On to the final two in Cedar Rapids mayoral race

Cedar Rapids mayoral candidate Monica Vernon thanks supporters during a watch party at Iowa Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. Vernon will run in the December run-off after receiving 30 percent of the vote. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

In the race to pick Cedar Rapids’ next mayor, Monica Vernon and Brad Hart won the right Tuesday to face each other in overtime on the frozen tundra of a December runoff vote. Buckle up. Bundle up.

In an eight-candidate field, Vernon, a former City Council member, grabbed 30 percent of the vote. Hart, a business attorney, received 20.37 percent, edging Council member Scott Olson by just 64 votes, or 1.4 votes per precinct, according to unofficial results.

A Dec. 5 runoff vote will decide the winner, which means nearly an extra month of campaign action. The eight-person race largely was quiet and civil, like a long symposium on urban issues. A condensed, one-on-one tilt for all the marbles may be a different story.

“We will try to stick to the issues. I just think at this point there’s going to have to be a difference,” Hart told me Wednesday morning.

“And I’ve got to believe Monica is viewed more as a partisan politician. And I certainly shouldn’t be viewed as partisan nor as a politician. And I think that fits well with a part-time, non-partisan mayor’s role in Cedar Rapids,” Hart said.

Hart is a registered Republican who has donated to candidates on both sides of the aisle over the years and has “never, ever voted straight-ticket.” He briefly switched parties. he said, to vote for Vernon in the 1st District Democratic congressional primary in 2014.

“I think I can go to Des Moines and D.C. if we need to and just be viewed as an advocate for Cedar Rapids without any baggage,” Hart said.

“I wouldn’t do this if it were partisan. I’m not going to kowtow to either party. They’re both kind of crazy right now,” Hart said.

Vernon left the Republican Party in 2009 and ran for Congress twice as a Democrat, in 2014 and 2016. She lost the primary in 2014 and was defeated in the general election last fall. She also was Democratic nominee for governor Jack Hatch’s running mate in his unsuccessful 2014 bid.

In both U.S. House races, Vernon’s Democratic rivals questioned her partisan credentials. Now, is she too partisan?

“This is about our community. This is about uniting people,” Vernon told me Wednesday, in response to Hart’s concerns about partisanship. “This is about working together to make Cedar Rapids a better place.”

Vernon argues, instead, the real difference is experience. Hart has a record of community involvement but is seeking elected office for the first time. Vernon served eight years on the City Council and was mayor pro tem.

“I think so much of this is the learning curve. I can come in and operate at a high level on day one,” Vernon said. “I know exactly where to start.”

Playing the politics card could pay off for Hart at a time when people are turned off by partisan battles and politicians. On the other hand, highlighting Vernon’s party ties at a moment when Democrats are active, energized and motivated could backfire. In a low-turnout runoff, it could be exactly those politically engaged voters who actually show up.

Organization and motivation will be key. Issues matter, but turning out support will matter more. Money can’t hurt, either.

Hart’s campaign finance filing last week showed $4,548 left in his account after spending $86,806 on the election, or roughly $24 per-vote he received. Vernon reported $9,350 on hand after spending $38,218, or $7 per vote. There’s only 26 shopping days left until the runoff.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com