Cedar Rapids mayoral race offers contrast in values, priorities

Cedar Rapids residents will elect either Amara Andrews or Tiffany O’Donnell to be city’s third woman mayor on November 30. O’Donnell received about 42 percent of the votes cast in the November 2 general election. Andrews advanced to the runoff with about 28 percent of the vote, just 41 votes ahead of outgoing Mayor Brad Hart, who endorsed O’Donnell the following week.

While O’Donnell has to be considered the favorite going into Tuesday, the general election leader has lost Cedar Rapids runoff elections at least two times in the recent past. Anything can happen in a low-turnout race, and voter participation usually drops in runoffs.

Although Iowa’s local elections are nonpartisan, some candidates have revealed their party affiliations as one way of expressing their values. Andrews has been campaigning as a progressive Democrat who will make the city more equitable and fair. In contrast, O’Donnell has downplayed her Republican affiliation and presented herself as a candidate for “all of Cedar Rapids.”

“BOLD ENOUGH TO ADDRESS THE ISSUES THAT OTHERS SHY AWAY FROM”

Like many candidates for local offices, Andrews has had a successful career in business and has talked about her experience helping entrepreneurs.

But unlike most local candidates (at least in Iowa), she has also been willing to highlight the needs of underserved communities, structural inequities, bias in the criminal justice system, and environmental justice. In her introductory video, Andrews said, “This campaign is going to be about teachers and ironworkers. It will be about the poor and frontline workers. It’ll be about you.” A supporter descried the candidate as “bold enough to address the issues that others shy away from.”

Andrews has promised to “hold our city to our commitments made in our Community Climate Action Plan,” and to advocate for “public schools that work for all of our children.” She is involved with several community organizations and is both board president for The Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success and board vice president for the Advocates for Social Justice, a local group focusing on racial inequities.

One of her endorsers, State Representative Ross Wilburn (who is also a former mayor of Iowa City), praised Andrews’ “passion for equitable infrastructure to her dedication to funding community services,” adding, “I know that Amara Andrews will fight for the future that Cedar Rapids deserves. There’s no Democratic or Republican way to build a road, but there is a clear difference between who has a say in where that road goes. Amara believes local government should work for everyone.”

Deidre DeJear, a Democratic candidate for governor, endorsed Andrews by saying she “will bring the community together by ensuring that everyone is heard, no matter your background or who you are. She will create an economy where everyone has a seat at the table, working towards a more equitable Cedar Rapids.”

Although about 8 percent of city residents are Black, Cedar Rapids has never elected a woman of color to the city council or as mayor. The Andrews campaign has emphasized that “representation matters,” and that all people deserve an opportunity to succeed.

“MY STORY IS A LOT LIKE YOURS”

Most first-time candidates have to work hard to build name recognition, but O’Donnell was already well-known locally. For fifteen years, she worked as a reporter and news anchor for the television station CBS2/Fox28. Her latest campaign ad plays up that part of her background. O’Donnell tells the viewer, “My story is a lot like yours.”

O’Donnell has been active with many Cedar Rapids organizations. She has campaigned as someone who will represent the entire community (fixing streets, dealing with derecho clean-up and flood protection, making the city desirable for young people), without addressing any specific problems for marginalized groups. Marissa Payne reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette in October,

Her campaign sells T-shirts that say, “The Party of Cedar Rapids,” followed by a list of three checked boxes next to the words “Republican,” “Democrat” and “Independent.”

“I’m running in this race because it is nonpartisan,” O’Donnell said during The Gazette’s forum. “I firmly believe that we have an opportunity to show the world how this works. We can be a solutions-based government. … We are the party of Cedar Rapids, and I wholeheartedly embrace that.”

Many Linn County Democrats fear that if elected, O’Donnell will reveal herself to be a right-wing Donald Trump sycophant like U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson, who used to cultivate an image as an inclusive moderate. In fairness to O’Donnell, she has donated to two Democratic candidates for local offices and gave $100 to gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell in 2018. A state campaign finance database shows Hinson has exclusively donated to Republican candidates and committees in Iowa.

However, O’Donnell’s financial disclosure shows she picked one of the most hyper-partisan Iowa Republican consulting firms, the Concordia Group and Global Direct Mail and Marketing, to handle various services for her campaign. Global Direct Mail & Marketing president Craig Robinson and Concordia Group founder and CEO Nick Ryan have sometimes deployed the worst kind of divisive politics when it serves their goals or their clients’ interests.

Also worth noting: Iowa Republicans spent heavily on a partisan campaign for city and school board candidates in Ankeny this fall. In that light, attempts to shame Andrews for being a proud Democrat are laughable.

I don’t see any virtue in running a “nonpartisan” campaign for local office. It’s easy to say you are for “solutions-based government.” But party affiliations often shape how people view which problems are worth addressing and which solutions are worth considering. From Payne’s October story for the Gazette:

Noting the saying that paving roads is not a partisan issue, Megan Goldberg, an assistant professor of American politics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, said that while there are not Democratic and Republican ways to patch a pothole, policy outcomes can perpetuate inequality at the local level.

For a candidate like Andrews, a social justice advocate who would become the first Black mayor of Cedar Rapids, those policies matter locally, Goldberg said.

“They’re sort of arguing that actually there are ways to pave roads or build highways or local infrastructure that does perpetuate structural racism, and that is very tied up in partisanship,” Goldberg said.

That said, mayoral elections over the past 25 years suggest Cedar Rapids voters may be receptive to O’Donnell’s message. Residents of Iowa’s second-largest city have mostly favored Democratic candidates for state legislature, statewide, and federal offices for many decades. But of the last five people to serve as mayor, only Kay Halloran was a Democrat. Since 1996, Republicans Lee Clancey, Paul Pate, Ron Corbett, and Brad Hart have held the mayor’s office for all but four years (Halloran’s tenure from 2006 through 2009).

None of the Republicans who won those elections campaigned as arch conservatives. Clancey was a moderate who endorsed Al Gore for president in 2000. (That decision later cost her a seat on a powerful state commission.) Corbett came around to supporting project labor agreements for large city projects. Hart supported mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic and is for legalizing cannabis.

Even so, why would any Democratic-leaning voter settle for a Republican mayor when a candidate committed to progressive values is on the ballot? I will encourage my Cedar Rapids contacts to support Andrews.

Top photos of Amara Andrews (left) and Tiffany O’Donnell taken from the candidates’ Facebook pages.

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