116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Remaining mayoral hopefuls Tiffany O’Donnell and Amara Andrews have just over three weeks to drum up enough support in the Nov. 30 runoff election to assume City Hall’s top elected post and replace outgoing Mayor Brad Hart after voters narrowly denied him a chance for a second term.
Candidates’ strategies in this election cycle have stoked debate over the fundamental role of local government — is it to patch potholes, as the saying goes, or to advance social justice? Moving forward from a contentious first phase of the race, Andrews and O’Donnell have little time to either hit the reset button to boost support or stay the course while enticing voters back to the polls.
In that time, the two will compete for voters’ attention as the holiday season rolls around. After all, Runoff Tuesday is preceded by Thanksgiving Thursday, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
O’Donnell emerged from Tuesday’s election as the top vote-getter, finishing with 11,023 votes out of 26,175 total votes in the race, while Andrews edged out Hart by 40 votes with 7,359 overall, according to unofficial results. But with the runoff cycle, each candidate starts over with zero votes — so the part-time mayor role still is anyone’s to win.
Former Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon has been in these candidates’ shoes before. She lost against Hart to be mayor in a 2017 runoff. There were some differences in that runoff. Voters had whittled down a field of eight, whereas Hart had only three challengers.
Those holiday distractions with residents leaving town or having family come to visit will make this portion of the campaign cycle go fast, Vernon told The Gazette. There also is only one race on the ballot this time, compared with last Tuesday’ elections with school board races, other council seats and ballot issues on gaming and a local-option sales tax.
Vernon garnered the most votes in the 2017 election before the runoff, but Hart still won in the end. Anything could happen Nov. 30.
“If people feel strongly about a candidate, it’s not over until it’s over,” Vernon said. “If you feel strongly about one of these candidates, you’ve got to get out and vote for them — again.”
Andrews’ decision to bill herself as a progressive candidate — the only Democrat in the race — has raised some eyebrows, as City Council members serve in nonpartisan roles.
Her campaign’s coordination to send an anti-O’Donnell campaign mailer with some members of the Linn County Democratic Central Committee, through the Iowa Voter Info political action committee filed with the Federal Elections Commission, drew an ethics complaint from an O’Donnell supporter. The complaint states that the group failed to properly file as a city PAC.
Separately, a group called Iowa Voter Information, run by Jennifer Hauff of Keokuk, in Facebook posts has called this PAC’s filing “total fraud,” as Hauff said her page’s email address was used in the committee’s FEC filing. She wrote that she has “half a dozen emails from the state demanding I follow proper procedure for campaign contributions.”
Andrews’ mailers have tied O’Donnell to Republicans including U.S. Rep. Rep. Ashley Hinson and Gov. Kim Reynolds, arguing she supports policies such as limiting abortion and voting access.
The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board next meets at 1 p.m. Nov. 18, where they could next take up the ethics complaint.
Hinson has weighed in, writing on her campaign Facebook page Oct. 31, “Those of you in Cedar Rapids have no doubt seen the mayoral race descend into full blown ‘dirty politics’ — complete with shady PACs, ethics complaints, and mailers full of lies. It has been disheartening to see Amara Andrews bring the ugliness of partisan politics into what has long been a nonpartisan office.“
Hinson’s post continued: “Amara has shown she is more focused on divisive politics and political attacks than solving the problems the city is facing. Cedar Rapids needs a leader who can bring the city together, not sow seeds of division.”
O’Donnell has criticized partisanship in the race, raising the possibility that asking for support on priorities such as flood protection may prove challenging after “throwing (state and federal officials) under the bus” on the campaign trail.
But Andrews maintains that supporting former President Donald Trump, or similarly aligned politicians and the Republican Party, are indicators of one’s values, character and judgment.
O’Donnell has pushed back and said this election has nothing to do with a person who was president the last four years. She has declined to publicly support or denounce Trump.
“I am so much more interested in talking about Cedar Rapids in the next four years,” she said. “ … Why does every election have to be about Donald Trump? All it does is continue to divide our community, divide our country. We're better than this.”
While more Democrats are registered to vote in Cedar Rapids, the city has a history of electing Republican mayors, including Hart and Ron Corbett before him.
When cities and states experience a phenomenon where blue geographic areas elect Republican executives or vice versa, Megan Goldberg, assistant professor of American politics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, said “it’s usually because the people running are very strategic.”
