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April 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 11

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Spring Thaw in Johnson County


by Deborah D. Thornton



On Tuesday, March 5, 2013, a Republican was elected to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors for the first time in 55 years. The spring thaw must be coming! John Etheredge (age 28), of Sharon Township in rural Johnson County, ran against the Johnson County Democrat Chairman Terry Dahms in a special election on March 5 to fill the seat left vacant when Supervisor Sally Stutsman was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives.


The day was snowy and cold – no spring in sight – and turnout was very low. Only 6,113 people voted, 6.67 percent of the 91,686 registered. Etheredge won 3,142 to 2,949, by 193 votes.[1]


The last Republican elected County Supervisor was Oren R. (Ressler) Alt, in 1956 and 1958. He was defeated in 1962. Mr. Alt was also from Sharon Township, and is reported as living in the Bayertown area. According to the Kalona News archives, he and his wife, along with a Mr. and Mrs. Will Buline, were dinner guests of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Bayer on a Sunday in April 1962.[2]


Mr. Alt registered for the World War I draft on September 12, 1918, and was described as being of “medium” height and “slender” build with grey eyes.[3] It wasn’t clear on as to whether or not Alt served in WWI, but in any case – he returned alive and apparently hearty. In July 1936 he attended the annual meeting of the Hummer, Iowa, threshing ring and as the co-owner of the tractor and separator used to thresh over 10,800 bushels of oats in six days, he and Frank Rhodes provided ice cream to 60 members of the families.[4]


In his 1940 U.S. Census record Alt was reported as being 39 and single, the second son of Peter and Sarah Alt, who had four children, Ivan, Oren, Roy, and Ada. The father came to the United States from Australia; his mother’s family was from Germany. Alt said he had an 8th grade education and reported working 66 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, as a farmer.[5]


He married Bertha Hughes on May 2, 1947. They apparently did not have any children and following Alt’s unexpected death in 1991, Bertha lived until she was 94, passing away in 2003.[6] They both donated their bodies to the University of Iowa for research.


The Johnson County Auditor’s office does not have the 1958 or 1962 election returns online, but one might imagine the results in electing Mr. Alt were similar to those of Mr. Etheredge.


Etheredge won his home precinct of Sharon Township with 82 percent of the vote, second only to Washington Township, which he won by 87 percent. He won all of the “rural” precincts, only losing in the town of University Heights – a traditionally liberal area enclosed by Iowa City. Etheredge also won all precincts in North Liberty, by 71 percent to 29 percent, though the turnout was a very small 222 voters. In Coralville he won five of the seven precincts and carried the entire area with 52 percent of the vote.


In the Democrat bastion of Iowa City, Etheredge lost 45 – 54 percent, but carried or broke even in 11 of the 24 precincts, winning Congressman Dave Loebsack’s (Democrat) home precinct by 73 to 27 percent. He lost the early voting, 39 to 60 percent, but not nearly as badly as Republicans lost early voting in November 2012.[7] Last November Etheredge ran as a petition, Independent, candidate, earning 10,857 votes, 14 percent. The incumbent Supervisors won with over 41,000 votes.[8]


Some have said that Etheredge only won because of the bad weather, because the Democrats were “asleep at the wheel,” and were “caught off guard.” But he worked diligently to identify and turn out a coalition of voters who are dissatisfied with the current, 100-percent Democrat, long-time incumbent, party-insider Supervisors. He won by identifying two issues where voters were dissatisfied with the current policies.


One of the issues is the new Johnson County “Justice Center.” This $54 million bond initiative was defeated in November, and the current plan is to cut $2 million off the cost by not completely finishing the interior, and re-presenting it to the voters in May. Many different types of people, both conservative and liberal, are opposed to this plan and want someone to hear and respect their concerns.


The second issue is the highly restrictive Johnson County zoning regulations. These regulations ensure that undeveloped land either remain as farmland, or be developed into high-density, clustered housing tracts. Thus, land in rural Johnson County can only be farmed or turned into a mini-town/subdivision – even if there are no services or good road access – with no in-between options. Again, many different people do not think this is a good idea.


These two issues brought together a diverse group of voters, working for smaller, less intrusive, and more fiscally responsible government. This coalition, though registered Democrat, Independent, and Republican, worked together to elect someone who will do a better job of listening to and acting on behalf of all voters. Etheredge happens to be a Republican. We trust this is indicative of a new, spring-like spirit of bi-partisanship in eastern Iowa.


[1] March 5, 2013, Special Supervisor’s Election Results, Johnson County Auditor, <> accessed March 12, 2013.
[2] Jim Truelson, “Looking Back,” The Kalona News, April 4, 2012, <> accessed March 12, 2013.
[3] “Oren Ressler Alt,” Registration Card, World War I Draft Registration Cards, U.S. Archives, <> accessed March 12, 2013.
[4] Jim Truelson, “Looking Back,” The Kalona News, August 10, 2011, <> accessed on March 12, 2013.
[5] “Oren R. Alt,” 1940 Federal U.S. Census Record, <> accessed on March 12, 2013.
[6] “Bertha Alt,” The Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 27, 2003, pp. 11-12, <> accessed on March 13, 2013.
[7] “Board of Supervisors Special Election Results,” Election Results, Johnson County Auditor's Office, <> accessed on March 11, 2013.
[8] “November 6, 2012, Presidential Election,” Elections Results, Johnson County Auditor's Office, <> accessed on March 11, 2013.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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