Voters got an unusual opportunity to hear political candidates discuss the personal things that inform their public policy proposals during a forum at the Mill on Monday.
All five candidates in the Sept. 4 primary for the special election to fill the empty at-large council seat — Ann Freerks, Ryan Hall, Christine Ralston, Bruce Teague and Brianna Wills — participated in the forum, organized by Daniel Boscaljon as part of his new series of public discussions of important issues, Coffee with Dan.
Boscaljon, a frequent contributor to Little Village, structured the two-hour event in a way that reversed the traditional format, and had the candidates ask the audience questions. But before that happened, Boscaljon engaged each candidate in a 10-minute discussion about the values and experiences that had shaped their characters.
The candidates spoke quite openly about deeply personal challenges that aren’t often mentioned in campaign appearances, including the impact of the deaths of family members and episodes of severe depression.
“I was taken aback at first, but I think it was an interesting experiment,” Megan Alter, who came to the forum as an undecided voter, told Little Village after it ended. “There were moments when I thought a lot is being asked of [the candidates] on a personal level.”
Boscaljon did provide the candidates with his questions in advance, so all of them understood they’d be talking about their personal lives. According to Boscaljon, the questions were intended to illuminate important aspects of each candidate’s character.
The conversations with the candidates started by asking them to name two core values that guide their thinking and actions. Boscaljon also asked the candidates to provide examples of how those values had shaped their lives.
“Compassion and commitment,” Ann Freerks said, when asked for her two core values. Freerks talked about putting those values into action 20 years ago, while working with others in the Longfellow neighborhood to stop developers from drastically altering the neighborhood’s character with a large-scale student housing project. It was a difficult, but ultimately successful, fight, and it led to her serving on the Historic Preservation Commission and Planning and Zoning Board.
Ryan Hall selected “gratitude and justice,” and discussed those values in terms of his work as an AmeriCorps volunteer in underfunded public schools in Columbus, Ohio. He said he’s seen the “savage inequalities” he found in those schools repeated in other marginalized communities, and that inspired him to work for change and greater equality.
Christine Ralston talked about the importance of maintaining a perspective grounded in integrity and compassion. Ralston told the audience that her brother going to prison while she was studying law at the University of Iowa gave her “a tiny window” into what marginalized communities experience “because of the way policing happens, because of implicit bias that is everywhere all the time.”
“Empathy and positivity,” said Bruce Teague, when it was his turn. He added, “The work I do on a day-to-day basis speaks to who I am.” Teague owns and operates Caring Hands & More Home Health & Family Services, which provides services for the elderly, people with disabilities and the terminally ill, among others, and said the values he selected inform how he runs his business.
“Education and democracy,” were Brianna Wills’ choices. She talked about moving from Alabama to Saudi Arabia as child, when her father took a job there. Wills said she spent most her childhood in Saudi Arabia, and seeing first-hand the repressive nature of the Saudi regime, particularly how it treated women, gave her a very deep appreciation for the rights Americans have and the importance of being politically engaged.
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As forum entered its second hour, the crowd at The Mill began to thin out, and only a few of those who remained decided to engage when each of the candidates posed two questions intended to be “a reflection of their values.”
Ann Freerks asked, “What do you enjoy most about Iowa City, and what city policies do you think helped make that a reality? In the future, what could change to make that better?” and “How do we make sure we have both strong neighborhoods and connectivity between them?”
Ryan Hall asked, “How can our Iowa City Council promote anti-racism and nonviolence? In other words, how do we strive towards that racial justice we always talk about?” and “What does the future of policing look like in our community? What does community [or neighborhood policing] look like?”
Christine Ralston asked, “What are you personally willing to sacrifice in order to benefit the folks in our marginalized communities [in Iowa City]?” and “What event or experience in your life most fundamentally shifted your worldview, or your city-view, or your life-view or what matters to you?”
Bruce Teague said, “Earlier I talked about Iowa City being a ‘human rights city’ as one of the ideas that I had — giving all access to food, clean water, housing, education, healthcare and livable wages — so, I mentioned [as the basis for such a city] ‘don’t bring us a budget, we’ll bring you the needs of the community and we’ll create a budget’ [to address those needs]. I want to know, if this resonates with anyone.” And then asked, “What are some solutions for transportation that could alleviate the disadvantages it presents to individuals that rely on public transportation?”
Brianna Wills said, “What is your neighborhood’s biggest challenge? I ask that because I think that is an acknowledgment that we live in different neighborhoods in Iowa City, and what you feel is your neighborhood’s challenge has nothing to do, potentially, with what another neighborhood’s challenges are.” She then asked, “Do you know a council member? Could you approach him or her, and if not, what could the council do to connect with the public more?”
None of the questions sparked an extended exchange between the candidates and the audience members who provided answers.
Asked how helpful she found the forum, Alter, who was one of the audience members who engaged with the candidates, said, “It was an interesting format, but the jury’s still out for me.”
“I’m a more practical person, so at moments I wanted hear what they wanted to do once on the council, rather than discuss values and temperament,” Alter said.
On Wednesday, Aug. 29, at Iowa City Hall, the League of Women Voters will hold a candidates forum starting at 7 p.m.