While frustrated Democratic activists and voters are vowing to unseat Republican legislators in 2018 for their recent votes, an earlier test for the party out of power looms in 2017: municipal races. City councils, mayor’s offices and school boards will be on the ballot in September and November of 2017. And though many races are technically nonpartisan, it’s usually pretty easy to tell who the Democrat and who the Republican is in the race.
That’s certainly the case for the major battle set to take place in Des Moines City Council Ward 3. Republican Christine Hensley has held this heavily Democratic seat since 1994. The ward covers most everything south of I-235 from downtown to 63rd Street, including the South of Grand neighborhood and the South Side west of Fleur. It has an overwhelming Democratic registration advantage and has a D+20 performance index.
And yet Hensley has represented this part of town for over two decades, and it’s not like she’s governed like a moderate Republican.
In fact, Hensley has used her position to rake in massive contributions for statewide Republicans, all while dancing around ethics issues with her votes on the city council. She faced one major conflict of interest scandal in 2015 when she cast the deciding vote on a tax abatement measure that provided millions of dollars to developers. Hensley was also a paid consultant for a firm that helps those same developers with tax credits.
Many believe that Hensley uses her influence on Des Moines development projects to strong-arm big donors into contributing to Republican causes. She held a fundraiser at her house in 2014 that raised nearly $100,000 for Governor Terry Branstad, and has personally contributed tens of thousands to other Republicans like Speaker Linda Upmeyer and Senate Leader Bill Dix.
She was also part of the dark money group that fought the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, even though Water Works is literally located in her district.
Hensley has won her reelection efforts time and again thanks to her deep-pocketed friends and social connections in the wealthier part of Des Moines, but 2017 may finally be the year her long run comes to an end. Residents of the district are very opposed to the education cuts and Planned Parenthood defunding going on up at the Statehouse. Hensley helps finance those very efforts, and Donald Trump’s election may polarize the electorate to the extent that Ward 3 won’t back a Republican this time.
Democrats in Polk County expect Josh Mandelbaum to take on Hensley in what would promise to be an extremely high-profile race. Mandelbaum was a senior policy adviser for Governor Tom Vilsack and now works as an environmental attorney in Des Moines. He has deep roots within the district and an extensive network that could help him raise the funds necessary to take on Hensley, who will have access to a considerable amount of special interest money. The race could easily be the most expensive city council race in the state, possibly approaching competitive state legislative district levels.
For Democrats in Central Iowa, keeping a close eye on Ward 3 developments would be a good idea. While many activists have been enjoying the rallies, protests and lobbying of legislators, most are looking forward to when they can start flipping elected offices away from Republicans. Doing so here would make a big impact not just on Des Moines politics and issues, but on statewide ones as well.
by Pat Rynard