“I think this is a tremendous opportunity to really shake things up,” Jon Green told Little Village when asked why he was running for the open seat on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.
Green, the former mayor of Lone Tree, was selected Tuesday night as the Democratic candidate for the special election to fill the seat vacated by Janelle Rettig last month. He was one of four candidates considered at the Johnson County Democrats convention held at the county fairgrounds.
Green won the 50-percent-plus-one of the vote needed to secure the nomination on the third ballot at the convention. On the first ballot, he had 105 of the 139 votes needed to win, 21 more votes than Coralville City Councilmember Meghann Foster, the candidate in second place. Susan Vileta, a public health educator from Swisher, finished in fourth place on the first ballot and was eliminated from consideration. Green increased his lead over Foster to 23 votes on the second ballot, and the delegates who had voted for third-place finisher Scott Finlayson of Iowa City, deputy treasurer for the county, had to decide between Green and Foster on the final ballot. Green prevailed 139 to 137.
Green told Little Village he’s used to tight races, pointing out that he won the 2017 mayoral election in Lone Tree (pop. 1,300) by eight votes.
“That was an easy race compared to this,” he said.
The 38-year-old Green has been in or around politics most of his adult life, either as a journalist or the press secretary for Dave Freudenthal, the last Democrat to serve as governor of Wyoming. But it wasn’t until 2017 that he decided to run for elective office for the first time.
Green said he made that decision after witnessing an incident at a Lone Tree City Council meeting. A couple in their 80s came to the meeting to ask the council to do something about the newly resealed road in front of their house, because it was causing rainwater to drain into their garage damaging it. The then-mayor’s response to the couple was “derisive,” according to Green.
“It just pissed me off,” he said.
“Sometimes the job of an elected official is just to sit there and listen to someone who’s got a problem that you can’t fix immediately. To listen to them and to let them know that they’ve been heard and they have been respected.”
Green said that was the way he approached being mayor, listening to people — even those who just wanted to tell him they thought he was completely wrong — whether he was at city hall, his house or anywhere around town.
“Honestly, that’s the best part of the job,” Green said. “Being there for your neighbors, taking some of their abuse, because it’s important that people feel like they are part of a community. That they have somebody who has power, who has responsibility, that they can go to. And yeah, a lot of times there are no magic wands to fix things, but you get a hell of a lot further if you’re just willing to sit down and listen to folks. And actually hear what it is they’re going through.”
“And sometimes you can make a difference. Those are really the red-letter days.”
Green lives in the Lone Tree house his great-grandparents built, and his family has lived in southern Johnson County for 150 years. He grew up in Wyoming, where his parents were living when he was born, and in Johnson County, graduating from Lone Tree High School (Class of 2001). After receiving a degree in mass communications from Morningside College in Sioux City, Green moved to Wyoming, where he worked as a reporter and Freudenthal’s press secretary.
After moving back to Lone Tree in 2014, Green focused on his new career in IT (“a computer janitor, basically” is how he describes his job), putting a pause on politics. But Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run drew him back in, and he worked on Sanders’ campaign in Iowa. Sanders returned Green’s support of both his 2016 and 2020 presidential runs by issuing an endorsement of Green the day before the county nominating convention.
Statement from Sanders: pic.twitter.com/wrzVIivSP1
— Zachary Oren Smith (@ZacharyOS) May 10, 2021
Green was elected to the Democratic Party’s state central committee in 2018. During his two years on the committee, he was one of the leaders in the successful effort to rewrite the state party constitution to allow nonbinary and gender-expansive individuals to be elected as delegates and to committees without having to identify as male or female.
Outside of his hometown and the official ranks of the Iowa Democratic Party, Green is probably best known for being the mayor of Lone Tree who recommended the city eliminate the position of mayor. That proposal, along with Green’s habit of always wearing a cowboy hat, attracted some statewide and even national media attention during his two-year term as mayor.
Green felt a city administrator could do a better job than a mayor addressing the needs of residents, and act as a fulltime advocate on behalf of Lone Tree in dealing with the county, state and federal governments. The mayor’s job only pays $2,000/year (it was half that amount when Green took office) so “unless you’re independently wealthy or retired, I felt like it’s just impossible to give the job the time it deserves,” Green said.
As mayor, he started work on some progressive policies, including increasing the pay of city workers to $15 an hour and organizing a working group to address the problem of affordable childcare in Lone Tree. But when asked about his time as mayor, Green stressed the importance of “a lot of unsexy stuff” he worked on.
Job descriptions for city personnel had not been updated since 1992, Green recalled, so that became a priority. And it had been years since the city conducted any employee reviews.
“To my mind that was a necessary first step before I asked the city council for significant pay raises for workers,” he said.
Also important to Green was finally making the city’s ordinances readily available. When he started as mayor there was one complete copy of city ordinances — a printout with increasingly tattered pages kept in a binder at city hall.
“You had to go to city hall to access it, and you pretty much had to know exactly what you were looking for to find it,” Green said.
Lone Tree’s ordinances are now online, and accessible though the city’s website.
“That isn’t terribly exciting stuff, but it’s damned important stuff,” Green said.
The proposal that did excite attention didn’t end up succeeding; Lone Tree still has an elected mayor. But Green said he welcomed all the outside attention, because it gave him a chance to promote Lone Tree to people who otherwise never would have heard of it.
He said he wants to continue his advocacy for the city and other rural parts of the county on the Board of Supervisors.
“I’ve worked with most of the current supervisors when I was mayor, and I know that they care about the rural parts of the county, but I do bring a different perspective, just by virtue of where my boots are at,” Green said. “I run in different circles, I shop in different place, I talk to different people than the folks whose gravitational pull is in Iowa City.”
Green said the unique moment created the COVID-19 pandemic is what made him decide to run for supervisor when the seat came open.
“I think that for as calamitous as the past 14 months or so have been, this is nevertheless a moment of significant opportunity,” he explained. “The pandemic has scrambled so many things — it is forcing all of us to reconsider some of our priorities, some of the basic assumptions we’ve made about what government is, what government can do, what government should do.”
“And at the end of this transition phase from the past that has already died and the future that hasn’t arrived yet, hopefully we can grab the wheel and we can steer ourselves to a better, more equitable future where do have a more muscular government at all levels that is prepared to address systemic racism, that is prepared to deal with the climate calamity so that we have a planet here left for folks in the coming generations.”
VOTERS, START YOUR ENGINES! …or bikes or feet!
Early voting for the 6/8 Board of Supervisors Special Election will begin THIS WEDNESDAY (5/19)! We're excited to announce that will be again provide drive-thru voting, which will happen at the south side of the Admin. Building. pic.twitter.com/vU8MLMlcU2
— Travis Weipert (@jcauditor) May 14, 2021
In the June 8 special election, Green will face Republican nominee Phil Hemingway, who was also the Republican nominee in the 2018 special election to fill a vacancy on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, and Brian Campbell who qualified for the June ballot by collecting enough signatures to run as a candidate with no party affiliation. Campbell told the Press-Citizen he is a Democrat, but decided to run without party affiliation because he didn’t think he could win the Democratic nomination at this week’s convention.
Early voting in the June 8 special election will begin Wednesday, May 19.