Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Porter's win a sign of long term change in Johnson County

Johnson County's endless election season, which went into overtime after the sudden death of Supervisor Kurt Friese on October 26, finally ended Tuesday with Democrat Royceann Porter's barrier-breaking win over Republican Phil Hemingway.

The December 18 election wraps up a run of four large elections in four months, with the November 6 general election and a September-October pair of Iowa City council elections in which Bruce Teague replaced Kingsley Botchway. It's the busiest run of elections since 1993, when we had a cluster of six in seven months: a school bond in May, a June-July pair in Iowa City to replace a city council member, and the usual fall run of September school, October city primary, and November city election. (The school election goes away next year and gets combined with the November city election.)

I worked in the auditor's office back in the Grunge Era, though not in elections. I was a part time minute taker, and I learned far more about politics in two years of meetings than I did in five years getting a political science degree (the extra year was spent drinking). I learned that zoning fights were the nastiest because that's where the money is.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors was a rural dominated body back then, led by the traditional part-time officials who were mainly farmers. They only met twice a week, and some members were rarely in the building except for meetings.

That was just... how it had always been. Sure, we had newcomer Joe Bolkcom, the first Iowa City progressive ever elected to the board, but he was a skunk at the picnic and had trouble even getting his motions seconded. There was a sense that, despite all their other functions affecting the whole county, the Board of Supervisors "belonged" to the rural voters.

As we can tell from the Hemingway campaign's rhetoric this election, some people still think so. More than once I heard from voters: "city people shouldn't be allowed to vote for supervisor."

We had our ugliest special election ever in that era. A supervisor resigned out of the blue and the appointment committee named Don Sehr, a gruff but likeable big old farmer from Sharon Center who had served three board terms in the 70s and 80s. The liberals petitioned for an election and Sehr lost the nomination at the Democratic convention to Pat Gilroy, a longtime party activist and one of my many mentors who is sadly no longer with us.

Sehr bolted the party and ran as an independent, and won convincingly. The mood was so nasty that one of his supporters came to the Gilroy "victory" party to laugh at us.

Sehr won that 1994 special election with 4291 votes to Gilroy's 2571, and that was one of the key elections in developing one of my formulas for understanding Johnson County politics. As I wrote before Porter's election:
There is a "Farm Vote" constituency in Johnson County. Not all rural voters are part of it, and  it includes some old timers in town, but "Farm Vote" is the best shorthand label I have.  These voters will not support a progressive candidate for supervisor - that office in particular more than others.

It's made up of Democrats who will back a Tom Harkin or a Tom Miller, but maybe not a Hillary Clinton or a Bruce Braley. It's made up of sophisticated local Republicans more motivated by business than ideology. It's made up of independents who care more about who is in the courthouse than in the White House.
That Farm Vote has been consistently 3000 to 4000 votes, in presidential elections and in low turnout specials, all the way back to at least 1992 .

The "Farm Vote"

Election Measure Total
1992 general Duffy minus Bolkcom 3802
1994 special Sehr total (win) 4291
2000 general Neuzil minus Thompson 3376
2000 general Smalley minus Brown 3761
2004 general Harney minus Sullivan 4435
2008 general Harney minus Sullivan 4273
2010 special Cardella total (loss) 3764
2012 general Neuzil minus Sullivan 2788
2013 special Etheredge total (win) 3142
2018 general Heiden minus Rettig 3086

Tuesday's election fell right into that pattern. Hemingway won 4167 votes. He got the Farm Vote. He got EXACTLY the Farm Vote. In 1994, when we had just 59,000 registered voters in the county, that was a win number.

But now we have 97,000 registered voters, and that growth has been almost entirely in the cities and not in the Farm Vote. Porter won 5444, twice what Gilroy earned so long ago.

Our results for this election almost exactly - turnout within 100 votes and similar shares of the vote - paralleled the January 2010 special election in which Democrat Janelle Rettig, who had been appointed in October 2009, defeated Republican Lori Cardella, who had led a petition drive to force the election. (Cardella's number is slightly lower than Hemingway's because a third candidate took 332 votes, mostly from her.)

That election was a barrier breaker, as Rettig became the first out LGBT supervisor elected in the state. Porter breaks a barrier, too, as Johnson County's first black countywide office holder.

There have been African Americans in Iowa City office recently - current council member Mazahir Salih, former council member Kingsley Botchway, and former mayor Ross Wilburn. We've also had school board members LaTasha DeLoach and Ruthina Malone.Those jobs are non-partisan (though all those people are Democrats). You have to go back to state representative William Hargrave in the early 1970s to find a black Johnson County Democrat in a partisan office.

That's a very big thing for the Johnson County Democrats. At the nominating convention, a friend of Porter's who came along for personal support asked me, "where are all the black delegates at?" Having nominated, campaigned hard for, and elected Porter, the county party is now walking the walk when it comes to visible support.  Barack Obama is one thing, but that thing is over and this thing is here and now and local, and Porter's deep roots in the local African American community will further strengthen the ties.

