Candidates have raised more money than ever before in a Coralville City Council and mayoral race that has unexpectedly generated interest well beyond the borders of this suburban community of 20,000 people.
Locally the race has become a referendum on the city’s debt and the use of tax incentives for controversial investments, such as building a city-owned hotel and subsidizing the move of the Von Maur department store from a town away.
The national conservative group Americans for Prosperity have targeted the local race as an example of big government spending and runaway debt. Critics have complained the race has been taken over by outside interests.
Money has poured in to candidates at a level never before seen in Coralville.
“It’s unusual to have that kind of money coming into a city council race, especially the size of Coralville,” University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said.
Mayoral candidate Matt Adam, with $7,665, and city council candidate Mark Winkler, with $6,125, have crushed what appears to be the old contribution mark of $4,335 raised by Mitch Gross in 2007. They spent $6,350 and $4,523, respectively, according to campaign disclosures released Thursday.
“I did not allow anyone to donate more than myself,” Adam said. “No one donated more than $500 person. All of my donors, I have a personal relationship with prior to this election. I was humbled to get their support.”
Mayoral candidate John Lundell, who is a current city council member, raised $3,687 and spent $1,929. Other mayoral candidates David Fesler and Logan Strabala said they didn’t raise or spend more than $750, which means they are not required to file.
Other city council candidates include Laurie Goodrich, who raised $1,495 and spent $1,309; Christopher Turner, who raised $2,250 and spent $1,847, John Weber, who raised $1,210 and spent $1,000, and David Petsel, who raised $3,549 and spent $1,299.
Candidates Jean Newlin Schnake and Tom Gill, an incumbent, reported $2,298 and $2,215, respectively in self-funded spending. They did not fundraise. Incumbent Bill Hoeft said he did not believe he exceeded the $750 threshold and did not have a report on file. He also said he did not fundraise.
“Early on I knew it was going to some outside groups and outside interest,” Hoeft said of why he chose not to take contributions. “I didn’t want it to be about outside groups or money. I didn’t want to give them the platform.”
A group called Citizens for Responsible Growth sued Coralville over a deal to bring to Von Maur to Iowa River Landing. The city’s heavy investment in redeveloping the landing, which was an old industrial park, into a commercial destination is at the heart of the tension in Coralville.
A third of Adam’s contributions, $2,525 come from individuals outside the county, some of whom are identified as family. The largest contributions came from plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city in which Adam was the attorney.
Plaintiffs Gerry Ambrose, Kevin O’Brien and Hunter Parks each contributed $500, Randy Miller contributed $200, and Thomas Bender contributed $100.
The same people also donated to Winkler, who’s also critical of the city debt and involvement in projects he believes should be left to the private sector. Turner and Petsel, who are both critical of debt, also received donations from some of the same people.
Americans for Prosperity spent more than $33.5 million trying to defeat President Barack Obama’s re-election bid last year. The local chapter has been stirring interest in the race, including sending a flier critical of current officials Gill, Lundell and Hoeft.
Iowa director Mark Lucas previously told the Gazette he wouldn’t say how much money his organization would spend, but that he doubted “anyone’s going to outspend me.”
As long as efforts don’t explicitly call on people to vote a certain way, the group escapes disclosure requirements, said Megan Tooker, director and legal counsel of the Iowa Ethics Campaign Disclosure Board.
“It seems everyone is being careful not to cross that line,” Tooker said.