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Democracy and Dead Wood

Frank Barry
·14-min read
Democracy and Dead Wood
Democracy and Dead Wood

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has just finished his 14-day Covid quarantine. “I’m fine,” Brad Hart says. “My energy level is back. That was really it. It was just congestion and being really, really tired.”

A month before, he had issued a mask order. He would’ve done it sooner, but the governor told localities it was illegal. He eventually decided to act anyway: “We just think it’ll give some businesses a little more cover when they put up signs saying they have to wear a mask.”

What was the reaction? “I got people who thanked me,” he says. “And I got people who said, ‘You’re a bum and you’re going to come and take my gun next.’ Are you kidding me? Just wear a mask. It’s not that hard.”

He’s standing behind his house showing me where a massive oak tree, at least 150 years old, crashed through his roof when an August windstorm blew through the state — a derecho, Spanish for “straight,” the flip side of a twister.

“You can’t really turn the heat on because it just goes right up out of the house,” he says. “So it’s a little chilly in the mornings. But we’re hoping to repair part of the roof this week. They’ll put some netting in and blow some insulation in and it will help us get through winter until they can come and start doing all of the electrical, plumbing, Sheetrock.”

Hart is a lawyer with insurance. Many of his neighbors are not so lucky, and the damage is everywhere. Tree stumps dot the landscape and branches are piled high all along the road. “The estimate is that we lost 65% of our tree canopy, and we were a tree city,” he says. “Some of the parks lost 80%. We’ve already begun a re-LEAF campaign” — a public-private partnership. He proudly states that Cedar Rapids was the first city in Iowa to hire a sustainability director, and the derecho may lead them to double down on climate action, after the cleanup and recovery work is done.

He speaks the language of a bottom-line manager, proudly extolling the city’s AA bond rating, as well as the economic contributions of the city’s Latino, African and Asian immigrants. “This whole theory that ‘Oh, they’re just freeloaders’ is bull,” he says. “I mean, it’s unbelievable how many millions and millions of dollars that they are spending in our communities.”

That morning I met him at a mural dedication in the city’s Czech Village. A few dozen people gathered around trays of kolaches sprinkled with sugar. When I scooped one up, my wife, Laurel, pointed out that eating food that people are picking at and breathing on may not be the smartest thing, a risk that hadn’t occurred to me. “You just couldn’t resist free food,” she said. True, but I was already halfway through it — no sense wasting the rest.

Czech immigrants settled in this neighborhood because the local meatpacking plant was nearby, a pattern that has repeated itself in communities across the Midwest, more recently with Latino immigrants. Hart says immigration has been on the city’s national legislative agenda for as long as he can remember. “We need to open more doors,” he says. “I said when I was first campaigning that we need to be a more welcoming and engaged community. And anybody who wants to come to our community to be a part of it, come. We want you. And the more diverse, the better. Just makes us more interesting.”

He stops. “Oh, the one thing you should know: Our city government is nonpartisan,” he says. “Otherwise, there’s no way I’d do this. In our town, either party, there’s this craziness.”

He’s a Republican but says partisan issues don’t factor into the way government works. “I have not yet seen a vote that I thought someone voted [a certain way] because they were being pressured by a political party. And we’ve talked about that. The partisanship stays outside. And frankly, I will call somebody out if I think that they’re making a decision based on a political party.”

Has Hart considered running for a state or federal office? A council member had suggested it. “So first thing I did was Google ‘running for office.’ And it said something like, ‘The first thing you have to do is contact your party official.’ Like no, I don’t. I said, ‘Thank God I do not have to do that,’ and I’m not doing that.”

“Are you looking for a campground?” A woman in an SUV pulls up alongside us on a dirt road, as we’re bumping along at about 10 miles per hour.

“No, we’re just driving the Lincoln Highway.”

“Oh, I thought you were lost.”

“Not at the moment.”

She smiles and speeds off.

After Cedar Rapids and Ames, both looking prosperous and vital, the Lincoln Highway brings us through small towns that have proud histories — Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan slept at the old Greider Hotel in Belle Plaine. But what of their futures? The Greider is long closed, but the liquor store next door is doing a brisk business today. An older woman is taking home a 30-pack of Natural Light; the younger guy behind her in line carries a 30 of Milwaukee’s Best. I sheepishly browse the local beers. The cashier says she’s expecting snow early — “That’s what the Farmers’ Almanac says, anyway. It’s been that kind of year.”