For instance, she said research shows that mayoral news releases of mayors with party ties opposite of most voters in the city they represent mirror that political party more than their own.
Plus, as conservative outlets amplify talks of “cancel culture” and “woke-ism” with a need to “get the politics out” of issues such as school curriculum, implying the status quo is not political, Republican candidates may cue this sentiment of promoting less division for voters who are in tune with this national discourse.
“ (O’Donnell) has to remove herself from partisanship for electoral survival and talk about the same issues you might see Democrats talking about in other races,” Goldberg said.
Andrews, who would be the city’s first Black mayor if elected, can send partisan signals simply by discussing racial equity, Goldberg said, while whiteness is perceived by voters as non-political. She added that Andrews, as a person of color, may inherently signal more partisanship for voters compared with O'Donnell, so Andrews “has a harder hill to climb to be seen as nonpartisan.”
Local media also play a role in influencing election outcomes, providing a key source of information for voters and helping to reduce polarization by focusing on local issues, Goldberg said.
O’Donnell, a former news anchor for CBS2/FOX 28, likely benefited from her move from media personality to office-seeker, which Goldberg said tends to boost name recognition.
The role of being a local journalist centers on building a relationship of trust with the community and to avoid partisanship, she said, so that reputation seemed to provide a “natural bridge” to O’Donnell’s campaign brand of being nonpartisan.
Andrews also has been in the news throughout the last year for her work with Advocates for Social Justice and on forming a citizens’ police review board with the city of Cedar Rapids. More recently, though, her campaign has pointed fingers at the media with coverage of the potential ethics issues stemming from the anti-O’Donnell mailer and on a legal dispute over a home she and her husband had built in Illinois.
“Both campaigns have been in the news quite a lot, so I think that the potential issue of challengers being basically unknown and having no name recognition was not really the case in this particular race,” Goldberg said, perhaps diminishing Hart’s incumbency advantage of name recognition.
Even if people don’t recall specifics of what Hart has done, Goldberg said, it has been a hard year with the pandemic and 2020 derecho, as people lost jobs and had to fix damaged homes.
“That’s going to translate into problems for the incumbent,” Goldberg said.
The candidates head into the runoff having nearly emptied their campaign coffers, so they will need to fundraise quickly to spend on advertising and other materials to get out the vote.
Campaign disclosure reports filed Oct. 28, the most recent available, show Andrews had slightly more cash on hand, a total $16,945.10 after spending $164,494.90. O’Donnell reported spending $123,724.21 and had $13,045.79 cash on hand.
Andrews raised about two-thirds of her money from out-of-state donors but had the highest number of contributions from Cedar Rapids. O’Donnell had the highest dollar amount of local contributions. While Hart has not endorsed a successor yet, his campaign had promoted the critical news coverage of Andrews, so if he opts to endorse O’Donnell it may sway additional donors her way.
Overall, the influx of cash in this race exceeded that of the 2017 race for mayor. That year, eight candidates raised $372,763 and spent $254,154. The cash flow in this year’s four campaigns — only three of which raised money — totaled $398,993.63 and spent $361,254.79. Goldberg said it is unusual to see this amount of cash fueling local races.
But city and state races around the country — particularly with the Republican wave of school board candidates, fueled by anti-mask sentiments — are a testing ground for candidates’ messaging on the national stage as mid-term congressional races near. For now, local campaigns from school boards to city councils are the place donors can get the most bang for their buck, Goldberg said.
“That increased funding is being driven by the opportunity that’s present to solve these issues that are getting a ton of attention nationally,” Goldberg said, such as education and policing reform.
'About the issues’
Andrews vowed in a statement that she will run “a clean campaign that will be about the issues,” with a focus on her pillars of community, recovery and economy. Nonetheless, it seems party ties will remain a talking point as she recently suggested O’Donnell represents “conservative status-quo leadership.”
O’Donnell has continued to emphasize nonpartisanship and said last week that she prevailed to go onto the runoff by such a wide margin because “we stayed positive, we kept moving forward and we focused on issues that we heard mattered to Cedar Rapidians.”
Typically with such a short time period leading up to the runoff, candidates stick to what they have been doing so far, Vernon said. There simply isn’t much time to rebrand. But if a candidate feels the messaging hasn’t worked as well as expected, it’s a possibility.
“I think people get really, really sick of the negative, and generally that also can lower turnout. But it also can incite people to vote for or against somebody,” Vernon said. “You never know until you do it. That’s why it’s dangerous to do.”
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