“This is our neighborhood park,” Shawn Harmsen told the crowd gathered in Mercer Park Wednesday. He and his family had celebrated birthdays in the park, he’d coached Little League baseball there, and now Harmsen was at Mercer to kickoff his campaign for the open District B seat on the Iowa City Council.
The event in Mercer Park was two-fold. In addition to Harmsen rallying supporters, Mayor Pro Tem Mazahir Salih was there to thank people for their support during her time on the Iowa City Council. Salih had already announced in a written statement she wouldn’t be running for reelection, and that she was supporting Harmsen for the District B seat she had earlier told reporters she intended to run for, instead of her current at-large seat.
The event began with Salih thanking everyone “for your support over the years, and also for supporting my work in the community, both as a part of the Center for Worker Justice and as a member of the city council.”
The mayor pro tem explained she had decided against running for a second term on the council because of her expanded duties as the new executive director of the Center for Worker Justice (CWJ), the Iowa City-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of workers and immigrants she helped found eight years ago.
“Together, you and I,” Salih told the people gathered in Mercer Park, “we raised the minimum wage for all the city’s employees to $15 an hour and invested in affordable housing for hardworking Iowa families.”
Salih pointed out that she was the councilmember who proposed increasing the city’s affordable housing fund. She also cited her work to expand public transportation in Iowa City, and to ensure the city is providing information in the languages spoken by its residents, so immigrants can more readily access services.
“These are all victories that you and I achieved by working together,” Salih said. She added that she was particularly proud of her work to “ensure that every single voice in our community was heard.”
“The journey has been hard,” Salih said, reflecting on her four years on the city council. “It hasn’t been easy. An immigrant, Muslim woman and a person of color, I have been through a lot — a lot, a lot — breaking barriers.”
“But for Iowa City, it was a price worth paying.”
Salih then turned to speaking about Harmsen.
“He’s the perfect person to continue our work on the council, and to make this a more just and inclusive community,” she said.
Harmen was the campaign manager for Salih’s 2017 run for the city council, and Salih pointed out that she wasn’t the only progressive woman of color he has helped win office. He also managed Royceann Porter’s campaign for Johnson County Supervisor in 2018 and worked on RaQuishia Harrington’s campaign for the North Liberty City Council the following year.
Harmsen said he wouldn’t be trying to take Salih’s place on the city council — “those are big shoes to fill” — but was looking forward to continuing work on “our shared vision of a community that lives up to its potential for economic, racial and social justice.”
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Harmsen said he appreciated the work the current council has done, and is looking to help members push forward to ensure Iowa City residents can expect equal opportunity and justice in areas “from policing to housing to zoning — which is going to be a big issue coming up soon — and much, much more.”
In his speech, Harmsen highlighted the issue of affordable housing, which he said was both a policy and personal concern for him.
“It hit home in my family two years ago, when a predatory investment firm bought up my mom’s mobile home park in North Liberty, and decided the first thing they were going to do was jack up the rent 60 percent,” he said.
Harmsen worked with affected residents, political leaders, affordable housing advocates and community activists to push back against the owners. The problem remains, as the Iowa Legislature didn’t take any action to protect residents in either the 2020 or 2021 sessions.
“I believe we need a councilmember who doesn’t just talk about affordable housing, but has been on the front lines of that fight,” Harmsen said.
A large part of the crowd at Mercer Park on Wednesday was made up of local Democratic Party activists and elected officials, including past and current members of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and past and current members of Iowa City Council. Mayor Bruce Teague was there, and both Harmsen and Salih endorsed Teague for reelection.
Teague announced last week he is running for another term in his at-large seat on the city council.
Megan Alter, another candidate for one of the two at-large seats that will be on ballot in November, was at the Mercer Park event. Salih and Harmsen also endorsed Alter.
“I believe in Megan Alter as much today as I did two years ago when I was her campaign manager,” Harmsen said.
Harmsen has been active in local politics since moving to Iowa City in 2010 to work on a Ph.D. in journalism at the University of Iowa. During his time at UI he was a leader in COGS, the union for graduate students.
Harmsen grew up in rural Clinton County, attended Wartburg College as an undergraduate and received a masters from the University of Northern Iowa. Before deciding to pursue a Ph.D. and a career in academia — Harmsen teaches in the Communications Studies Department at Coe College — he worked as a radio and television journalist in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest. He credits those years spent in journalism covering local governments with giving him a thorough understanding of how city government in Iowa City does, and can, work.
“Serving the community in some way is what makes me happy,” Harmen told Little Village after the event, when asked why he had decided to run for office himself. “Helping other people achieve their best is very fulfilling.”
“Whether it’s been as a campaign manager, helping people like Mazahir and Royceann achieve things — being part of that is good for the soul. That’s also why I love to teach. I love to help students figure out where they are, and help them on to the next level. Help them achieve their best possible selves. So, what I want to do now is take that and do that for my city.”
Harmsen’s two children, both of whom are in Iowa City schools, attended the event on Wednesday, but his wife wasn’t there. Dr. Jody Harmsen, a family medicine doctor, was covering a shift in the emergency room, he explained.
“So, she kind of had to be there,” Harmsen said, smiling. “It’s a valid pass.”
Harmsen told Little Village he feels the skills he’s brought to his work as a campaign manager and his career as an educator will help make him an effective member of the city council.
“To be a good campaign manager, to be a good educator, you have to be able to understand the obstacles people face and overcome them,” he said.
“There are a lot of obstacles to a lot of people in Iowa City, and the council has already been working on those issues, such as affordable housing and transportation. There’s been movement, but the job’s not done.”