116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Cedar Rapids’ mayoral race has been splashed with the red and blue paint of partisan politics. This should not surprise anyone.
Iowa’s Republican governor recently told the party faithful to treat this fall’s school and municipal elections just like next year’s midterm general election. Progressive Democrats are pushing back, mobilizing their supporters at the local level.
In Cedar Rapids, progressive groups are backing businessperson Amara Andrews, who is running to become the city’s first Black mayor. Conservative voters are more likely to back Republican Tiffany O’Donnell or incumbent Mayor Brad Hart.
Andrews recently launched a fundraising effort tying O’Donnell to Republican politicians pushing the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. There are pictures of Hart and O’Donnell next to images of Donald Trump, Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson. O’Donnell donated $500 to Hinson’s campaign in 2019.
We asked the candidates at The Gazette’s recent mayoral forum about the hard partisan messaging in a race for a nonpartisan job.
O’Donnell argued she’s running because the role is nonpartisan.
“We can be a solutions-based government,” O’Donnell said. “Everyone here that’s running for mayor, everyone on the City Council, is affiliated with a political party. And I really credit our council for doing their work in a nonpartisan way. We are the party of Cedar Rapids and I wholeheartedly embrace that.”
“I’m someone, unlike Miss Andrews, who isn’t beholden to a political party,” said O’Donnell, contending she’s donated money to Democrats as well as Republicans.
“We all are in this to represent everybody,” Andrews said.
“But it’s about the policies and the way we want to move our city forward. My position is I want to move us in a way forward that is progressive. And you have many people who Ms. O’Donnell has supported, for example, who are working very hard to move us backward,” Andrews said, arguing that GOP legislation limiting access to voting and banning some types of diversity training are harmful to Cedar Rapids.
“I would ask Ms. Andrews if she’s ever donated to anyone in the Republican Party.” O’Donnell said.
“And I can say that I have not. Because I don’t typically support those views,” Andrews responded.
Later in the forum, Hart pledged to release information on his campaign donors far ahead of a state disclosure deadline. O’Donnell swiftly matched Hart’s pledge. The move put pressure on Andrews, who her opponents have accused of bankrolling her campaign with outside dollars from progressive groups. She’s used Act Blue, an online fundraising platform that supports Democrats, and has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, a national group which generally backs progressive women.
“It’s important for Cedar Rapidians to know who is supporting each of our candidates,” Hart said.
Hart’s and O’Donnell’s contributor lists read like a who’s who of Cedar Rapids civic and business leaders, the sort of folks who normally open their wallets to successful mayoral campaigns in this town.
Andrews is running as a change agent, pushing to change the city’s focus on development, housing and other efforts to better serve underserved groups. She helped lead the social justice movement marching in 2020 to reform the city’s police department and create a citizens police review board.
Change agents don’t always get support from establishment donors. So the idea she would look to like-minded groups and individuals elsewhere for resources to get her message out isn’t all that surprising. It’s risky, because voters may take a dim view of outside meddling in local races.
That said, Andrews should also release her donors now. Playing it straight is better than playing hide and seek. Besides, Iowa’s law requiring disclosure just a few days before the election does little more than keep voters in the dark.
Also, is it really shocking that a Black progressive woman active in politics wouldn’t donate money to a Republican candidate? Should she donate to GOP lawmakers who make it harder to vote, punish Black Lives Matter protesters or whitewash history taught in public schools? Or maybe throw a few bucks at a governor who signed those bills into law, or a congresswoman who backs similar policies from Washington?
And Andrews’ opponents also have received indirect, unofficial help from conservatives. A Republican political website, the Iowa Field Report, recently ran a piece targeting Andrews’ past financial problems, including a dispute over their Arizona home in 2009 and a $130,000 legal tussle with an Illinois homebuilder in 2014. Andrews and her husband also failed to pay federal taxes in 2010-2011. All of the issues have been resolved.
Note: Andrews did reach a legal settlement with Illinois homebuilder Unique Homes in 2016. But after falling behind on settlement payments, in 2020 a judge ordered that Andrews’ wages be garnished to cover more than $70,000 in payments and legal fees. More details can be found here.
“Kahlil and I came out of graduate school saddled with student loan debt,” Andrews said in a statement. “We were at the beginning of our professional careers with two small kids. We were in the middle of a national housing crisis. I remember not being able to afford a washer/dryer when we moved and having to do our laundry at the laundromat for months. These are the struggles of everyday people. I am not proud about falling behind, but I am proud that we were able to catch up once we got back on our feet.
“We’ve since paid all of our tax obligations. This experience has made us stronger, and I know that many working-class families in Cedar Rapids can relate,” Andrews said.
Partisan politics is nothing new in Cedar Rapids mayoral elections.
Four years ago, Hart argued that Monica Vernon’s runs for Congress and lieutenant governor as a Democrat made her too partisan to serve effectively. Former mayor Ron Corbett was a former GOP speaker of the Iowa House who launched a bid for governor, and his predecessor, Kay Halloran, was a former Democratic state lawmaker. Former mayor Paul Pate was a GOP state senator who went on to run for Iowa secretary of state and governor. Years ago, former mayor Lee Clancey, then a Republican, made political waves by endorsing Al Gore for president in 2000.
So politics has long been a factor in Cedar Rapids city politics, despite its official nonpartisan veneer. Painting this race as somehow unusual is misleading.
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