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Let’s everybody run for something: The North Liberty election

There’s a dynamic in American politics today that everybody needs to run for something. In 96 of 99 Iowa counties that probably helps, but in the People’s Republic there’s a line around the block for any and all vacancies, hints of vacancies, or rumors.
So when North Liberty found itself with not one but two vacant offices, 10 total candidates showed up: seven newcomers, two current office holders and a blast from the past. The result? A mayor with less than a majority and a council member winning with just 29 percent of the vote.
I can’t choose the appropriate cinematic metaphor for the whole North Liberty process. In turns it has reminded me of:
Andy Warhol’s 24-hour film of the outside of the Empire State Building,
the worst movie I ever saw, Saturday the 14th, an unfunny parody of horror films, and
people who think they are acting in Game of Thrones but are in fact in a junior high production of Game of Thrones.
This whole thing is Tom Salm’s fault. After a couple of controversial cycles, Salm was a unifier as mayor, a steady hand on the wheel … until he unexpectedly dropped dead just months after getting re-elected in 2013.
The city council appointed one of their own, Gerry Kuhl, as mayor, and then took applications for that vacant council seat. A smart young mom with some school board campaign experience put her name in and was rewarded with a patronizing pat on the head.
So Amy Nielsen said enough of that crap and put her name in for mayor, as the seat was on the 2014 general election ballot (which will no longer be legal under the new law that combines school and city elections). She knocked off Kuhl, and her star rose so fast that she shot right out of mayor and into the Iowa Legislature before the term was up.
And it took so long to choose Nielsen’s replacement that her first legislative session was over before it was done. The most important thing about today’s election is that it should have happened at least two months ago.
It was clear from Nov. 8– and with all due respect to my Republican friend Royce Phillips, who lost to Nielsen in the legislative race last fall, it was reasonably expected in June 2016– that the mayor’s slot would be open again. The city was looking at a fourth mayor in the same term and the powers that be desperately wanted to avoid paying for a special election with less than a year on the term.
There were two problems with that. Petitions for city elections are based on turnout the last time the office was on the ballot. Salm was so non-controversial that his 2013 re-election was uncontested. It would take just 26 signatures, in a city pushing an 18,000 population, to force an election. There was no way out of it and everyone was in denial.
So they decided to take their time.
The council stalled until literally the last day allowed under law: Feb. 28, 60 days after Nielsen’s resignation and nearly four months after her election to the legislature, before making a decision.
Two sitting council members, Terry Donahue and Chris Hoffman, both coveted the office of mayor. Two other council members, Annie Pollock and Jim Sayre, refused to pick sides and favored an election. That left it to Brian Wayson. It was a standoff … until Hoffman got smart. In a jiu-jitsu move, he took his name out and backed Donahue for mayor. That “win” forced Donahue to resign his council seat, while Hoffman could go ahead and run against Donahue in a likely special election without having to resign. And, sure enough, the next day Matthew Pollock filed the petition– and soon after filed for mayor.
Then it seemed like pretty much everyone in North Liberty decided it was time to run for something. Kuhl attempted a comeback for council and was joined in the race by no less than six newcomers.
The council seat won by Sarah Madsen by 30 votes over Kuhl is in fact the greater prize; mayors don’t vote and Donahue has to run again in November. Madsen, in contrast, gets to vote and inherits the last 2 1/2 years of Donahue’s council term. And Hoffman, who now has two losses in a row following his January 2016 defeat by Lisa Green-Douglass in the county supervisor special election, can challenge Donahue again in November, without giving up his council seat which has two years left.
But Madsen wasn’t a big winner. In the splintered seven-candidate field, she won just 29 percent. In fact, no candidate for council topped 40 percent in any precinct, so geographic patterns are hard to spot. (Editor’s note: When absentee ballots are considered, both Madsen and Kuhl achieved 40 percent or more in a single precinct.) This would have been a great test case for second and third choice voting. It would also be interesting to see a runoff between Hoffman and Donahue (who was also a sub-50-percent winner, with Hoffman second and Pollock a distant third), and between Madsen and runner-up Kuhl.
Kuhl ranks as the night’s biggest loser. Like Hoffman, he has now lost two in a row. But Hoffman’s timing meant he kept his seat, while Kuhl resigned his council seat, was tossed out as mayor in just months, and now has failed at a comeback.
One good thing about a big field of candidates, though, is it boosts turnout to have 10 sets of families and friends out voting. Turnout stands at 1,025 agonizingly close to the 1,031 record set in the controversial 2005 North Liberty election that Dave Franker won as a last-second write-in candidate.
I’m saddened by one thing, though: A Donahue loss would have made for great trivia, as Hoffman or Pollock would have been North Liberty’s fifth mayor in the term Tom Salm originally won in November 2013. Four is remarkable enough, but five would have been epic.
And if this wasn’t enough fun, we get to do it all over again in Solon next month for a city council term of just five months.

Originally published at jdeeth.blogspot.com. John Deeth’s writings do not reflect the opinions of the Johnson County Auditor’s Office, where he is employed.