Published on December 30th, 2013 | by Josh Hafner
YP Spotlight: Sara Kurovski, Pleasant Hill’s youngest ever and first female mayor, wants to lead city to new development
Sometimes the excitement of victory can get squashed by a stuffed toy fish.
On Nov. 5, Sara Kurovski was elected as not only the first female mayor of Pleasant Hill, but also its youngest ever. The morning afterward, she woke up and got her two-year-old son ready for the day.
Kurovski said: “Mommy won the election last night. I’m now the mayor.”
The boy looked back, unamused: “Where’s my Nemo?”
Perspective is important for Kurovski, 29, but she doesn’t shy away from her accomplishments, either. She sees her landslide victory last month as a small piece of female history-making, one that gained national attention after being featured on the website for Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling “Lean In” book.
She’s preparing to lead Pleasant Hill toward a new era of economic development, and she’s got a lot of learning to do.
Kurovski, an operations program manager at Metro Waste Authority, wasn’t the only Des Moines-area millennial to seek public office last month. Kyle Mertz, 31, won re-election to Altoona’s city council. Chris Diebel, 32, lost an at-large bid in Des Moines. Getting young people to even get off their duffs to vote for a president is tough enough. Any Obama or Romney staffer will tell you that. Getting them to show up for local races is even tougher.
Kurovski knows this. She looked across the room at a candidate forum this fall. Everyone looked older than 40. “It was like, come on!” she said.
She’s always known she’d do something like this, something like public service. Her husband, Todd, knew it when he married her. Her mother had to have known, too. Kurovski — then Sara James — always wanted to be the boss, the teacher at playtime, the one in charge. “Did you do your homework?” she’d ask her sister growing up in south Des Moines. “You need to turn off the TV.”
“My mom would always tell me to stop being mom,” Kurovski said. “I just played that role.”
Some things you can’t shake. Kurovski calls the desire for public service a bone within her body. It’s not that she wants to be a politician (she doesn’t) or that she’s good at lying (she’s refreshingly blunt).
It’s just that she gets government.
Heck, she got a masters in public administration from Drake. She served as secretary to the student senate during undergrad study at Missouri’s Truman State University under Sean Bagniewski, she said. He lost a runoff election last month to be councilman of Des Moines’ northwestern ward.
Kurovski can’t build houses, she said — leave her out of your next Habitat for Humanity project. What she can build, though, are budgets, plans, the stuff of economic development. “I do my volunteering with our city,” she said. “That’s why I decided to run.”
The Kurovskis knew they were meant for Pleasant Hill the first time they laid eyes on their future home there. It’s a modest split-level home with steel siding near the Hy-Vee, around the corner from city hall. But it had nice sidewalks and connecting trails. She could walk to get her groceries.
The Kurovskis also knew that Pleasant Hill was a city they could grow into, residentially and governmentally. She knew growing up in Des Moines that it would be years before she could get really involved with city government. There’s just too many people, she said, so where would she contribute? “I knew, logically, a small community, a suburb of Des Moines, would be a better place for me to start.”
She started out as a resident representative for the facility planning of fire, police and library departments. Then she went on to the board of adjustments. Then plan and zoning, and the Polk County Conservation Board.
She set her sights on city council, until she heard then-Mayor Mike Richardson wouldn’t be running for re-election.
“Pleasant Hill is a fairly young city,” she said, “and I feel like the city is going through puberty, so to say. We’re right on the cusp of determining who we will be for the rest of our existence.”
This was the right time, she thought, for her and Pleasant Hill. Others thought otherwise. Sure, she had supporters in the race — a political action committee, even — but others questioned whether a woman with two young kids ought to be away from home, at city hall meetings in the evenings.
As she made rounds during the race at forums and meet and greets, she said, woman after woman gave her disapproving looks. One particular glance, she said, at a meet-and-greet at Mayor Richardson’s house, proved too much. “Two seconds ago you just said you were so supportive of a female mayor in our city,” she said she told one woman. “And what you’re really telling me is that you’re not.”
After that, she started talking about her kids. She posted a blog on LeanIn.org, (the site for the Sheryl Sandberg book) about how she wasn’t afraid to be a young mother running for office.
The site contacted her and asked to promote her story.
A few days after she won the election, Sheryl Sandberg herself — the COO of Facebook — sent a congratulatory email.
Aside from the historic election and the big-name praise, Kurovski says she has a lot to learn about being mayor. Her main goal: attract first-class commercial development for Pleasant Hill, the kind of shopping centers that will spare her east-side suburbanites the trip to Jordan Creek.
“If the residents want me around, I can stick around and keep helping,” she said. “Or maybe I’ll rise to a higher capacity. Who knows? Who knows.”
Pleasant Hill Mayor Sara Kurovski’s advice for those considering civic service:
“Hands down, more than anything, find the best person you can relate to and have a relationship with who’s involved with the city or council or a board. They will guide you and help you find where your talents and role can be,” Kurovski said. For her that meant meeting Benjamin Champ, Pleasant Hill’s community development director. He helped Kurovski evaluate her talents and find the right city openings, she said.
And be bold with your involvement, Kurovski said. Don’t worry if you’ve never seen city involvement before: “It was kind of me showing up, saying, ‘Hey, I want to come to the party.’ And they’re going, ‘Who is she?’ But that’s just my approach to life.”
Josh Hafner covers young professionals in central Iowa. Have a story idea? Contact Josh at 515-284-8412, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JoshHafner.