Des Moines City Council Ward 3 forum: Neighborhoods and advocates

Thanks to Stefanie Running for a play-by-play of the October 10 candidate forum for Des Moines City Council Ward 3, featuring Michael Kiernan, Josh Mandelbaum, and Abshir Omar. First-person accounts of campaign events are always welcome at Bleeding Heartland. -promoted by desmoinesdem

6:30 PM
It’s really a lovely night. Mid 60s, you can smell fall emerging from the hundred-year-old neighborhood trees and the glowing sunset inching forward sooner each day. Max Knauer and Kate Allen have been working with neighborhood associations and advocacy groups since August putting this forum together. I volunteer as a social chair for Gray’s Lake Neighborhood Association (GLNA), so I’ve seen the work that they’ve put into the program. They’ve scheduled the forum right in the heart of my own neighborhood, so it’s barely a half mile for me to travel.

As I arrive, other neighborhood reps are setting up, Knauer fields questions from co-sponsors and attendees alike. The candidates arrive. I’ve spoken to all three digitally via email or facebook. Tonight I introduce myself. I’m Stefanie Running. I’ll be the rep for this very neighborhood. I’ll also be writing about tonight’s forum for Bleeding Heartland. All three are gracious and welcoming.

Unpacking my camera gear, I realize it’s non-functional. I forgot something. I can’t go back home because the event is about to start and I didn’t drive. So I sit and I prepare to take notes. I apologize, dear reader, for my lack of photos. That’s my favorite part. Sadly, what I lack in photos, I’m going to make up for in article length. I apologize in advance.

To make this article a little more readable, from this point on I’ll show the panelist’s comments in bold, the candidate responses will be in standard font, and my own comments in italics.

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Twelve depressing facts about racial disparities in Polk County

The Des Moines metro area has received top-ten rankings from dozens of national organizations or publications that evaluate the job climate, housing markets, or other factors affecting the quality of life.

Unfortunately, extensive research on the State of Black Polk County revealed “significant racial disparities in the traditional economic and financial indicators including banking, savings, employment, and housing.” The Directors Council and State Public Policy Group coordinated the yearlong project, producing the first-ever “snapshot of the financial stability and well-being of African Americans and Africans living in Polk County.” Iowa’s largest county is home to more than 31,000 black people, a little less than 30 percent of the estimated statewide African-American population.

I first learned of this study, now nearly six months old, when Teree Caldwell-Johnson presented key findings to congregants at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines during a break between Yom Kippur services on September 30. The full report is after the jump. For each portion, I’ve highlighted the facts and figures that most struck me.

These numbers partially explain why analysts for 24/7 Wall Street ranked the Des Moines metro area the country’s ninth-worst city for black people in 2015 and the third-worst last year.

On a related note: The Fifth Annual Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities, co-sponsored by the NAACP, is happening in Ankeny next Tuesday, October 10. More details are here and near the end of this post.

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Weekend thread: 2017 elections edition

Many posts about Iowa’s 2018 campaigns for state and federal offices are in progress, but for this weekend, I want to focus on elections happening in 2017. The weather looks almost perfect for the last few days of GOTV in Jefferson, Davis, and Van Buren counties, where voters will choose a successor to State Representative Curt Hanson this Tuesday. The House district 82 special election may not foreshadow what happens in next year’s legislative races, but the outcome could shape the media narrative about whether Democrats or Republicans have momentum in small-town and rural Iowa, which in turn could influence people thinking about running for the state House or Senate in 2018. If you’ve been knocking on doors or phone banking in House district 82, please share your stories in the comments.

August 3 was the filing deadline for the September 12 school board elections across Iowa. In future years, school board and local elections will be held on the same day of November in odd-numbered years. Proponents say the shift will increase turnout. John Deeth isn’t a fan of the change.

Candidates for city council or mayor will need to submit nominating papers between August 28 and September 21 in most Iowa towns, which don’t hold primaries before the November local election. (The filing period for local candidates runs from August 14 to 31 in cities that sometimes hold primary as well as general elections for local offices; this document explains more.)

