Good results for progressives in 2019 Iowa city, school elections

Iowa city and school board elections are nonpartisan, but in some races, the candidates’ party affiliations are clear. Democrats or candidates backed by organized labor won quite a few mayoral, city council, and school board races on November 5.


The Des Moines mayoral race will go to a December runoff, as former State Senator Jack Hatch and incumbent Frank Cownie (both Democrats) each received about 43 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results on the Polk County auditor’s website. It’s a huge accomplishment for Hatch to hold a four-term incumbent below 50 percent of the vote after entering the race less than two months ago. Bleeding Heartland will cover the candidates’ key messages in a forthcoming post.

In Davenport, where Mayor Frank Klipsch did not seek re-election, two city council members ran for mayor, and Mike Matson defeated Rita Rawson by a convincing 59 percent to 40 percent margin. Matson had support from organized labor, Democratic state lawmakers, and local progressives. Rawson was among the city officials who had sought to undermine the independence of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission.

One other notable result didn’t involve any Democrats, but is worth celebrating nonetheless. In Orange City, a town of about 6,000 in deep-red Sioux County, Mayor Deb De Haan won a fourth term by three-to-one margin over Kurt Korver,. Bret Hayworth reported for the Sioux City Journal that social conservatives had backed Korver and two city council challengers, claiming “the incumbents were not doing enough to speak out against an Orange City Pride festival that featured drag queen and king performers.” Though most Orange City residents are Republican, they resoundingly rejected Korver’s crusade against an alleged “homosexual and transgender agenda being pushed on our children and in the library.”


Ames is on the verge of making history, as 20-year-old Iowa State University student Rachel Junck outpolled city council member Chris Nelson. Unofficial results show she is just ten votes shy of 50 percent. Since Ames is a runoff city, Junck and Nelson will face off in December, unless late-arriving absentee ballots push her over 50 percent. If Junck prevails, she will be the youngest woman elected to any office in Iowa.

In Urbandale, a large suburb of Des Moines where three Republican incumbents did not seek re-election, Democrats won two of the three seats. Matt Blake was the top vote-getter with about 22 percent, followed by Bridget Carberry Montgomery at just under 20 percent. She will be the first woman to serve on the Urbandale council in eight years. Unofficial results showed John Bouslog likely to take the third seat, just twelve votes ahead of fellow Republican and former Urbandale school board member Adam Obrecht. CORRECTION: Obrecht finished slightly ahead of Bouslog for the third seat. Amazingly, local chamber of commerce leader Pat Pithan finished dead last of the six candidates.

While the Ankeny city council remains mostly Republican, Democrat Jeff Perry finished third of five candidates, good enough to take one of the three seats up for grabs.

Progressives Scott Syroka and Suresh Reddy won two of the three city council seats in Johnston, replacing retiring GOP incumbents. (City council member Tom Cope narrowly won the third seat.) Johnston used to be a Republican stronghold, but Democrats will comprise a majority of the council next year; Rhonda Martin won her seat two years ago.

In Des Moines, where most candidates are registered Democrats, a runoff is coming in Ward 2. City council member Linda Westergaard will be the favorite, having received just under 49 percent of the vote to 38 percent for Skip Moore. One progressive disappointment: city council member Joe Gatto won the Ward 4 race outright with about 55 percent of the vote against Chelsea Chism-Vargas.

Democratic candidates fell short in West Des Moines, where Republican lobbyist Matt McKinney defeated Ryan Crane in the at-large race, and Greg Hudson defeated Erin Cubit in Ward 2.

Outside central Iowa, progressives had a good night in Waterloo. Dave Boesen won the at-large city council seat by nearly a two-to-one margin. Occasional Bleeding Heartland guest author John Grieder will join the Waterloo city council as well. He was unopposed in Ward 2.

Janice Weiner and Laura Bergus won at-large city council seats in Iowa City. Two other progressives elected four years ago, John Thomas and Pauline Taylor, were unopposed for re-election this year. Not many years ago, chamber of commerce types dominated Iowa City government.


Iowa State Education Association-backed candidates won races in several large districts. Heather Anderson was re-elected to the Des Moines school board. She recently cast the lone vote against a contract that adversely affected staff represented by AFSCME.

Labor-backed candidates also swept:

  • all four seats in West Des Moines (Liz Cox, Lonnie Dafney, Jeff Hicks, and Jill Johnson)
  • all four seats in Iowa City (Charlie Eastham, Shawn Eyestone, Paul Roesler, and Lisa Williams)
  • all four seats in Council Bluffs (David Coziahr, Chris LaFerla, Troy Arthur, and Jill Shudak)
  • three out of four seats in Cedar Rapids (David Tominsky, Dexter Merschbrock, and Cindy Garlock)
  • three out of four seats in Davenport (Karen Kline-Jerome, Linda Hayes, and Dan Gosa)
  • three out of four seats in Sioux City (Juline Albert, Dan Greenwell, and Monique Scarlett)
  • Polk County Democrats executive director Judy Downs was re-elected to the Urbandale school board. The top two vote-getters in that race were Ashley Anderson and Katherine Howsare, also Democrats.

    Black Hawk County Democrats vice chair Nate Gruber won one of four school board seats in Cedar Falls.

    Alex Smith, former leader of the Southeast Dallas County Democrats, won one of three school board seats in Waukee. UPDATE: I forgot to mention Wendy Marsh, another progressive just elected to the Waukee board.

    I’ll update this post with other newsworthy results.

    P.S.–If you need convincing that every vote counts, Windsor Heights city council member Threase Harms leads one of her challengers by only four votes according to unofficial results. Late-arriving absentee ballots or a recount could change the outcome.

    UPDATE: Wapello County Democratic Party chair Zach Simonson says, “In Ottumwa labor-backed candidates took 4 of the 5 school board seats while the incumbent board president that lead a failed effort to scrap bargaining over permissive items was soundly defeated.”

    I forgot to mention that two Democrats won school board seats in Ankeny. Amy Tagliareni received the most votes, and Deshara Bohanna will be the first woman of color to serve on that school board.

    Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald posted city-level turnout figures. Mitchellville led the way at 32.07 percent, and Windsor Heights was second at 29.5 percent, even though there is no new sidewalk or speed limit proposal on the city’s agenda now.

    City-wide turnout in Des Moines was 20.91 percent. Paradoxically, turnout was lower in the wards with council members on the ballot: 14.72 percent in Ward 2 and 17.41 percent in Ward 4. Although the council members in Ward 1 and Ward 3 are not up for re-election until 2021, those neighborhoods include the more prosperous areas of Des Moines, and turnout tends to be correlated with socio-economic measures.

    LATER UPDATE: In Indianola, where administrators tried (but failed) to remove benefits from the teacher contract negotiated earlier this year, two of the three labor-endorsed candidates won seats on the school board (Donna Kreamer and Ben Metzger).

    FINAL UPDATE: Polk County Democrats chair Sean Bagniewski posted on Twitter on November 10 that before this year’s elections, Democrats held 37 percent of city council seats in Iowa’s largest county. After newly-elected members are sworn in, that percentage will rise to 60 percent. Polk County Democrats executive director Judy Downs (who also serves on the Urbandale school board) made those calculations.

    Top image: From left, newly-elected Urbandale city council member Matt Blake, newly-elected Urbandale city council member Bridget Carberry Montgomery, newly-elected Davenport Mayor Mike Matson, and Rachel Junck, who leads in an Ames city council election.

    About the Author(s)

    Laura Belin

    • Don't forget small towns

      This is all great news, but democrats must also do well, or at least get a larger minority, of rural votes.