Frank Cownie has been called “a grown up all American boy,” and it fits. He’s tall, blonde, a champion swimmer and a successful businessman. He’s also become one of the most popular mayors in the city’s history and a surviving face of the Democrat Party of Iowa. He’s currently in his fourth term and 14th year as mayor.
We asked him to lunch recently to talk about his vision of city government. He chose Jesse’s Embers. “Being an Ingersoll business owner, I like supporting other Ingersoll businesses. This is my neighborhood. I don’t think I have ever come here without seeing someone I know. The food is consistent, and I wish I could say that about more places. (Owners) Marty (Scarpino) and Deena (Edelstein) are great hosts. I kind of grew up with Embers. It opened when I was in high school, so I avoided it for years, because it was where my parents and their friends hung out. Now I have become my parents, and I am real comfortable here,” he explained.
We asked Cownie to talk to us as if we were an elementary school class wondering what a mayor does. “Ha. You try to learn as quickly as possible what not to do. That’s pretty much the key to the job. Nothing happens quickly, except natural disasters. It’s important to identify and evaluate what most needs to be done, because resources are limited. We are not federal government or state government. I think I had a really good training period for the job because I spent five years on the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission. That also taught me that it’s important to listen to the business community,” he said.
How does Cownie think he differs from his predecessors? “I feel like I am walking in the footprints of guys like John Patrick Dorian (mayor from 1987-96). Old-school city councilmen like Archie Brooks and Mike McPherson had their own ideas about running things and relating to their wards. (Ex-mayor) Preston (Daniels) was very good to the wards but not so much to the business community. I come from that latter world, so I realized that the city needed to understand that community. You need to make policy that works, so you need to listen to the people who make things work for a living and for the living of all their employees. Once again, Planning & Zoning did more of those things than the city council did,” he said.
What policy decisions have seen cooperation between the business community and the city? “We have pushed green initiatives, which completely depend on businesses buying in. In 2006, we held a town hall meeting on converting to more efficient kinds of energy use. We held it at Plymouth Church where they have a room with several movable walls. We set up hoping that 200 people might show up. We partnered with Mid American, and they gave away CFLs (compact florescent lights). Remember them? They were the predecessors to LEDs. They were twice the size and cost half as much to operate as old light bulbs. We had an admiral and an Episcopalian bishop speak, and we called it “Environment and the Future.” More than 400 people came, and we kept removing walls and adding chairs.
“When 400 people show up for any issue, people pay attention. Wellmark head John Forsythe turned around on the issue because he saw that it was good business. They were the largest occupant of a single building in Iowa when they came on line, so that was a big deal. Des Moines insurance companies have a hard time recruiting young workers, particularly in IT. Being able to show potential workers a green, ergonomically superior work environment helped a lot. The World Food Prize headquarters and the Franklin Library also committed to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. Des Moines became known for being ahead of the curve on this,” he declared.
Some people have bitched about Cownie’s travels. Is he worried about the criticism? “Quite a bit of incorrect information got out when I went to Copenhagen. Some people thought I was traveling on the taxpayers’ dime. That was completely wrong. The entire expense was paid by the International Council for Environmental Improvement. A photo of me with the mayors of New York and Los Angeles appeared in papers all over the world. The three of us were complaining that federal Energy Efficiency Conservation block grants were given to states rather than directly to local governments. We drew attention to the issue. Our governor came out for it. That’s all good for Des Moines. I have been on a first-name basis with (former New York City mayor) Mike Bloomberg ever since. He runs a philanthropic agency that dispenses $40 billion dollars. His business gathers information about trends that he sells to the largest companies in the world. He is a good man for Des Moines to have a connection to.”
Cownie added that he learned that previous city manager Eric Anderson was looking to leave Des Moines at a national mayors’ conference. Mayors from two other cities asked Cownie for a recommendation on Anderson.
Cownie has also taken criticism for granting tax incentives to new businesses that compete with old businesses. “Such things are misunderstood. They are particularly complex, but such incentives do not come from property taxes. It’s really hard to get a critic who believes they do to sit down and hear an explanation. I am always open to doing that,” he explained.
Cownie owns a fur business. Furriers are about as popular with animal rights groups as the circus. Has Cownie met the wrath of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)? “Oh, yeah. They threw eggs at my building once. Ironically, they had to ask the city for a permit to protest me, which was granted. One guy and four girls showed up in 34-degree weather. The girls were wearing panties and plastic boots carrying signs that read “Love me, not fur.” I gave them some flack about their boots being made from non-renewable petroleum and offered them coffee and coats,” he recalled. ♦