Anyone thinking about running for school board or city office should read Lauren Whitehead’s advice on waging a successful local campaign.

Iowa’s most closely-watched city elections include the Cedar Rapids mayoral race, where Monica Vernon is one of several well-known local figures hoping to succeed Ron Corbett, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. (Former State Representative Tyler Olson considered that race but decided against it.)

Four candidates have announced in Des Moines City Council Ward 3, where longtime incumbent Christine Hensley opted to retire: Josh Mandelbaum, Michael Kiernan, Chris Draper, and Abshir Omar. Mandelbaum has the most backing from local political leaders and organized labor. CORRECTION: Draper recently dropped out of the city council race.

Quite a few central Iowa incumbents don’t yet have challengers, as far as I know, including the mayors of West Des Moines and Urbandale.

I expect an intense city council campaign in Windsor Heights, where some residents are outraged that sidewalks are finally being installed on three streets near two elementary schools. You probably don’t understand why hundreds of people in this small suburb fiercely oppose making the neighborhood more walkable. I can’t explain it either, even after living through several of these battles during the past fifteen years. Most residents of the Des Moines metro area find sidewalks convenient but otherwise unremarkable. For whatever reason, multiple city council races in Windsor Heights have turned into a referendum on the sidewalks question. Even though the city is paying the full cost of the installations this summer, I expect a strong backlash from the anti-sidewalk contingent in November.

When Iowa Republicans destroyed all meaningful collective bargaining rights for public employees earlier this year, they also enacted major union-busting provisions, such as frequent re-certification elections for public-sector labor unions, under rules making it difficult and costly for a union to remain certified. Those elections will begin in September Brianne Pfannenstiel reported this week in the Des Moines Register. Excerpts from that story are after the jump.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

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Michael Kiernan running for open Des Moines city council seat

Former Des Moines City Council member Michael Kiernan announced yesterday that he will run for the open seat in Ward 3 this year, focusing on an “agenda of improving public safety, fixing potholes and continuing progress.” He held the at-large city council seat from 2004 to 2010 and served as Iowa Democratic Party state chair from January 2009 to June 2010. You can find his campaign on Facebook and on Twitter @mjkiernan.

Josh Mandelbaum has been campaigning in Ward 3 for the last two months. His strong challenge drove 24-year incumbent Christine Hensley to retire rather than seek re-election. Now that the odds of a Democrat winning this seat have increased, Kiernan has decided to give it a shot. In a thinly-veiled swipe at Mandelbaum, Kiernan posted on Facebook yesterday, “I’ve been hearing a lot about crime in our city lately. I keep expecting to hear people who say they want to serve our community talk about this issue. Instead, all I’m hearing about is political endorsements and campaign war chests.” He echoed the talking point in his news release and on Twitter: “Lot of talk about politics, political endorsements and political cash…no talk of public safety. That’s why I am running.”

If Kiernan had attended Mandelbaum’s first event as a candidate, he would have heard his opponent talk about many substantive issues including “the importance of public health and public safety” and “providing resources to our first responders, police and fire.” Granted, Mandelbaum’s campaign did announce last month that he had raised more than $110,000 in three weeks, “recruited over 150 volunteers to help door-knock and hold house parties, and will soon have an elected official and labor leader endorsement list.” Taking on an entrenched incumbent requires a lot of groundwork, including early fundraising and lining up prominent supporters. But contrary to the impression Kiernan is trying to create, endorsements and cash have not been the focus of Mandelbaum’s message to Des Moines residents. You can read or listen to his first speech as a candidate here.

I enclose below a map of the ward, covering west-side and south-side neighborhoods, as well as Kiernan’s news release, more background on his life and career, and the list of elected officials backing Mandelbaum. (His campaign hasn’t rolled out the labor endorsements yet.)

