Photo courtesy of the Szopinski Campaign
As Published in the Iowa State Daily on 9/25/2017
Ames mayoral candidate Victoria Szopinski’s first job was as a jazz promoter and booking agent at the University of Michigan with Eclipse Jazz, a highly successful student organization.
Szopinski, who is registered “no party,” has since been a member of the Ames City Council, Ames Progressive Alliance and Iowa ACLU Board of Directors, but her decision to run for mayor was catalyzed by something more recent.
“I was already thinking about running and [the 2016 presidential election] pushed me that next bit to be where I am,” Szopinski said. “I know my history. I know what has happened in countries that have governments that don’t appreciate the press, for example, that call out something negative with anyone that’s different than someone who’s caucasian and you can look all over the world and see where that has had a negative impact.”
Szopinski’s parents are European immigrants. During World War II, Szopinski’s father fled Poland to go to England, where he worked in intelligence.
Szopinski’s father met her mother in England and they immigrated to Canada, where Szopinski was born. When Szopinski was six, her family moved to the United States.
Szopinski felt that the 2016 election has motivated many to get involved with local politics with the belief they can make a difference. The difference Szopinski wants to make lies in her desire to make a more inclusive community.
“It’s those communities that feel threatened that we need to reach out to. Through the Ames Progressive Alliance, for example, we worked with the Body of Christ Church and brought them together with the police department — and that’s an ongoing process to make sure there are conversations and that we’re being proactive,” Szopinski said.
Szopinski stressed that while she has goals and opinions, she feels collaboration is important in government and an important tenet of her campaign.
“I don’t know the answer to everything and anybody who tells you they know the answer to everything, I think, is fooling you and me and themselves,” Szopinski said. “I think the key is you bring in as many voices as possible to help make informed, thoughtful decisions, and that’s really the core of this campaign.”
Szopinski added that she feels people need to be heard and know they’re being heard.
“[Residents of Ames] are very fortunate in a lot of ways. We have a major university, we have low unemployment, but we also have a lot of problems. We have poverty just like every other place does. We have homeless people. We have crime. We have drug trafficking. We have those things that you never see. We have a lot of children who don’t eat, and those are the kinds of things that are probably paramount on my list of things that we need to be made aware of and then we need to find the experts,” she said.
Szopinski, the former director of conference services at Iowa State, feels her connections within the community will be an asset to bringing experts to public conversations on issues such as mental health.
“It’s all about relationship building,” Szopinski said. “Asking people, engaging and appreciating that there’s a lot of knowledge out there and we can figure these things out together … People want to help. They just need to be asked.”
Szopinski feels that it is important for Ames to retain the status of a sanctuary city. She said she felt that the city has been trying to show that it supports all of its residents and wants to continue in that direction.
“There are cities that have stood up and I think I’d do the same and say ‘you know what, pull the money.’ I think it’s in numbers. If enough cities stand up and say ‘fine, pull our money, but we have values.’ Then it’s not going to happen.”
A debate has been taking place for years in Ames centering around students in residential neighborhoods and complaints from long-term residents. The Ames City Council passed an ordinance stating that a house could not be occupied by more than three non-related residents.
The state legislature recently passed a law stating this ordinance was illegal because they felt it opened the door for discrimination. Being involved in local and state politics, Szopinski believes she has a nuanced position on the matter.
“University communities are different. We need to build a relationship between the university and students who live off campus. We used to have an off-campus housing office. Other universities have liaison people who are the first line of helping students … be better neighbors,” she said.
While Szopinski supported the state legislature’s action, she believes there are issues in neighborhoods with large student populations.
“It’s a real concern, if you live in a neighborhood like [Campustown], and it’s happening all over the city, that your property value may go down, that your quality of life is disturbed if people next door are staying up all night. These are real issues and it’s also a great example of citizen involvement,” Szopinski said.
Szopinski also expressed concern about the financial well-being of Iowa State students and their ability to participate in the local economy.
“I worry about students and I worry about how high the rent is. I mean when you’re paying 800 bucks for a room, you’re not shopping in our shops, you’re not eating in our restaurants. That’s just the part of it,” she said. “I worry. And then we’re gonna raise tuition on all of you.”
Szopinski said she worries about portions of students being excluded because they can’t afford to live in Ames in addition to paying tuition.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure that you’re safe and you’re being treated fairly. The gap, to me, is just part of a much larger relationship issue between students and landlords,” she said. “I’m not afraid to say yes, I do [think landlords take advantage of students] because I talk to students and that’s what I’m hearing.”
While Szopinski feels that the increase in rent in Ames is related to supply and demand, she feels that housing data will be integral to seeking solutions.
Szopinski said she is in the process of compiling data on areas where Ames has seen increases such as the price of rent and number of units available.
In addition to data, Szopinski again referenced her belief in community engagement and the inclusion of different perspectives.
“If you know there’s a problem, then you figure out who’s affected by it and who can contribute to that conversation and then you go forward from there,” Szopinski said.
Szopinski feels that the city government has a responsibility to promote the welfare and safety of all community members.
“I would say the core of this campaign is inclusivity, welcoming, caring. We can define that in layers and layers and layers of how that applies to business, how that applies to retaining our aging population, how that applies to making sure that all our youth are prepared for whatever it is they want to do when they leave this community, we can’t expect our schools to do everything, and it applies to quality of life in general,” Szopinski said.
Szopinksi’s parents moved to Ames as she was starting college at the University of Michigan. Although she didn’t initially come with them, Szopinski received a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State in business administration following 15 years in the music industry.
Szopinski spent a year studying Spanish in Ecuador after graduation from Iowa State and attended Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was at Simon Fraser that Szopinski won her first elected position with a student advocacy group in the early 1990s.