Time Machine

Time Machine: Iowa's only socialist mayor

But did anyone in University Heights know of their leader's leanings?

David Belgum is shown in 2000. An ordained Lutheran minister, he also was a religion professor in the University of Iowa School of Religion and coordinator of clinical pastoral education in the School of Medicine. He served as mayor of University Heights, a small city surrounded by Iowa City, and later wrote about the experience in “Memoirs of Iowa’s Only Socialist Mayor.”
David Belgum is shown in 2000. An ordained Lutheran minister, he also was a religion professor in the University of Iowa School of Religion and coordinator of clinical pastoral education in the School of Medicine. He served as mayor of University Heights, a small city surrounded by Iowa City, and later wrote about the experience in “Memoirs of Iowa’s Only Socialist Mayor.”
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Did anyone know that David Belgum was a socialist when he was mayor of University Heights, a city of about 1,800 west of Kinnick Stadium and surrounded by Iowa City?

Apparently not. It’s not mentioned in stories before the 1969 election. It’s not mentioned in the minutes of University Heights City Council meetings.

The first time it came up in was in a book Belgum wrote in 1990, “Memoirs of Iowa’s Only Socialist Mayor” (Rose of Sharon Publishing House).

In the book, Belgum provides a humorous account of his years as a Lutheran pastor and his six years as University Heights mayor, from 1970 to 1976. He also wrote about his efforts to keep church and state matters separated.

First socialist mayor

As it turns out, Belgum may have been Iowa’s only socialist mayor in the 1970s — albeit a low-key one — but he wasn’t the state’s first.

In 1921, Davenport elected a socialist mayor, Dr. C.L. Barewald, and five socialist council members. Their main support came from the German community put off by the Democratic Party’s pro-war stance and the anti-German sentiment that followed World War I. They also opposed the Republican Party’s support of Prohibition. That left the socialists.

Barewald withdrew from the Socialist Party shortly after he was elected, claiming he “had no cooperation from his socialist councilmen and that they have permitted their radical ideas to interfere with the welfare of the city,” according to a Jan. 7, 1921, story in the Waterloo Evening Courier and Reporter.

Preacher & politician

Belgum was raised in Driscoll, N.D., and ordained a Lutheran pastor in Kenosha, Wis., in 1946. His father, the Rev. Anton H. Belgum, was there for the ceremony.

He graduated from the University of Minnesota, Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary in Minneapolis and Boston University, where he earned his doctorate in the psychology of religion.

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Belgum served pastorates in Minneapolis and Boston before he became an associate theology professor at Northwestern in 1955.

An interdenominational group of Cedar Rapids-area pastors brought Belgum to Iowa for a seven-month series of seminars on pastoral counseling in 1959. He returned to Iowa in 1964 to lead the pastoral care institute at the University of Iowa.

His turn

After searching for a house for his family — Belgum, his wife, Kathie, and three children — decided to build one on a lot in University Heights. They didn’t know the community existed until they bought land there.

By 1968, Belgum had written six books and was a professor in the UI School of Religion and coordinator of clinical pastoral education in the School of Medicine.

On Oct. 1, 1969, he took out nomination papers to run for mayor of University Heights.

His reasoning? “Since ... no one else has offered to serve in this capacity, I decided to make myself available. In a community of our size, neighbors take turns in sharing civic responsibilities.”

The election was Nov. 4. Belgum received 149 of 241 votes cast and was sworn in Jan. 1, 1970. He would be re-elected in 1972 and 1974. The elections were non-partisan, so his name did not appear on the ballot with a political party listed.

Sidewalks and weeds

One issue during the mayor’s first term involved the city’s sidewalks. When the council wanted to put sidewalks where there weren’t any in 1971, the voters said no.

Then, in 1973, the city proposed plowing snow from the sidewalks as well as from the streets. Belgum said the major consideration was safety.

Citizens, however, protested, saying the city’s sidewalk plow chipped their walks and made ruts in their property. The idea was abandoned.

Another dust-up happened when the “contractor’s special” grass seeding resulted in some ugly weeds on parking strips. In response to protests, Belgum and the council suggested residents undertake a civic project and reseed the weedy areas.

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At one heated public hearing, the mayor discovered an irate citizen had sprayed a creosote-based compound on the Belgums’ garden.

His reaction, according to his “Memoirs,” was, “I had made it as a radical reformer. I had at last been put upon. Could someone have discovered the then supposedly secret fact that I was Iowa’s only socialist mayor?”

Iowa City charges

One major issue involved Iowa City.

Since 1966, University Heights had purchased sewer, fire and police services from Iowa City for about $80,000 a year.

In 1973, Iowa City began pushing to raise the bill to $176,000, a percentage of what it cost Iowa City to provide the services rather than a percentage of University Heights tax revenues. Negotiations began.

In September 1976, Belgum announced he would not seek re-election to a fourth term, adding his decision was not influenced by the ongoing contract negotiations with Iowa City.

Supervisors

Belgum continued his work with the UI, retiring in December 1987.

Six months later, he decided to run for the Johnson County Board of Supervisors — as a Democrat. He didn’t win that election, but he went on to become pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in West Branch. He retired from there in 1994.

Belgum died April 12, 2007, at age 84.

• Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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