur store near the new Homewood Suites at the Iowa River Landing. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
The new Von Maur store near the new Homewood Suites at the Iowa River Landing. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

© 2013 The Gazette

A Coralville City Council candidate says she was offered $20,000 for her campaign from a Republican political operative from Polk County and a representative of a local group critical of Coralville’s financial practices.

Laurie Goodrich told The Gazette she turned down the offer and felt some strings likely were attached to it.

Three other City Council candidates and a person running for mayor in the town of 20,000 residents confirmed they are receiving help from one or both of the people whom Goodrich met with, but they denied getting any financial assistance.

There is nothing illegal about outside campaign help and contributions that go through the proper process, and organizations like chambers of commerce often recruit candidates. The Coralville situation, however, is unusual for a city election is this area, where local people generally run campaigns and candidates raise no more than a few thousand dollars.

But Coralville has faced harsh criticism from developers and local and state officials over its use of tax increment financing, particularly for a multimillion-dollar deal two years ago for a Von Maur department store, and its high level of debt.

Some of those forces are involved in the election effort.

Don McDowell and Jordan Willison were identified by several people as the two recruiting candidates this past summer.

McDowell is a former GOP staffer in the Iowa Senate and until recently was the public affairs manager at the Brown Winick law firm in Des Moines. Doug Gross, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and chief of staff to Gov. Terry Branstad in the 1980s, is an attorney at that firm.

Gross has represented General Growth Properties, which owns Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville. Some Coralville officials have claimed Gross made the city’s use of tax increment financing a political issue with state lawmakers after the city rejected a proposal from General Growth to bring Von Maur to the mall instead of the city-developed Iowa River Landing District.

Willison is an intern with Citizens for Responsible Growth and Taxation, a group that has criticized Coralville officials over their financial practices, including the Von Maur deal.

On Monday morning, Willison’s page on the social networking site LinkedIn said she was “in charge of candidate recruitment for the Coralville City Council.” That line was removed after The Gazette began making inquiries about the recruitment efforts.

Kevin O’Brien, a local McDonald’s franchise owner, said Willison is a marketing intern for his company. O’Brien is one of the most vocal members of Citizens for Responsible Growth and Taxation and was a plaintiff in a lawsuit that tried to block Coralville’s deal with Von Maur.

The attorney for O’Brien’s side in that case was Matt Adam, who is running for Coralville mayor. Adam and City Council candidates Dave Petsel, Chris Turner and Mark Winkler acknowledged receiving assistance from either McDowell or Willison or both of them.

All four said money was not part of the support.

Those candidates have been critical of the city’s use of tax increment financing and its debt.

Turner, a University of Iowa professor, was up front in saying he has received help from the pair but said it has simply been getting advice on the political process, which is new to him. He said he made his own decision to run.

He said he assumes Willison’s interest stemmed from the views of her employer, but he said he does not know McDowell’s motivation. Like the other candidates, he emphasized he will be beholden to no one in the campaign.

“I’m nobody’s tool,” he said.

Adam and Petsel, in separate interviews, were initially not forthcoming about their relationship with McDowell and Willison.

Adam and Petsel each mailed campaign letters last week that contained identical passages and, in some cases, the same bold and underlined phrases.

Petsel, owner of Iowa River Power Restaurant, at first said his “campaign people” helped write his letter and implied it was primarily authored by his wife. Upon further questioning, he said Willison assisted.

Adam initially said that he has had no help with his campaign and that he wrote his letter. When a reporter noted it was unlikely the similarities in the letters were a coincidence, Adam paused and said, “Oh, sure, I’ve had some assistance from people who have run campaigns before.”

He said that has included McDowell and Republican state Sen. Charles Schneider of West Des Moines, who Adam said is a long-time friend.

Winkler, director of the Business Solutions Center at the UI’s Tippie School of Business, said he has spoken with McDowell and Willison but they are not influencing his campaign. He also said he expects to spend less than $2,000, with half of it his money.

“I’m very much forming my own opinions,” he said.

McDowell said Tuesday that he never made any promises of campaign donations. He said Goodrich may have misconstrued his saying that it would take $20,000 to $30,000 to run a top-level campaign.

“I never promised her that, if you run, here’s your contribution for that amount of money,” he said.

Goodrich spoke with The Gazette twice about the matter. After being told what McDowell said, she said Willison asked what she would say if they would support her to the tune of $20,000. She said McDowell was in the room when that was discussed.

Goodrich said Willison and McDowell also said they would help get people to knock on doors for Goodrich, which is not unusual, and by filling out campaign forms for her. She said McDowell promised to spend five weeks in Coralville.

McDowell told The Gazette that after helping candidates get started, his involvement with the campaigns is now over.

Goodrich said she declined their support because she “didn’t want to be used.” Anytime there’s that much support from someone who is not from town, she said, “there’s got to be some strings attached.”

Local GOP activist Karen Fesler said she too was approached by McDowell and Willison, but she said she turned them down before money was mentioned. Fesler’s husband, David, is running for Coralville mayor, but has spoken positively of current city officials and his is not involved with McDowell and Willison, his wife said.

Willison did not return messages seeking comment this week. Her boss, O’Brien, the McDonald’s franchisee, said he felt Willison was being singled out. When asked if any money would be put toward candidates whose views are similar to his, he said his group’s main goal is to educate people on Coralville’s debt, and “I’m going to support people who work in that vein.”

Gross, the attorney for General Growth Properties, acknowledged McDowell was sent to Coralville this summer to work with Citizens for Responsible Growth and Taxation. But he said he does not know precisely what McDowell did. He also said he knew nothing about $20,000 in campaign contributions being offered.

He said General Growth Properties has concerns about Coralville’s debt and Coral Ridge Mall’s rising property taxes. He said the company may make campaign contributions, but if it does, it would be nowhere near $20,000.

The highest amount raised by a Coralville city candidate in recent years was about $4,700, and most candidates typically bring in a couple of thousand dollars or less, according a review of reports with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board.

McDowell said it may take more in Coralville this year, with eight people running for three City Council seats and four candidates for mayor in the Nov. 5 election.All candidates who spend or receive more than $750 will have to file reports with the state shortly before the Nov. 5 election.

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