Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Let's Everybody Run for Something: The North Liberty Election

Yes, I know everybody wants me to write The Definitive Detailed Deeth Post On What Exactly The Voter ID Law Means. Truth is, I have a pretty good idea, but that one's gonna get bookmarked and referenced for years so it needs to be Perfect, and I'm going to get paid at work for most of the research on it anyway. All I have to do when I get home is add the Partisan Blogger snark for Paul Pate.  Thanks for reading, Paul!

So instead today I'm going to write about the North Liberty election, Johnson County's first in the Era of Trump, and what exactly it means.

There's a dynamic in American politics today that everybody needs to run for something. In 96 of 99 Iowa counties that probably helps, but in the People's Republic there's a line around the block for any and all vacancies, hints of vacancies, or rumours.

Long time readers know I consider "Tusk" the real masterpiece.

So when North Liberty found itself with not one but two vacant offices, ten total candidates showed up: seven newcomers, two current office holders, and a blast from the past. The result: a mayor with less than a majority and a council member winning with just 29% of the vote.

I can't choose the appropriate cinematic metaphor for the whole North Liberty process. In turns it has reminded me of:
  • Andy Warhol's 24 hour film of the outside of the Empire State Building,
  • The worst movie I ever saw, Saturday the 14th, an unfunny parody of horror films, and
  • People who think they are acting in Game Of Thrones but are in fact in a junior high production of Game Of Thrones. 
This whole thing is Tom Salm's fault. After a couple of controversial cycles, Salm was a unifier as mayor, a steady hand on the wheel... until he unexpectedly dropped dead just months after getting re-elected in 2013.

The city council appointed one of their own, Gerry Kuhl, as mayor, then took applications for that vacant council seat. A smart young mom with some school board campaign experience put her name in, and was rewarded with a patronizing pat on the head.

So Amy Nielsen said enough of that crap and put her name in for mayor, as the seat was on the 2014 general election ballot (which will no longer be legal under the new law that combines school and city elections.). She knocked off  Kuhl, and her star rose so fast that she shot right out of mayor and into the Legislature before the term was up.

And it took so long to choose Nielsen's replacement that her first legislative session was over before it was done. The most important thing about today's election is that it should have happened at least two months ago.

It was clear from November 8 - and with all due respect to my Republican friend Royce Phillips, who lost to Nielsen in the legislative race last fall, it was reasonably expected in June 2016 - that the mayor's slot would be open again. The city was looking at a fourth mayor in the same term and the powers that be desperately wanted to avoid paying for a special election with less than a year on the term.

There were two problems with that. Petitions for city elections are based on turnout the last time the office was on the ballot.  Salm was so non-controversial that his 2013 re-election was uncontested. It would take just 26 signatures, in a city pushing 18,000 population, to force an election. There was no way out of it and everyone was in denial.

So they decided to take their time.

Actual photo from North Liberty council deliberations on mayor vacancy

The council stalled until literally the last day allowed under law - February 28, 60 days after Nielsen's resignation and nearly four months after her election to the legislature, before making a decision.
Two sitting council members, Terry Donahue and Chris Hoffman, both coveted the office of mayor. Two other council members, Annie Pollock and Jim Sayre, refused to pick sides and favored an election. That left it to Brian Wayson. It was a standoff...

...until Hoffman got smart. In a jiu-jitsu move, he took his name out and backed Donahue for mayor. That "win" forced Donahue to resign his council seat, while Hoffman could go ahead and run against Donahue in a likely special election without having to resign. And sure enough, the next day Matt Pollock filed the petition - and soon after filed for mayor.

Then it seemed like pretty much everyone in North Liberty decided it was time to run for something. Kuhl attempted a comeback for council, and was joined in the race by no less than six newcomers.

The council seat won by Sarah Madsen by 33 votes over Kuhl is in fact the greater prize - mayors don't vote and Donahue has to run again in November. Madsen, in contrast, gets to vote and inherits the last 2 1/2 years of Donahue's council term. And Hoffman, who now has two losses in a row following has January 2016 defeat by Lisa Green-Douglass in the county supervisor special election, can challenge Donahue again in November, without giving up his council seat which has two years left.

But Madsen wasn't a big winner - in the splintered seven candidate field, she won just 29%. In fact, no candidate for council topped 40% in any precinct, so geographic patterns are hard to spot. This would have been a great test case for second and third choice voting. It would also be interesting to see a runoff between Hoffman and Donahue (who was also a sub-50% winner, with Hoffman second and Pollock a distant third), and between Madsen and runner-up Kuhl.

Kuhl ranks as the night's biggest loser. Like Hoffman, he has now lost two in a row. But Hoffman's timing meant he kept his seat, while Kuhl resigned his council seat, was tossed out as mayor in just months, and now has failed at a comeback.

One good thing about a big field of candidates, though, is it boosts turnout to have ten sets of families and friends out voting. Turnout stands at 1016, agonizingly close to the 1031 record set in the controversial 2005 North Liberty election that Dave Franker won as a last-second write-in candidate.  Theoretically, that record could still fall if 16 of our 28 un-returned absentees come back. But that's unlikely (they had to be postmarked Monday, all were mailed to local addresses, and most local mail isn't postmarked anymore) and to my trained eye, those look like the kind where people sign the request form to make the doorknocker go away.

I'm saddened by one thing, though: A Donahue loss would have made for great trivia, as Hoffman or Pollock would have been North Liberty's FIFTH mayor in the term Tom Salm originally won in November 2013. Four is remarkable enough, but five would have been epic.

And if this wasn't enough fun, we get to do it all over again in Solon next month for a city council term of just five months.

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