Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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October 19, 2017

Sullivan’s Salvos     10/24/17

In this edition:

*IC Council Race
*Local Politics and Labor
*Local Politics and the Chamber
*Local Politics and Friends
*Did You Know?

*IC Council Race
I have heard calls recently for “ideological diversity” in the Iowa City Council race. On the face of it, this makes some sense. We should all be open to hearing different opinions. At my own work, I like to hear as many sides as possible on an issue.

It is interesting, however, that this is an election issue NOW. Since the advent of the personal computer in the late 90s, I have every letter I have ever sent to the Iowa City Council. And trust me, I have sent several!

I recently went through many of those letters. You know what? Other than a couple individual Councilors, I was pretty much summarily dismissed EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. For 20 years. No one ever thanked me for providing “ideological diversity.” They simply ignored me. That is, until 2015. Nobody ever gave a DAMN about “ideological diversity” until the Core Four were elected.

Jim Throgmorton likely understands how I felt. Jim was treated terribly by his fellow Councilors prior to 2015. Nobody was interested in “ideological diversity” when Jim was the lone progressive voice on Council. Jim was alternately ignored, scolded, patronized, and ridiculed. And none of his ideas were ever given a hearing. If he was even acknowledged, it was so that he could get some sort of condescending lecture. It was shameful. But now we are interested in “ideological diversity”. Why the sudden change?

*Local Politics and Labor
I am an Organized Labor guy. Always have been. I think I can say it is both figuratively and literally in my DNA. I was raised that way, and as I have grown older, my pro-labor attitudes have only deepened.

As a result of this, I have spent over two decades involved in the Iowa City Federation of Labor. City Fed, as it is known, has had an interesting record when it comes to local politics.

For some reason, City Fed has been almost unbeatable when it comes to getting pro-labor candidates elected to the Iowa Legislature. Yet it has been almost the opposite when it comes to County and City races; only very recently has labor had much success at all.

Why is this? For one thing, the local Chamber, development community, and other conservative groups have always punted on high-turnout partisan elections. They focus all their efforts on Democratic Sheriff and Supervisor primaries and local City Council elections. And that focus has served them well. Despite the fact that Johnson County is a pretty progressive place, until recently, local government was quite conservative.

Another obstacle Labor has had to overcome is our own endorsed Democratic Legislators! I know, it sounds strange, but it has been true for decades. Here is an example:

Minnette Doderer was an unbelievable Legislator; on a Mount Rushmore of Iowa Legislators, she would be the very first of the 4 people represented. Her labor record was close to perfect over a Legislative career of almost 40 years; there is no way I could do her career justice in an edition of Salvos. She was an unabashed liberal well before it was cool! Minnette is THE trailblazer when it comes to women in Iowa politics. She is a true legend!

Yet when it came to local politics, Minnette had other ideas. She routinely endorsed candidates who were anti-union, anti-worker, and opposed social services and human rights initiatives. She rarely supported labor-endorsed candidates.

I had a theory that perhaps this stemmed from the fact that Minnette’s husband Fred had served as the Mayor of Iowa City, and she seemed to defer on City issues. Despite my love and admiration for her, I always found this disconnect frustrating.

But this incongruity is not rare – not at all. It continues to happen to this day. Legislators from Johnson County go to Des Moines, and achieve remarkable records of support for labor issues. Then they come home and support the opposite candidates of those backed by their supporters in local labor.

         And it is not just labor. Odds are, anyone even a bit left of center feels a sense of abandonment when these things happen. Environmentalists, people of color, civil libertarians, etc. – there is a big collective shaking of heads.

         So why does this happen? I can see several reasons:

         First, Labor has not traditionally talked much with Elected Officials. I go to every City Fed meeting; we almost never have Legislators present. Meanwhile, Legislators are ubiquitous at Chamber events. Labor needs to have more frequent conversations with the people they send to Des Moines.

Secondly, Labor needs to hold elected officials accountable. I understand that this can be awkward. But frankly, we all perform better in a world where we are both supported and also held accountable. Labor dipped its’ toe in this water a couple times in the mid-2000s, and it did not work too well. Some heads rolled, yet nothing improved. And that sucks. But you cannot quit holding people accountable. It is the only way things ever get better.

Thirdly, Legislative candidates have tended to come from the same backgrounds. They are older, white, Christian, straight, and middle or upper class. They share more in common with the Chamber folks than they do with lower wage households. 

Fourthly, these are often people with deep roots in the community. Many times it is much more important that you really be “FROM” Iowa City, or Coralville, or Solon, or fill in the blank. That matters more to policy makers than how you feel about any labor related issues.

Finally, local elections are low turnout affairs. The people who are used to controlling things locally have not had to worry about the hoi polloi participating in “their” elections. “Those people” only vote when Barack Obama is on the ballot.

         Labor can (and should) fix this. I know that I have not done enough personally. But it is not going to happen overnight, and it is not going to come easily.

*Local Politics and the Chamber
         Let me be clear – I have never had a bad relationship with a Chamber staff person. Not one. Every single person I have ever met was kind, friendly, smart, and engaging. They really all have been wonderful people!

         But those are staff people. When you start talking about local politics, the opinions of staff people don’t matter. So when it comes to local politics, I am not popular there.

         I am not so egocentric as to believe that that most Chamber members have any idea who I am – they do not. But for a small group of Chamber members who desperately attempt to influence local politics? In that group, I am hated.

         So, please don’t misconstrue my comments. Chamber staff people have all been great; it is the old time political organization that dislikes me.

*Local Politics and Friends
         I have been around local politics a long time. And during that time, I have made some very, very good friends. I have also seen many “friendships” that fell apart as soon as political differences cropped up. Even worse, there are many “friendships” ruined when one person chooses to throw the other under the political bus.

         I have tried pretty hard to be a straight shooter when it comes to politics. If something is annoying but small, I usually let it go. If I can massage a situation, then I usually massage it. And if it really needs to be said, then I say it. Many people view this as too outspoken. This approach hasn’t maximized my political friends, but neither has it created a bunch of fake relationships. Meanwhile, I feel I have been true to myself.

         So if you are just getting involved in politics, or considering getting involved? Great, but don’t expect it to be your only source of friends. Because you are going to get hurt. I cannot tell you exactly when, why, or how, but you are going to get hurt. Not by everyone, mind you, but it will happen. Be prepared so that when that happens, you have some other friends upon whom you can rely.

*DID YOU KNOW?  Turnout for Iowa City municipal elections is good as far as cities go; it typically ranges between 10 and 30%. But compare that to the 2008 Presidential election – 80% of Johnson County voters participated in that election.

Anyone interested in learning more about County government should take a look at the County website-

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As always, feel free to contact me at 354-7199 or I look forward to serving you!



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