What Democracy Stands To Lose In City Council Campaigns

Prairie Dog

From the January 2022 issue of  The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter. The PP is  funded entirely by reader subscription, available only in hard copy for $15/yr.  Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244. Click here for archived issues. Published with permission.

by Shawn Harmsen

I am excited to get to work, as a newly-elected member of the Iowa City Council, starting in January. Thank you, IC voters and Prairie Progressive readers!

I am optimistic about the election results and our city’s future, but there is one lingering problem that, if left unaddressed, could spell decades of doom for protecting our local
democracy from the corruption of big dollar donations.

We see all around us the problems caused by the influence of big money in politics – what most people would identify as one of the forces eroding our nation’s democratic institutions. Iowa City is unique in the state of Iowa with an ordinance that limits campaign contributions to $100 per donor.

To put it briefly, Title 1, Chapter 9, Section 2 defines a contribution as any “gift, loan, … transfer of money,” a donor is defined as “without limitation, any individual,” and then
the ordinance declares “no person shall make…any contribution which will cause the total amount…to exceed $100.00.”

No exception is carved out in the text of this ordinance for the council candidates themselves. For my campaign and those I have worked on and observed, this has meant that candidates can only contribute $100 to their own campaign, and all expenses must ultimately be covered by that campaign account.

In practice, a candidate or a volunteer may go out and spend more than a hundred dollars on things like a website registration fee or supplies for an event. That is then reimbursed from the campaign account. This typically happens within days or weeks, almost always by the late October deadline for filing with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, and certainly by the time the campaign files with the IECDB in January. When the election is over and all is said and done, the campaign donations – all no larger than $100 – cover 100% of the campaign expenses.

This matters, because it keeps campaign fundraising and spending under control in a way that should be the envy of pro-democracy activists across the state.

In Iowa City, you don’t need to have independent wealth to run for council. Nobody can buy a candidate, because nobody can give more than $100. In Iowa City, you have to make your case to as many people as you can to get the funding to run a competitive campaign.

But in the recent election, we saw a giant step away from this when the October campaign filings and interviews in the local paper revealed that candidate Jason Glass had spent
$22,000 of his own money on his campaign, and had only raised less than $4,000.

Despite being in opposite political camps for many years, I don’t relish the feeling of  kicking a guy when he is down. But my fear is that if this goes unaddressed, we will soon
be looking at a campaign funding arms race – and all the bad things that result.

Iowa City elects a council, and the council elects the mayor from among its members. So in Iowa City a citywide council race is a quasi-mayoral race as well. I took a look at the city-wide mayoral races in two other cities, Waterloo and Cedar Rapids.

In terms of population, Cedar Rapids is not quite double the size of Iowa City (1.8 times the size) and Waterloo is a little smaller (0.9 times the size of Iowa City). According to news articles and the October filing with the IECDB, the candidates in the Iowa City at-large race spent a total of just under $36,000. In the Waterloo mayoral race for the same time period, candidates spent just over $157,000 (about 4.3 times as much). In Cedar
Rapids, the candidates reported spending over $361,000 – over ten times as much.

The contrast is even starker if we imagine that Glass had played by the same rules as everyone else and given his own campaign $100, as it seems other candidates have done since at least 2001. In that scenario, the Waterloo mayoral race tab would have been  eleven times bigger than the Iowa City Council race. And the three-person Cedar Rapids mayoral race would have cost 25 times more than Iowa City’s three-person at-large city
council race.

When the contrast is so big from city to city, we get a pretty clear picture of the problem even before the January filing deadline.

I don’t blame any of the candidates in Cedar Rapids or Waterloo for raising and spending the money they thought they needed to win. You can’t set policy from 2nd place. The problem rests squarely with the rules of the elections they find themselves in. But here’s the thing: we have different rules and different results in Iowa City.

In Iowa City, you can run a respectable and successful contested city-wide campaign
for city office for between $7,000 – $10,000. In Iowa City you don’t get that much of a
leg up on the competition just because you have money or have rich friends. A banker, a
developer, a nurse, a teacher, a professor, a community activist, a laborer, a retiree, a stay-at home parent, a small-business owner, or a student have about the same campaign finance viability right out of the gate. As long as they have the message and the drive to get those donations in increments of no bigger than $100, they can field a campaign with signs, mailers, handouts, etc.

We have a great campaign finance system in Iowa City, with a tradition that stretches
back at least a half-century. We need to appreciate what we have, and make sure we don’t
fall asleep when we should be guarding it.

—Shawn Harmsen is a longtime Iowa City resident recently elected to the City Council.

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1 Response to What Democracy Stands To Lose In City Council Campaigns

  1. Here in Pella, crafty folks looked over campaign finance disclosures and found that our mayor and several candidates were funded by a company called GenLink which has been asking for and getting all sorts of PUD and TIF support along with variances from the city.


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