Government

Fallout from controversial 1999 Cedar Rapids civil rights vote offers lessons for today

Jesse Arenas of Mount Vernon wears on his sleeve how he feels about the topic of sexual-orientation ordinance at the Cedar Rapids City Council meeting held at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School on Dec. 9, 1998. He said that even though he doesn’t live in Cedar Rapids he feels that the vote will effect the whole county. (The Gazette)
Jesse Arenas of Mount Vernon wears on his sleeve how he feels about the topic of sexual-orientation ordinance at the Cedar Rapids City Council meeting held at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School on Dec. 9, 1998. He said that even though he doesn’t live in Cedar Rapids he feels that the vote will effect the whole county. (The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Predictions were extreme — expensive litigation, employers forced to hire or keep bad employees, creating special rights, erosion of morals, pedophile teachers in elementary schools, and workers dressed like “Christmas trees.”

If Cedar Rapids City Council expanded its municipal code in 1999 to discourage discrimination based on sexual orientation in workplaces, housing, education, credit, and public accommodation, it would have dire and lasting repercussions, opponents said at the time. It was unnecessary, and councilors who supported it would pay at the ballot box, they threatened.

Supporters advocated for basic protection of human rights for gays and lesbians.

“It was toxic,” recalled Dale Todd, 61, then Parks Commissioner who last year rejoined the City Council. “There were death threats. There was a concern about security. We had to implement safe guards at city hall. ... It was scary.

“People were so passionate, in particular from the right.”

The ordinance passed 20 years ago this month — a 3-2 vote on Jan. 7, 1999 — following hours of emotional testimony from religious and business leaders on one side and social equality advocates on the other.

Those involved see parallels to today’s political climate where dubious claims and heated rhetoric undercut classes of people, such as immigrants. And policymakers under pressure from an impassioned electorate can get voted out of office for doing what they believe is right and ultimately get judged years later on whether they were on the “right side of history.”

“Twenty years later, the fairness of the decision is obvious, and the predicted bad effects seem laughable,” wrote Bruce Nesmith, a Coe College professor who was involved in the debate. “But we should never forget where we’ve been, and what it took to get here.”

Nesmith, 59, said he was struck by what people were saying at the time and that they believed it. He called attention to the anniversary on Facebook.

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Todd, Public safety Commissioner Nancy Evans and Mayor Lee Clancey voted in favor, while Finance Commissioner Ole Munson and Streets Commissioner Don Thomas opposed. They called it a difficult decision but felt protections already were provided in city code and the city had more urgent matters such as streets.

Matthew Van Maanen, 46, recalled being a closeted gay man in the late 1990s, and how the City Council decision empowered him.

“This vote changed my life,” Van Maanen said. “Because of the bravery of leaders like Lee, Nancy and Dale, I am now out, married, incredibly happy, and leading others in our awesome community. Oh, and I’ve become rather political, too.”

The worst fears of the debate haven’t been realized. The Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission has averaged 1.5 sexual orientation based complaints per year since 2007, and the Human Rights Campaign has given Cedar Rapids a perfect score on its municipal equality index.

“I am in my 19th year of working at this courthouse and I do not recall a single lawsuit based upon sexual orientation brought under this ordinance,” Nick Maybanks, assistant Linn County Attorney, wrote in an email Friday. “I can either assume that any lawsuits brought were settled in the pre-litigation stages, there just hasn’t been many or, somehow, I’ve missed them. I would say through my anecdotal experience at least, that the critics were wrong.”

But the three supportive council members were ousted in the next two elections, with their votes on the civil rights ordinance looming large.

Evans was defeated later that year, while Clancey and Todd survived one more two-year term before being ousted when facing stiffer competition in 2001. Munson also was voted out in 1999, while Thomas served several more terms.

“We were on the right side of history,” Evans said. “I cannot think of a better reason to lose an election. We stood up for civil rights.

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“Plus, on a city council, you do not often have the opportunity to discuss, debate and vote for principles and ideals on that level of importance.”

Ouster was a similar fate that later befell three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were part of a unanimous ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Iowa, in 2009. While Iowa City and Ames had added sexual-orientation protections previously — with much less consternation in those college towns — Cedar Rapids was Iowa’s first larger city to tackle the issue. Efforts to pass such a law in Davenport and Des Moines previously had failed.

“There was publicity of that nationwide because I think we were way ahead of our time,” said Clancey, 69.

Clancey said it seems impossible these conservations continue to occur. She said when the subject first came up, she had no strong feelings either way, until testimony began.

“It was shocking to me to hear some of the arguments being made. Mostly what struck me was the arguments against the ordinance were so based in religion,” she said. “You not only had to believe what they believed, but you had to live what they believed. It really swayed my decision and my vote.

“That’s not how we should be living, and not how we should be treating each other. And you could say that about any controversial issue we dealing with today, whether abortion or civil rights.

“In my mind these issues should be decided in favor of inclusiveness,” Clancey said.

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

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