On Tuesday, Sept. 29, a special election will be held in Coralville to fill a vacant seat on the city council.
The vacancy was created when longtime Coralville City Councilmember Tom Gill resigned in late July, after coming under fire for comments made during a virtual meeting of the council focused in part on racial justice reform. After being “volatile” most of the meeting, by his own description, Gill described Black Lives Matter protesters as “a bunch of criminals” for whom he has “zero tolerance.”
His fellow councilmembers, including Coralville Mayor Joe Lundell, condemned Gill’s remarks. In a statement following Gill’s resignation, Lundell called the comments “inappropriate” and “offensive,” and said “many community members” had contacted him to express their disapproval.
In light of this, those seeking to fill Gill’s seat have made bridging racial divides in Coralville a major point of discussion. Coralville is one of Iowa’s most diverse cities, with roughly 27 percent of residents identifying as non-white.
Four candidates are on the ballot: Barry Bedford, Nick Burrell, Hai Huynh and Heather Seitsinger.
Bedford has been a Coralville resident for 47 years, and served as a Coralville Police officer for 43 of those years (including as chief of police for 28) before retiring in 2017. He highlighted three priorities in a video to voters: Fiscal stability (including reducing the city’s $340 million debt), cultivating community trust and advancing social and racial justice.
“I believe community life in Coralville must reflect the truth that every man woman and child is created equally by God,” he said.
Burrell, the youngest candidate at 28, is the owner of Versa Fitness, a Coralville business he said was thriving until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He also lost a family member to the virus.
“I am the only candidate that has experienced both the impacts of COVID, financially and personally, and have also experienced racism from both Black and white communities,” Burrell said in his video.
Burrell said incidents of racism colored his childhood, largely from whites but also other Black people in his family and community, who didn’t consider him “Black enough.” This rejection from “both sides” helped him grasp from a young age that race is an arbitrary concept.
“I worry without those experiences, the understanding of the complexity of the issues is lost,” he said, advocating for getting to the root of systematic oppression.
Burrell is a strong advocate for a county sales tax, as well as support for small businesses and tourist projects to generate revenue and jobs.
Huynh and her family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1993, when she was 16. She went on to earn an economics degree from the University of Iowa and a cosmetology license from La’ James International College. Huynh currently serves as the community project coordinator for the Coralville Community Food Pantry, and a paraeducator at Coralville Central Elementary School.
“My highest priority is to collectively create a Coralville that puts people first,” she said in her candidate video (which she recorded in both English and Vietnamese). “We must take bold action to advance racial and economic justice.”
Having formerly lived in a mobile home and a subsidized apartment in Coralville, Huynh advocates for investing in affordable housing and inclusive community development strategies; creating a more robust transit system (including adding night and Sunday routes and more bus stop shelters) and optimizing streets and walkways to be more bicycle and pedestrian friendly; and implementing a climate plan.
Seitsinger — who did not provide a candidate video to the city — was born and raised on a farm in Iowa before moving to St. Louis, Missouri, where she worked to open a dog park in her neighborhood. She settled down in Coralville three years ago, and works in Hy-Vee’s Aisles Online department, which she said has given her insight into the needs of families during the pandemic.
“I believe we need to diversify our city’s income through more jobs in varied industries, which will ultimately help every person in Coralville and strengthen the foundation of our city,” she said during a Sept. 15 candidate forum.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday. The Johnson County Auditor’s Office has an online tool voters can us to find their polling place.
The winner of the special election is expected to be sworn in on Oct. 6; their term will last through Dec. 31, 2021.
For more insight into the candidates and views, watch the League of Women Voters’ Sept. 15 candidate forum: