A tantrum in the voting booth
Today is a great day to live in Iowa City, as town and gown come together to celebrate.
But before we all settle in for the game, let me tell you about my absolute least favorite thing about my beloved, adopted home town. It's people who love the Hawkeye hoopla, or love the opera at Hancher (wherever they decide to rebuild it)... but hate the students.
I rarely do flat-out endorsements here. I usually just put out the facts I select as important and let people draw their own conclusions. But this time I'm making an exception.
In the wake of last year's conservation bond vote, it was openly argued, and not for the first time, that only property taxpayers should be allowed to vote in local elections. And that same resentment was voiced in the wake of the student-driven defeat of the 21 bar initiative in 2007.
But the students are the economic engine that drive this town, pumping in millions in tuition, rent, sales taxes, and jobs. Without students, there's no Iowa City as we know it. It's time for them to be represented in local government.
We have 25,000 or so students in a city of about 65,000. Mathematically, that works out to two students on a council of seven. But for nearly 30 years, we've had zero. Students have run, sure, but they've invariably been also-rans in the primary.
Now, for the first time in that 30 years, and merely by default since no one else filed, we have students on an Iowa City general election ballot.
Vote for them.
The 2009 city election has been one of the two most frustrating elections of any sort in my almost 20 years here (the other contender being the 2000 presidential). I've rarely been so frustrated by the lack of good choices. I've never stuck my neck out so far, or been bashed so hard, or alienated so many people, for candidates who have been more certain to lose by so much.
I've never felt less confident, yet at the same time more certain, about my vote. I've heard the most complaints over my support of Jeff Shipley. Don't interpret my vote for Jeff as a full endorsement of his staunch libertarianism. And while Dan Tallon is sincere, he's got a lack of political savvy that alienated potential supporters.
I have nothing against Susan Mims and Terry Dickens. Mims is a little conservative for my tastes, and Dickens a lot more so. But Terry is a suitable replacement for Mike O'Donnell, and while Mims is several notches to the right of Amy Correia, I anticipate she'll be approachable. They'll be able to do the job, which I can't say with certainty about my own choices.
But Mims and Dickens, with their conventional backgrounds, are exactly like nearly every other city council member in the last 30 years. For me it's really just about one thing. They're 50something, Jeff and Dan are 20something.
Would that be a good enough selection criteria for every office? No. I wouldn't vote for Jeff or Dan over, say Vicki Lensing or Mary Mascher for the legislature. But for the Iowa City council, it's what we need: representation for the single largest un-represented segment of our community.
I knew my decision, and anticipated the outcome, as soon as filing was done. "I'm voting for whichever two students make it out of the primary," I wrote.
And so I did.
(My biggest no-prize for this election goes to Jared Bazzell, the third student candidate, who endorsed Dickens over Shipley and Tallon after losing the primary and promptly vanished.)
The primary gave us a stark preview of what Tuesday will look like. All signs point to record low turnout (benchmark: 1999). Everything possible aligned to reduce interest: the lack of a card-carrying lefty in the race, no ballot issues for the first time in a couple cycles, the distractions of the fantastic football season and the supervisor appointment, even the lousy weather last week.
Everything also points to a record-size margin exceeding even the primary percentages: Mims 75%, Dickens 70... big gap... wait for it... lower... Shipley 15, Tallon 11. The general election benchmark is the 2003 District A blowout: Ross Wilburn 71%, Karen Pease 28.
But this outcome, as inevitable as the moment when you see the glass falling, time slows down, and you know it's going to break but it hasn't shattered yet, wasn't necessarily predetermined on filing deadline day. Two years ago, we saw that the students can swing a city election when they want to. But the last faint hope died this week as Shipley and Tallon failed to mobilize their own base of potential support. Votes trickled into campus satellite voting sites by the dozens when they needed to flood in by the thousands like they did in 2007.
Nothing would make me happier than seeing massive throngs of voters Tuesday at the student-rich precincts at the Rec Center and the Courthouse and the Quad. But nothing would shock me more, either.
