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O'Donnell beats Andrews decisively in runoff race to be Cedar Rapids' next mayor

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Kate Payne / IPR
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Former television journalist and nonprofit leader Tiffany O'Donnell decisively won Tuesday's runoff election to become Cedar Rapids' next mayor. Unofficial results show she carved out a double digit margin over attorney and businesswoman Amara Andrews, who ran as a progressive.

Former television journalist and nonprofit leader Tiffany O’Donnell beat out attorney and businesswoman Amara Andrews to become the next mayor of Cedar Rapids during Tuesday's runoff election. The Democratic-leaning community is continuing its pattern of electing moderate Republican mayors, with O’Donnell just the third woman elected to lead the city.

Tiffany O’Donnell won decisively Tuesday night, carving out a double digit margin over Andrews, who ran as a progressive. O'Donnell carried some 67 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results. The former CBS 2 / Fox 28 anchor and executive director of the leadership nonprofit Women Lead Change celebrated with supporters who crowded into Lucky’s on Sixteenth in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village neighborhood.

“There is an optimism [in the city]. And it’s palpable,” O’Donnell said. “And I feel really fortunate, if I can be the person that can shepherd that and shepherd Cedar Rapids to new heights? I look forward to that.”

O’Donnell will succeed incumbent Mayor Brad Hart, who endorsed O’Donnell after he fell just a few dozen votes short of qualifying for the runoff election. Hart had faced criticism for his handling of the aftermath of the derecho that battered the city on August 10, 2020.

Throughout the campaign, O’Donnell had focused on recovery, pledging to boost rebuilding efforts from the derecho, speed up construction on the city’s flood protection system, and reinvest in critical infrastructure like roads and bridges.

“Job one will be assessing where we are,” O’Donnell said. “Where are we with streets and derecho cleanup and floodwall? I need to get with state and federal lawmakers to make sure we have a seat at the table. As mayor, I expect to be doing that.”

O’Donnell also ran on improving quality of life and making Cedar Rapids a more attractive and vibrant city where young people want to put down roots and where their aging parents want to retire. She often spoke about her own daughters, who have both left the city, in detailing her drive to make Cedar Rapids a place they want to come back to for good.

“I’ve spoken with staff as well as city council members and everyone knows we can be better and wants to be better,” O’Donnell said. “There is definitely an air of excitement and optimism.”

The role of political partisanship also loomed large in the campaign. Andrews, a TrueNorth employee and vice president of the board for Advocates for Social Justice, made a point of defining herself as a Democrat in the ostensibly nonpartisan race and targeting O’Donnell for her Republican affiliation. Andrews sought to connect O’Donnell to the state’s other high profile Republicans who have shown themselves to be staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump.

As she prepares to take office, O’Donnell says she’s committed to keeping the mayor’s role nonpartisan, saying she has a track record of crossing party lines.

“Look at the wide range of people that I’ve supported politically. And they are really from all parties. I’ve always been someone who in action, not just words, but in action, has supported people, not party. And that’s the best I can do at this point,” O’Donnell said.

Speaking to supporters gathered in an event space near the Cedar River in the city’s downtown, Andrews said that regardless of the outcome, her campaign made history: she got closer than any other person of color to becoming mayor of Cedar Rapids.

“We did not win but we made history tonight, folks. There has never been a Black person to run for mayor to make it this far and this is only the beginning,” Andrews said. “We have to continue. We have to work towards progress and continue to make Cedar Rapids a better place for everyone.”

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Kate Payne / IPR
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Attorney and businesswoman Amara Andrews conceded the runoff race Tuesday, saying that despite the outcome, her campaign made history: she got closer to becoming mayor of Cedar Rapids than any person of color before her.

By building a grassroots campaign that pledged to empower underserved communities and residents who feel left out of local government, Andrews says she and her supporters were able to get people to the polls who had never voted before. Bringing more citizens into the democratic process at the local level is its own victory, Andrews says.

“We have engaged people in democracy that have not been engaged before and we are not going to let up,” Andrews said. “This movement will continue.”

While she can’t guarantee that she’ll run for the office again, Andrews said she’s committed to helping those who come after her.

Both Andrews and O’Donnell agree that the city’s process of holding runoff elections should be reconsidered, saying the practice burdens candidates, voters and taxpayers. The brief runoff campaign, which bookended the Thanksgiving holiday, leaves candidates with little time to get out the vote, during a season when residents may be too busy to pay much attention.

“The runoff is a challenge on many fronts and it’s expensive for the city,” O’Donnell said. “I look forward to having conversations about that. It’s certainly not something that the mayor can do unilaterally. I just feel like having been on the front lines of this, I feel like I could offer a perspective.”

O’Donnell will take office in January.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter