Government

Cedar Rapids leaders bristle at supervisors' role in city elections

Democratic supervisors endorse candidate taking on a city incumbent

Council member Scott Overland (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Council member Scott Overland (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Months from Election Day, Linn County supervisors and other Democratic politicians are pushing a couple of candidates for the Cedar Rapids City Council, prompting concerns about their involvement and partisan politics entering what is supposed to be a nonpartisan body.

“This isn’t about Sofia Mehaffey,” Dale Todd, a District 3 City Council member, said of the challenger for the District 2 seat. “I don’t want to shortchange an African-American woman running for office. But in terms of the involvement of the Board of Supervisors in city elections, from my 30 years of being involved in city politics, it’s unprecedented and in my mind unproductive … How do you sit across the table and negotiate in good faith when you know politically they put a hit on you and actively worked to unseat you?”

The two governmental bodies have butted heads on several topics recently, including how best to tackle recommendations from a community task force on youth violence. Supervisors have held they are not at the table early on in city projects affecting the county, though city leaders have provided evidence, in some cases, to suggest otherwise.

Their involvement in the election “muddies the water and complicates things when we are trying to cultivate a working relationship,” Todd said. He opposes council members endorsing in city races for the same reasons, he said.

Mehaffey, 34, a Horizons family services executive challenging incumbent Scott Overland, 55, and Pat Loeffler, 52, a union leader vying for one of two at-large council seats, have gained endorsements from all three supervisors, who are all Democrats, and several local Democratic state lawmakers. District 2 is made up of portions of the northeast and southeast quadrants.

Election Day for city elections is Nov. 5.

Supervisor Stacey Walker disputes that his campaigning for a candidate will damage relationships between the two governments.

“That’s a non-issue,” Walker said. “Our elected leaders are mature enough to work with whomever the public trusts to do the job. We leave it all on the campaign trail and get to work once the votes have been canvassed.”

Concern has centered mostly on Mehaffey.

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J.D. Scholten, who unsuccessfully sought to oust U.S. Rep. Steve King from Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, and Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers were featured at a fundraiser for her last month. Linn County Democrats promoted her campaign announcement event, and her Facebook page features endorsement statements from the three supervisors.

It has caught the attention of city leaders.

“We have our own form of government,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said. “They are partisan and we are not, and if a political party is working hard to get a candidate in office, I would always be concerned that candidate would potentially owe something to the political party. I would hope that never happens in city government.”

Overland had concerns about a lineup of elected officials from one party endorsing a candidate from the same party, but said it remains to be seen what impact it would have. Either way, he said he isn’t “losing sleep.”

“Our form of government was set up as nonpartisan in 2005, and I think that is the reason we’ve been so successful,” Overland said.

Council member Scott Olson also suggested the partisan tone could be problematic and the council, which has Republicans and Democrats, work hard to leave their leanings on the sidelines.

“My concern is when you enter the partisan environment, issues get bogged down and it makes it more difficult to get things accomplished,” Olson said.

Mehaffey said she decided to run in consultation with her family after years of being engaged in the community on several fronts, and said her political leanings would not come into play if elected.

“This is a nonpartisan seat, but pretty much any candidate coming into it is going to have some involvement in politics before trying to become part of the process,” Mehaffey said. “I plan to represent all people. Not just Democrats.”

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Supervisors also dismiss the notion that partisanship in elections is a new thing. The Cedar Rapids City Council has a long history of partisan players and endorsements, they said.

Former Mayor Ron Corbett had been the Republican speaker of the Iowa House and short-lived candidate for governor as a Republican. Current council member Tyler Olson was the Iowa Democratic Party chairman, a former lawmaker and briefly a candidate for governor before getting elected with numerous Democratic endorsements, including Rogers.

Former council member Monica Vernon, who sought the Democratic nomination for several offices, earned several endorsements from Democratic elected officials during her mayoral run in 2017. Hart, who won that race, received the backing of several City Council members and hired Victory Enterprises, a strategic consulting firm popular among Republican campaigns.

Overland, years ago, was a member of the Linn Eagles, a group devoted to getting Republicans elected, but is now registered as “no party.”

“No new ground is being broken here,” Supervisor Brent Oleson said.

A certain amount of activism is involved in “pushing the community forward,” Oleson said, and he is interested in expanding the diversity of the cadre of candidates seeking office. But he said he is not aware of any coordinated effort to try to stack the council.

The supervisors have had a lengthy relationship with Loeffler and Mehaffey, who have also supported their campaigns in the past. Rogers said he has known Mehaffey for years and considers her a close friend.

“I generally try to stay out of races, but when a friend who’s been passionate about the place she lives is running, I chose not to sit this one out,” Rogers said. “City councils are nonpartisan by state code. That doesn’t mean you can’t have political views or be supported by people with partisan views ... A pothole is a pothole whether a Democrat or Republican is filling it.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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