Let’s start with the good news: Democrat Royceann Porter made history by winning the December 18 special election for Johnson County supervisor. The longtime community activist and labor organizer gained 5,444 votes (56 percent) to 4,167 votes (43 percent) for Republican Phil Hemingway, a member of the Iowa City school board. Porter is the first African American to win a county-wide office in Johnson County and will be one of four women on a five-member board that never had more than two women serving at the same time before this November’s election.
John Deeth took a granular look at the county’s urban and rural voting patterns in his preview of this election and his analysis of the unofficial results. He sees signs of a possible “watershed moment in county politics.”
While a Democrat winning in “the People’s Republic of Johnson County” might not seem newsworthy, Porter’s victory was not a foregone conclusion. A Republican won a low-turnout special election for a county supervisor seat in 2013. The compressed time frame for the special election gave Porter only four weeks to build up her name recognition. Her opponent was better-known, having already won local office. The Farm Bureau chapter drummed up support for Hemingway with a mass mailing, which was unprecedented for a county race, according to longtime area politics-watchers.
Porter also had to contend with a tremendous amount of implicit bias among voters who probably would not consider themselves racist.
Paul Deaton volunteered for Porter and shared these thoughts after the results came in.
During the campaign I found racism was still alive in the county. Those of us who talk to voters and have over the last couple of decades are well aware of Johnson County’s endemic racism. Porter herself has been working for racial justice in the county. Voters I meet don’t look at themselves as racist, although Royceann’s candidacy scratched it like a rash. It showed itself in characteristic fashion in unexpected, unwelcome places among people in my circle of acquaintances. The euphemisms were several: “Hemingway is better qualified.” “Did you see her at the forum?” “We need rural representation.” These were Democratic voters I spoke to and the attempts to distract from their racism wore thin and saddened me.
I heard similar anecdotes from local acquaintances, frustrated after talking to voters who should have backed Porter, based on their policy stances, but were on the fence due to a perception that the older white guy was more qualified for the job. That impression was unfounded, as Supervisor Janelle Rettig explained in a December 15 Facebook post.
Let me make a lot of enemies right now. So called progressive white people talking about how the white conservative male in the Supervisors race is “more qualified” or “more articulate” is not only wrong, but shows implicit [bias]. I have been to almost every forum the Republican has been part of in his many runs for office. He does not know more than Royceann about County government. Rocyeann has been to more Supervisors meetings than him and served on more County committees. He has attended one Board meeting and has never shown any interest in County government.
All the talk about our salaries comes up right as we are about to elect the first person of color to Johnson County government and have a majority female Supervisors? JC Supervisors make 75% of [county treasurer] Tom Kriz, [county recorder] Kim Painter and [county auditor] Travis Weipert and about $30,000 less than our all male colleagues in Linn County.
I work hard for my wages, I work nights, weekends. I attend dozens of fundraisers and donate a significant part of my salary. If you want good, smart visionary people to run for office and be that engaged, then pay them.
Sexism, racism, something is going on right now and it stinks.
If you are liberal, then Royceann Porter is the choice. Johnson County doesn’t need a conservative Republican representing us.
Deeth took a more optimistic view in his post-election piece.
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.
I certainly hope so. Meanwhile, this campaign is a reminder that even in Iowa’s most liberal county, a lot of white people are susceptible to racial stereotypes about who’s capable to lead.
Porter has two years to prove herself before she’ll be on the ballot for a full four-year term. She’s replacing Kurt Friese, who passed away in October.
P.S.- U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a possible 2020 presidential candidate, built up goodwill among Johnson County Democrats by recording this video to GOTV for Porter, “an extraordinary person who inspires me,” in this “critical election.”
P.P.S.- Even if Porter had lost this week, women would have held a majority of the Johnson County supervisor seats for the first time. Pat Heiden was elected on November 7, having prevailed over Democratic incumbent Mike Carberry in the June primary. Heiden’s mother, Eileen Heiden, was the first woman elected to the Crawford County board of supervisors in 1972.
UPDATE: Former Johnson County Auditor Tom Slockett commented on Facebook,
Coincidentally, 1972 is the same year Lorada Cilek was the first woman to be elected to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. Johnson County had three supervisors back then, instead of five. And in 1972, Lorada and Eileen [Heiden] were two of only six women serving on county boards in Iowa.
Top image: Johnson County supervisors after results came in on December 18. From left: Janelle Rettig, Royceann Porter, Rod Sullivan, Lisa Green-Douglass, and Pat Heiden. Photo by Bill Waldie, shared by Lisa Green-Douglass and used with permission.