A new year brings officials taking key roles in Washington and here in Iowa. In state government, the first democrat to hold office as Iowa Auditor since the 1960s was sworn in this week. We sit down with Auditor Rob Sand on this edition of Iowa Press.


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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, January 4 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: The ramifications of November elections becoming clearer in January 2019. And one of the newest faces to statewide office rests in the role of state auditor. The auditor is often dubbed a taxpayer's watchdog tasked with oversight of state government and also local communities. Rob Sand beat incumbent Mary Mosiman in November to become the first democratic Iowa Auditor since the 1960s. Auditor Sand joins us today at the Iowa Press table. Auditor, congratulations on your election and your inauguration last week.

Sand: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Yepsen: Thank you for being here.

Sand: Happy to.

Yepsen: Also joining the conversation are Iowa political reporters Erin Murphy, Statehouse Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: During the campaign you talked about auditing the Medicaid program which is state run using state and federal money. Your predecessor issued an audit after the election and you have indicated you hope to sort of revive that. What are you looking for?

Sand: I think the primary question with what came out after the election was the only thing that they looked at was might we be saving money? But they didn't look at the services getting provided or the quality of the services getting provided, much less the quantity. So it would be a little bit like me telling my wife hey, I saved a lot of money, this truck I bought was really cheap. But she says, how many miles are on it? And I say, I don't know yet. And she says, is the engine working? And I say, oh I don't know about that either. You can't just look at a price tag, you have to know what you're getting in exchange and we haven't looked at that. I think that's really important. It doesn't make any sense to say here's the price without saying here's what we're getting. And so I want to take a good look at what we're getting.

Henderson: So you have been state auditor for several hours now. When do you expect to issue this re-evaluation of Medicaid?

Sand: It has been about 48 hours that I've had the job and I can't say that. It would be irresponsible for me at this point to speculate about that.

Murphy: Auditor Sand, during the campaign your opponent raised the issue of the fact that you're not a CPA. Now that you are in the office do you have any concern that republican legislators will use that as an excuse to lower your office's budget perhaps and make it harder for you to do the things you'd like to do?

Sand: No. I don't see it as much of an issue. The vast majority of Iowa's state auditors have not been CPAs and there is this whole other investigative aspect of the office, the public corruption investigations, which is what I did in the Attorney General's Office for 8 years. So I think it's a very good fit. We've already got about 30 CPAs in the office that are very well qualified to handle that side of things and now we're going to have a little bit more professional balance, which is what I told Iowans I'd bring them.

Yepsen: Auditor Sand, let's back up for a moment. Why is this office important? And secondly, what do you want to do with it?

Sand: Government really is a decision by all of us about how we live together. And we, all of us, are responsible for it. But if we want to be responsible for it and if we want the people that we elect to take care of it, we have to have accountability, we have to have integrity in office and this office more than anything else, more than anyone else is responsible for making sure that the people that we elect are using taxpayer resources wisely, they're using them efficiently and they're using them respectfully to the people that are giving up a piece of their sweat, a piece of their day, a piece of their time in order to contribute to the things that we choose to do together. That to me is the priority of the office, it is accountability and it is integrity. I had a really exciting meeting yesterday with my new leadership team and we were talking about putting meat on the bones of my promise that we're going to make efficiency recommendations as a regular part of what the office does. I got bit with the public service bug when I was in high school working at a skate park project in Decorah and it still just makes me really excited and happy to have had that meeting and see an easy and clear way forward where we're going to be making this office work better for taxpayers.

Henderson: One of the ways that you find out about inefficiency is you have whistleblowers come forward in state government and that is how some of the audits that have been issued over the past couple of decades have sort of bubbled up from information from a whistleblower. Is there a change in state law that you believe should be made to give some additional protections to whistleblowers who are employed in state government?

Sand: I would have to look more closely at exactly what the state is of the current law. And the other thing that I would want to do before forming an opinion on that is compare that to what other states do. I think a big piece of responsible government is we have this laboratory of democracy, right? We've got 50 states, we've got cities within those states, someone is always going to have a better idea and I think we ought to be looking around and never be too prideful to say hey, you've got a good idea, we're going to steal it.

Henderson: One of the ways audits are performed is because you do have the mayor of a town who becomes newly elected and looks through the books and says, this looks a little hinky to me. How do you reach out as the state auditor to encourage more of that kind of reporting to the state auditor's office?

Sand: I think a piece of that, one thing that I think was a good move by my opponent that she did in the office was she put together a series of videos as a sort of training opportunity for people that were new to county and city office, newly elected city councilmen, newly elected board of supervisors. I think that's smart. I think there's still more that you can do and I think a piece of that is making sure that you're getting out there and having contact with those people to help them understand what the office is there to do for Iowans.

