By Chad Cooper, Cedar Rapids
When Tiffany O’Donnell announced her candidacy for mayor of Cedar Rapids in late March, one couldn’t escape the notion that her campaign was being built on that bedrock of political popularity: name recognition.
Press releases and media reports overflowed with mentions of O’Donnell’s years as a news anchor and highlighted her role as head of Iowa Women Lead Change. Some reports even found it pertinent to mention that O’Donnell was Miss Iowa in the 1989 Miss America Pageant. There has been a relatively large amount of publicity, and one can see why: O’Donnell’s campaign is clearly running on the fuel of style.
And yet there is substance. O’Donnell’s official campaign website proudly boasts of her position on several capital fundraising campaigns and appointments to several more boards for community organizations. O’Donnell has seemingly accrued all the prerequisites needed to network her way to a run for mayor.
But there’s more substance waiting for anyone willing to even slightly scratch the surface, and that’s where things get more troubling.
There’s that small matter of O’Donnell contributing $500 to Ashley Hinson’s congressional campaign (Ashley Hinson for Congress) back in 2019. Now, the position of mayor in Cedar Rapids is intended to be non-partisan, but if you’re a resident of CR, ask yourself: Do I really want an individual running my city who supports the policies of Ashley Hinson?
Women Lead Change should also be looked at closer and with nuance. WLC is branded as an organization focused on empowering all women, but a recent rundown of their board and staff shows only two people of color. That’s admittedly up from one when I checked in early 2020, so props for some progress, I guess? With that said, WLC still appears to be primarily concerned with and comprised of only one type of woman: white, upper-middle-class, executive status.
Also, WLC had Rachel Hollis as a keynote speaker for their flagship conference in 2019, and she was plastered on their homepage through 2020. As of this writing, WLC appears to have scrubbed their website of any mention of Hollis, which is a good call given the most-recent gluttony of bad press for the self-help guru. I won’t go through all the issues with Hollis, but it’s sufficient to say her brand of white privilege suburbia and prosperity gospel shouldn’t be the model for female empowerment.
This isn’t to diminish everything WLC has done, but there’s definitely a gap in creating equitable and inclusive opportunities that are available to all people, regardless of race, economic status, employment position or even gender identity. And while WLC has shown some progress recently, it’s fair to ask why it took so long and what that says about the foresight (or lack thereof) of the individual overseeing the organization?
My fear is that the way O’Donnell organized and operated WLC for much of her tenure could serve as a microcosm for how she’d run the city: myopically prioritizing an affluent, predominantly white executive class over the interests, needs and goals of the more diverse majority. We’ve seen that show multiple times in CR; I’d rather not watch it again.
As further proof of myopic thinking, O’Donnell recently came out in boisterous support for a casino—the oldest, most hackneyed idea for urban development in a city that’s seen its share of tired, hackneyed ideas. Plus, every subsequent iteration of this idea has been more diluted. The fact that we’re in 2021 and civic leaders still champion this effort is a huge indictment on the city, and yet it’s also sadly predictable.
As an aside, candidate Amara Andrews also recently announced tacit support for a casino, which is admittedly a disappointing development from Cedar Rapids’ most-progressive option. I hope Andrews will reevaluate that position in the coming weeks.
So, there you have it: Tiffany O’Donnell is running for mayor. She’s a former news anchor. She’s the CEO of Women Lead Change. She was Miss Iowa. She’s on a lot of boards.
She also thinks a downtown casino is still a good idea. She runs an organization that displayed Rachel Hollis as a feminine role model and has had issues with diversity and accessibility for years. She contributed $500 to the campaign of a proven plagiarist and supporter of Donald Trump. That’s a more-complete picture — both style and substance — and I have to say I don’t like what I see.