116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Amara Andrews, Myra Colby Bradwell, Brad Hart and Tiffany O’Donnell are running for mayor of Cedar Rapids. ► Get to know the other candidates
Name: Amara Andrews
Office sought: Cedar Rapids mayor
Age: 46 (born Feb. 7, 1975)
Occupation: Director of strategic communications and business development for the transportation division at TrueNorth Companies
Campaign website: amara4cr.com
Have you held office before? No
Personal bio: Amara Andrews is a mother, businesswoman, and community leader. She has lived and worked in Cedar Rapids with her family for nearly 10 years. Amara is currently the head of business development and communications for the transportation division of TrueNorth Companies in Cedar Rapids. Her husband Kahlil is a surgeon who operates a small private practice in the Corridor. They have four kids: Amanda, Tyler, Aidan, and Hope. Amara has served on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of Cedar Rapids and currently serves as president of the board for The Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success and vice president of the board for the Advocates for Social Justice.
After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Amara went on to receive a law degree from the UCLA School of Law. Amara is passionate about community and believes Cedar Rapids is a place where all people can thrive.
Why are you running for city office?
I am running for office because I believe the people of this great city are ready for a change, and quite honestly, they deserve better leadership. From the botched pandemic response, to the failure of leadership over the summer of change, to the utter disappointment that was the derecho response, we can and we must do better. I’ve been a public school teacher in the inner city, I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector to help close the achievement gap for Latinx students, I’ve run an incubator program for entrepreneurs at the University of Illinois, and I currently serve as a leader in one of the largest homegrown businesses in the city. My husband owns a small business right here in the Corridor. I have lived in large cities, and smaller towns. I have seen what it takes to run a good city. I would bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the mayor’s office. Cedar Rapids needs a vision and new energy, and I have what it takes to move this city in the direction of progress.
How do you rate the city’s current performance? What areas are going well, and what could be improved?
I think most residents would agree that the city is underperforming, particularly in areas relating to the pandemic response, derecho recovery, and the pace at which flood mitigation construction is happening. In addition, I think the city has a rather myopic approach to economic development, too often relying on the outdated model of attracting “the big fish,” so to speak, with massive tax giveaways, when we should balance our development efforts by offering more supports for homegrown small businesses and nurturing our growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. With that said, I do believe that the city has come to better understand the role it must play in addressing broader social issues like housing, climate change, and systemic inequity. While it has been a long journey, the city is at least beginning to understand how all of this fits together, and how the solutions to any one problem can connect to the solutions of another. This takes vision. This takes courage. This takes leadership.
What are the three largest issues facing the community and what will you do to address them?
Broadly speaking, the biggest issue and coincidentally, the biggest opportunity for this city lies in recovery, and we have three major events from which to recover: major floods, the global coronavirus pandemic, and the devastating derecho.
We need to speed up flood recovery and mitigation efforts and ensure that those efforts are equitable, which means providing for timely, adequate protection for the west side of the city. We need to revisit the financing plan for these flood mitigation projects to find additional sources of capital and work with our partners at the state and federal level to tell a bigger story of what recovery can look like. It is not enough to build a wall; we must seek to build bridges of economic opportunity by casting a new vision of what a vibrant city center can look like; one buoyed by a fully developed river walk. There are models around the state to learn from, with one of the better examples being Des Moines, which in under a decade transformed its downtown into a thriving cosmopolitan environment by taking advantage of its waterways.
Finishing the job of derecho recovery means going the extra mile to make homes and businesses that were damaged or destroyed whole. We can do this by expanding the PATCH program and making grants to other community aid programs and economic development initiatives. And again, we cannot leave anyone or any neighborhood behind. Our efforts must serve all people and all aspects of the community. If we can do recovery right — which means doing it equitably and innovatively — mirroring the way we did it after the flood of 2008, which catapulted the revitalization of the NewBo neighborhood, we will undoubtedly begin to realize enormous growth opportunities across the city.
Lastly, we have to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and distribution of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. We need to continually monitor and communicate with the public about the impact the virus is having on our community and hospital systems. Timely information will allow us to make meaningful decisions and advise the people of Cedar Rapids. As the city prepares to receive $28 million in ARPA funds, we must exercise transparency and prioritize the needs of families, small businesses and nonprofits.
