JOHNSON COUNTY, Iowa (KWWL) – A local political office vacancy has two candidates in the running after the sudden death of a supervisor.
Johnson County Supervisor Kurt Friese died unexpectedly on October 26. He was 54.
On Tuesday, the county medical examiner confirmed that Friese’s death was due to natural causes. The medical examiner said Friese died from atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and that hypertension was a factor.
Friese’s term was supposed to run until 2020. Last month, a committee voted to have a special election to find his replacement.
Early voting for the special election opens on December 5th ahead of the December 18th election.
The Republican Party is represented by Phil Hemingway. Hemingway is an Iowa City Community District school board member and the owner of Phil’s Repair.
Hemingway ran in the November election in his first bid for supervisor but lost to incumbent Democrat Janelle Rettig.
Royceann Porter will represent the Democrats in the race. Porter is a political newcomer but a long-time community activist in Iowa City.
Both candidates are grateful for the opportunity to run but neither wish it came under tragic circumstances.
A milestone moment in the making
No matter who wins between the two of them, Phil Hemingway and Royceann Porter are both poised for milestone moments within Johnson County supervisor history.
If Hemingway wins his second big attempt, he’ll be only the second Republican in 60 years to be on the board.
“We’re in bluer than blue Johnson County. It doesn’t get more Democratic here. I thought for a Republican candidate to get 21,000 votes. I thought that was very good,” Hemingway said about his recent campaign run.
He knows that it may make for a hard race, but he doesn’t want voters to make too much of the “R” next to his name.
“Roads and bridges aren’t democratic or republican. So, it’s important that we look at candidates. Look at the people,” Hemingway said.
If Porter were to get the most votes, she’d be the first African-American to serve the county supervisors.
“I think it’s time. It’s a long time overdue. They’ve always talked about liberal and progressive but we haven’t had a voice at the table and I’m going to be that voice. It’s all about diversity and inclusion,” Porter said.
Porter the community activist
Porter hasn’t held an official political title but for almost three decades she said she’s been active in the community.
“Working with leaders and numerous community organizations to improve policies and public programming on a wide array of issues such as homelessness, transportation, affordable housing, minimum wage, worker’s rights and opportunities for youth,” Porter said.
She’s the founding member of a number of organizations; the new NAACP Iowa-Nebraska chapter, Coalition for Racial Justice, Black Voices Project. She’s also served on the board of NAMI and the Iowa City Police Citizen Review Board.
Porter is a current project organizer for the labor union Teamsters.
She said she is running to keep the supervisors moving in the same direction. She said she would be carrying Friese’s torch.
“The work they do overlaps with the work I’ve been doing for the last three decades,” she said.
For Porter, her top issue boils down to affordable housing. She believes there’s still more work to be done to improve it.
“In my community, as an activist, I work with so many people. Affordable housing is not affordable in Iowa City or Johnson County period,” she said.
Hemingway for rural voices
“Rural communities do not feel represented by the present supervisors,” Hemingway said.
Born into a fourth-generation of farming, Hemingway knows what it’s like to live outside the city. He said he wants to be a voice for the rural communities.
“We need to make sure everyone in the county is treated fairly,” he said. “Johnson County is bigger than Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty. We’ve got a lot of rural communities and unincorporated communities and those people, their voices, need to be heard.”
Hemingway also has experience working in other countries. He spent five years in Central America managing a cattle ranch. He also did aid work in the Soviet Union and Africa.
Hemingway got his first taste of county politics more than a decade ago — when the county wanted to turn his road from a blacktop to gravel.
Hemingway also is running on other issues such as an emphasis on niche agriculture.
“We need to address our mental health needs — not only for old, but young as well. Rural representation and fiscal oversight are huge. I’ve been a watchdog on the schools for spending.”
Currently, Hemingway is the financial chair for the school board. He said he’s proud of the work he’s helped accomplish in that time such as adding agriculture classes to the district and reducing chemical spraying in schools.
Rest assured there may not be too hard of feelings between these candidates depending on who gets elected. Both of them say they’re actually friends even if they agree to disagree on some issues. They hope their campaign of civility can be an example for others.
A forum with Hemingway and Porter will be held Wednesday, Dec. 14th, by the Johnson County League of Women Voters. The forum will be held at the Iowa City City Hall from 7 to 8:30 p.m.