So I'm frustrated with the very student constituency whose case I'm trying to advocate.
Hypocrisy and inconsistency are two of my least favorite things about political life. And nowhere do I see it more than in our public policy attitudes toward alcohol.
The 18 year old age of adulthood, as measured by the right to vote, was cemented into the Constitution in 1971 with a supermajority, wartime argument of "old enough to die, old enough to vote." And "old enough to drink" followed suit as I came of age. But self-appointed do-gooders, with a prohibitionist agenda couched as "safety," deliberately confused the issues of abuse and age. With purse string blackmail over highway funding they bullied the states into moving the drinking age up again.
I have heard countless elected officials tell me in private that they agree with me that the 21 year old drinking age is an unenforceable failure. Almost none will say so in public.
"It's the law," I hear. But it's a bad law. The Iowa City police could use more discretion. But backed by the permanent council majority, who in turn are backed by the love the Hawks hate the students constituency, they choose an aggressive approach of systematic harassment.
Far, far too many 18, 19 and 20 year old adults end up with career-damaging rap sheets, arrested for "crimes" that were non-issues back in my day. Is there excessive behavior that should be punished? Sure. But are there also people who are only guilty of socializing normally and getting caught? Absolutely.
Why has every "non-alcohol alternative" in Iowa City failed? I'm too old now to really say, but I still have some meaningful contact with undergrad-age people and I'll speculate: Young adults want to be treated as adults, learn adult responsibilities, and have adult fun.
And in my book, you're an adult at 18. Only when we separate the artificial age issue from the very real abuse issue can we credibly address the more pathological aspects of the drinking culture.
The University of Iowa has enough problems coming up, with budget cuts and tuition hikes. We also have a growing reputation: Go to UIowa, graduate with a police record. If you're back home in Aurora and you hear that your older brother's friend got busted by the Iowa City cops, that's not a good recruiting message.
My dad's best friend lived in a paper mill town, and when we were visiting as kids we complained about the smell. "That's the smell of our jobs," he'd say, and without endorsing his environmental outlook note that Iowa City's smell is the Saturday night bar rush. Our undergrads are the geese that lay our golden eggs, and as the University goes, so goes Iowa City.
Neither Jeff Shipley, who himself picked up an "underage" (sic) drinking ticket at 18, or Dan Tallon have made these issues central to their campaigns. And those certainly aren't the only issues that affect students. But Jeff and Dan's mere presence on the council would change the game. The next class of council members would notice at re-election time. The police department would notice at budget time.
The students saw the connection between local government and police policy in 2007, when that connection was directly on the ballot. But they have ignored the slightest level of abstraction, the necessary follow-up step of seriously striving for actual representation in city government.
Part of the problem is the structure: you can't get on the city council without ultimately winning city-wide, and Jeff and Dan aren't going to get a vote east of Governor Street. My preference would be for a completely revamped city government along the lines of what I grew up with in Wisconsin: a larger council, smaller precinct-sized districts with only voters IN the district voting, and shorter terms. What kind of person would get elected to a two-year term in a district made up of Burge, Daum, Currier and Frat Row? (Throw in an elected mayor while you're at it.)
But that's not an option--yet. Would Dan Tallon and Jeff Shipley have been my first choices? Probably not. But they were the ones nervy enough to step forward and do it.
I wanted to see a campaign to raise hell, even if it wouldn't win. But ultimately, the students need to do it their way, themselves, and not listen to what an old bald grandpa like me says.
Sara Baird has emerged as a last-second write-in candidate. I like her politically and personally, and had she started sooner I would have been right there. I hope she takes a serious look at 2011. But since this election, for Iowa City progressives, is a choice between a protest vote and mere acceptance, a write-in just mixes whatever message you're trying to send.
I've been told by good friends that I'm fighting the wrong battle, that I'm addressing the problem to the wrong level of government (and yes, some of my friends in state and federal government deserve criticism), and even that I'm marginalizing myself.
But it seems throwing a tantrum in the voting booth is the only way to get people to listen.
Vote for Jeff Shipley and Dan Tallon.