Royceann Porter appointed chair of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors

Royceann Porter — photograph by Zak Neumann, illustration by Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Supervisor Royceann Porter was appointed chairperson of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors for 2022 in a vote that took less than a minute at the board’s organizational meeting Monday. But the unanimous selection of Porter by her fellow supervisors was not a routine vote, as the county made clear in a news release issued after the meeting.

“This vote marks a historic milestone for Johnson County, as Supervisor Porter is the first African-American to serve as chairperson of the Board since the County’s establishment in 1837,” the release said.

“It’s hard to describe,” Porter told Little Village when asked how she felt after the vote. “It’s a very happy feeling. My heart is happy.”

It’s not the first time Porter has made history in Johnson County. In November 2018, she became the first Black candidate for countywide office when the county’s Democratic Party chose her over former supervisor Pat Harney as its nominee in the special election to fill the vacancy on the Board of Supervisors created by the death of Kurt Friese. Porter made history again the next month when she won the special election in a landslide victory to become Johnson County’s first Black elected official in a countywide office.

Porter came to Iowa from her hometown of Saginaw, Michigan in 1989 to take a job at a meat-processing plant in Columbus Junction. She quickly realized that processing hogs wasn’t for her.

“I started on the kill floor,” Porter told Little Village in 2020. “It was so bloody. After the third day, I couldn’t even do it. It was making me sick to my stomach.”

After just over a month, she quit the plant. But the job proved to be important, not just because it brought the then-Royceann White to Iowa, but also because the plant is where she met her future husband, Anthony Porter.

Before being elected to the Board of Supervisors, Porter was best known in Johnson County for her long career as a community activist. She first became involved in that work by organizing a parents’ group at South East Junior High to help address problems between teachers and students. The scope of her activism soon widened to include working on such issues as improving access to mental health services, expanding affordable housing, promoting workers’ rights and trying to help newly arrived people of color adjust to life in Iowa.

Porter particularly focused on issues regarding the treatment of people of color by police and the justice system, as a leader of the Coalition for Racial Justice and co-founder of the Black Voices Project. She also served as a volunteer on the Iowa City Community Police Review Board, as well as the Johnson County Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee and the Juvenile Justice Youth Development Policy Board. In December 2020, she became one of the original members of Iowa City’s Ad Hoc Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and was elected chair by her fellow commissioners. Four months later, she was one of four commissioners who resigned from the TRC after members voted to change leadership.

Porter has continued her activist work as a member of the Board of Supervisors, and is still the president of the Black Voices Project.

Elizabeth Warren greets Royceann Porter at a campaign event at Iowa City West High School. Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Porter was elected to a full term on the Board of Supervisors in November 2020, winning 55 percent of the vote.

Porter’s immediate tasks will be chairing the meetings to finalize the county’s budget, but she said that working on Johnson County’s response to COVID-19 will also be a top priority.

“With Omicron and cases rising, we have to try to stay ahead of it,” Porter said.

Asked what she sees as her overall goal for her year as a chairperson, Porter replied, “I’m just looking forward to working together to improve the lives of all the people in Johnson County. That’s what I’ve been working on since day one. Just trying to do what we need to for our communities.”

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