What do you see as priorities when it comes to the city’s economic development? What areas do you think the city has the potential to grow in? What are most at risk? What would you do about it?
I’ve talked about the way we currently do economic development in our city. It is an outdated model, a relic from a bygone era where the name of the game was doling out tax incentives to attract the biggest fish. This can no longer be the predominant tool of development, because it is not always the most efficient use of our taxpayer dollars. Our economy is more fluid than ever, which means industries change. When you rely on one or two major companies that are tethered to one or two industries, then the economic success and long term viability of the community is tied to those companies also. Companies fail, they move, they downsize, they pivot, they get bought out, they change. With that said, our approach has to be multifaceted, and we need to be more thoughtful about how we supplement development.
Skilled manufacturing is on fire right now, and that is a good thing, because it has a long runway of growth opportunity. We continue to see the retail industry faltering as more goods are purchased online, and smaller shops are either bought out or shuttered due to waning demand. The core of our economic development strategy should be small business growth and strategic opportunities for the development of human capital, meaning job training and retraining, affordable child care options, equitable housing, and strong neighborhoods. No industry can grow until we solve the workforce issues we’re experiencing, and when you really dig into the problem, you discover its not that we lack workers, but rather we lack acceptable working environments. Workers need child care, training opportunities, living wages, and good neighborhoods. This all must be part of our economic development strategy.
In addition, we must move toward building a greener economy. Our economic development strategy needs to contemplate the development and adoption of sustainable technologies. This will increase jobs, grow our workforce of skilled laborers, benefit the environment and foster growth.
How should the city facilitate more affordable housing options for buyers and renters?
The city has actually done a decent job of subsidizing affordable housing with its existing housing stock. The issue is:, it needs to do more and it needs to work harder to reduce barriers to entry. One of the ways to do this is to invest in transitional housing models for individuals who might struggle to access even our affordable housing options. There are community organizations that can be helpful with this work like Affordable Housing Network (AHNI) and others, but AHNI undoubtedly would need increased funding.
We should also require all new multifamily residential housing developments to make a certain percentage of its stock accessible to low-income families, and incentivize an increase in this percentage by providing more property tax relief to responsible developers. The city should also send a clear message to predatory landlords by revoking their license after credible reports of predatory practices. By doing this we will effectively reward good behavior, and discourage the bad. Finally, we should bolster the First Time Homebuyer program by increasing its funding and making it easier to access.
If you were forced to cut the city’s budget, how would you approach these reductions? What areas would you look to for savings and why?
Budget reductions must always be done with careful input from department heads and managers, the general public, and with the advice and guidance of our budget and finance team. And although state law requires that these meetings be public whenever a quorum of electeds are discussing city business, we should increase our efforts to get the word out if this situation ever arises. It is hard to deal in this type of hypothetical because there are so many variables that can go into how to find savings and where to look first. With that said, the most important job of any elected official is to keep the people safe, so I can assure you that our line items dedicated to public safety — especially the police and fire departments — would be among the last to even be considered for budget reductions.
The city and Linn County Emergency Management each completed after-action reviews of their respective derecho response. Should the groups work together to develop a regional plan? What other improvements need to be made to the emergency response plan and what will you do to advance the conversation?
The city and Linn County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) must work together on emergency preparedness and response, and in fact they already do. City and county officials gather routinely at the Emergency Operations Center to engage in disaster drills. In addition, every city mayor in Linn County is entitled to serve on the Linn County Emergency Management Commission, which is the governing body of the EMA.
While I understand the need for each entity — the city and EMA — to perform self-examinations, I was glad to learn of the effort spearheaded by the Linn County Board of Supervisors to bring all major stakeholders together for a more comprehensive review of not only the immediate derecho response effort, but the more complex effort of recovery. While both existing reports point to the need for better communication between government entities, and detail more internal areas of opportunity, one critical aspect that was not addressed in either report was leadership. Mayor Hart failed to rise to the occasion and provide the necessary leadership when Cedar Rapidians needed it the most, and you can’t teach leadership in an emergency response plan.
