I know that for the national politicos, Iowa's all about the presidency right now. And my statewide readership is probably focused entirely on the Battle of Marion.
But for me, the last couple weeks have been about the Iowa City council election.
I've done the math, I've looked at issues, I've pointed out the connections. But for me, personally, this election is about diversity and the principle of representative democracy.
Iowa City prides itself on diversity and likes to think it has reflected that in its electoral politics. In some ways, we have. Iowa City's legislative delegation has been female-dominated ever since Minnette Doderer became one of the first women elected to the state senate. We also had a couple years of a woman-majority city council.
We have elected African Americans to the school board, the city council and the legislature, and Ross Wilburn served two years as mayor. For a brief time we had four LGBT elected officials in major local office at once. We've elected a Socialist and even a couple registered Republicans (!) to local non-partisan office.
But you know who we haven't elected in all that time? A student. And don't quibble about Raj Patel's enrollment status or Michelle Payne's classes. Everybody knows that in the context of Iowa City politics, "student" means someone 18 to 24. The youngest person I see winning office in the last 30 years was Karen Kubby, age 28 in 1989, after losing at 25 and 27.
There are about 25,000 students in the city limits, more than a third of the population. The students ARE Iowa City. There are our economy: our shoppers, our tenants, our tuitions. Yet too many Iowan Citians, frankly, would be happy if the university was nothing but tenured faculty, international grad students who never leave the lab, and football players.
Nowhere is this reflected more than in city politics. It has been 32 years, since David Perret won a second term in 1979, since Iowa City has elected a student to the city council. That's ten years before most of the current undergrads were even born. Many people, sadly, think that's just fine, unfortunately including some "progressives," who were more than happy to herd young voters to the polls for Obama in 2008 but got squeamish when they showed up in 2010.
The local conservatives, the kind who care more about zoning fights than about which party runs the legislature, don't have to balance the cognitive dissonance like liberals and are more direct. Sometimes they'll openly argue, against legal precedent that's been fought to the Supreme Court, that students shouldn't be allowed to vote here, let alone hold office. Even when the old timers begrudingly accept it, you can tell they're thinking it. The argument is almost always "they don't pay taxes." Meaning, specifically, not sales taxes or income taxes but local property taxes. Which of course they do; they just write the check to the landlord instead of to the treasurer.
But it's a failing of representative democracy to have so large a group so unrepresented for so long. As I have often argued, if we were a city of 70,000 with 25,000 African Americans who had been unrepresented for 32 years, we'd be in federal court under the Voting Rights Act. The system is stacked against students, probably on purpose: to get a seat at the table, you have to win city-wide, and historically townies refuse to vote for students.
This year, that can change.
Before candidate filing started, I swore up and down that I wasn't going to vote for anyone over 25 until a student was elected. I've used that as an excuse for not running myself; we've got enough old straight bald white guys in office as is.
Jim Throgmorton, despite being an old straight bald white guy, is a qualified enough candidate to earn an exception. I'd vote for just anyone anyone against Rick Dobyns, and while Steve Soboroff is not young, he recognizes that the condescending attitude toward the student community is one of the fundamental flaws of our city.
But in the at large race, the best opportunity to elect a student, and the best qualified young candidate, in literally a lifetime has happened.
Yes, I'll admit for me part of Raj Patel's appeal is his age. I know that voting by demographic, by identity, is risky. Understand that the candidate who is making the strongest push on that front is not Raj Patel. Republican Michelle Payne is hiding her of, by, and for the traditional powers that be agenda behind unsubtle pink yard signs. And libertarian Jarrett Mitchell, whose persona is appealing to many old-school liberals, only looks like a lefty.
But I didn't vote for Raj Patel simply because he's 20 years old, any more than you should vote for Michelle Payne because she's female or for Jarrett Mitchell because he has long hair or for Matt Hayek because of his family name. Raj Patel has a solid grasp of issues and experience. And he offers actual plans, not niche issues, on sustainability.
Patel has avoided most of the traditional criticism aimed at young candidates. "The students are only here for a little while and leave"? Patel's family is here and he has a career in the family's businesses ahead of him. "Can't win"? The primary showed Patel far ahead of any previous student, well within reach of victory, and leading the field in some non-student areas. "Inexperienced"? Patel was well up to speed as council liaison. And his effort as a candidate shows the effort he'll make as a council member.
Voting today at the library and Auditor's office, tomorrow at the polls. Please join me in voting to make history in Iowa City. Join me in supporting Raj Patel.