Thursday, September 17, 2009

Will Iowa City Progressives Sit This One Out?

Will Iowa City Progressives Sit This One Out?

Under-rated songwriter James McMurtry once wrote a song with a chorus "I'm not from here, I just live here," in which he decries the aesthetic decline of his adopted town:

I'm not from here
but people tell me
it's not like it used to be
they say I should have been here
back about ten years
before it got ruined by folks like me

I'm one of those; I arrived close to 20 years ago seeking a degree I never finished, and I just... stayed.

In my early years here, candidates liked to call themselves "lifelong resident" in their campaign literature, or if that wasn't possible, advertise a 30-plus year longevity in town. It was a code word against candidates who Weren't One Of Us, the Julianna Johnstons and Rusty Martins who showed up on mid-1990s ballots.

Those terms have popped up again in this year's council race as "Lifelong Resident" Terry Dickens and "32 Year Resident" Susan Mims face off against students Jared Bazzell, Jeff Shipley and Dan Tallon. Assuming Dickens and Mims lead the October 6 primary, as seems likely, the November 3 election will be a faceoff with clear-cut lines. Town vs. Gown for the first time in the 34 years since Iowa City adopted its current convoluted district election system.

I call the system "convoluted" because there's only mimimal geographic representation. If Dickens and Mims win, we'll have five of the seven council members from two north side precincts, and no one at all from the west side, which has been completely unrepresented at least since I've lived here (technically Naomi Novick, but despite the 52246, Manville Heights ain't really "west side.")

But most notable, of course, in a town with 25,000 students out of a population of 60,000, is the indefensible lack of any student representation since David Perret won 30 years ago. That's the sole issue for me; I'm voting for whichever two students make it out of the primary.

In the Somewhere Else where I grew up city councils were elected on a true ward system, with roughly a member per precinct. In the three college towns I lived in, a 25 member council typically had two or three students.

But that's a matter for a charter review. For this election, all we can do is look at the choices we have. Two years after students proved they could control a city election with their emphatic NO! on the 21 bar ordinance, student candidates have finally emerged. If students had run for council in 2007, we'd have two, maybe even four students on the council today. But will the students show up without the black hole gravitational force of the bar referendum pulling them to the polls?

The town-gown relationship, and particularly the 21 bar question, divides the traditional labor-environmental-Democratic progressive coalition in local elections. On one side, there are public health advocates still pumped from their statewide smoking ban win and perpetually concerned about binge drinking, joined by feminists angered by boorish frat-boy drunken machismo and worse.

On the other hand are civil libertarians who think the Iowa City Police are out to get the students, fear the impact of 21 bars on the arts and music scene, and who believe the drinking age and drug laws are unenforceable and should be changed to reflect reality. These differences are so fundamental and irreconcilable that even married couples took opposite stands in the 2007 referendum.

Candidate recruitment on the traditional left fizzled after Colin Hennessy ended a brief campaign. It's the job nobody wants amidst flood reconstruction and tight budgets, and the politically delicate youth issues on the southeast side.

But the traditional old-guard sources of candidate recruitment were ready early. "We do not recruit or endorse 'chamber' candidates," Chamber of Commerce President Nancy Quellhorst writes in the Chamber's July newsletter (.pdf). "We do, however, encourage pragmatic individuals with the potential to improve our local business climate (and therefore our community) to run for office. A subcommittee of our Local Government Affairs committee has led this initiative and as a result three local leaders have announced their candidacy to date: Terry Dickens, Mark McCallum, and Susan Mims." (That was before Connie Champion announced that she was running again in District B. She and McCallum won't be on the primary ballot and will face off in November for that seat.)

"Honesty, integrity, common sense" is the Dickens slogan, a far cry from my Freak Power On The Prairie platform of Five Dollar Footlong coupons for pot smokers. Maybe Dickens and Mims will make it a competence vs. ideology race. For the best recent example, see Ross Wilburn in 2003, who whomped unfunded gadfly Karen Pease with 71 percent.

The fact that three student candidates have emerged muddles the primary. There's a certain contrarian core of the 'townie' electorate ready to vote for whichever two students get through the primary, but unsure WHICH two to vote for yet.

Shipley has more city council background as the council's nonvoting student liaison, but seems to have quickly realized that without an actual vote the job is mere window dressing. Tallon has a National Guard background and Bazzell has worked with the James Gang community organization. Which two of the three get through the primary is likely to depend on who has the best social network (online and off) and can get just a few more friends to show up October 6.

Dickens seems to be more organized than Mims so far, at least on line and in the sign war. His web site features a long list of supporters that mostly looks like a list of past supporters of 'chamber' candidates. It does include a few prominent Democratic Party supporters. An unspoken truth in Johnson County politics is that a number of people who are very liberal on state and national issues, and enthusiastically seek student votes at general election time, turn quite conservative on local matters.

Will Dickens (and Mims) be able to portray themselves as near-consensus candidates? Matt Hayek pulled that off in 2007, with support from everyone from John Balmer to, well, John Deeth. But the names on the labor, liberal and environmental end of the spectrum are missing from the Dickens list.

This could, of course, turn into an ugly Us vs. Them election, good drama but bad civics. We saw that in the aftermath of the general election, with conservation bond opponents openly saying students should not be allowed to vote in local elections. Will someone on the townie side stumble and make a similar egregious anti-student comment that backfires? Conversely, will the University of Iowa Student Government's first-ever candidate endorsements get the old-guard townies out to the polls with pitchforks and torches? Will the student candidates get a single vote east of First Avenue? Will the bar owners who were involved in 2001 and 2007 get active?

Will progressives, torn between Yet Another Downtown Retail ticket and the unknown students, and already focused on next June's primary and Janelle Rettig's county supervisor campaign, just sit this one out?

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