116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Monica Vernon is up for election. Again.
The east-side District 2 seat on the Cedar Rapids City Council, which Vernon has occupied for seven years, is on the November 2015 city ballot.
For now, Vernon isn't talking about a next election.
Even so, she looked at the ready in recent days as she fielded questions from a stool at the end of her kitchen countertop — what she called a special place that she says has doubled as her at-home council office and campaign command center.
In the background were friends and campaign supporters from her two unsuccessful election campaigns in 2014 who had converged on the Vernon family's southeast Cedar Rapids home to help mail out holiday cards to some of the new faces a candidate gets to know, win or lose, along the campaign trail.
After campaigning for a year, Vernon came in second among five candidates in the June 2014 Democratic primary in northeast Iowa's 1st Congressional District. The primary race was won by Dubuque state legislator Pat Murphy, who then lost to Republican Rod Blum in the November general election.
Two days after Vernon's primary defeat, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch was on the phone, asking Vernon to run alongside him as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. The Hatch-Vernon ticket lost to incumbent and longtime governor Terry Branstad and his incumbent running mate, Kim Reynolds.
'If everything was about the win or lose column, maybe I would have stayed out of the lieutenant governor's race,' Vernon, 57, said.
'But for me, it wasn't about that. It was about moving forward, about meeting Iowans. It was a great way to carry that banner and take a message all over Iowa on what really matters.'
Vernon laughed when asked if it hurt losing the Congressional primary and then the lieutenant governor's race.
'You can go back to all the Abraham Lincoln things and all the times he lost,' Vernon said. 'You can get online to find all kinds of quotes if you're having (problems with election defeat). You know, 'The journey is more important than the destination.''
Vernon said the offer for her to run for lieutenant governor and the campaign that followed helped her get over the primary loss quickly.
As for the general election, she's come up with her own quotes to sort out the defeat.
'Maybe people think I'm a two-time loser, but I think I'm a big winner,' she said.
'I'm so grateful for having those campaign experiences. …
When you put yourself on the line like that, you meet so many great people, and you face all kinds of things about yourself. It transforms you.'
Vernon said she missed, perhaps, one City Council meeting in a year and a half of campaigning for Congress and for state office while holding down responsibilities as Cedar Rapids mayor pro-tem and as chairwoman of the council's busy Development Committee.
She's particularly proud of the City Council's decision to pass an ordinance a year ago to identify nuisance properties in the city and to coax and then push owners to pay attention to them, look after those they rent to, and to fix the properties up.
Vernon has been a leading voice on the council for so-called 'complete' streets, a policy which now requires the city to make accommodations for pedestrians, bicyclists, trees, and lighting as the city replaces streets.
She has been opposed to widening streets, such as First Avenue, and she has been a fan of the city's move to turn one-way streets to two-ways in and through the downtown and to remove most of the traffic lights there in favor of stop signs.
Vernon was chairwoman of the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization board, which controls about $4 million in federal transportation funds in the metro area, at a time when the Cedar Rapids majority on the board decided to use 80 percent of the funds to enhance the metro area trail system.
Not everyone on the board outside of Cedar Rapids was happy.
Vernon is among council members who pushed for less obtrusive signs on buildings, for putting parking behind new buildings and not in front of them on busy streets, and for mixing uses in buildings so residential units can sit over commercial spaces on lower floors.
She defeated an incumbent in 2007, and seven months later the city's historic flood hit.
Part-time council members became all but full-time ones for a few years.
They oversaw the city's flood recovery, the buyout of some 1,300 properties, the renovation and replacement of housing damaged or lost in the flood, the rebuilding or replacement of major city buildings, and the preparation to build a $570-million flood protection system.
'The flood was a huge moment for us to say, 'What's our vision, what do we want to be as a community?'' Vernon said.
'When we sat down and talked about it, there were so many people hurt, and we said that we can help them now. But we can't take away the flood.
'What we can do is come back better than ever.'
Vernon said she talked little about Cedar Rapids's flood recovery and her role in it as she campaigned for Congress and lieutenant governor. Cedar Rapids flood recovery 'didn't test well,' said Vernon, who ran her own market research firm before selling it to The Gazette Company during her Congressional campaign.
The five-candidate primary for the Democratic spot on the Congressional District ballot focused more on national issues, not local ones. Vernon, too, spent some time explaining her former years as a registered Republican.
And then she had to work to make the case that a city leader not having spent time in the state legislature — what she kiddingly refers to as the 'Golden Dome' of the state capital building — can run for Congress, too.
'When you're serving the state's second-largest city in the state's worst disaster and you've got a great success story, perhaps that translates in a different way,' she said of her attempt to try that theme out beyond Cedar Rapids.
One question for Vernon now is whether someone who has pursued national and statewide office can ever settle back into her role at city hall.
Last week, she seemed capable of that when the City Council approved a modification to its cell tower ordinance in a move that should make the towers more difficult to place close to residential neighborhoods.
Vernon called the measure a 'good compromise' in a world in which cell providers will continue to need more tower capacity.
Vernon, too, spoke in favor of incentives for a proposed six-story development on First Street SW, which mixes retail and residential units with a view of the Cedar River and the downtown.
'To me, you make things happen wherever you can,' Vernon said. 'And the thing is a lot of the campaign rhetoric at any level is about all these big things we're going to do, and those are worthy things.
But wherever you are in life, you make it a better place. It could be repairing somebody's sidewalk or it could be a new cell tower ordinance that is copied by cities across the nation.'
Vernon said she still believes that an overly partisan Congress can learn something from what she said has been an effective, consensus-building, common-sense Cedar Rapids City Council.
'At the local level, we have to move things,' she said.
'We have to make things work. We've built a lot of private-public partnerships. We make a lot of copper wire out of pennies.'
In the next breath, Vernon is talking about the bigger issues, improving education, expanding opportunity, investing in the future.
Some people in their 50s, they sort of give up. I've decided that I have this other chunk of life in me,' she said.
'And I want to spend more time on this government service thing. On improving life.'