Mandelbaum has not publicly commented on Kiernan entering the race. I anticipate his case to Democratic voters will be similar to a statement his campaign released after Hensley disclosed her retirement plans: “When this race looked impossible to win, Josh stepped up to run because the values we share as a community were being threatened everyday.” I’ve closely followed Mandelbaum’s work over the years and will encourage voters in the ward to support him, because of his skills and commitment to progressive policies.

Local elections are non-partisan, but I expect some Republican backed by corporate interests to join the field in Ward 3 before long. I welcome tips on other possible candidates.

UPDATE: Added below new comments from Kiernan, who answered some questions by phone on May 18.

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With Hensley out, who will business interests run against Josh Mandelbaum?

Christine Hensley will not seek re-election to the Des Moines City Council this year, she announced today in an interview with the Business Record. The 24-year incumbent told Perry Beeman, “I’ve got a tremendous amount done, and it’s time for me to look at the next chapter and figure out what I’m going to do.” Hensley discussed spending “a little more time with family” and didn’t mention her challenger Josh Mandelbaum, though his capacity to run an effective campaign likely factored into her retirement plans.

The race for Des Moines City Council Ward 3 was shaping up to be a focal point for central Iowa progressives. Mandelbaum has raised more $110,000 in less than a month as a candidate, his campaign told Iowa Starting Line today. More than 150 people have volunteered to help spread the word.

While winning an open seat is usually easier than beating an entrenched incumbent, no one should celebrate victory too soon. Republicans and business groups will surely recruit and heavily promote someone to run in Hensley’s place. Proxies of the Iowa Farm Bureau have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television and radio advertising bashing the Des Moines Water Works during the last two years, so I anticipate a well-funded smear campaign against Mandelbaum. Countering that message will require a strong grassroots effort. City council races are usually low-turnout affairs, so a few thousand people will decide the outcome. You can sign up to volunteer here.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the west-side and south-side neighborhoods that are part of ward 3 (a map is at the end of this post). That reality, along with Mandelbaum’s early start and big fundraising, may deter other potential candidates. But some ambitious person with business connections will step up. Any speculation about who might enter the Des Moines City Council race is welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Mandelbaum released the following statement on today’s news.

I want to thank Councilwoman Hensley for serving her community for 24 years. While Councilwoman Hensley and I have our disagreements, we should all honor and respect the work that all of our civil servants do every day to make our community stronger.This race was and still is about representing the interests, values, and concerns of the residents of Des Moines. I will continue to champion clean water, strong neighborhoods with strong public schools, and investing in people through policies that support decent wages. I also want to thank my supporters. The outpouring of support throughout the community in the month since we have announced has made it clear that Des Moines is ready for a progressive voice on the City Council. With your continued support, we will be prepared to fight outside special interests that have been attacking champions of clean water like what the so-called Partnership for Clean Water has done to Bill Stowe and the Des Moines Water Works. This election will still be a fight to be won even if it’s not the original one we anticipated when we announced one month ago. This campaign has just begun and I look forward to continued conversations with residents throughout the third ward as I keep running vigorously all the way through Nov. 7th, 2017. Thank you again-

According to Jason Frerichs of the Progressive Voices of Iowa blog, he has interviewed another Democrat planning to run for city council in this ward. Will update once that person’s identity is known.

P.S.- Hensley’s decision to stand with the Farm Bureau against her local water utility was a political mistake as well as a betrayal of her constituents. And it was all for nothing, because despite lobbying by groups including the city of Des Moines, the plan to dismantle the Water Works stalled in the Iowa House and won’t be attached to an appropriations bill this year. Since the Water Works lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties will not move forward, state lawmakers will have little reason to pursue this goal during the 2018 legislative session either.

P.P.S.- If outgoing Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett seeks the Republican nomination for governor in 2018, as I expect him to do, Hensley will be a leading contender for the lieutenant governor spot on his ticket.

APRIL 24 UPDATE: Multiple central Iowa sources have relayed a rumor that Hensley is being considered for the lieutenant governor position under Kim Reynolds after Governor Terry Branstad leaves for China. Offering Hensley that job could be a way for Reynolds (who has a big head start on fundraising for the 2018 governor’s race) to hurt Corbett’s ability to tap major Republican donors in the Des Moines area. If Hensley joined the Reynolds administration, it would be a slap in the face to Corbett, with whom she has worked closely as an original board member of the Partnership for Clean Water.

