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Tiffany O’Donnell will be only City Council newcomer once sworn in as Cedar Rapids mayor
‘I look forward to being a new voice that can bring a new perspective,’ O’Donnell says
CEDAR RAPIDS — When Tiffany O’Donnell’s four-year term as Cedar Rapids mayor starts Jan. 1, she will be the only newcomer on the nine-member City Council that shapes the policy direction of Iowa’s second-largest city.
Four of O’Donnell’s soon-to-be colleagues were reelected to their seats Nov. 2, and the other four seats are not on the ballot again until fall 2023. Several current council members started together in 2018 after some incumbents opted not to seek re-election, opening their seats to a bevy of new leaders.
After O’Donnell hugged supporters and posed for photos at her watch party Tuesday night at Lucky’s on Sixteenth to celebrate her runoff election victory over rival Amara Andrews, she told The Gazette job one will be to get to know the eight other elected officials she will work with for the next four years and determine where their priorities align.
O’Donnell campaigned on finishing derecho cleanup, fixing city streets and accelerating flood control work on both sides of the Cedar River. She also has centered leaning on the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem for the recruitment and retention of workers and businesses, as well as creating a more vibrant urban core surrounded by unique neighborhoods.
“Up until now, I’ve been on the outside and I look forward to being on the inside where I can really dig deeper into where we are as it relates to my priorities,” O’Donnell said. “ … I’m anxious to hear (the council’s) thoughts about where we are and where they want to go.”
She will come into office with an elected team that has shaped the city’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 derecho, and helped identify new funding streams for the city’s $750 million permanent flood control system.
But O’Donnell sees being the newcomer as an asset — a lens in City Hall that will help her ask new questions and view things differently
“I really appreciate and value the team dynamic of our City Council,” O’Donnell said. “I look forward to being a new voice that can bring a new perspective. I likened the last eight months to almost doing a 360 (degree) review on our city government. I’ve learned a lot and I’m anxious to share that with council and staff.”
O’Donnell, chief executive officer of Women Lead Change, secured her spot to serve in the city’s top elected role with 68 percent of the ballots cast, or 13,479 votes. She carried all precincts except for Precinct 17 covering northeast Cedar Rapids around Coe College and Mount Mercy University and Precinct 35 encompassing the NewBo and Czech Village areas.
Andrews, a TrueNorth employee, received 6,358 votes, according to unofficial results. The Linn County Board of Supervisors will canvass results Thursday.
Turnout did not far exceed that of the 2017 runoff when incumbent Mayor Brad Hart defeated former council member Monica Vernon. In that election, 17,594 of the city’s 87,126 registered voters cast ballots for a turnout rate of about 20.19 percent. Turnout was slightly higher at 21.43 percent in Tuesday’s race, with 19,893 of 92,832 registered voters casting ballots.
O’Donnell also was the top vote-getter Nov. 2, when she and Andrews boxed Hart out of a second term, which O’Donnell said was humbling and “speaks to the city’s appreciation of a positive, forward looking, nonpartisan campaign.”
“I’ve also been incredibly inspired by the desire of so many people I’ve talked to to make Cedar Rapids better than even it is today,” O’Donnell said. “I think there is an optimism and an enthusiasm I haven’t seen in a long time, and I think it’s my job as mayor to really harness that and see how far we can take it.”
What’s next for Andrews?
As the saying goes in activist circles, it’s a movement, not a moment. While Andrews said in an interview Wednesday she isn’t sure exactly what’s next and did not rule out the possibility of running again for council in the future, she assured supporters her loss would not be the end.
“I won’t be the mayor,” Andrews said. “I will lead in other ways in this city and that’s something I certainly am committed to doing and I’m committed to making it a better place for all those in Cedar Rapids.”
Andrews, the vice president of the Advocates for Social Justice, which successfully pushed the city to create a citizens’ police review board after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, said it is important to keep advocating for progress.
On the campaign trail, Andrews said she met so many people who are willing to work hard, help those who are less fortunate and advance conversations surrounding equity, social justice and uplifting people, workers and nonprofits.
“We have to continue to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised, we have to fight for those who are less fortunate — those whose voices have been less silenced,” Andrews said.
In hindsight, Andrews said her campaign did have some missteps with the Iowa Voter Info political action committee mailer targeting O’Donnell for being a Republican, which is being investigated for ethics issues, and with communication of a legal dispute over a home she and her husband had built in Illinois about a decade ago.
With the legal dispute, Andrews said she could have gotten ahead of it surfacing through opposition research and told the story herself at the outset to so “the truth would not have been misconstrued in the way that it was.”
“I would certainly not make mistakes If I could rewind the clock, but I would still proudly run on a progressive platform,” Andrews said.
Andrews was scrutinized for bringing partisan politics into the campaign for nonpartisan office, as she took aim at O’Donnell, a registered Republican, for her “conservative values.”
With almost one-third of voters backing Andrews, O’Donnell said she hopes to build bridges and show residents she will wake up every morning ready to do her best to make Cedar Rapids the best place it can be.
“It’s important for people to know that it’s not about me anymore,” O’Donnell said. “It’s about Cedar Rapids, and that’s how I view this role. If you thought you saw me a lot as a candidate, you’re going to see me even more as mayor.”
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