When Iowa City voted to elect City Council members four years ago, one storyline dominated the election — a left-leaning slate of candidates calling themselves the “Core Four” swept the election.
It was a turning point in local politics, as some observers saw it. The moderate, pro-business coalition that had controlled the council for some years was replaced by a more progressive majority, or so the story goes.
The 2019 city election marks the end to the Core Four as initially constructed, with Mayor Jim Throgmorton and council member Rockne Cole opting not to seek reelection. Their allies on the council, John Thomas and Pauline Taylor, are running unopposed in district races.
I say good riddance to the Core Four — as a collective entity, that is, not to its individual members. Slates of candidates make local politics stupider, reducing our supposedly non-partisan electoral structure to a set of rivaling factions.
The vast majority of people actively involved in Iowa City politics are registered Democrats and would openly acknowledge their values lie on the left side of the political spectrum. This is, after all, the seat of Iowa’s bluest county, where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two-to-one.
Within left-leaning politics, though, there are considerable disagreements about how a city government should be run. Instead of rejecting factionalism, the Core Four’s detractors played into it.
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In a Press-Citizen guest column published a few weeks before the 2015 election, then-Mayor Matt Hayek praised the city’s performance under his leadership as “exceptionally progressive” but also mindful of protecting the tax base. Hayek warned that the Core Four “threatens this balance.”
“We will return to the anti-growth, micromanaging city hall of eras past. We will lose the critical progress made by recent councils with the help of talented professional staff. We will jeopardize the city’s long-term ability to fund important social services for our most vulnerable populations,” Hayek wrote.
By openly endorsing the Core Four’s opponents, Hayek made the non-slate candidates a de facto slate of their own.
Iowa Citians can make their own determination about whether Hayek’s predictions came true, but that election clearly contributed to an us-versus-them mentality in Iowa City.
Core Four members and their allies have quibbled over how much of a thing their coalition was, denying that it was any kind of formal slate. The public perception, however, was quite obvious.
The Gazette and Press-Citizen both prominently referred to the Core Four in their 2015 election recaps. The Little Village alternative magazine ran a cover with an illustration of the Core Four candidates depicted as medieval warriors with horses and weapons. Local blogger John Deeth, a Core Four supporter, tallied the score as “Core 4, Old Guard 0.”
“ … [T]oday we ran the table, gaining three seats and holding one, and we swung the council from a 5-2 majority for the developer-landlord class that has run the town for forever, to a 5-2 progressive majority,” Deeth wrote the day after the 2015 election.
This year’s election is different. Three new candidates are vying for two at-large seats. To my knowledge, none of them have aligned themselves with another, either formally or informally.
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All three newcomers — Megan Alter, Laura Bergus and Janice Weiner — agree that the centrist-leftist divide in local government has been overblown. They all identify as progressives, and praise the council’s current vision.
In meetings with The Gazette editorial board, Alter, Bergus and Weiner said they were unlikely to make themselves part of a slate of candidates in future elections. Alter did not rule out the possibility, however, and noted that current council members Bruce Teague and Mazahir Salih are openly supporting her 2019 campaign.
I hope we have seen an end to the era of slates in Iowa City elections. Politics is already divisive enough, without letting proxy-partisanship trickle down to the council chambers.
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