116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Several local candidates will win elections in November without having to talk to a single voter.
As in most city council and school board election cycles, some races are uncontested, including one Iowa City Council seat, two Cedar Rapids City Council seats and Coralville mayor. Barring a write-in miracle, lone candidates there are shoo-ins.
Running for local office in Iowa just is not that alluring. And why would it be? The pay is meager or nonexistent, just like the gratitude they get and their ability to influence the process.
Newly elected officials often ride into office with high hopes of exacting meaningful change on the issue they’re passionate about. It can be amusingly quaint to see first-time candidates expound their big ideas about reshaping government and restoring trust in the civic process, modern-day Mr. Smiths going to Washington.
Those illusions evaporate pretty quickly when candidates are elected and hit with the cold reality of new member orientation. They soon find out they won’t be driving the agenda, but mostly just reacting to and signing off on plans that come to them nearly completed.
Elected officials are signing up for a lot of headaches and it’s not clear the public even cares about their work.
It is hired professionals — superintendents, city managers and their deputies — who are really running the show in most jurisdictions. They work with mayors and school board presidents but those aren’t full-time jobs so they don’t get full-time attention.
There is a steep learning curve on the subject matter of cities and school districts. Newcomers spend the first few months acclimating themselves to the process. To really realize your vision, you have to stick around for at least two or three terms, long enough to go through a city manager hiring process and a comprehensive planning cycle or two.
Even a governing body with a majority in favor of bold action will find itself stuck between state law and stubbornly unimaginative city attorneys. Taxes, building regulations, policing and most other facets of local governance are constrained by higher levels of government. The trend in the Iowa Legislature in recent years has been to chip away at local control.
They used to say all politics is local, but now all politics is national. Non-partisan local races are growing increasingly partisan, with party machines and advocacy groups backing slates of candidates.
The contentious issues in council and board chambers seem to be driven not by the grassroots but instead by national media narratives.
Last year local elected officials had racial justice protesters showing up at meetings — and at their homes in some cases — and shouting at them. This year they have anti-mask parents filling school board meetings and shouting at them. I’m not sure if the climate is getting more hostile or if we’re just paying more attention because the divisions fit our preexisting views and we are eager to take sides.
Elected officials are signing up for a lot of headaches and it’s not clear the public even cares about their work. In Linn and Johnson counties over the past three cycles, countywide turnout ranged from 4 percent to about 20 percent.
As the political philosopher Neil Peart said, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
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