And thus, the way we advance the conversation is through leadership. We need a leader who can bring all community partners together, who understands the urgency around effective disaster response; a leader who knows when to ask for help when the people need it.
The city recently unveiled its climate action plan. Do you support the plan and the idea of net zero carbon emissions by 2050? Are there other things you’d like to see the city do to address climate change?
I support the climate action plan, and have been the most outspoken supporter of aggressive climate action of the mayoral candidates. This is why I have been endorsed by the Sunrise Movement. I wholeheartedly believe that the science is clear: human beings and greenhouse gas carbon emissions are impacting the earth’s climate, and I am willing to say that on record which is something I have not heard from my opponents. In addition to what has been released, the city must go big on communicating the significance of climate action to our residents, showing them how climate change can have a real impact on their daily lives, and threatens the sustainability of our planet for future generations. Just like speed cameras change behavior — which in turn, saves lives — having a working knowledge of climate change and its impacts will change the behavior of many of our residents. Another structural change that isn’t talked about enough is how unwalkable and unbikeable our city is. While improvements have been made over time to our trail system, navigating our city without a vehicle is hard. If we were more thoughtful about city planning and development when it comes to walkability and bikeability, we would not only reduce our carbon footprint, but we would be modeling healthy habits for our youth. Lastly, we need to appoint stewards of the climate action plan to ensure that we are meeting milestones and making adequate progress toward realizing the primary objectives of the plan.
What should the city’s state legislative priorities be and how would you help advocate for them?
I must acknowledge here that there are likely scores of legislative priorities passed down to our policymakers in the General Assembly every year, ranging from small changes in the law, to changes with sweeping impact. From what I’ve gathered being out on the doors throughout this campaign is that residents of Cedar Rapids want the state legislature to do the following:
Restore local control so that local governments can make decisions that work best for their communities. Specifically, revoke the slate of bills banning diversity training, restricting what can be taught in schools, and criminalizing acts of protesters.
Work with our city to help us procure additional funding for flood mitigation efforts so that the process can be sped up.
Provide funding for derecho recovery efforts given that Cedar Rapids was hit the hardest by the storm.
Provide funding for more innovative affordable housing solutions.
Property tax relief.
Are there quality of life improvements that could be made in the city? What are they and how would you fund them?
Our quality of life would be greatly increased with a robust, environmentally sound public transportation system, walkable communities and more public garden spaces. I think about all of the public gardens I’ve been to across the country, the sculpture parks, the outdoor theaters, the restaurants “on the river.” All of these things and more can become a reality for our community. With that said, I do believe that Cedar Rapids has an incredible amount of potential to increase its quality of life attractions. We are only limited by our imagination, and now is the time for us to dream big, given all of the federal stimulus funding pouring in to help get our economy restarted. Quality of life improvements should also be funded by major corporations that have received taxpayer-funded incentives to locate or expand within our city. If we leverage these two funding sources wisely, it is possible to pay for these additions without having to increase the tax levy rate.
What steps should the city/city council take to address gun violence?
The problem of gun violence in CR is serious, and addressing this issue is complex. The current Group Violence Intervention (GVI) methodology is a data-driven approach that has been endorsed by major community stakeholders including our Police Department. While the primary objective of GVI aims to reduce violence among younger populations, its tenets can be applied across broader demographics. Reducing gun violence however is not solely the task of law enforcement or any one community organization. Addressing this incredibly vexing issue requires a comprehensive approach that unironically centers on economic opportunity and the question of who has access to economic opportunity, and who doesn’t. When we ask this question, we quickly confirm that the more access to economic opportunity and upward social mobility one has, the less likely they are to engage in violent behavior. How often do you read that a professor, lawyer or business person was involved in an early morning shooting? This is not to suggest that credentialed and/or affluent individuals never commit violent acts, but it does suggest that when people are afforded real opportunities to participate and advance in society, to live lives of dignity with hope and meaning, they are less likely to engage in violent behavior. As we seek the necessary systemic change to bring about this access to economic opportunity and upward mobility, we will simultaneously be working to help all people realize the American dream.