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Basu: Did City Councilman's Opposition to a Pork Plant Lead to Suicide?

MASON CITY, Ia. — An overflow crowd turned out for a City Council meeting last May 3 in anticipation of a final vote for construction of a $240 million, 600,000-square-foot pork-processing plant on Mason City’s southwest side. Processing up to 10,000 pigs a day, it would be the state’s second-largest of its kind.

State and local officials stood ready to welcome it with generous subsidies. Realtor Dick Mathes addressed the council in favor, citing job losses and Prestage Foods' promise to add up to 2,000 jobs in four years. But the 14 supporters there to speak were outnumbered by 47 opponents, who voiced concern over the plant’s potential impact on health, the environment and the community, especially if a concentration of hog confinements followed.

One young man, Dylan Daniels, handed the council a petition he said had nearly 1,000 signatures opposing the plant. “The council is still ignoring the way the majority of citizens feel,” he said.

He spoke prematurely. It turned out to be a fateful night for Prestage and its proponents, who had considered passage a done deal: The vote tied at 3-3, effectively killing the proposal.

It was also, some believe, a fateful night for a popular 34-year-old at-large city councilman named Alex Kuhn, who had been heavily courted by proponents and opponents. After much research and questioning, Kuhn was not convinced that the city was getting a good deal for its investment. Unbeknownst to him and everyone else, his hesitation had paved the way for the other two "no" votes.

Two months later, Kuhn shot and killed himself, after his friends and family say he was pressured and blamed for the outcome. Once heralded by people from both parties as destined to go far in politics, praised for his compassion and commitment to the underrepresented as well as to economic development, Kuhn now found himself an outcast among the city's powerful. He became a casualty of the divisive, high-pressured, back-biting political environment.

His father, Mark Kuhn, is blunt: “Alex was being bullied.”