Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett is leaving office after eight eventful years. His record will, no doubt, be discussed and debated as he departs to continue pursuing the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
But one piece of his legacy seems clear, just by looking at the city election ballot this fall. Corbett’s efforts to transform what was once considered a “weak” mayoral post into a high-profile, driving force behind policymaking at City Hall has made it a job worth winning.
Eight candidates are seeking the wide open mayor’s seat. The field is diverse, accomplished and knowledgeable on many levels. In interviews with all eight, our editorial board found a group of hopefuls engaged in the community, determined to lead and eager to put their stamp on a broad array of issues — flood protection, economic development, affordable housing, public safety, neighborhood development and infrastructure.
There are young newcomers. Lemi Tilahun, who came to Cedar Rapids as a child with his parents from Ethiopia and eventually worked both for former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and for President Barack Obama’s administration, wants to be a “trailblazer.” Jorel Robinson grew up in Cedar Rapids, works as a productivity specialist at GoDaddy and has become a community activist focused on the city’s youth.
“What I’m trying to do is get people 18 to 34 to start caring about their city and what’s happening in Cedar Rapids,” Robinson said.
There’s business lawyer Brad Hart, an experienced newcomer, making his first run for public office after leading numerous community organizations and campaigns. “I think I understand the community, not just the business side, but also the human needs side because of the volunteer work I’ve done,” Hart said.
Tim Pridegon, pastor of Lifeline Ministries and a public safety chaplain, is basing his first ever campaign on “love, peace and unity.”
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“Cedar Rapids isn’t heaven, but it’s close,’ Pridegon said at a recent candidate’s forum.
Others are running with longer government resumes. Former Council member Monica Vernon, who left City Hall to run for Congress, is touting her experience in making “bold moves” to accelerate the city’s post-flood recovery. Gary Hinzman, a former police chief, judicial district corrections director and founder of programs to help offenders, families and at-risk youth, is running on his experience managing “large, complex government organizations.”
Two current City Council members are seeking promotion. Scott Olson a commercial Realtor, is in his second term representing District 4. Kris Gulick, who represents District 1, was first elected to the council in 2005 and has been instrumental in crafting the city’s goals and strategic plan. “We have done some things that are amazing, based on where we came from,” Gulick said.
“There’s eight of us running, and you have to have respect for all these people,” Vernon told the editorial board. “I just think that whoever is the mayor ought to use this human potential. These are people who could lead our commissions, these are people who should be involved in some way.”
Needless to say, we faced a very difficult decision. Over multiple board meetings, we weighed the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. We considered the issues, where the candidates stand and where we stand as an editorial board. Several of the candidates possess the experience, skills and enthusiasm required to be mayor of Iowa’s second-largest city.
Making a tough call, we rely on our process, namely our lengthy interviews with the candidates. And in those sessions, one candidate clearly stood out. We were impressed by his clarity, knowledge, transparency and attention to detail. We came away with a clear understanding of his ideas, plans and vision.
That candidate is Scott Olson, who earns our endorsement.
We came into this process with misgivings about Olson.
We were concerned Olson’s large commercial real estate practice and business ties would lead to conflicts as mayor. Olson said he plans to retire from real estate and hand the reins of his business over to a protégé, freeing him from at least some conflicts.
We were no fans of the “pedestrian safety” ordinance he championed this year, which struck us as a thinly veiled effort to target panhandlers. And we were deeply disappointed with his votes against the Crestwood Ridge affordable housing project, which included much-needed housing for the homeless.
Olson contends he faced intense pressure from residents of his district who opposed the project. But it was opposition, in our view, based on dubious arguments, questionable concerns and troubling stereotypes regarding affordable housing and the people who need it.
“I was in a position representing a district where I had to make a no vote. It was very difficult for me to do,” Olson said.
And yet, Olson is the only candidate who came to us with a detailed plan for how he would seek to address the affordable housing issue as mayor. He pledges “on day one,’ to revive the city’s dormant Affordable Housing Commission by making 21 appointments to its ranks. The commission was abandoned years ago but remains on the books.
Olson advocates hiring a “coordinator for affordable housing” in the city’s housing department, offering unused city land as part of a ROOTs housing program reboot and creating a $500,000 affordable housing fund to offer rebates for housing projects.
Olson explained, in detail, multiple options the city is considering in an effort to close a large funding gap as it seeks to build a flood protection system. That includes the possible creation of a “flood district” in the city’s core where property owners would pay an additional tax to help pay for levees, flood walls and stormwater system upgrades. In return, the completed system would allow property owners to drop costly flood insurance.
Olson told us a state and local “team effort” is needed in response to United Technologies’ proposed acquisition of Rockwell-Collins. The purchase has stoked local anxiety over the future of jobs and the location of the newly configured Rockwell’s corporate headquarters.
“We’re already fighting an uphill battle,” Olson said. “I think we can win that battle.”
Olson explained how the potential for a regional transit authority and freed-up federal dollars through the Metropolitan Planning Authority could lead to better bus service, including night routes. And with a potential cut in state “backfill” dollars to local governments looming, Olson detailed how a search for greater efficiencies, growth in commercial property value assessments and other factors could allow the city to weather lost revenues.
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Olson said his goal as mayor would be to make sure city boards and commissions have a better cross-section of individuals representing the community. He also would like to move at least one of the City Council’s biweekly meetings to an evening time, making it easier for working people to attend.
“This is my way of saying thank you to Cedar Rapids,” Olson told us. “I do not have any aspirations for other offices. This is my grand finale in this great city.”
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