First Female Black Mayor Brings Mother's Touch to Iowa Politics
'My attitude is: You either accept me the way I am or you don't'
CLINTON, IOWA — When this blue-collar Mississippi River town elected LaMetta Wynn as Iowa's first black female mayor last year, race was a non-issue.
Never mind that Mrs. Wynn easily defeated four white male candidates - including the incumbent - in a town that is more than 95 percent white. And no matter that Clinton is just 60 miles from Dubuque, a site in recent years of racially motivated cross burnings and Klu Klux Klan meetings.
"[The question of race] just never came up. It's a mystery," says Eric Van Lacker, city reporter for the Clinton Herald.
Even Wynn, a gray-haired mother of 10 who was surprised to learn she made history, didn't give much thought to the matter.
"When I decided to run I never searched my soul or wondered 'Will all the white people vote for me,' " she says. "My attitude is: I am LaMetta. You either accept me the way I am or you don't."
With that attitude and a convenient campaign slogan - "Win with Wynn" - the soft-spoken but determined mayor has emerged as a role model for minority youths and a popular leader. Meanwhile, Clinton's display of political color-blindness has drawn envy from more racially divisive communities.
"I always tell the kids, don't decide who your friends are based on where they live, what church they attend, who their parents are," says Wynn, "but rather whether you have the same morals and goals."
A native of Galena, Ill., Wynn recalls experiencing little racial animosity as a member of one of the only black families in town. She was secretary of her high school class, although a lack of interracial dating meant she missed the senior prom.
Forty years ago, Wynn moved to Clinton, married, and for decades worked the night shift as a nurse at a local hospital so she could be home with her young children during the day. "Sleep? At times I just felt that I didn't," she laughs. Her philosophy on child-rearing? "Children need to know someone is boss - and it's not them," she says, sitting in the living room of her modest home as two grandchildren run in and out.
Wynn's transition from mother to mayor proved a natural one. After serving successfully on the school board for 12 years, she says she reached the conclusion that "Clinton needed better leadership."
Rife with political infighting, the seven-member city council had become the laughing stock of Clinton. The town's favorite Tuesday night show, on a local cable station, was the city council meeting, which frequently deteriorated into a shouting match. Two members voted "no" on virtually every motion.
Clinton's manufacturing economy was also suffering, with companies leaving, jobs declining, and a population that had dwindled from 33,000 in 1980 to 29,000 in 1990.
"We needed to get together and focus on what we could do to improve the city," Wynn says. "They needed me."
Supported by volunteers from the schools and a business executive who agreed to manage her campaign, Wynn swept last November's election with 53 percent of the vote. Since then, the petite grandmother has brought order to the unruly city council meetings, diplomatically cutting short long-winded speakers. "She has a motherly way of putting people in their place nicely, so they don't know she's done it," says Sonja Bicker, a school board employee.
Meanwhile, Wynn has fostered closer cooperation between the city government and local Chamber of Commerce, which was viewed by the blue-collar community as elitist.
As a result, Clinton has moved forward with two major economic developments, winning a state grant for a multimillion-dollar highway expansion and clinching an agreement by a large food chain to renovate a three-block area downtown.