Progressive Credentials Not Enough for Szopinski to Emerge as Ames Mayor

Local architect John Haila defeated the former City Council member in a race whose local politics were notably distinct from those of the September school board election, but progressive David Martin won in council Ward 3

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Backed by the current mayor and a host of other prominent community members, John Haila, a widely respected local architect, won a decisive victory Tuesday against Victoria Szopinski, a former City Council member and founding member of the Ames Progressive Alliance, to become the city’s next mayor.

Ames’ 3rd Ward council seat did go to the candidate seen as the progressive choice, David Martin, a globetrotting software forensics business founder who’s been legally married in the US to his husband, an Episcopalian minister, for the past 14 years. By a slim 67-vote margin, according to unofficial results (PDF), Martin came out ahead with 896 votes against Rob Bowers, a former deputy police chief with Iowa State University’s department.

Haila’s victory over Szopinski provided him with more room for comfort; he took 58 percent of the vote after leading all night as results were tallied from around Ames. Although the outcome was not a major surprise — both candidates had ample qualifications and ran competent campaigns — it was a contrast from September’s local school board election, in which three progressive women filled two open seats and knocked off an incumbent. (With much of affluent north Ames belonging to Gilbert’s, the Ames school district does not share the same district boundaries as the city itself.)

In September, the political climate in the US and Iowa served as a boon for the winning candidates, who campaigned in part on addressing diversity issues in the district and protecting undocumented students. (Tim Rasmussen, the incumbent, touched on similar themes at candidate forums but did not raise funds for a campaign, opting to leave things to voters.) One of the victors, Gina Perez, was endorsed by Our Revolution, the political organizing group spun off from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Szopinski, too, had Our Revolution’s backing. But for her, the progressive label likely served as a hinderance. Several of Haila’s endorsements came with the implication, if not saying it outright, that his opponent would prove divisive and inject partisan politics into the nonpartisan council. In an otherwise equivocating editorial, the Ames Tribune noted that Szopinski “would like to use the Ames Progressive Alliance as a model for community input and initiatives,” whereas Haila spoke of his “process” used in “chairing hundreds of professional and volunteer meetings that has assumed cooperation, been inclusive and [been] designed to prevent polarization.” His experience serving on various local boards and commissions, the paper added, “demonstrates he already has the ability to navigate the sometimes troublesome waters of bringing opposing sides together to reach positive outcomes.” (Providing an exception, the editorial mentioned that Szopinski had a “good personal relationship” with Wendy Wintersteen, the agribusiness-friendly incoming president of ISU.)

ISU economics professor Peter Orazem, who served with Szopinski on the council (and whose seat Martin will now fill), was more blunt. “During her brief time on City Council, Szopinski consistently voted against the government policy changes that helped us add 6,500 more jobs to the Ames economy since 2010,” he wrote in a characteristically statistics-driven letter to the Tribune that also claimed Szopinski believes “economic growth is unnecessary.” Jami Larson, a conservative former council member who also served with her, was also frank, lauding the current mayor’s nonpartisan approach to governance. “While on the council, I never felt that there was a ‘group’ of individuals behind the scenes telling her what to do next, he wrote. “I am very concerned that if Victoria Szopinski gets elected she will be influenced by the Ames Progressive Alliance, a group that she co-founded.” Larson added that, on council, he “witnessed first-hand how she makes decisions. And, it concerns me that if she is elected, Ames might lose that non-partisan approach to local government that Mayor Campbell has helped promote.”

Haila’s most striking endorsement came from Campbell herself, who has served three terms as mayor beginning in 2006 and is now in her mid-70s. “As we move ahead in Ames I see us as a city and a nation facing some of the greatest challenges and divisions yet,” she also wrote to the Tribune. “Emotions and distrust are high — whether it is on the subject of ethnic discrimination, ISU enrollment growth, thoughtful commercial and industrial development, or neighborhood protection. All need a balance and an open mind.” Campbell added that she had recently attended an Iowa League of Cities conference seminar on solar energy that stressed the need for “leadership in bringing dissident parts of the community together for a new community center.”

Szopinski received many dozens more small individual contributions to her campaign than did Haila, and the Inclusive Ames campaign is a central part of the Ames Progressive Alliance (whose other co-founders include former council member Matthew Goodman, who often sparred with Campbell over procedure at the dias). Regardless, the message against her apparently stuck. With backing from local business and development leaders such as former Renewable Energy Group CEO Daniel Oh and realtors Dean Hunziker and Chuck Winkleblack, Haila was viewed by a majority of the 18 percent of registered voters who bothered to show up to the polls as the candidate best suited to further propel Ames growth. Szopinski and her progressive allies in town, who Hunziker once labeled “energy vampires,” they believe would risk a return to anti-growth council gridlock.

But those business community forces had less luck in Ward 3, despite Orazem’s support for Bowers, who was also backed by prominent movers and shakers including Hunziker; Steve Goodhue, the president of Knapp Tedesco Insurance; and Jeff Becker and Roger Underwood, the founders of the Becker Underwood seed company they sold to BASF in 2012 for $1.02 billion.

Council member-elect Martin and Szopinski had many overlapping supporters, including a number of local progressive activists and like-minded residents, former Youth & Shelter Services CEO George Belitsos, and Ames state Sen. Herman Quirmbach.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.