For Democrats looking to rebuild in Iowa following our 2016 losses, two dates in 2017 loom large: September 12 and November 7. That’s when Iowa’s elections for school boards and municipal elected positions are to be held, respectively (there’s also a October 10 primary date for city offices in some counties). This is where the first electoral steps can be taken to rebuild the Democrats’ bench and move policies back to the left at the local level.
A bigger focus on 2017 mayoral, city council and school board elections by the Iowa Democratic Party and/or activists could reap many benefits. First off, it would give Democratic volunteers something to do and fight for.
One of the larger problems for longterm engagement within the party in Iowa is the cyclical nature of our campaigns. We get all revved up for the last six months of every even-numbered year for the big general elections, when the party deploys a large field staff across the state to recruit volunteers. Every four or eight years we get involved with the presidential campaigns in the Iowa Caucus, mostly during an odd-numbered year (2007 and 2015). Sometimes the caucus ends with a reinvigorated state party, sometimes it ends with a more fractured and divided one.
But what about years like 2017, where there are no big statewide races? Where does all the enthusiasm and energy from party activists go then?
The answer to this specific upcoming year is that the energy will first go into the battle at the Statehouse, where Republicans will try to ram through an extreme agenda with their new majorities. But after session adjourns, motivated Democrats will need something to hold them over until the 2018 gubernatorial primary really gets going. An IDP that encouraged involvement in those 2017 local races could help keep that fire burning.
What could that encouragement look like? Honestly, it could be as simple as picking a dozen races that the state party highlights on its social media, in emails, in a couple volunteer asks and by sending out a high-profile Iowa Democrat to headline a fundraiser or rally. An extra investment by sending out absentee ballot mailers or some staff time would nice as well, but again, I’m trying to stick to ideas that don’t cost a lot of money.
By picking a couple races that are important, but in cities that are relatively Democratic-leaning, you could also claim some morale-boosting credit when Democrats win several of those local offices. And any ambitious local candidates could use the publicity to set themselves up for higher office.
It shouldn’t be that hard to improve Democrats’ standing at the local level. Prior to this election, only 23% of elected officials in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District were registered Democrats. Winning some key small town city council races could plant the seeds of taking back County Auditors and supervisor seats in 2018.
There would be some complications – school boards are nonpartisan, as are many of the municipal offices (it varies in some counties), so the state party’s involvement may not be possible or helpful in some cases. But when turnout for these races rarely top 17%, a little bit of focused assistance here or there could make a significant difference.
Iowa municipalities and school boards will also become increasingly important for pushing progressive priorities forward (they already were, of course, but even moreso now with Republicans controlling everything else). Republicans may wipe out individual counties and municipalities’ ability to raise their minimum wages and roll back current increases, but there’s plenty of other fights to look at.
The Des Moines City Council could factor heavily into how the water quality debate moves forward. After the Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit, some interest groups are pushing to change what a water utility can do and how its members are appointed. School boards could be forced into many tough choices if Republicans opt to gut public education funding and/or implement vouchers. Having the right people making those decisions could lessen the negative fallout for Iowa’s children, at least by a bit.
Here’s something else to consider: if a President Donald Trump carries through with his mass deportation scheme, local municipalities will find themselves on the front lines of the fight. In several places in Iowa, local officials refuse to detain undocumented immigrants past their release date so that they can’t be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation proceedings. Some cities worry about the constitutional implications of holding people without a warrant. Mayors and city councils can have a big impact on whether local law enforcement assists with efforts to round up families of undocumented immigrants.
A number of local races in 2017 already promise to feature important match-ups.
Des Moines will see a high-profile race that Democrats could quickly hone in on. Des Moines City Council member Christine Hensley has long been an antagonist of working people and progressive priorities in Iowa’s Democratic-leaning capital. She indicated early on that she’d likely oppose Polk County’s minimum wage increase. And environmental advocates see her as undermining the Water Works’ authority. Democratic attorney Josh Mandelbaum is seen as a likely challenger to Hensley, and could be an early 2017 candidate for Democrats in Polk County and beyond to rally behind.
In Cedar Rapids, current mayor Ron Corbett may run for governor in 2018 on the Republican side. There’s no reason a Democrat shouldn’t be running Iowa’s second-largest city, and many in Democratic circles hope Tyler Olson will make his return to elected office there.
The Latino Political Network organization continues to grow in Iowa, and they’re looking to train candidates for local office in 2017. One big focus is in Marshall County, where not a single elected official is Latino, despite the large Latino community there. Luisa Ortega came up short in her bid for Marshall County Auditor this year, but could be a compelling candidate for a municipal office in Marshalltown next year.
Democrats could also approach 2017 with an eye on 2018 and 2020 legislative races. For example, in Senate District 32, if Brian Schoenjahn isn’t interested in a come-back attempt and no one else in the district expresses early interest, you could start the process of readying an up-and-comer. There will be plenty of city council and mayoral races in Waverly, Independence and Oelwein for an ambitious Democrat to get known and get some campaign experience under their belt.
Finally, if the Iowa Democratic Party or local county parties want to try out any new campaign tactics, these local races could serve as the perfect dry run test for the looming 2018 contests. If legislative Republicans change early vote and absentee ballot laws, this will be the opportunity to experiment with new field tactics to adjust to that reality.
The road back to power for Iowa Democrats could be a short one if President Trump proves incredibly unpopular. Or it could be a long one if the demographic voting changes we saw in 2016 remain. Either way, an increased focus on municipal and school board races next year will both help maintain the new energy coming out of the 2016 loss and start to build our bench for the future.
There are no off-years. Let’s go win 2017.
by Pat Rynard