Murphy: Auditor Sand, you are a democratic office holder in a state capital that has many republicans in high places, including the Governor's Office, control of both chambers. And the reason I say that is I'm curious how you feel you will be able to navigate your job, do your job as an auditor and investigate perhaps a state agency that is headed by a republican Governor's appointee, how you do that job without being accused of being a partisan attack dog or whatever it may be? How do you navigate so your work is still effective?

Sand: Sure. Well, let's start here. The party itself no matter what I do will accuse me of all kinds of things, the Republican Party, and I make that distinction as the party function versus the people who make up that party. There were a lot of republicans that voted for me. I always said there's a lot of conservative reasons if you want taxpayer money to be conserved you should be supportive of my campaign. But if you know me as a person and if you talk to people that knew me in college, for example, I have always been someone that wants to work with everyone and that is very open-minded about finding not just what might be the thing I think I want to do, but what really is the right way forward and what really is the truth. When I was in college I put together a class on conservative thought because I thought those viewpoints weren't offered enough in the other classes that I was taking and I really wanted to engage with them more to have a better understanding of it and to see if there was something there that rung true to me. I am not going to be worried about having my actions be partisan because I know myself well enough to know that they won't be. In fact, when I got inaugurated about 48 hours ago the point that I made to everyone, the only thing I really announced was I've got a tri-partisan leadership team. Of the three people that were hired or promoted to senior positions we have a democrat, we have an independent and we have a republican and two of the three actually contributed money to my opponent's campaign. I don't care. They are well qualified people, they had a personal relationship with the incumbent and even if they thought that she would do a better job than me they are still well qualified people that I think are public servants and want to do the best for Iowa.

Yepsen: But aren't you really in an impossible situation? You're a democrat, the Statehouse is controlled by republicans. Auditors by definition make people mad. I can remember when republican Auditor Dick Johnson got into it with republican Governor Terry Branstad over the reporting and the condition of Iowa's finances, it resulted in a primary from republican Fred Grandy, who almost beat Terry Branstad. This was all inside the republican family. So aren't you really in a no win situation up there?

Sand: I would never call it a no win situation because I think people will pay attention to the truth and if I have, if there are things out there that people have done that deserve sunlight then I will bring sunlight to them and they will see the facts and they will understand that I'm doing that for a good reason.

Henderson: Your two predecessors did not weigh in on the budget making process until after it had concluded and the Governor had signed bills into law. Do you intend to comment on proposals that are made at the legislative level?

Sand: I know I can tell you I will be more willing to than my predecessors. They have taken in the past a very narrow approach and I look at this and I think, how can you be a taxpayer's watchdog if you're only barking when the burglar is on the way out of the house? Right? I mean, if you see something coming that doesn't look good, well bark about it before it's trouble, right? You should do something to be preventative about it. Just to make a comment after the fact you're not doing as much as you could do for taxpayers.

Murphy: So you mentioned the Republican Party. One of the issues, one of the concerns I guess they have raised is that you are using this position as a stepping stone. I know you've heard that before. You addressed that on this show before whether you would run again in 2020. What I don't believe we asked you is about 2022 at the end of your four year term. Have you thought ahead to whether you would plan to see another four years? There will be a Governor's race that year, there could be an open seat potentially U.S. Senate race in Iowa. Might we see you on the ballot for another office instead?

Sand: I don't know. I'm 48 hours into the job. I want to be where I can do good work. I want to have a positive impact in my life for the public. But that's not my only ambition. I want to be a good dad. I want to be a good husband. We've got two little kids, we don't know if we're going to have a third. If we have another one when does that happen? There's all kinds of stuff that weighs in on professional decisions, at least my professional decisions, that makes it kind of impossible for me to give an answer to that.

Yepsen: Are you being treated unfairly by republicans here who are raising these questions? First of all, ambition is not a crime in politics. You wouldn't be the first politician to use one office as a stepping stone for another. So where is this all coming from? Why are republicans doing this? Are they afraid of you?

Sand: Because I have a D behind my name. I am so sick of people who will criticize someone simply because of their partisan affiliation. There was a press release from the Republican Party that called me an aspiring career politician on the day I was inaugurated, on the day I announced I was hiring a republican for a senior position. Chuck Grassley is the leader of their party, he has held elected office for 60 years since 1959. Do you think they're going to call him a career politician? It's just ridiculous. It's why people hate politics. It needs to end.

