Education, Activism Mark Politics of Dubuque

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-- By Piper Haugan, The University of Montana

On the wall of the finance office in Dubuque’s 150-year-old City Hall hangs a plaque commemorating the excellence of the city’s 2010 comprehensive annual financial report. Other identical awards -- 21 years’ worth of them -- sit in the basement storeroom, gathering dust.

Ken TeKippe has been collecting these plaques since 2000, when he stepped into his current position as Dubuque’s finance director.  The Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada distributes the awards as a way of encouraging state and local governments to be financially transparent and accessible to the people. 

“It’s a prestigious award,” TeKippe says. “There’s a lot of extra work required, but I think it’s a positive for the people that read the city’s financial statements when we borrow money ... If we didn’t receive the award, it probably could be detrimental.”

The GFOA has also awarded the city’s budgeting department for excellence in budgeting for the last five years under the leadership of Budget Director Jennifer Larson. The raft of awards speaks to the local government’s organizations, but also, according to Councilman Ric Jones, to the town’s interest in public input and council questioning.

But Dubuque’s budgeting office is not the only part of the community to garner national awards. In 2010, Forbes.com ranked Dubuque as the best small city to raise a family. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded Dubuque with the Excellence in Economic Development Award for its dedication to research-based local economic development.

The city also made RelocateAmerica.com’s top 100 list of places to live in 2009, first and foremost because of its “thriving economy” and environmental initiatives.

Dubuque’s system of government comes from its keenly active citizens, according to Ken Brown, city editor at the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.

“Dubuque is very political and very Democratic,” Brown said. “A Republican was voted to the board of supervisors this year — the first Republican elected to a county government position in nearly 60 years.”

Brown said that the hot-button issues in Dubuque are abortion, immigration and anything to do with race relations. In a mid-sized Iowa community, the latter two may seem odd, but Jones said it speaks to the changes the town has seen in recent years.

“Dubuque has recently become far more urban and diverse, both racially and culturally,” Jones said. “There has been a blending in the town. This isn’t entirely positive with some of the established people. An image problem has started to spread, a perception that there is a rise in crime. This isn’t supported by actual crime levels, but by a few high-profile crimes and arrests as well as widespread rumors of crimes that didn’t happen.”

Brown echoes this send of a town in the midst of change, describing Dubuque as “newly educated after a long period as a blue-collar town.”

Education as a shaper of the community is one of the common themes residents stress. The Chamber of Commerce website stresses, “Education is extremely important to Dubuquers, as evidenced by the wealth of learning environments you’ll find here.”

With four four-year colleges, a community college and abundance of tech schools and seminaries within 20 miles of Dubuque it is easy to see how Dubuque County qualifies as a Campus and Careers community within Patchwork Nation. Brown said that multiple colleges have had tangible affects on the community, helping bring IBM to town and, since two of them are Catholic and one is Presbyterian, changing the religious aspect of the town.

But even the religious institutions in Dubuque carry with them the more liberal and activist bent found in other Campus and Career communities. Clarke University, a Catholic institution in Dubuque, boasts about their progressiveness in making their pitch to prospective students.

Like its partner Campus and Career community of Ann Arbor, Mich,, environmental issues loom large in Dubuque. Brown said the biggest issues being discussed at City Hall right now relates to sustainability. The city, he said, is striving to be a green society. “The city recently approved an entire bus fleet that would consist of hybrids,” Brown says.

But beyond their carbon footprint, the issues of safety and the economy also remain central to this eastern Iowa community.

 “Reducing crime and poverty levels, as well as educating citizens and making sure they feel secure, is a big issue,” he said.

But even as the community continues to embrace change, Jones, for one, worries about how this Campus and Career community balances the future with its own present.

“We always want to stay the progressive path we are known for. But leading and pushing things forward is not always good. People have a tendency to always want to move forward and sometimes there is not a lot of thought for what still needs to be done with what we’ve already made,” he said.

University of Montana student Dillon Kato contributed to this report.

This report was produced as part of a course taught by Lee Banville, contributor to the Patchwork Nation project, at The University of Montana this spring. As part of the class, The Media and American Politics, students reported on 15 different counties in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- the states that will vote first in the presidential nomination fight in 2012.