Voters choosing between Monica Vernon and Brad Hart in Tuesday’s run-off election for mayor of Cedar Rapids will find the candidates have much in common. Both list improving flood protection, fixing the city’s streets, fostering economic development and working with neighborhood associations to strengthen communities as priorities. Neither has expressed any current interest in serving more than one term, and both said they would not have run if Mayor Ron Corbett had sought reelection. Vernon and Hart even use the same phrase (“can-do”) on their campaign websites to describe the spirit of Cedar Rapids.
During a Nov. 21 forum sponsored by The Gazette and CBS 2/Fox 28, the two candidates agreed the speed cameras should remain on I-380, fireworks should be banned in city limits and the next mayor must oppose further attempts by the state legislature to preempt local authority, as happened this year when the legislature forbid local increases in the minimum wage.
Both candidates also agreed the next mayor must continue to push the federal government to fully continue its funding of the city’s flood protection program, but differed as to what to do if the current funding is cut. Hart said the city should consider extending the 10-year 1-cent local sales tax that voters approved in 2013 for street repairs, and repurpose some or all of that money for flood protection. Vernon opposed this idea, saying she would work instead to get increased funding from the federal government, and that there are funds available from several agencies the city has not yet considered.
Earlier this year, after estimates showed the city would still need an additional $300 million to complete its 20-year flood protection plan even if the federal government provides all promised funds, Mayor Corbett recommended the next mayor push for an extension and repurposing of the local sales tax to fill in the funding gap.
But the biggest contrast the two candidates have drawn between themselves involves political experience.
Monica Vernon served two terms on the Cedar Rapids City Council representing the 2nd District, from 2008 to 2016. For six of those years, she also served as mayor pro tem. Prior to her election in 2007, Vernon served on the city’s planning commission for a decade. Vernon claims her years of experience will make her an effective mayor.
“City Hall comes with a steep learning curve,” she said in her closing remarks at the forum, adding, “It’s going to take an experienced person to keep [city government] going forward, I can get to work for you on day one.”
But Vernon’s experience has also drawn criticism. In the past three years, she has unsuccessfully run for Congress twice and was also the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014. That record has caused some voters to regard her as a perennial candidate in search of an office, a characterization Vernon rejects.
Hart, on the other hand, has never run for office before, or served in government at any level. “I will confess that serving as an elected official, and certainly campaigning for that office, was not on my bucket list,” Hart said in his closing remarks at the Nov. 21 forum. He said he decided to run after discussions with “more than 100 community leaders” convinced him that his career as an attorney, and more than 25 years of working as volunteer on community projects, had prepared him to serve. “Now I’m convinced my professional background, my leadership skills and my real knowledge and love of this community make me uniquely qualified to lead Cedar Rapids in the years to come,” he said.
Vernon and Hart have also said they will take different approaches to how they perform the functions of mayor. Although mayor of Cedar Rapids is a part-time position, Vernon has said she will treat it as a full-time job. Hart will continue his work as a partner at Bradley & Riley PC, and intends to continue the tradition of treating the mayor’s office as a part-time position.
The run-off election became necessary when no candidate in the city election received more than 50 percent of the vote. Vernon finished first, with 30.4 percent of the vote. Hart received 20.1 percent of vote, edging out third-place finisher Scott Olson by 58 votes.
Polls open on Tuesday at 7 a.m. and remain open until 8 p.m.