CEDAR RAPIDS — As Cedar Rapids this fall faced one flood scare after another, the gravity of Brad Hart’s new role as mayor of the city sank in.
He would be home at 8 or 9 p.m. and couldn’t sit still. He’d drive downtown, stand on one of the bridges over the Cedar River and look at the water level measurement. Then he’d drive along First Street to see the height of the river.
“That part is different,” Hart said during an interview earlier this month. “I’ve always loved the city, but that part is different — the concern I have for pretty much everything that happens now.”
Hart, 62, a business lawyer for the Bradley and Riley Law Firm, is at the end of his first year of a four-year term as mayor of Iowa’s second-largest city.
In his first year, he has felt the highs of securing long-sought federal aid for flood protection, helping outline a financing plan to pay for the rest of the system and landing one of the biggest private investments in the city’s history — a $50 million redevelopment of the Guaranty Bank Building area downtown.
But he also has had to contend this year with three flooding threats, the “newbo evolve” debacle, the media spotlight and the loss of his father.
Hart emerged in last year’s municipal elections from a crowded field of eight candidates seeking to replace Ron Corbett, a former speaker of the Iowa House who briefly ran for governor instead of seeking a third term as mayor. Hart defeated Monica Vernon in a runoff to claim the seat.
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“It was not an easy task to follow Ron Corbett — a proven leader, a former speaker of the House,” said Ann Poe, a Cedar Rapids City Council member who has served with both men. “He’s done a good job bringing together a council team — we have five new members — and all of our diverse interests. He’s not going to learn the position overnight. It takes time to learn the ins and outs of our city team. I think he’s done a nice job ... I think he had a successful year.”
The mayor is one of nine voting members of the council. The part-time post pays $36,771 annually.
Hart came in having never run for or held elected office, although he had lobbied in Washington and Des Moines as chairman of the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce. While Hart is registered as a Republican, he has not been outwardly partisan. The office had been held by established politicians for at least the past 16 years.
Getting a handle on city processes and preparing for meetings has been time-consuming, but his learning curve was no steeper because of his lack of political experience, he said.
“I really don’t think there’s a benefit of being a politician to serve in this role,” Hart said.
“The learning curve has required more time for me,” he said. “It hasn’t been harder. It’s just taken more time because I want to make sure I understand the issues. And I want to always do it right. I am not always going to do it right, but I want to always do it right.”
A lack of political background — a question mark for some during the election — may have helped in one of the biggest successes of the year: securing federal aid 10 years after the devastating 2008 flood.
One of Hart’s first big responsibilities was meeting with President Donald Trump and his senior leadership team in February to lobby for flood protection. Hart told Trump directly about Cedar Rapids’ challenges with the funding process, to which Trump told him, “I’m going to fix that.”
“I do think not being a politician has helped, or at least it didn’t hurt in any way,” Hart said. “Because Congressman (Rod) Blum was up for re-election and Cedar Rapids was the biggest city in the district … if a strong Democrat was in this position — even though it is non-partisan — I don’t know what would have happened. A lot of things just fell into place.”
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In July, Cedar Rapids learned it had been awarded $76 million in federal aid and another $41 million as a low interest loan. Meanwhile, city leaders developed a $264 million financing plan to be paid for through tax increases to cover much of the remaining gap for the $750 million, 20 year flood system.
“The home run he had was getting the federal government to provide federal aid. And because of that, the city is really able to move forward in an earnest way,” Corbett said.
Hart agreed flood protection was a major accomplishment, but some luck was involved with the timing in the run-up to the midterm congressional elections.
Hart points to the creation of a mayor’s youth council and increasing participation in boards and commissions by 35 percent as two places he personally has left his mark.
Hart also spurred the reinstatement of the Affordable Housing Commission and supported moving forward with a process to decide the future of the property known as First and First West on the west side of the river, which had been reserved for a casino had the state approved one.
Hart said struggles with “the press” were among his biggest surprises.
He has been critical of The Gazette, in particular, for coverage of the aftermath of newbo evolve, a three-day summer festival that lost $2.3 million. Among other fallout, the failure prompted the folding of GO Cedar Rapids, the tourism bureau that produced the event. GO Cedar Rapids largely was funded by public money approved by the city, but was a separate entity run by an independent board of directors.
“Dealing with the press has been surprising and disappointing,” Hart said. “My deal is I am going to be part of it when I think we are being treated fairly, and when I don’t think we are being treated fairly I am going to pull back.”
Hart and others faced criticism for closed-door city meetings in which the fate of the tourism organization was sealed, and not settling the $800,000 debt still owed to newbo evolve vendors. Hart recruited his former campaign chairman, finance executive Jim Haddad, to chart a path forward for GO Cedar Rapids. But a future for it was not to be.
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In the interview this month, Hart stood by the city’s handling of the fallout. For one thing, the city shouldn’t be blamed, he noted, because if the city had run the event it would not have failed. And for another, the public would not have supported using tax money to cover the festival’s losses.
“It was going to be a mark on the city, but it didn’t need to be a mark on city government,” he said.
Hart also made news after his comments riled John Waters, an acclaimed filmmaker and one of the celebrity speakers at newbo evolve. In a television interview, Hart shrugged off critical comments about the city by Waters, who was among those still owed money — prompting another angry response.
The fracas didn’t sit well with everyone.
“He definitely stepped up to the plate advancing flood control for the city. I would definitely give him high marks there,” said Brent Oleson, a Linn County supervisor who has had a rocky relationship with Hart this year. “SET Task Force (to address gun violence) and GO Cedar Rapids are two areas he was not such a great batter. I don’t know if he should have gotten as involved as he did, or let his staff get as involved. That is one where getting into a public spat with a world-renowned actor is probably not the best step forward for Cedar Rapids.”
While the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities — or SET — plan took longer than Hart said he would have liked, he worked closely with county supervisors to create a $150,000 a year grant program to carry forward recommendations of the task force created to address systemic causes of youth violence.
Kris Gulick, a former three-term City Council member who ran against Hart for mayor, said that in addition to seeing the progress on flood protection, he was pleased to see Hart carry on initiatives started by previous councils — such as launching a bike share, continuing pro-development momentum and starting the Neighborhood Finance Corp., a funding tool to help stabilize deteriorating neighborhoods.
And Hart has done a good job handling the ups and downs someone in public office faces, he said.
Gulick said he expects to see Hart more fully embrace his personal priorities in the coming year.
Looking ahead, Hart foresees prioritizing single-family housing, particularly along the Highway 100 extension. Cedar Rapids has been losing out to neighboring communities on this front for years, he said. He also hopes to focus on uses for 130 acres of green space along the Cedar River and develop better working relationships with leaders in other agencies like the county, which is being asked to chip in on the flood protection system.
“I’ve known Brad for a long time and I knew what to expect,” Gulick said. “He is a very passionate individual about things he cares about, and that may not always come out. But I know that is the case, and that is important to me as a citizen.”
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