IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A powerful conservative group's efforts to sway a normally sleepy city election in Iowa may have backfired, with the mayor-elect on Wednesday calling the election results a victory for locals over outside interests.
Coralville, Iowa voters elected veteran City Council member John Lundell as mayor and re-elected two incumbent councilors Tuesday, rejecting an aggressive campaign by Americans for Prosperity to blame the trio for the city's $280 million debt.
Residents said the group's mailings, phone calls, door-to-door canvassing and social media ads fueled a backlash as the upper middle-class, Democratic-leaning city of 20,000 residents rallied behind the incumbents. The outcome may strengthen the officials that AFP tried to oust, and the race has led to calls for state-level reforms to force the group to disclose its spending and donors.
"The money spent by the large outside group actually showed that's not what works in local politics. Voters want local candidates that know the issues and speak with honesty and integrity," Lundell said. "The overwhelming margin of victory was very impressive and important. It wasn't that they almost won. We all won by healthy margins, which was important to make a statement to groups like this."
Vice President Joe Biden called Lundell on Tuesday to applaud the city's voters for defeating AFP, which was founded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and advocates for limited government and lower taxes.
"He said that he wanted to congratulate Coralville for having the courage to stand up and fight back against these outside interests," recalled Lundell, the deputy director of the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of Iowa.
AFP's Iowa chapter jumped into the race to protest Coralville's debt, which is the highest per capita among communities in the state. The group criticized Lundell and incumbent council members Bill Hoeft and Tom Gill for using tax dollars to subsidize the Iowa River Landing development, which includes a city-owned Marriott Hotel, a Von Maur department store poached from neighboring Iowa City, and a brewery the city helped finance.
One AFP flier showed pictures of decaying schools and buildings and warned that Coralville could become Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy this summer. The group noted that Moody's has repeatedly downgraded Coralville's bond rating, citing its ownership of the hotel and other nonessential enterprises.
But one candidate who agreed with AFP's general position on those issues said voters assumed he was its pawn and punished him at the polls. The candidate, Chris Turner, said he decided to run for office for the first time because he was concerned about the debt. After Americans for Prosperity got involved, Turner said that his neighbors tuned out his message.
"Sometimes I would ring a doorbell going door to door and I'd say I'm concerned about the bond rating. And people would start screaming at me, 'you work for the Koch brothers!'" said Turner, a University of Iowa researcher who finished last out of eight candidates seeking three council seats. "I could never get any further than that. The Koch brothers just messed everything up."
Mark Lucas, AFP's state director, said the group's involvement helped fuel a record turnout for a Coralville municipal election, 2,820 voters, or about a quarter of those registered. That's more than twice the number of people who voted in the last mayor's race, in 2009.
Lucas rejected the idea that the group had overreached in the race, and pledged it would continue speaking out in local and state elections.
"This is a victory of turnout," he said. "I hope that we were able to help bring to light the problem with the debt and the downgrades here and that the current City Council takes a more serious approach to these issues in the future."
Lundell agreed that AFP's involvement boosted turnout, saying it helped residents understand the stakes. But he said he was furious about some misinformation peddled by the group, including a late flier that falsely suggested he had manipulated property tax assessments.
Lundell said voters made clear they want the city to stay on the same path. During the campaign, he defended the spending as investment that would eventually pay dividends. He said the city has a long-term plan to pay down the debt, which has supported a range of popular projects such as a new library and aquatics center.
Lundell won 65 percent of the vote, easily defeating three challengers in the race to succeed 18-year Mayor Jim Faussett. Gill and Hoeft gathered the most votes among the eight City Council candidates. The new city councilor elected, Laurie Goodrich, had also been critical of AFP.
Turner said the election became a circus.
"It only took 25 signatures to get on the ballot, and I'm thinking I might try to help the budget. Next thing you know the Koch brothers are in town. I'm in the New York Times. Al Jazeera was at my house yesterday," he said. "This is the most fun I've had in a long, long time but I'm never doing it again.
Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley