'It's all about neighborhoods': Cownie renews focus on revitalization after tough campaign
Frank Cownie will begin an unprecedented fifth term as Des Moines' mayor in January with a focus on improving the city's aging neighborhoods.
“It’s all about neighborhoods,” Cownie said Tuesday night after narrowly defeating developer Jack Hatch in a runoff election.
The mayor said he wants more streets repaired, sidewalk gaps filled and lower property taxes for residents.
Hatch regularly accused Cownie of neglecting neighborhoods in favor of downtown development during a particularly tough campaign that featured verbal jousting and television attack ads — a rarity in central Iowa's nonpartisan elections.
Cownie won reelection by fewer than 300 votes, according to unofficial results from the Polk and Warren county auditors' offices.
“That was the roughest campaign and the closest campaign I’ve seen in my lifetime in Des Moines,” said George Davis, chairman of the Des Moines Parks and Recreation board and a neighborhood leader.
It was also one of the most expensive.
Cownie and Hatch raised a combined $567,674, including thousands of dollars in personal loans, through Nov. 23, according to documents filed with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board.
Not a clear mandate?
It was the closest mayoral election since 2003, when Cownie edged past Christine Hensley to replace Preston Daniels.
Cownie received 10,318 votes to Hatch's 10,037 votes. The runoff mirrored the Nov. 5 general election in which the two finished less than 1 percentage point apart.
According to the unofficial results, about 20,480 people voted in the runoff election, down from about 24,700 in November.
Cownie was able to win several precincts that he lost in November. He maintained or even increased his advantage on the city’s southwest side, giving him enough to surpass Hatch’s votes on the city’s north and east side.
Hensley, who supported Hatch during the campaign, said Cownie's narrow win means there is no "clear mandate" from voters supporting the status quo. The city council should evaluate issues raised during the campaign, such as racial profiling, infrastructure spending and mental health services, she said.
“I think that’s really positive,” Hensley said.
Councilwoman Connie Boesen said she had two takeaways from the election: The city needs to speed up neighborhood revitalization efforts, and keep the public better informed about the projects it's working on.
However, she said the results show Des Moines voters support the efforts the city has made to repair roads and rehabilitate neighborhoods.
"I think the results tonight show that our citizenry wants to keep moving in that direction and wants somebody who collaborates and works together and listens to them and doesn't come up with ideas in a silo," he said.
No love lost
Both campaigns opted for attack ads in the final weeks of the runoff period. The ads sparked some tense moments at forums last week, when Cownie and Hatch criticized each other while standing and sitting feet apart.
Hatch said he thinks the negative ads, as well as the mayor's strong westside support, made the difference in the outcome.
“He couldn’t respond (on issues) without getting himself deeper in trouble, so he attacked me, just like the Republicans did when I ran for governor," Hatch said.
Cownie said he thinks it was his campaign's "positive message" that won the day.
"We want to move forward. We want to move forward together," he said.
But the mayor said he didn't know if he could collaborate with Hatch on issues after such a harsh election. Both men have been involved in Democratic Party politics for decades.
Cownie faced a similar situation in 2003, after defeating Hensley. That was a tough campaign, too. But the former rivals continued to work together — Cownie as mayor and Hensley as a council member — until she stepped down from that position at the end of 2017.
“It’ll take a little while, but I’m confident that they’ll get there,” Hensley said.
Hatch, who has built 10 housing projects in Des Moines with his company Hatch Development Group, said he does not see himself working with the mayor.
"I can’t see myself collaborating with Frank because he doesn’t do anything," Hatch said. "He won’t do anything differently."
An expensive race
The campaign was the most expensive since 2003.
Cownie vastly out-raised his opponent, collecting $255,720 in donations for the general and runoff elections. Hatch raised $56,954 in donations and loaned his campaign $205,000 from his own pocket. Cownie contributed $50,000 of his own money to his campaign.
The next mayor will be paid $57,760 annually. The city council approved an 11% pay increase for the position this fall.
Hatch told supporters Tuesday night that he was proud of the uphill battle his campaign fought and the ideas it brought to the table, saying he was "disappointed" with the result but "humbled and thankful" for voters' support.
"Though I am disappointed that Des Moines did not choose me to be their mayor, I will continue our mission to make sure that our city's growth is felt in every neighborhood," he said in a statement.
Hatch, who conducted polling before jumping into the race, said August polling showed him trailing Cownie by 32 percentage points.
“That was pretty phenomenal that he only lost by (281) votes,” Hensley said.
Davis, the president of the Southwestern Hills Neighborhood Association, attributed Cownie's win to his message that Des Moines is on an upward trajectory. He said he's not sure the result would be the same if the election were held a day later.
“I have never seen anything this close,” Davis said.
The results won’t be official until they’re approved by the county boards of supervisors.
Austin Cannon covers the city of Des Moines for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8398.
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