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 challenger 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.