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Eroding Liberal Centers

Tomatillo casserole with potato, onion, tomatoes, garlic and basil.

Johnson County, Iowa, where I live, is distinctively Democratic. The Republican Iowa legislature doesn’t much care for our deviance from their plans.

In 2010 we were the only county in the state to vote for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Roxanne Conlin. In 2014, Johnson County stood alone in voting for Jack Hatch as governor. “We are the most Democratic county in the statewide races by a very consistent margin,” election official and long-time blogger John Deeth wrote.

Said margin doesn’t mean beans in the scope of statewide elections. If one subtracts Johnson County from statewide and presidential results since 2000 the political outcome and the winners would have remained the same.

Let’s be clear, my political precinct voted for Donald Trump by a substantial margin, as did several others. When I write Johnson County is liberal I’m referring to the urban centers comprised of Iowa City, Coralville, and to a lesser extent, North Liberty. Rural areas near Lone Tree, Tiffin and Solon are more like the rest of the state than the liberal metropolis.

Republicans have noticed and are taking aim.

The county would ban concentrated animal feeding operations if we could. There are votes on the board of supervisors to do so. Managing CAFOs was one of the first areas of the law where the legislature preempted local control, saying hog and cattle lots would be managed from Des Moines.

The Johnson County supervisors raised the county minimum wage. Not every municipality in the county went along with the change. Some other counties also raised the minimum wage. The state legislature preempted local control over minimum wage, nullifying Johnson County’s ordinance.

Protesters in Iowa City have long sought to shut down Interstate 80 as a way to stop business as usual and gain attention for their causes. I participated in one such interstate shutdown in 1971. Republicans increased the penalties for this infraction, although the Iowa Highway Patrol, which is responsible for the interstate, hasn’t been able to prevent protesters from attempting to close it. Protesters closing the interstate highway remains a sore spot for Republicans.

There was talk in the legislature of penalizing so-called “Sanctuary Cities.” I worked with a local group of faith and labor leaders to get the Iowa City Council to declare the county seat a Sanctuary City. They declined to do so because of the stigma attached to the appellation. That hasn’t stopped Republicans from calling our county a Sanctuary County, and our cities Sanctuary Cities.

Our county favors reasonable gun control. No one wants to take guns away from everyone. Most of us would ban the AR-15 and other assault and military-style weapons, and better control the way in which sellers at gun shows operate. The Iowa legislature, especially under House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, will have none of it.

The effect of constant Republican efforts to erode what makes Johnson County a liberal center is not without its effects. The reaction to Republican preemption in governance has been to make us more liberal. At the same time our liberal nature is isolating us within the state.

Republicans keep after us, including attacks on the keystone of our local economy, the University of Iowa. Through decreased funding, and installation by the board of regents of President J. Bruce Herrald, a man without substantial academic credentials, they erode what’s best about the university and as a byproduct, our economic life.

Iowa City is also hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The state would not allow a mask wearing mandate and the city and county implemented one anyway. I was in the county seat yesterday and the percentage of mask-wearing people was about 50 percent. Enforcement is close to zero. It’s no wonder there is uncontrolled spread of the virus in the county.

If the Trump administration ever finishes the U.S. Census count, there will be political redistricting for the 2022 election. Iowa expects to keep its four congressional seats. I expect Johnson County will gain at least one full time state legislator and we will elect a Democrat in that district.

It seems possible to regain control of the Iowa House of Representatives this election cycle and we are working toward that end. People say it’s possible to flip the Iowa Senate as well, but I doubt it. The Republican Party of Iowa is in full campaign mode, defending every seat where a Republican is running. Even former governor Terry Branstad is returning to the state to help with the campaign, announcing yesterday he is leaving his post as U.S. Ambassador to China. If anything, the political landscape will result in Democrats becoming even more concentrated geographically and Republicans harder to beat.

To some extent Johnson County Democrats painted a target on their back by pursuing liberal policies. That leads me to say while Republicans take aim at us liberals, I hope the rest of Iowa Democrats are using the diversion to gather strength and rebuild Iowa as a progressive state. We should be a progressive state and the only way we will return to our roots is by developing a statewide Democratic footprint. I’ve been around long enough to believe that’s possible.

Republican attacks on our county are irritating yet tolerable. They are not going to end soon and hopefully will provide cover for our Democratic friends and allies throughout the state. The Nov. 3 general election will be a bellwether to show us which way the state is going.

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