Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wilburn Stepping Down

Wilburn Stepping Down; Where's My Freak Power?

Our fair city's one time Bikin' Mayor Ross Wilburn tells the Gazette that he's not running for city council next year, which kicks off the 2011 election season.

It's been so long since Iowa City has had a "normal" city council election that we don't even know what one looks like anymore. 2005 was dominated by Mid-American Energy dumping half a million bucks into the No on public power campaign, 2007 was 21 Bars Round 1, and in 2009 we in effect had no city election at all.

Last cycle progressives dropped the ball during the candidate recruitment phase, giving business-backed Terry Dickens and Susan Mims a de facto bye against students Jeff Shipley and Dan Tallon. The young guys lost by three to one in record low turnout.

Local lefties were distracted at filing time for the 2009 election, already focused on Janelle Rettig's supervisor campaign which, with Larry Meyers' death, happened way sooner than expected. The other big distraction in 2009 was the football season, which reached its 9 and 0 Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx peak right around Election Day. That year we won all the squeakers, at least until Ohio State; this year we lost every heartbreaker. Worst of all was that series-ending Badger game which gives my Wisconsin relatives bragging rights for several years. We could so be 11-1 right now instead of 7-5 and some Cereal Bowl before New Years...

That football tangent was a too-obvious Hunter Thompson homage, as my writing goal is to create a clean and sober version of Gonzo Journalism. I'm hoping to find plenty of fear and loathing in 2011, with the incoming Republican regime and the upcoming caucus cycle to inspire me.

Football is cruel and so is the irony of city politics: If students had run in 2007's turnout wave, we'd have three or maybe four on the council to this day. But without the vote magnet of the bar issue directly on the ballot, the flood turned into a drought, and the 21 forces had the votes to get Prohibition through the council.

Ross Wilburn went unopposed in 2007, spending that election cycle co-chairing the Obama caucus team with now-state party chair Sue Dvorsky. He was all-but-unopposed in 2003, beating lefty gadfly Karen Pease with 71%, a record that stood until Dickens and Mims broke it in 2009. His stand down marks a return to a de facto three term tradition for the city council that dates back to the 1970s establishment of our godawful hybrid district system. Dee Vanderhoef was the first to try for a fourth term in 2007 but lost; in `09 Connie Champion was the first to actually win a fourth.

Wilburn's "District A" turf is basically the west side with a small slice of the south side where Wilburn and predecessor Dee Norton came from. So the candidate has to live there, potentially win a primary there, then win city wide. Insert my obligatory plug here for a larger council, two year terms and small, true, precinct-sized districts; that would guarantee two or three students on the council.

But that charter rewrite I dream of won't happen by next year, so we need to deal with the map we have. Local business-type conservatives are too smart to be distracted by Republican caucus season; they've shown a remarkable ability over the years to keep their eyes on the local prize, where the money is. They united early behind Dickens and Mims, and scuttled their own recruit Mark McCallum once Champion decided to run again. It's a guarantee they'll have a candidate to replace Wilburn.

Will the left? It won't be me; I've been there and done that candidate thing with poor results. If I were to run for something, it would be an Iowa City version of Hunter Thompson's campaign for Sheriff of Aspen: Freak Power In The Rockies. I even wrote my tentative platform in 2009 but no one carried that ball, either that cycle or in the Bar Wars of 2010. And with my libertarian-left streak running head-on into the do-gooder "public health" context of 21 Bars Round 2, where "progressive" was defined as "take rights away from people," I'm not even sure if I qualify as "left" by Iowa City local politics standards anymore...

Thompson's "The Battle of Aspen" is, despite the dated Sixties context, the single greatest piece on grass roots organizing, a must-read for anyone interested in taking on entrenched local power structures. Just search and replace "heads" with "students."

And that, fundamentally, is why I won't run for the city council; I'm old enough to be two of the candidates I'm seeking. I was so desperate for student representation that I actually voted for this dude. We've got 25,000 students in a city of 60,000, and they hold zero of seven council seats instead of the three or so that demographics merit. What good does it do them to have another geezer like me - a grandpa, no less! - in office, even a sympathetic one? No, the students need one of their own.

We haven't had one of those in 30 years, since David Perret won a second term in `79. He was kind of a hybrid: a student with townie roots, which is the kind of candidate we need if the goal is electing someone young, which is my goal. Someone who can attract both the young vote and get some votes from mom and dad's friends who knew you when you were THIS high. Someone like a Brian Flaherty (happy birthday, bud!) except he's set down his roots in Coralville. Or an Allie Panther, who did work beyond her years co-chairing the Roxanne Conlin committee with Regenia Bailey, and who's part of the Hamburg Inn Panther family. (I namedrop the names of my friends without consulting them, in the great tradition of Gonzo. As Doctor Thompson once said: "I wrote there was a rumor. I made up that rumor.")

Bailey is also up next year, coming out of District C (the north side and downtown). The two at large seats up are Matt Hayek, fresh off the 21 bar win that he linked his name to, and Michael Wright, the lone no vote on the panhandling ordinance.

So that's the lay of the land 11 months out from Election Day and roughly 8 months till filing time. The bar issue is likely to be as dead as Free Silver and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff by next fall, with a corresponding drop of student turnout back to normal (i.e. zero) levels. We'll have to see what a local political agenda looks like when it's driven by something other than Love The Hawkeyes Hate The Students and Terry Dickens' personal distaste for hobos begging outside his jewelry store.

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