The end of the road in Iowa is Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha. It’s Saturday night and our destination is — where else? — the Bass Pro Shop parking lot, part of a complex that includes a casino (the lot is fairly full), an arena (a drive-in showing of “Shrek” is sold out), and a shopping plaza that, from the sound of it, is hosting a classic rock guitar band. We walk over and learn it’s a fundraiser for a woman hurt in a motorcycle crash, and the band is called — and thankfully this seems to be an unrelated coincidence — Wrecked Becky. It’s a biker crowd of more than 100 people, no physical distancing. We are the only two people in masks, drawing stares. Maybe it’s best not to stay.

Lincoln, Nebraska, is not on the Lincoln Highway — the founders were ruthless about keeping the route straight — but it’s only a 55-mile detour to the south and there’s good reason to go: Lincoln is home to the nation’s only nonpartisan state legislature. Instead of running in party primaries, all candidates appear on the same primary ballot, without party labels. The election is open to all voters, including independents, and the top two finishers meet in the November election.

State Senator Adam Morfeld, a young Democrat representing Lincoln, talks about the practical consequences: “It builds incentives for you to reach across party lines and talk to everybody in your district and build a coalition. Whereas in a partisan primary, there’s no incentive — you only dial the Democrats or Republicans. … It brings that mind-set right on the front end that you represent everybody in your district and you generally have a more well-rounded understanding of the issues facing people in your district when you go in the Legislature. That’s the first big difference.”

What’s the second?

“We choose all of our committee chairs and our speaker by secret ballot. And so two-thirds of the legislators are Republicans, one-third are Democrats, but Democrats chair some of the most powerful committees in the Legislature.”

Like the election process, the committee selection process “incentivizes nonpartisan behavior and [rewards] those that are bridge-builders and moderate and thoughtful,” he says. “Because you’re not just rallying people in your own party, but you’re going across the aisle and saying, ‘Hey, I really want your support for this.’”

Morfeld points to his own record. “I’m a pretty liberal Democrat and I’ve been able to pass over 25 bills in a very conservative Legislature. You just don’t have the party-line voting. And there no party caucuses. There’s no minority leader, no majority leader. It’s more people-centric coalitions and issue-centric coalitions.”

That’s not to say every issue can transcend party politics. “Some of the regular partisan flashpoints — like abortion, gun bills, things like that — those generally fall along the same party lines for the most part,” he says. “But I would say 95% of the issues that would never have a chance in Nebraska” — if the Legislature were partisan — “might have a chance.”

I’m reminded of an earlier conversation I had on the trip in Pittsburgh with Mayor Bill Peduto. “What drives all of this [extremism in politics] is the threat of being primaried,” he said. “It’s not worrying whether or not you can be re-elected, but whether or not you can win your own party when you see your party becoming more extreme by the week. Purity tests that would’ve made anybody unelectable are now being demanded on all candidates as a process of the extreme to elect the government officials.”

Unlike most cities, Pittsburgh has partisan primaries open only to party members, and Peduto wishes they would move to a more open system. “You could have spent your entire career over 30 years working on issues like the environment and human rights and civil rights and because you don’t believe in abolishing the police, you’re considered a fascist,” he said. “I mean, it’s not reality. It’s so far from logic and it’s certainly not compassionate. And unfortunately that’s where we’re moving.”

There’s an old saying that people get the government they deserve. Or maybe we just get the government we design.

Main Street, USA — the recreation of an American downtown in 1910 that opened at Disneyland in 1955 — is based partly on Fort Collins, Colorado. Walt Disney knew that nostalgia sells: “For those of us who remember the carefree time it re-creates,” he said, “Main Street will bring back happy memories.”

Sitting outside at Austin’s American Grill, Mayor Wade Troxell isn’t buying it. “We’ve never been Mayberry. Right over here on Pine Street, my best friend’s dad in junior high was shot and killed in a bar.” Back then, only 20,000 people lived here. Today the number is closer to 10 times that and, with a few exceptions, Troxell says — there’s always someone who wants to turn back time — people agree with him that the city is better than ever.

He ticks through the reasons. Downtown storefronts are full. The nearby mountains bring visitors to town in record numbers. There are 300 miles of bike trails. A new whitewater park plays host to concerts and events. Housing is half the cost it is in Boulder. Local breweries have national reputations. The city is building out broadband to low-income neighborhoods.

