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The state of Swisher

Mayor Chris Taylor helps chart the future of small-town Iowa
Swisher Mayor Chris Taylor sat down for an interview at the Solon Public Library on Friday, April 7. Taylor has been mayor since 2014 and was recently elected as chair of the Johnson County Democrats. (photo by Shianne Fisher)

SWISHER– Running for city office, and most recently for chair of the Johnson County Democrats, both sort of came about by accident, said Swisher Mayor Chris Taylor.
Happy accidents, he noted, that began with his bid for a Swisher City Council seat in January 2014.
“I remember sitting at my kitchen table and thinking, ‘Well this isn’t something I’ve done before,’” he shared. “I have no background in politics, but I thought it’d be a good way to get to know my community better, help the community ask some bigger questions about what it wanted to be, where it wanted to go.”
He ended up losing the council race by 10 votes, but when then-Mayor Tim Mason abruptly resigned a few days later, another door was opened. In February of the same year, he ran against Randy Hurlbert to fill Mason’s term through December 2015. He won by 15 votes and was re-elected in November 2015 to fill a four-year term.
“I think there’s a sense that government is something that exists way out here, that is outside of us. And I think that city government occupies such an important place because it gives us a chance to show that it’s not something that happens in Des Moines or Washington,” he said. “We’re all neighbors. You know your city council member because she lives four doors down.”
Working with the five-member Swisher City Council has been enjoyable he said– if not contentious at times.
“It’s like any group of people,” he said. “There are always going to be some personality conflicts and some issues you can talk about more freely than others. But by and large I’ve been very impressed with the way the council works together.”
And they’ve been impressed with him, said council member Mary Gudenkauf.
“He researches things so that he thoroughly understands each issue on our agenda. He’s really a wealth of information,” she said. “It’s nice to see young leaders step up and have an opportunity to grow in their skill set.”
She also shared Taylor’s opinion about the council’s compatibility.
“I think it’s really advantageous to have diverse opinions. You get a stronger outcome when various sides are represented,” she said. “I think that’s the way to get to your best decisions– to have varying opinions and thoughts and perspectives and histories.”
As a non-voting member of city council meetings, Taylor does his best to keep his partisan viewpoints out of the discussion. However, he said he is concerned with much of the legislation passed by Republicans in the Iowa Legislature this session.
“A lot of the legislation we’ve seen trickles down and affects cities in one way or another,” he said. “If we’re getting corresponding support from the state that’s one thing, but to receive an unfunded mandate that you will do this thing, but we’re not going to provide any support, any logistical support, any financial support … I think that’s wrong.”
He cited the preemptive local control (minimum wage) and voter ID bills as being a burden on cities– especially smaller ones.
“I think what we saw this last session is an attitude among the majority party in Des Moines that cities ought to have local control as long as they make the right decisions, as long as they make the decisions we want them to make,” he said. “If they don’t, we’ll take that local control away.”
He added that he’s less concerned about what one or two bills might do, and more worried about the precedent they could set.
“When I ran for mayor, I had no intention of getting involved in party politics, but it gave me an opportunity to meet a lot of the other electeds around Johnson County, most of whom are obviously Democrats,” said Taylor. “It gave me sort of an entrée into that world.”
Taylor, mayor of Swisher for over three years now, was elected in March as chair of the Johnson County Democrats. He ran against secretary Mike Jesse of North Liberty and replaces Martha Hedberg of Iowa City.
Others newly elected to the executive committee were Elizabeth Dinschel of Coralville (First Vice Chair), Eleanor Taft of Iowa City (Second Vice Chair) and Erin Madsen of Iowa City (Candidate Development Chair).
Taylor said he became involved with the Johnson County Democrats around caucus time last year by volunteering to be a caucus chair. Then, in August, several members of the organization’s central committee approached him about running for election.
“Obviously the landscape looks a little bit different now than it did back before November,” Taylor said. “It’s an interesting time to be involved in the Democratic Party. A lot of hard questions have been asked and continue to be asked and need to be asked. I’m pleased to be part of that conversation.”
He said the new administrative position, a two-year term, is not unlike his role as mayor. As chair, he runs the central and executive committee meetings and also has the power to appoint ad-hoc committees.
“I think we need to be very aware that the chair shouldn’t be making unilateral decisions,” he said. “I want to make sure the central committee has information it needs to make informed decisions about where the party wants to go, what we want to stand for.”

At the same time, Taylor hopes to play a pivotal part in setting the course for the City of Swisher.
Step one? The reconstruction of Division Street.
Also known as 120th Street, the main road coming into town will receive a complete makeover in the coming years. The preliminary designs include bike shoulders, landscaping and a 5-foot sidewalk on both sides.
“It will end up being the largest infrastructure project that the city’s ever undertaken,” said Taylor. “We’re looking at some streetscaping options to really make it a community focal point. We want it to be a positive impression when people come into town.”
Once that project is finished, Taylor said he hopes to shift the focus to downtown beautification.
“We’ve got some really strong downtown businesses. If we can strengthen that even more and make the downtown a cohesive destination for people to come, that will be the next big undertaking,” he said.
Swisher is home to several local businesses: The Black Squirrel Tap, The Kava House, Vault Boutique, Shelton’s Grocery and Plum Creek Boutique.
“I’d love to see Swisher become a place where people live instead of just a place where people come home and eat dinner and go to sleep. Some place people can move with their families and really call home,” Taylor added.
Accomplishments of his mayorship thus far, he said, are the city being the first in the state to approve the use of a community ID, the reorganization of Swisher Fun Days and the recent accreditation of the city’s library by the State Library of Iowa.
“The library in Swisher is something we’re very, very proud of,” he said.
Started as a community initiative in the mid-2000s, the library wasn’t fully backed by the city council until 2009. Last year, the city was able to start paying the library director part-time– a crucial step toward accreditation.
“It’s certainly the smallest library in Johnson County to have reached that level. And we’ve reached that level more quickly than libraries often do,” said Taylor.
Laura Hoover, the library’s director, said Taylor was essential in achieving that status.
“One of the biggest hurdles for us was getting a paid librarian,” she said. “Chris was very supportive there in helping us work through budget problems.”
She said when the state halted accreditations for one year to revise the process, Taylor went to bat for Swisher, helping convince the state librarian to use the city as a pilot.
“For us it was kind of a surprise,” said Hoover. “They came back and said everybody gets an extra year. I thought, ‘We don’t need an extra year. We’re ready to go now.’”
She said she hopes Taylor will use his budding degree in library and information science from the University of Iowa to advocate for public libraries across the state.

For now, however, Taylor advocates for Swisher and, effectively, other small towns in Iowa.
“If there’s one thing I hope I can do as mayor or as the chair of Johnson County Democrats is to help illustrate that there are specific needs and specific challenges facing smaller towns, and we need to be able to address those in a compassionate way,” he said. “Because you’d hate to lose that character.”