Phil Hemingway knows he faces a steep uphill climb in the race for the vacant seat on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. Not because he isn’t active in the community (he’s involved in county politics for decades), or because he lacks experience in elective office (he was elected to the Iowa City Community School District Board in 2015). He’s also widely liked — Democratic candidate Royceann Porter called him “a wonderful person,” during an interview with Little Village.
But none of that changes the fact that Hemingway is a Republican.
“We live in Johnson County,” Hemingway said. “It’s bluer than blue.”
A Republican hasn’t won a seat on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors in a general election since 1958.
“I can’t tell you how many people I would run into at the farmers market when running for school board, and they’d say, ‘Gosh I love your ideas, but you’re a Republican,’” Hemingway told Little Village. “My response would be, we’re not deciding national issues, we’re talking about how we treat and educate our children. And how we utilize the limited resources we have to best effect.”
“But I think it wasn’t until I got the union endorsement that people really started considering voting for a Republican.”
In 2015, the Iowa City Federation of Labor endorsed Hemingway for the ICCSD Board. It was Hemingway’s third run for the school board.
“When you’re not successful, it’s a gut punch,” Hemingway said of his two failed campaigns for school board in 2011 and 2013. “But every time I ran, my base grew. I could see each time, I was reaching more and more people. That’s why I’ve stuck with it.”
This will be Hemingway’s second campaign for the Board of Supervisors this year. He was the Republican nominee in the November general election, finishing third in a field of three candidates.
Hemingway is running on the same issues in the special election that he expounded in the general election.
“I have concerns on how the county is treating rural residents,” Hemingway said. It’s a part of the county he knows well.
Hemingway, a fourth-generation Johnson County resident, was born and raised on his family’s farm between Morse and Oasis. Although he’s lived and worked in Central America, Eastern Europe and Africa, Johnson County always remained home for Hemingway. He currently owns and operates Phil’s Repair, an auto shop in Iowa City.
“My first involvement with a governmental entity was when they were going to convert the blacktop road in front of our house into gravel,” Hemingway said. “That’s when I went to my first Board of Supervisors meeting.”
That was almost four decades ago, and how the county is maintaining the infrastructure of its rural areas is still a major concern for Hemingway, as is the air and water quality outside the county’s cities.
“I’m also concerned about how the county treats its own staff,” Hemingway explained. He believes there is a “retaliatory culture in our county government,” which he wants the board to address. According to Hemingway, that culture not only makes work more difficult for county staff, it also interferes with making county government transparent to citizens.
Hemingway wants to make sure the county is adequately serving the mental health needs of its citizens. And, unsurprisingly for a Republican, he also promises to be “fiscally responsible and a budget hawk with Johnson County’s resources.”
Hemingway is currently the school board’s finance committee chair.
“Even before I was elected, I went through the check registry religiously as a citizen, and as a board member I’ve continued to do that,” he said. “I go through all the receipts and bills that are paid every month.”
Hemingway thinks it’s unfortunate that some people won’t seriously consider him as a candidate, because of his party affiliation.
“I hate when people are labelled because they have a certain alphabetical symbol after their name,” he said.
“When you talk with someone who agrees with you, your conversation is limited,” Hemingway continued. “There isn’t a lot of self-reflection, and you don’t really have to work to get your point across. But when you’re discussing an issue where someone disagrees with you, then you really have to be on point and really look at your own position, and think about whether your own position is right.”
“We can have these discussions, and as a community we’ll be better for it. I’d like Johnson County to be an example for others to follow.”
“I hope people just take me for what I am, and judge me on that,” Hemingway said.
Update: An earlier headline stated Hemingway would be the first Republican elected to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors in 60 years. Republican John Etheredge was elected to the board in a special election in March 2013. He remains the only elected Republican Johnson County supervisor since 1958.