Sunday, August 09, 2015

Former Council Member Kanner Dies

Just learned (h/t Garry Klein) of the death Friday of Steven Kanner, former Iowa City council member.

Steven's story was a ur-story of People's Republic of Johnson County - he discovered Iowa City on a peace march and decided to stay, At the time of his election he listed his address as "2315 E. Washington St., Basement Apartment." (He's occasionally mid-identified as the last student elected, due to deliberate mis-information spread by the city clerk, but I checked the records at the time and he was not enrolled.)

1999 was a strange election year. Incumbent Dee Vanderhoef, who eventually lost in 2007, was seen as a shoo-in. But the field for the open second seat to replace the stepping down Karen Kubby, was weak by conventional wisdom.

The story goes, progressives were working on recruiting for Kubby's seat and Kanner volunteered to run the errand to city hall to pick up a copy of the candidate packet. The city clerks office told him there was a policy of charging money for packets - except to candidates. So Steven said he was a candidate... and somehow he went from place holder to actually filing.

The rivals for the officially nonpartisan seat seat were an ape-like libertarian and the erstwhile head of the defunct Reform Party who committed one of the best debate malaprops of all time: asked about cemetery maintenance, he said that "those people are going to be there the rest of their lives."

Kanner, for his part, was the most un-politician-like person I've ever seen actually run for office.  He was quiet and thoughtful with his core supporters, at our small meetings, Sunday mornings at the Hillel center where he brought us, yes, bagels and lox.

But Steven - always Steven, never Steve - was visibly shy with strangers at the glad-handing and doorknocking aspects of campaigning. Yet, once the conversation was engaged, he was direct and blunt, the bluntness of the socially awkward, in the face of disagreement. 

None of these three candidates was going to get the second vote from the good old boy and girl network that backed Vanderhoef, and there was no obvious one candidate to block.

Well, SOMEbody had to win.

The city flipped a coin - and it landed on the edge.

The election night margin was three votes, and an administrative recount narrowed it to two. And thus began a tumultuous stretch of Iowa City history still referred to by locals as "the Kanner-Pfab years."

Some, myself included, have argued that the Kanner-Pfab years set progressives back in Iowa City. Numerically, the left had picked up a seat, with District C winner Irvin Pfab defeating the abrasive Dean Thornberry, who played much the role Terry Dickens plays on the current council.

(Irv is one of the few I've seen who used naming his opponent - "I'm running against Dean Thornberry" - as a winning strategy. But who'd a thunk: Local conservatives mocked the left for years for supporting an off-leash dog park. But after he was out of office, Thornberry largely paid for it.)

The 5 to 2 votes were going to happen, the way they are now. But the old guard which had begrudgingly respected Karen Kubby had nothing but contempt for Pfab and Kanner. Pfab sometimes had trouble following discussion because of hearing loss; this was protrayed as senility. And Kanner's personality quirks and bohemian lifestyle and personal habits were used in the letters to the editor section of the paper and in the predecessors of social media to paint him into the crazy corner.

The issues of the day were the same ones we're grappling with 15 years later. Kanner was trying to get a car library off the ground years before ZipCar. There were bar wars and policing controversies. Irony of ironies: as a sitting council member, he found himself sued by progressive activists over ballot initiatives he supported. Kanner also got in hot water with city staff once over refusing to change a vote on a zoning matter after the city had lost a lawsuit. He voted with his conscience, against the developer, and against the advice of the city attorney.

Steven stayed the way he was, bless him, and never seemed concerned about re-election. Eventually, we figured out: He was in a serious relationship and Karly was leaving town for a graduate program. Steven's term and lease ended, they crashed with friends just long enough to caucus for Dennis Kucinich, and left town immediately.

Steven and Karly, and their daughter, eventually ended up back in his native Cleveland area. Friends are maintaining this memorial page.

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