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Josh Mandelbaum taking on Des Moines City Council member Christine Hensley

Promising to be a “voice for strong neighborhoods and strong schools,” defending local interests and fighting harmful state policies, Josh Mandelbaum confirmed Thursday night that he will run for Des Moines City Council against 24-year incumbent Christine Hensley. I enclose below the audio and full transcript of Mandelbaum’s first campaign speech, along with background on the candidate and a map of Ward 3, which covers west-side neighborhoods south of University Avenue and much of the south side.

I’ve been acquainted with Mandelbaum since before he was a policy advisor for Governor Tom Vilsack and Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson. More recently, I’ve closely observed his work on renewable energy and clean water issues through our mutual involvement in Iowa environmental circles. I’m an active supporter of the non-profit Environmental Law & Policy Center, where Mandelbaum is a staff attorney. Last year Midwest Energy News named Mandelbaum to its “40 Under 40” list of list of “emerging leaders” working on “America’s transition to a clean energy economy.” He was one of only two Iowans to receive that recognition.

Even if I couldn’t personally vouch for Mandelbaum’s talent and work ethic, I would be excited to see a progressive willing to take on this incumbent. Hensley’s 2015 vote to extend a tax abatement program was indirectly a vote to benefit her employer. Timothy Meinch reported for the Des Moines Register at the time that the city attorney “warned of an ‘appearance of impropriety’ and ‘potential of a conflict of interest’” before Hensley “cast a pivotal vote in favor of developers.” Des Moines Cityview’s Civic Skinny column explained here how Hensley’s deciding vote benefited Midwest Housing Equity Group, “an Omaha-based firm that syndicates and sells tax credits from developers” where she “is a director and paid consultant.”

Hensley has given Des Moines residents plenty of other reasons to look for new representation. Mandelbaum covered several of them in the remarks I transcribed below. Her most egregious act was joining the small board of directors of the Orwellian-named Iowa Partnership for Clean Water. This advocacy organization grew out of the Iowa Farm Bureau’s desire to discredit the Des Moines Water Works, which delivers drinking water to half a million central Iowans, including all of Hensley’s constituents. My theory is that Hensley hitched her wagon to this cause in the hope of becoming Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett’s running mate in the 2018 race for governor. Whatever her motives, she chose to stand with Big Ag against her own city’s utility, despite evidence connecting farm runoff with high nitrate levels and toxic algae blooms that threaten the local water supply.

This year Hensley urged the city council to support legislation that would disband the Des Moines Water Works. The bill is widely understood to be retribution for the Water Works lawsuit against drainage districts in northwest Iowa (see the first part of this post). Mandelbaum spoke against House File 484 at a public hearing earlier this month; scroll down to view the video.

Taking on an entrenched incumbent is always an uphill battle, especially for a first-time candidate. Hensley will raise a ton of money. Even so, this race is winnable for Mandelbaum. City council elections are low-turnout affairs. Hensley didn’t have a challenger in 2005 or in 2009 and defeated Cal Woods by 3,536 votes to 2,248 four years ago.

Ward 3 “has an overwhelming Democratic registration advantage and has a D+20 performance index,” Pat Rynard noted last month. The Water Works issue alone is highly salient for Des Moines residents. A large number of teachers and public workers live on the west and south sides of Des Moines, as do many progressives interested in economic and social justice. If Mandelbaum can tap into outrage over statehouse Republicans destroying collective bargaining rights and lowering the minimum wage in Polk County, don’t bet against him turning out a few thousand Democrats who have never voted in a local election before. He won’t be able to match Hensley’s fundraising, but with Pederson and former Attorney General Bonnie Campbell co-chairing his campaign, he should raise enough money to get his message out to Ward 3 residents.

This race will be one of the most important local elections in central Iowa this November. Please spread the word.

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