National group affilliated with Koch brothers spending money on Coralville race

Phone bank to call residents asking about city's high debt, tax increment financing, other issues

CORALVILLE – A conservative group more commonly associated with federal politics is getting involved in this fall’s Coralville city election, and that includes opening up its wallet.

Americans for Prosperity spent more than $33.5 million trying to defeat President Barack Obama’s re-election bid last year. Now its Iowa chapter is putting resources toward the Nov. 5 Coralville election for mayor and City Council, although Iowa director Mark Lucas declined to say how much money his organization would spend.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to outspend me, let’s put it that way,” he said.

That effort kicks off Wednesday night with a phone bank to call Coralville residents to ask the about the city’s high debt, the city-owned Iowa River Landing district and tax increment financing.

Those have all been hot-button issues the past two years and are the focus of this year’s election, with eight people seeking three City Council seats and four people running for mayor.

News of Americans for Prosperity’s involvement comes a week after The Gazette reported critics of Coralville’s financial practices have helped in some candidate's campaigns, and in at least one case allegedly offered up to $20,000 in support.

One of the people involved in the effort came out of Des Moines and has worked for the Republican caucus in the Iowa Senate and for GOP strategist Doug Gross, who as an attorney represents the corporate owner of Coral Ridge Mall.

This level of outside involvement in a nonpartisan city election is unheard of, said Sue Dvorsky, a Coralville resident who was chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party from 2010-12.

“To me, it’s money in search of a problem,” she said of Americans for Prosperity’s participation. She later added, “This just feels wrong.”

It is allowed, though. A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United opened up political spending to outside groups like Americans for Prosperity.

Americans for Prosperity is a nonprofit organization founded with the financial support of billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Lucas said the Iowa chapter formed in January 2012 and has started to get involved in a few local issues, including the Ames city election this fall and the bond issue for a Johnson County criminal justice center last spring, which it helped defeat.

Lucas said he lives in Iowa City and has followed the Coralville debate closely. That has included criticism over the city’s use of tax increment financing and its debt of nearly $279 million.

“Usually it’s Washington, D.C., we have to focus on on big spending problems,” he said.

Lucas said his group does not endorse candidates or support them financially.

By law, outside groups like Americans for Prosperity cannot coordinate with a candidate’s campaign. Lucas said the phone surveys would not mention any candidates.

Lucas said there are a “bunch of activists in Coralville” he can reach out to, mentioning business owners, conservatives and Citizens for Responsible Growth and Taxation. The latter is a local group that has been critical of Coralville and who had an employee recruiting candidates to run against incumbents in the Coralville race.

Dvorsky said she believes the outside involvement will turn off voters.“I actually think it’s going to backfire,” she said.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.