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The ‘Core Four’ won: Now what?


Mayor Matt Hayek warned that, if elected, the Core Four would return Iowa City to the ‘anti-growth, micro-managing city hall of eras past.’ Now, having swept the election, the Core Four gets its chance to prove him wrong.

City Hall
Photo by Drew Bulman

As the air gets colder and the prairie wind begins to unleash its bite, the hearts of citizens in Iowa City have been lit aflame by a remarkable city council election result.

On Nov. 3, Iowa City voters swept into office, (with, it should be noted, a rather low 15.18 percent voter turnout, down from 22.3 percent in 2013), all four members of the self-declared “Core Four”—local attorney Rockne Cole, incumbent councilman and retired University of Iowa professor Jim Throgmorton, semi-retired nurse and labor activist Pauline Taylor and landscape architect and former member of the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission John Thomas.

The Core Four campaigned on an explicitly progressive platform that included opposition to the liberal use of controversial Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) by past city councils to fund downtown high-rise-focused development and—if their rhetoric is to be believed—a serious desire to attack and close Iowa City’s expanding racial divide on issues such as law enforcement, housing and education.

“Those who fear we are ‘anti-growth’ appear to believe there is only one possible way to develop our economy…” — Councilor Jim Throgmorton

That message won—and resoundingly so—with Throgmorton netting 62 percent of the vote and Cole garnering 50 percent in the At-Large district race, besting incumbent Michelle Payne (who generated a maelstrom of outrage after referring to black residents as “colored people” at a forum on issues of racial justice) and realtor Tim Conroy, who garnered 35 percent and 42 percent respectively. In District A, a contest dominated by issues of racial disparity, Pauline Taylor unseated incumbent Rick Dobyns by a 10 percent margin, while a close race in District C resulted in John Thomas squeezing past challenger Scott McDonough. with a little under 200 votes separating the two.

It’s difficult to predict the extent to which this election will represent a sea change in Iowa City politics. Staunch progressives, who’ve often felt marginalized by the actions of the previous administration, will now dominate the city council, with Throgmorton, Taylor, Thomas, Cole and Kingsley Botchway (the other at-large councilman who won his seat in 2013) holding a 5-2 majority that essentially guarantees the passage of any policy the progressive bloc can dream up.

And what are they dreaming of? The Core Four has been somewhat circumspect regarding specific policies, preferring instead to outline a general vision, with details to be worked out later. Throgmorton says that he plans on advocating, “Having the Council use and evaluate financial incentives (such as TIF) in a way that is demonstrably fair and trustworthy; investing significant city resources in ways that directly benefit regular working people, including increasing the supply of housing they can afford; taking meaningful steps toward improving racial equity in law enforcement and in fundamentals such as education and household income; using city resources to incrementally thicken and improve our older core neighborhoods; and enabling a money-saving, job-creating transition away from carbon-based fossil fuels.” Thomas was willing to get a little more specific, promising to, “improve government accessibility and accountability,”  by hosting, “office hours, where the public has an opportunity for a conversation…The city could also hold ‘town halls’ in various locations, where members of council and city staff meet with the community in a larger setting, answering community concerns.”

There are a few educated guesses that can be gleaned from these ambiguous statements. A significant reduction in the number of TIFs doled out to high-rise development projects seems almost certain, as all four winners vociferously attacked the city’s reliance on the practice to fund projects such as the controversial 15-story Chauncey Tower project (which Councilman-elect Cole once referred to as a “breathtaking wealth transfer from working families struggling to make ends meet to provide subsidized housing for the one percent,” that was “morally wrong and bad public policy.”). Also: Expect a more aggressive approach to ameliorating racial segregation, with options such as inclusionary zoning now firmly on the table.

Dr. Jerry Anthony, the director of UI’s Housing and Land Use Policy Program and an advocate of inclusionary zoning once told Little Village that the only thing standing in the way of Iowa City adopting inclusionary zoning was, “a lack of political will on the part of the city council and a lack of progressive leadership helping to push this policy forward.” With the Core Four in power, it appears as if the political will has materialized.

Not everyone is thrilled by the Core Four’s takeover.

“The voters have spoken,” local business owner and FilmScene projectionist Ross Meyer wrote on Facebook. “I guess this town likes four-story Clark buildings with unrented storefronts on the first floor and cheap student housing upstairs a lot more than they like visionary 15-story Moen buildings. Remember that when you step over a puddle of vomit tonight.” Meyer is, of course, alluding to the divisive Chauncey building project, which will feature a number of amenities—including a FilmScene expansion—in a collaborative effort to develop the east side of Iowa City’s downtown district. More ominously, outgoing Mayor Matt Hayek, prior to the election, argued in a well-publicized Press-Citizen guest editorial that a Core Four victory would mean a, “return to the anti-growth, micromanaging city hall of eras past. We will lose the critical progress made by recent councils with the help of talented professional staff. We will jeopardize the city’s long-term ability to fund important social services for our most vulnerable populations.”

Throgmorton categorically rejects such comments, arguing, “Those who fear we are ‘anti-growth’ appear to believe there is only one possible way to develop our economy, namely, to maximize private return on investment and keep growing in purely economic terms. In my view, this emphasis on maximizing private return, wealth accumulation and economic growth imprudently disregards the natural world in which we humans are embedded and the social bonds of community needed for human life to flourish.”

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Nov. 3 was a bad day for the American left. An arch-conservative took the governor’s mansion in Kentucky, threatening the newly won health insurance of 400,000 low-income Kentuckians. An equal-rights ordinance protecting the rights of LGBT Houstonians was overturned by referendum. Republicans kept the statehouse in Virginia. But the victory of the Core Four has shown that, in Iowa City at least, the cause, as the late Senator Ted Kennedy termed it, endures.

Matthew Byrd, originally from Chicago, is currently a writer and proud resident of the People’s Republic of Johnson County. Angry screeds should be send to dibyrdie@gmail.com. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 188.


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