Iowa City voters jilt politics of hatred

Mazahir Salih, at-large candidate for a seat on the Iowa City Council, hugs her friend Amira Farah after seeing positive results of her election, while her husband, Asaad Makawi, checks the results on his phone at The Mill on November 7, 2017. (photo by Mary Mathis)

I have been to many election night parties, but I’ve never seen one like I saw this week in Iowa City.

Voters elected Mazahir Salih to one of two at-large seats on the Iowa City Council. On Tuesday night, more than 100 of Salih’s supporters packed into a victory party in downtown Iowa City and demonstrated the diversity of the campaign. Children were alongside senior citizens, students alongside politicians, and as many skin colors as I’ve ever seen in a red-state tavern.

Salih might be the first Muslim woman elected to office in Iowa City, and one of the first Sudanese-American women elected to office anywhere in the United States. And she didn’t just win a seat on the council, she organized one of the most successful newcomer campaigns in recent history.

Johnson County is more diverse and supposedly more liberal than the rest of Iowa, but our local government hasn’t always reflected that.

More than 20 percent of our neighbors here identify as something besides white, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Yet among 19 current members of the Iowa City Council, the Iowa City school board and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, Salih becomes just the third person of color.

Salih’s campaign outraised the other campaigns, won the most votes among absentee voters and earned vocal endorsements from key members of the Johnson County political establishment. Think of it as a triple threat of Iowa politics.

At the end of last month, Salih had reported more than $14,000 in campaign funding, especially remarkable considering the $100 individual contribution cap. She was able to activate the Democratic establishment and the grass roots alike, with at least 20 current and former elected officials on the list, along with dozens of gifts for $20 or less from ordinary people.

I’m not a Democrat or a progressive activist, but I still can appreciate a great political organizing feat when I see one.

I recognize that Iowa City voters made an important statement at a moment in our country’s history when ethnic and religious minorities say they face intense hostility in the political arena. The watchdog group Muslim Advocates has logged at least two apparent anti-Muslim hate crimes in Iowa since last year.

Iowa City bucked that narrative this week, yet the candidates’ demographics didn’t consume the campaign. Salih attributed her success instead to her activist work on issues like raising workers’ wages and establishing a local ID program.

“I’ve been working hard to improve the community and make it work for everyone. Many people have been involved — they believed in me, they donated, they advised me,” Salih told me shortly after the results came in on Tuesday night.

Of course, one seat in one election is not a sign of everlasting community harmony. Elections are a snapshot of one moment in political time, and the results only represent the views of a portion of eligible voters.

Still, in this moment, these voters rejected the politics of fear and hate that have consumed some of our fellow citizens. For that, Iowa City can be proud.

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