In one of Iowa’s most-watched municipal races on Tuesday, environmental attorney Josh Mandelbaum won the Des Moines City Council Ward 3 seat in convincing fashion, taking 56% in a three-way race. Former council member Mike Kiernan received 34%, while Democratic Socialist and Somali refugee contender Abshir Omar Mahamed got a respectable 9%.
Mandelbaum (who announced his candidacy at a Starting Line event) replaces longtime council member Christine Hensley, a Republican who held onto the deeply-Democratic Des Moines district for over two decades.
The race between Mandelbaum and Kiernan was the most expensive municipal race in the state. Mandelbaum raised an astonishing $188,240 for his bid, and Kiernan brought in $105,940. Both ran TV ads in heavy rotation in the Des Moines media market in the final weeks. They also conducted extensive field efforts aimed at early voting. Kiernan, who looked to get a boost from the South Side of Des Moines, narrowly bested Mandelbaum in absentee ballots by a few dozen. Mandelbaum, however, carried the Election Day vote by a large margin.
All three candidates lean left in their politics and likely wouldn’t have voted very differently on the council, though Kiernan made a push for Republican voters in his campaign. He was endorsed by several prominent Polk County Republicans in the day before the election. Still, Mandelbaum carried the district, thanks in large part to his personal legwork on the ground. Mandelbaum knocked over 7,500 doors during the eight months he was a candidate. And with Omar taking most of the far-left vote in the district and 9% overall, Mandelbaum winning by 22 points was particularly impressive.
His campaign focused in on the issue of water quality, a key concern for Des Moines residents who saw their Water Works board sue several Northwest Iowa counties over nitrate levels recently. Mandelbaum, who has worked specifically on water issues in his law practice, spoke about water often on the campaign trail and in his TV ad.
“We talked with thousands of voters at their doors, their neighborhood meetings, at forums, and we talked about issues that resonated with voters,” Mandelbaum said at his victory party. “They cared about someone standing up for Des Moines residents and the ongoing water quality debate. Voters cared about how we create strong neighborhoods and how we bring the success we have downtown by expanding it out to corridors like Ingersol, Southwest 9th, Fleur, University. Making those areas more walkable, bike-able, transit accessible, and making them places where strong businesses can grow.”
The results came in quick, with Mandelbaum realizing he had won a mere eight minutes after the polls closed. Turnout was relatively high for a municipal race, and Mandelbaum got a bigger vote total than the previous incumbent Hensley did in almost all of her races. The mayor and other council members stopped by his victory party.
Outside of city issues, Mandelbaum’s win is important for several reasons. For one, it replaces a Republican who leveraged her position to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for statewide GOP candidates (and clearly, Mandelbaum is no slouch in the fundraising department). It also lifts up a solidly progressive torchbearer to the city council who still has widespread respect in the business community. And finally, it gives Democrats something they don’t have much of in this state: a young, inspiring, ambitious leader who has a platform in a key elected position. If Mandelbaum spends many years on the city council, Democrats and progressives will be plenty happy. If he looks to higher office at some point, all the better.
For now, Mandelbaum’s win in Des Moines Ward 3 brings an environmental advocate to a city government that has to fight tooth and nail for water quality efforts. And it completes a much-needed change in representation for one of Iowa’s most important local elected seats.
by Pat Rynard