There is still a lot of work to do in Johnson County on race; after the one forum, we heard comments about Hemingway "sounding better" and being more "articulate."  But I think Porter's seat at the Big Table will help shift those perceptions of what a leader in Johnson County looks and sounds like, and I hope our next convention we will be less monochromatic.

Adding to the diversity, Johnson County may have the most female county board in the state with four women - Porter, Rettig, Lisa Green-Douglass and Pat Heiden - and one token male, Rod Sullivan. Add in recorder Kim Painter and county attorney Janet Lyness and that's six women to four men in the courthouse.

The Democrats did not take this win for granted. The memory of the March 2013 special election, in which Republican John Etheredge upset Democrat Terry Dahms, is still fresh. Everything that could go wrong in that election did go wrong, including self inflicted wounds - a split other than the rural-urban split that led some "progessives" to throw Dahms under the bus. There were no such splits this time, though a few people were unusually quiet.  (Hemingway has some ties to some left Democrats through the failed fight to keep old Hoover Elementary School open.)

Porter comes out of the Teamsters and this is another big win for local labor, which has been on a winning steak of late.

There is, however, a cloud to this silver lining.

Porter carried the election day vote in Iowa City and University Heights by two to one, 67-33%, winning every urban area precinct except North Liberty 6 (which includes rural Madison Township voters) and, losing by one vote, Coralville 2. But Hemingway won every rural precinct and led in the rural part of the county by a whopping 73-26.

Zoom in on the precincts and you see Porter carrying Iowa City 21 (the Goosetown part of the north side) with 88% and Hemingway winning Washington Township (Frytown and rural Kalona) with 95%. We saw these kinds of differences in the general election results, and back in the Rettig-Cardella election, but not nearly this extremely exaggerated.

So there is a lot of rural work to do. Johnson County has office holders who can bridge this gap. Senator Kevin Kinney is most prominent, but a couple of our small town mayors, Christopher Taylor of Swisher (who is also county Democratic chair) and Lone Tree's Jonathan Green (who served a term on the state central committee) are also noteworthy.

Unfortunately, Republican affiliation is becoming more and more a part of rural cultural identity - nationally, in Iowa, and even in the People's Republic. Gigabytes have been posted trying to "solve" that issue, and I don't know if it IS solvable.

There's certain to be some kind of backlash in rural Johnson County to Porter's win. There has been a years long simmering effort by Republicans to force supervisor districts, but the rhetoric has shifted, perhaps because of this post where I show the math.

A district map would not produce the Board that the Farm Vote would see as "fair and representative," which would be a farmer from Solon, a farmer from Oxford, a farmer from Sharon Center, a farmer from Lone Tree, and one token liberal from In Town.

We used to have boards like that, and part of the rural resentment is that they no longer have that kind of over-representation. Rural Johnson County is 16% of the registered voters, and they have 20% of the supervisors in Lisa Green-Douglass. We also have one supervisor, Sullivan, who grew up on a family farm and carries that experience whatever his current residence is.

A district plan would not even produce the map Linn County had until this year with a "donut" rural district surrounding the cities. A district plan in Johnson would produce three Iowa City districts, a Coralville seat, and a district that would be just over half North Liberty, and would be more likely to shut out rural representation than increase it.

Instead, the backlash move will probably be for a reduction in seats from five to three. The Farm Vote may have concluded that they can't control or win a seat, but at least, they think, they can try to force two liberal Democrats out of a job, and if they're lucky it might be the black woman and the lesbian.

But they have to win an election to make that happen, and Johnson County urban voters are much much more tuned in to such gaming-the-rules shenanigans and local inside baseball  issues than they used to be. At the time of the March 2013 loss I wrote:
Johnson County has a lot of lefties who will call their legislators about an amendment to a bill that won't even get out of the funnel, rather than calling their neighbors to get out and vote in a local election. We have a lot of ivory tower types who are above gauche townie things like a zoning fight, which is why Iowa City's council had been business conservative dominated all my 20+ years here.
Those days are over. The Iowa City council, after decades of Chamber of Commerce control, flipped in 2015 with the sweep of all four seats on the ballot by the "Core Four" progressives. Iowa City business conservatives have learned that they will never again elect an unreconstructed townie good old boy like Terry Dickens or Ernie Lehman, and that to win they have to appeal to at least some liberals.

Tuesday's election may have been the same watershed moment in county politics. Hemingway had a lot of advantages - name ID from his general election and school board runs and a low turnout off-cycle election a week before Christmas that gave his Farm Vote base an edge. But he fell 1300 votes short as city turnout swamped that constant, steady, stagnant, finite 4000 person Farm Vote.

The rurals punched above their weight - but there are just a lot more voters in town than in the country. If the shrinking share of the county vote that is rural wants a seat at the table, they need to build a coalition and find a candidate who also appeals to the much larger base of voters in Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty.

And the old-fashioned philosophy that the county supervisors should do nothing except plow and grade the roads and rubber-stamp rezonings does not appeal to voters in Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty.

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