Democrats in Iowa got some encouraging news with a special election city council win last night in the small, rural town of Solon. The race in rural Johnson County certainly wasn’t the biggest campaign battle ever, but it proved that relatively new, progressive activists could run for local office and win with a concerted campaign effort. Lauren Whitehead, who helped start Iowa’s statewide Indivisible chapter, defeated incumbent Dale Snipes 64% to 36% in a special election to fill the remainder of the term that Snipes had been appointed to.
Whitehead, 36, has been involved in local Iowa campaigns for a few cycles, including as a precinct captain for Hillary Clinton’s Iowa Caucus campaign, but expanded her work after 2016 by helping with the creation of Indivisible groups, the new online network of progressive activists. She heads up the chapter for her state house district and helps coordinate other Indivisible chapters throughout Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District.
When a city councilman in her town resigned, setting up Snipes’ appointment and a quick special election, Whitehead saw a chance to step up in an even bigger way.
“I thought about running for city council for a long time, but after the 2016 general election I felt like that would be a part of my future activism in Iowa, and it seemed like a good place to start,” Whitehead told Starting Line today.
Most of Iowa’s municipal elections are technically nonpartisan, and Whitehead says she didn’t go out of her way to promote that she was a Democrat, but she didn’t shy away from her beliefs either. Instead, she mostly stuck to local issues of concerns.
“My main goal was to say that I believe that city government should be transparent, should listen to people and be proactive and inclusive,” she explained. “I think it resonated with the community. And people in my town were ready for some change. It shows that [local races] can be a good place for people with different political views to come together around issues that seem a little more grounded, more concrete rather than ideological. That is a place I think we can gain some traction.”
Considering the number of votes in the town of 2,400 – Whitehead earned 159 votes to Snipes’ 88 – this race easily could have been overlooked by most Iowa political watchers. But Whitehead got calls and messages of congratulations from around the state and some from around the country for her win.
“In terms of the party, I think we badly needed a win,” Whitehead noted, adding that the interest showed the power of the community and connections that Indivisible groups had formed in Iowa and beyond.
Local races for city council don’t typically involve all-out campaigns like a state legislative race would, but Whitehead worked the doors, passed out fliers, attended local board meetings and ran an active social media effort on Facebook.
John Deeth noted on his blog that the results boded well for new activists that run for office who aren’t part of the established community or political leadership.
“Barring some kind of divisive issue, small town campaigns are typically who-you-know matters, and Snipes seemed to stick to that traditional low profile,” Deeth wrote. “Whitehead approached the small town campaign like a modern campaign – social media presence, targeted door knocking, absentee requests, and bullet point issues focused on openness and accessibility.”
Although it’s just one town, there’s some positive signs for the future with Whitehead’s win. Solon moved toward Republicans in 2016, despite Johnson County overall being one of the only counties to stick very close to Democrats’ numbers from 2012. Barack Obama won Solon with 60.6% in 2012, but Hillary Clinton only got up to 49.3% last year. Whitehead said her margin of victory was far beyond her expectations.
When it comes to the number of votes cast, turnout for municipal races in Iowa often don’t top 10%, so a 14% turnout for a special election to fill a single seat is particularly noteworthy and shows Whitehead’s campaign efforts paid off. She’ll have to run again in November for a full term due to the odd nature of how the seat came open.
She hopes her win can be an example to others considering runs of their own.
“It shows that it can be done,” she said. “I hope people end up feeling hopeful and feel more encouraged to step up … This kind of popped up out of nowhere – folks should pay attention to those possibilities and start thinking now about any local races they might be interested in that might come up this fall – school board and city elections. This is our first wave of opportunity and people should feel encouraged to get themselves out there.”
Iowa school board races are set for September. Iowa municipal races will be held in November.
by Pat Rynard