IOWA CITY – At any given Iowa City Council meeting, Connie Champion would say something that could make a person laugh or cringe – sometimes both at once.
She was brutally honest from behind the council’s dais. That included with herself, as she was known for occasionally changing her mind on a matter.
“Sometimes three or four times on the same issue,” City Manager Tom Markus joked at Champion’s last City Council meeting.
Consider in 2010, when after years of opposing raising the age required to be in Iowa City bars at night, Champion backed the so-called 21-only law and lashed out at bar owners.
"We don't have an alcohol culture, we have an overindulging culture,” she said at the time. "And I do blame the bar owners."
Comments like that will be missing from future City Council meetings. Champion’s fourth four-year term representing council district B on the city’s east side ends just after the New Year. Her last scheduled meeting was Dec. 17 when, after threatening not to attend if too much of a fuss was made, she received a surprise proclamation declaring Dec. 18 Connie Champion Day.
At 16 years, she is believed to be the longest-serving City Council member in Iowa City’s history. The city estimates she attended 400 council meetings and voted on 800 ordinances and 7,000 resolutions.
She also was on the Iowa City school board for nine years before being elected to City Council, making for a quarter-century of service as an elected official in the community.
“That’s amazing. There must be something wrong with me,” the 73-year-old said.
Her candor, which is the root of many of the humorous things she says, is something everyone who knows her eventually brings up.
Former City Manager Steve Atkins described it as brusqueness but added Champion was not mean-spirited, which often helped prevent the target of those words from taking offense.
“She’s blessed with a wonderful personality,” said Atkins, who retired in 2007. “She’s friendly. She speaks her mind.”
Mayor Matt Hayek said Champion was the antidote to the reserved Midwestern culture and thus was sometimes the lightening rod at meetings for saying things that needed to be said.
“She’s blunt but wise,” Hayek said. “It certainly adds levity to our meetings. But anyone who underestimated her was making a mistake.”
Champion said she never voted a certain way or chose her words with the thought of winning an election.
“It comes right off my hip without thinking,” she said of her comments. “It goes in my brain and comes out.”
Some of the accomplishments she’s most proud of in her 16 years are the controversial decision to extend First Avenue, putting city funds toward the resurrection of Englert Theatre downtown, the expansion and renovation of the public library and the 2010 vote to raise the bar-entry age to 21.
Former Mayor Ernie Lehman said Champion called him before the council’s vote on the 21-only law to say that, after years of being on the opposite side, she finally agreed with him.
“I think that was one of Connie’s greatest attributes — she was not afraid to change her mind,” Lehman said.
No disappointments came to mind when Champion reflected on her time on the City Council, though there was the failure to get voter approval for a new Johnson County jail and courthouse improvements — something Champion worked toward as part of a county criminal justice committee for more than a decade.
“Sometimes people don’t agree with me,” Champion said. “I can never understand it.”
Champion said she’ll remain active with the two downtown clothing stores she co-owns with her daughter, Catherine. She’s also thinking about becoming a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County.
And there are her 8 children and 20 grandchildren to keep her busy.
After getting a standing ovation, flowers and a print of the city at her final City Council meeting, Champion had one last quip.“I didn’t die,” she said.