Johnson County has a more fitting namesake

Johnson County’s five supervisors voted unanimously on June 24 “to recognize Lulu Merle Johnson as the official eponym” of Iowa’s fourth-largest county. The previous namesake was Richard Mentor Johnson, who had no ties to the area but was U.S. vice president when the county was established in 1837.

Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan had floated the idea of choosing a different namesake four years ago, noting that Richard Mentor Johnson was a slave-owner who “killed Native Americans indiscriminately.” The idea picked up steam in the summer of 2020 after Ron McMullen published a guest column in the Iowa City Press-Citizen about the “particularly despicable” man for whom the county is named.

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Lulu Merle Johnson would be a fitting namesake for Johnson County

UPDATE: The Johnson County supervisors moved forward with this plan in September 2020.

The first decision of Iowa’s territorial Supreme Court affirmed a former slave’s right to remain out of bondage. Iowa gained statehood as a “free” state and sent thousands of boys and men to fight and die for the Union during the Civil War.

Nevertheless, our state’s fourth-largest county is named after a “particularly despicable” slave-owner. That needs to change, and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors took a first step toward doing so this week.

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Royceann Porter overcame hidden racism in historic victory

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.

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Keeping all our options open: A vision for a "new century farm" in Johnson County

Thanks to Kurt Friese for this perspective on a controversy that brings together concerns over land use, local foods, and affordable housing. Fellow Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan explained his vote on the proposal here. -promoted by desmoinesdem

It what might be called the most contentious vote of my time so far on the Board of Supervisors, on June 23 we chose one of three potential concepts for “phase 2” of the planning for the historic Johnson County Poor Farm. The concept, titled “New Century Farm,” is the most ambitious of the three, and is the only one of the three that keeps all our options open.

What it does not do is sell off public land to private developers, nor “pave the poor farm,” nor create urban sprawl. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a little background.

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Facebook and the Women's March

Johnson County Supervisor Kurt Friese on the big news from this weekend. -promoted by desmoinesdem

If you follow me on Facebook then you know I post a lot. Too much for some. I get that. But Saturday was special.

As an active FB user I notice the responses (or lack thereof) that my posts get. In 10 years on the medium, I have never seen a response like I did on Saturday as a result of the #WomensMarch. By far the most likes, reactions, replies, reposts, etc. that I have ever received. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a chef and a politician, so I have a healthy ego, but even I know that the reason for this huge reaction has nothing to do with me. It ain’t the messenger, it’s the message.

I am old enough to remember the protests against the war in Viet Nam. The first protest I ever saw live was in DC in 1974, a large crowd outside the Soviet embassy shouting “Freedom for Ukraine.” (Guess we might see that again). The biggest I ever participated in was the protest against the Iraq war. Until yesterday.

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GOP wins first Johnson County supervisor seat in 50 years

Ever hear that Republicans are more reliable voters in bad weather? The same day a snowstorm closed most schools in the Iowa City area, Republicans appear to have won their first seat on the Johnson County supervisors since 1962. With 57 of 58 precincts reporting, GOP candidate John Etheredge had 3,040 votes, while Democrat Terry Dahms had 2,931 votes. The only precinct left to report had just 82 voters as of 6 pm. UPDATE: With all precincts in, Etheredge leads Dahms by 3,102 votes to 2,974 votes. In a low-turnout election like this one, I doubt there will be enough late-arriving absentee ballots to overcome that margin (narrow as it is).

A Republican won a few Johnson County elections for sheriff in the 1970s and 1980s, but the last GOP supervisor in the “people’s republic” finished his term in 1962. Iowa City-based blogger John Deeth tried to warn local Democrats to vote early in case of a snowstorm. But early voting was low, and total turnout was a pathetic 6.65 percent.

Today’s special election fills the vacancy created when Democrat Sally Stutsman won Iowa House district 77 last November.

UPDATE: Deeth comments on how Johnson County Democrats fell asleep at the switch: “Blame the weather? Maybe. But that doesn’t explain the much lower early vote total. We saw that coming two weeks out. It doesn’t explain Dahms’ narrower early vote margin, which should have been 3 to 1 rather than 60-40.”

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