Nostalgia is fantasy — Troxell is selling the here and now, and he’s got a good product to work with. A lifestyle website recently ranked Fort Collins the most livable city in the U.S.

There are challenges, of course. This summer thousands marched in Black Lives Matter protests — peaceful, no destruction of property. “There was this one email that we got over a thousand of, and it was about defunding police.” A City Council member wrote a resolution supporting the police. “OK, that’s fine — but he wrote this thing on his own whereas we usually collaboratively develop something.”

The member previously served in the state Legislature, where he was accustomed to a more confrontational and partisan working environment. In the new job, “He has a difficult time,” Troxell said. “The council is like a family where you’re with each other regularly a couple times a week, at least. I try to work it like a family. You might have the crazy uncle in the basement, but they’re still your family.”

Like many Western cities, Fort Collins has a council that works with a city manager to run the government. “The council-manager form of government is really set up to be more collaborative and less adversarial. That’s where the nonpartisan comes in” — elections are nonpartisan and so is the government — “and I don't think people often recognize that.”

During his campaigns, do people ask what party he belongs to? “You get about 10 people calling you to say: ‘What are you?’ And what I always say is: ‘What do you care about? And let’s talk about it.’”

One issue that’s far less divisive locally than nationally is climate change. “It’s not a debate issue. It’s one of pragmatism and aspiration,” he says. “I chair our Platte River Power Authority” — four localities in the region collectively own the utility — “and we have commitments to a hundred percent electric renewable by 2030, and we’re on a path to do that.”

There is no sign of the wildfires as we wrap up — he has a virtual council meeting to get to — but the next morning when I step out of the RV, I’m immediately startled by the smell of thick smoke and the sight of a massive dark cloud moving across the sky, blocking out the sun and leaving no trace of the mountains, only the unsettling feeling of being engulfed by a powerful and out-of-control danger. I quickly step back inside.

As it happens, I have a 9 a.m. meeting at Colorado State University’s Energy Institute, which is housed in a coal plant that closed in the 1970s. The director, Bryan Willson, skips the pleasantries and greets me with grim reality: “You are breathing the worst air quality in the U.S. — it’s actually worse than Delhi.”

Willson calls the wildfires in the region “a sudden manifestation of a long-term issue” — climate change. “As we’ve gotten warmer winters, the pine bark beetles have come in and we’ve lost tens of millions of acres of forest that are standing” — a mass of kindling wood waiting to go up.

The center he runs brings together businesses, faculty and researchers to work on energy issues. Their motto is: science to solutions to scale. “What we’ve tried to do is work to turn that science into real products and then work with companies to get them into production, because that’s really when the work has impact.”

It’s part laboratory and part office space, a modern Bell Labs. “We tend to think of Edison as the innovator,” he says. “But the innovation is really the network — the group you bring together to work together to get important stuff done.”

He mentions that CSU is a land-grant university that grew out of the Morrill Act that President Abraham Lincoln signed in 1862. “The land grants were established to solve problems of the common people” — and so their mission remains. He shows off an engine to reduce emissions while compressing natural gas, a hydrogen-powered car students have built, a solar-powered microgrid to bring electricity to the billions without it, a machine to allow utilities to deploy wind energy more efficiently and reliably.

Willson sees their land-grant roots as core to their mission: “What are the problems we’re facing as a society? And can we use the tools that we have to address them?” They’re working with the Gates Foundation on a clean-burning fecal incinerator for the large part of the world that doesn’t have indoor plumbing. And with Covid-19 raging, they’re trying to help musicians and other performing artists safely get back on the stage, by studying the particles they emit while playing their instruments and singing.

Before heading out from Fort Collins, we stop at the Silver Grill Cafe. It opened in 1933 and sits right on the city’s main street. But we aren’t there for nostalgia. We’ve come for their giant cinnamon rolls — four, please, to go. The sweetness won’t smother all that smoke, but the city — if it keeps looking forward — just might.

Want to learn more about Frank’s trip? Visit the Looking for Lincoln Storythread, and follow him on Instagram @looking4lincoln.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, “Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads.” It features reports from Barry’s journey west along the Lincoln Highway, a zigzagging network of local roads running from Times Square to the Golden Gate Bridge, from Sept. 11 to Election Day.

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