Government

In Johnson County, special elections bring diversity to leadership

RaQuishia Harrington seated on North Liberty City Council this week

People in the gallery, including Andrew Brown of North Liberty (standing), Shamika Harris of Cedar Rapids (center) and Marie Hancock of Cedar Rapids take photos as RaQuishia Harrington takes the oath of office in the North Liberty City Council chambers on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
People in the gallery, including Andrew Brown of North Liberty (standing), Shamika Harris of Cedar Rapids (center) and Marie Hancock of Cedar Rapids take photos as RaQuishia Harrington takes the oath of office in the North Liberty City Council chambers on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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NORTH LIBERTY — When RaQuishia Harrington was sworn into her seat on the North Liberty City Council earlier this week, she likely became the city’s first African American council member.

Harrington’s campaign did not focus on race, rather that she’s just as knowledgeable and cares the same about her community as any other North Liberty resident. But she said she still understands being both an African American and a woman add more layers to her lived experience, layers that represent those who are often voiceless in communities.

“If I win, let me win because people want to see me here and they look at my track record and know that I really sincerely care about what’s happening. I’m not doing this to say ‘Oh, check mark, I’m the first and the only’ because I’ve been the first and the only in several situations. And we have to get past that,” Harrington said. “ ... I have so much more to me than just that little piece, I can give you some real life stories that maybe you will never experience in your life. But I also know with that I need to use my voice and a platform now to really address those, so I will do that.”

Harrington earlier this month won a special election to fill a vacant council seat, with a term lasting through the end of the year. North Liberty officials said they don’t recall a person of color being on the council until now. Residents have seen multiple special elections in Johnson County in recent months, another for the Board of Supervisors and another for a seat on the Iowa City Council.

All three of those seats were won by candidates who are African American, the first being Bruce Teague, who joined Mazahir Salih, a Sudanese American, as the only people of color on the seven-member Iowa City Council. The second was Royceann Porter, the county’s first African American supervisor.

A number of diversity milestones have been achieved on a national level, including that this year’s freshmen class of U.S. Representatives is the most diverse class ever, according to the Washington Post.

“I think the story is, ‘Why did it take so long?’” Harrington said. “If you look around, and you talk to each one of those individuals, they all can tell you that they helped other people who were not people of color stay in those office seats. We were out campaigning, knocking, making the phone calls calling, walking the parades, doing all that to make sure that they stay in their seats. But it was very rarely asked ‘Why don’t you just run?’”

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Porter said elected officials now see the need for more diversity in representation so they’re doing a better job connecting with potential leaders of color in the community. She said while it can take some grooming to get potential leaders ready and willing, officials are “making waves” when it comes to diversity in Johnson County offices.

“A lot of people we see that’s out here in the community, we’re saying ‘Hey, you can do this,’” Porter said. “The first thing you get is ‘Oh no, not me. I’m not ready for that.’ But they’ve been out here doing the work the whole time.”

Although Johnson County has about 80 percent non-Latino or non-Hispanic white residents, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s been growing in diversity. The largest minority race or ethnicity are those who identify as black or African American at about 7 percent of the population, which is up from nearly 3 percent in the 2000 Census.

Recognizing their communities are becoming more diverse, local entities have undertaken in recent years a number of initiatives to support diversity and equity in the county. In next year’s fiscal budget, the county Board of Supervisors called for the creation of a position that focuses on inclusion and equity.

In addition, the county’s supervisors, cities and mayors have signed a number of statements and resolutions on subjects like welcoming immigrants and condemning intolerance. Iowa City even provides a Social Justice and Racial Equity Grant to boost projects promoting social justice, education and building community, among other roles.

Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton said he’s seen a clear shift in diversity in the local leaders in Johnson County.

“We’ve been very intentional about trying to diversify the membership of our 22 or so boards and commissions,” Throgmorton said. “One of the benefits is that it enables other people who do not come from those communities to get a much better sense of the perspectives, concerns, backgrounds, experiences and so on that shape how people from those other diverse communities think about those particular topics. And it enables us to make better decisions in the end as well.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8308; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

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