Few words of politics were uttered as Cedar Rapids prepared for and experienced the floods of 2016. But the makings of Iowa’s next governor may have been forged in the tense week as the city battled back the second-highest ever crest of the Cedar River.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett was a constant, public presence for the city as sandbags were filled, plans were detailed and temporary flood barriers were erected. In just a few days, the city constructed nine miles of tall, impenetrable barriers to hold back the water. Many of the areas ravaged and destroyed from the 2008 flood evacuated. When the river rose well above flood stage, the city watched and held their breath as the water pushed against the makeshift walls. But the barriers held, and the city was saved from another catastrophe.
In the daily press conferences late this week, after the worst of the dangers had passed, Corbett began musing on the nature of leadership and community to the assembled media. Many of the themes he discussed seemed like it could easily be the early development of a campaign message. Earlier in the week, when the river hit its crest, he related the flood preparations to Election Day – you do everything you can and then watch it play out on the big day. Perhaps a little thought of his own future campaign crept into his head at the time.
Corbett, the city’s two-term mayor and former Speaker of the Iowa House, has been rumored for over a year now to be eying a run for governor in 2018 if Terry Branstad passes on another reelection bid. He’s not as big of a name in other parts of the state as potential candidates like Kim Reynolds and Bill Northey are, but his donor connections and background are solid enough to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the primary. And now he would bring to the race a compelling story of how he and his fellow local leaders helped Cedar Rapids survive a potential natural disaster.
Some the ads write themselves, with quotes like how the city’s briefings were “a model of open government in the face of disaster” from the Des Moines Register, and stories of how Corbett refused to accept a plan that would have only protected the wealthier side of the river.
Of course, as the saying goes, it’s better to be lucky in politics than good. And Corbett certainly got his fair share of luck with the 2016 flood. The city had learned a considerable amount of lessons from experiencing the 2008 flood, so Corbett entered this ordeal in a much better position than his predecessor. The Cedar River crested in 2008 at 31 feet, while this year it was just under 22 feet (less than initial predictions) – still plenty dangerous, but manageable. And the plan worked – just one small break in the walls could have sent water rushing into neighborhoods or business districts once again. Had it failed, critics may have taken a much closer look into Corbett and the city council’s spending in the years since (even though much of the funding blame is at the federal level). Instead, the city emerged largely unscathed and with a stronger sense of community than ever before.
Corbett already would enter the GOP primary with a big advantage of coming from one of the state’s largest population centers, something most other potential rivals lack. Kim Reynolds is well-known now after six years as Branstad’s Lt. Governor, but she lacks a clear geographic and ideological base of support. Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has kept a clean profile and should run well in the rural counties. An evangelical candidate from the Bob Vander Platts crowd could bank votes in Western Iowa.
And Corbett’s handling of the flood would resonate well across the many Eastern Iowa counties that have faced similar fights. And although the eastern half of the state isn’t as Republican, it’s still where most of Iowa’s population lies.
Where Corbett looks even stronger is in the general election. He could blunt Democrats’ advantage in Linn County and now has an attractive message that cuts across party lines. Imagine the pitch he could make: The federal government was too inept and broken to provide the protection Cedar Rapids desperately needed, so we banded together as a community and saved the city ourselves. That’s the same kind of mentality we need all across Iowa, and I know how to do it.
Democrats and Republicans need to keep a much closer eye on the Cedar Rapids mayor after the 2016 election concludes and early jockeying for 2018 begins – both to be aware of his strengths and to prepare to take him on.
by Pat Rynard