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Waterloo makes history, electing a majority Black city council for the first time

Courtesy: Nia Wilder for Ward 3 Campaign
Nia Wilder is among the candidates elected to the Waterloo City Council on Tuesday. Voters there made history, electing a majority Black city council for the very first time.

Voters in Waterloo made history Tuesday: The city will soon have a majority Black city council for the first time ever, following this week’s elections. The historic outcome follows divisive debates over race and policing in the community, which is about 16 percent Black. It’s a landmark victory in one of the state’s most racially diverse cities, where generations of residents have struggled against discrimination and disinvestment.

After Tuesday’s elections, four of Waterloo’s seven city council members will be Black. Incumbent Mayor Quentin Hart, the city’s first Black mayor, also won reelection, despite being targeted by a pro-police PAC called Cedar Valley Backs the Blue.

Hart and Waterloo Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, the first Black man to lead the police force in the city of about 67,000, faced backlash and attack ads from the group, which was founded by former police officers. The activists went after Hart and Fitzgerald for overseeing the rebranding of the police department’s logo. Adopted in the 1960s, critics have long said the image of the red winged griffin with green eyes resembles a Ku Klux Klan dragon.

According to the Associated Press, Fitzgerald has said the attacks against him and Hart were driven by misinformation and racism.

Ultimately, Hart outran a challenger endorsed by Cedar Valley Backs the Blue. On the city council, candidates who were not endorsed by the group won every race.

Entrepreneur Nia Wilder challenged an incumbent and won the seat representing Ward 3. A Waterloo native, she’s also thought to be the council’s first openly LGBTQ member. Growing up in the city as a child of a single parent, Wilder said she at times struggled to find her purpose and never dreamed of becoming an elected official.

“To me it feels like now I’ve given everyone an avenue. Because I didn’t start off my life to be a city councilwoman. I didn’t know that I would come this far. So the journey that I’ve been on this entire time, I just feel like…representation is everything,” Wilder said. “And now people that see me, they can see my journey and see themself within me and imagine themselves going further.”

Wilder says she hopes her win inspires others to reimagine what’s possible in the city.

“We are breaking ground. We are making history and we’re making it possible for somebody to come after us and make these changes,” Wilder said.

While Iowa remains an overwhelmingly white state, many communities are rapidly diversifying. But many of the state’s political bodies, from school boards to the Statehouse, fail to reflect the communities they represent (in 2020, small business owner Mark Cisneros became the first Latino ever elected to the state legislature).

Wilder says that having elected representatives that reflect their constituents makes for a more effective and equitable government and a stronger, more unified community. She says other Iowa cities should take note.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter