116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — As the adage goes, there’s no Democratic or Republican way of filling a pothole — someone must pave it.
But in Cedar Rapids’ Nov. 2 mayoral race, partisan political ties are painting the campaign trail with stripes of red and blue, following a trend seen across the country of national divisions in politics driving a wedge in local elections.
The office of mayor is nonpartisan, but TrueNorth executive Amara Andrews is pushing partisan messaging — billing herself as a progressive Democrat — while others in the four-way race bristle at attempts to be tied to any political party. Instead, they say they are in the race solely to serve Cedar Rapids.
Andrews has run ads and fundraising emails condemning the Republican affiliations of Mayor Brad Hart and challenger Tiffany O’Donnell, chief executive officer of Women Lead Change.
Andrews’ campaign last month sent a fundraising email with images of the two candidates alongside photos of former President Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson and Gov. Kim Reynolds — all Republicans — with a banner below their images that reads, “Not Progressive.” The email said O’Donnell “is a Republican who has donated to and supported the types of politicians who are trying to undermine the integrity of the 2020 election by pushing the Big Lie” that the election was stolen.
In her own campaign, she uses Act Blue, a Democratic online fundraising platform for fundraising. Federal campaign data shows she has used the platform to contribute to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, former U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, former congressional hopeful J.D. Scholten and Beto O’Rourk of Texas, a 2020 presidential candidate.
Locally, she has contributed only to Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, a progressive Democrat who is supporting Andrews’ bid for mayor, and to the Linn Phoenix Club, a group that works to elect Democrats.
“I have said all along: My campaign is about putting people first — people, small businesses, workers — and that is the truth,” Andrews said. “It doesn’t matter what party you belong to, but there are members of certain parties who believe things that are damaging to our community, and that is what I strongly oppose.”
Her political views are an indicator of the policies she would advocate for, Andrews said in an Oct. 6 forum hosted by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and Hawkeye Area Labor Council, and people can judge candidates’ character and decision-making by their party alignment.
“Once you get on council and really in life, this is about coalition-building,” Andrews said. “We find common ground even though we may disagree in our party politics.”
‘Party of Cedar Rapids’
When incumbent Hart won in 2017 in a runoff against Monica Vernon, who had campaigned as a Democrat for Congress and lieutenant governor, he had touted his lack of partisan baggage and commitment to keeping the role of mayor nonpartisan. He has revived the same refrain now.
During a Sept. 30 candidates forum hosted by The Gazette, Hart said, “I want to continue to serve Cedar Rapids and only Cedar Rapids.”
He doubled down on his support for the nonpartisan design of city government later in the Oct. 6 forum. “Our city government is nonpartisan and that’s why we’re effective,” Hart said.
Elected officials sometimes come to City Hall having served in partisan roles. For instance, former Mayor Ron Corbett was a former Republican speaker of the Iowa House and later ran for governor. His predecessor, Kay Halloran, had served as a Democratic state lawmaker. Former Mayor Paul Pate was a Republican state senator and now is Iowa Secretary of State.
Voters do ask Hart about his political views and who he supported for president in the 2020 race, he said. Hart is a registered Republican but tends to hold moderate views on certain issues — supporting mask mandates to curb COVID-19 spread and marijuana legalization, for example.
In the past, he has contributed to campaigns across the political spectrum. State campaign records show he has donated to Hinson as a state House candidate, Democratic state Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt and a number of mostly local candidates for council and school board, including three of his eight other council members — Scott Overland, Ann Poe and Marty Hoeger. On the federal level, he has contributed to Democratic congressional hopefuls Vernon and Swati Dandekar, data shows.
As the incumbent, he argued that he has an asset that should be more revealing to voters: “I have a record. You can look at my record, so you really shouldn’t care as much whether or not I have certain positions at the state or the federal government.”
O’Donnell, also a registered Republican, has shied away from partisan connections. Her campaign sells T-shirts that say, “The Party of Cedar Rapids,” followed by a list of three checked boxes next to the words “Republican,” “Democrat” and “Independent.”
“I’m running in this race because it is nonpartisan,” O’Donnell said during The Gazette’s forum. “I firmly believe that we have an opportunity to show the world how this works. We can be a solutions-based government. … We are the party of Cedar Rapids, and I wholeheartedly embrace that.”
State records show O’Donnell has donated to 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell and to several local campaigns for Walker and council member Ashley Vanorny. She and her husband also contributed to Hart’s 2017 campaign and to Cedar Rapids school board member Jen Neumann. On the federal level, she has contributed only to Hinson, campaign filings show.
“We have to work with people who don’t always agree with us,” O’Donnell said. “We have to lean on elected state and federal officials who we don’t agree with but we need them. And when we throw them under the bus regularly and then want to call them and say we need flood protection support, ‘We need help,’ I think that’s a challenge.”
Andrews told The Gazette partisan ties should not have a bearing on how the city works with state and federal elected officials, who are mostly Republican.
“This is a democracy,” Andrews said. “We have differences, but we are all, if elected, representing our constituents — and that goes for our state electeds as well. We should all be able to put parties aside and make the best decisions for our city, for our state, for our regions.”
After an exchange between Andrews and O’Donnell about their partisan ties during The Gazette’s forum, Quaker Oats employee Myra Colby Bradwell, formerly known as Gregory Hughes, said, “We have two people that are fighting about Democrats and Republicans. This is a Cedar Rapids issue, it’s a nonpartisan issue, yet they’ll want us to talk about whether you’re a Democrat or Republican or whatever. We need to think about Cedar Rapids and the people here.”
Local politics nationalized
State politics has become more nationalized, political science experts told The Gazette, and that has trickled down to the local level.
“The key debate for local government isn't about zoning, or about where should traffic lights be and what should the speed limit be over there, but it's about things like COVID mitigation policies or Black Lives Matter,” said Dave Peterson, a political-science professor at Iowa State University in Ames. “There's not really a partisan difference on zoning or on development and a lot of ways — or at least stark ones.”
Noting the saying that paving roads is not a partisan issue, Megan Goldberg, an assistant professor of American politics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, said that while there are not Democratic and Republican ways to patch a pothole, policy outcomes can perpetuate inequality at the local level.
For a candidate like Andrews, a social justice advocate who would become the first Black mayor of Cedar Rapids, those policies matter locally, Goldberg said.
“They're sort of arguing that actually there are ways to pave roads or build highways or local infrastructure that does perpetuate structural racism, and that is very tied up in partisanship,” Goldberg said.
Peterson said partisan labels can provide helpful information to voters. For instance, Democrats are more likely to support mask mandates, and Republicans may be less supportive of police reforms.
“The choice is a strategic one: Am I likely to attract more voters by telling them this is who I am and you share these preferences than they are to push away because they find the partisan bit a little distasteful?” Peterson said.
“Even if (Andrews) turns off the voters who might have been willing to vote for a more moderate but still sort of left-of-center candidate, that's OK as long as the candidate on the right is drawing away from the middle as well,” Peterson said.
While some may bristle at partisan politics, Goldberg said — even the Framers of the U.S. Constitution did — nonpartisanship isn’t good in and of itself and can pose its own problems for democratic accountability.
“If you have these very pure, nonpartisan elections, but you really don't like the way Cedar Rapids is right now — you're really upset about the roads, or you're upset about zoning — how do you change it?” Goldberg said. “There's not a clear coalition of people in charge that you can easily figure out without knowing a lot about local politics.”
Comments: (319) 398-8494; email@example.com