Murphy: So how about within your party? You're going to see, along with the rest of us, a lot of people coming into this state interested in becoming the next President of the United States, a lot of democrats. In your new role as a statewide elected official in the state how do you see your role in that process? And do you see yourself as endorsing one of these candidates?

Sand: Right now I would say publicly I think it's unlikely that I endorse, it doesn't mean that I won't. I look at my potential impact on that race as maybe that big, but to have that amount of impact my personal commitment is going to have to be like that. I just finished a campaign. We have a two year old and a four year old. One of my presents on the day that I got sworn in is that I didn't have to change any of the dirty diapers that day. So we're still at that level and for me to have to, especially with such a huge field, to run around with 20 different candidates all over the state, I've got a new job that I'm really excited about that I want to do well at and I want to be around my family. So I don't know how that will balance out.

Henderson: Let's do a quick post mortem on 2018. Why did you win and Deidre DeJear, the candidate for Secretary of State for your party, Tim Gannon, the candidate for State Ag Secretary, and Fred Hubbell, your candidate for Governor, were unsuccessful?

Sand: Those people I would all call my friends so it's hard for me to say that they did anything wrong. But there's a couple of things that you can look at just aside from all of that, that I think are indicators. Number one, I have always said that money in politics is a problem. In my first seven weeks I raised more than anyone had ever raised for a state auditor's race and I said it's dumb that that's a good thing. But I had the biggest gap in terms of how much I raised versus how much my opponent raised. That helps because I was able to get my message out there more. I went to all 99 counties. I went to many of them more than once. And another thing I did when I was campaigning, I think it's really important to reach out to people who are not already in your camp. I'd walk into a restaurant, went into Cronk's in Denison, sat down, ordered my grilled cheese because it was $2 and then while I was waiting for my food I went around and I handed literature to anyone in the restaurant and I talked to anyone who was there. I really think that people are hungry for someone who is willing to talk to them even if they disagree with them.

Henderson: So since you were all over the state, why were democrats unable to be successful at the legislative level? They were successful in urban areas, particularly the suburbs of Des Moines, but they weren't in rural Iowa.

Sand: Again, that is one of those things where could we try to generalize about it? Sure. But it matters so much for each specific race who your candidate is. Are they able to get their message out there? Are there someone who already has respect in the community? Are they someone that has already run before because once you have already run it's easier to win and obviously because republicans had the majority already incumbency is an advantage and so it's harder to win there too.

Yepsen: As you look at the, I'm going to ask this question a different way, I understand you're a hunter.

Sand: Yes.

Yepsen: If you look at a shot pattern of the state of Iowa, of the counties that you carried and the counties that Mary Mosiman carried, you did well in the democratic counties where Fred Hubbell did well. But you did very well up in Northeast Iowa, your home, you grew up in Decorah. Does that tell us something about what you did up there that maybe democrats could learn a lesson from? Or is that just a hometown advantage?

Sand: It's not a hometown advantage because Decorah is way up there, right? Certainly it helped me in Winneshiek County and a couple of surrounding counties there. The bigger thing that I think we need to remember is that first district, I believe, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think there were more counties in that district, in the first congressional district that went Obama twice and then Trump than in any other congressional district in the country. Iowans in Northeast Iowa are persuadable, they're less ideologically aligned, they seem to be, and obviously we're talking about a small percentage of them but it's those small percentages in a purple state like Iowa that make the difference between a win and a loss.

Murphy: David mentioned that you're a hunter. That was something that you would talk about sometimes. You mentioned the money advantage that you had and you were able to get your message out, that included some commercials that were humorous and when I talked to voters were very well received. How much of that plays into these kinds of campaigns and just the likeability factor of a candidate? Are we almost to the point where we're, for lack of a better way of putting it, having popularity contests?

Sand: I always say if you want to try to explain elections you better look at, at least a dozen things, right? So is there a percentage of this election or any election that can be explained as a popularity contest? Sure. There's also a piece of it that can be explained by having people on the left and on the right who just fill in the bubble no matter what the name is because it has the right letter behind it. We've got to get away from that. And a piece of it might be likeability and a piece of it can be cultural. I talk openly about my faith, I talk about the fact that I like to hunt because to a lot of people that matters. We live in a democratic republican, right? People are supposed to vote for representatives. They do not have to know precisely what the answer should be on health care or precisely what the answer should be for job creation. They're trying to elect somebody that they think can go do a good job in figuring that out and have similar answers to what they would have. And when they see cultural similarities between themselves and someone else that is a good reason to vote for somebody.

Henderson: David alluded to an alliance between Dick Johnson and State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald that led the state to change the way it accounts for the money that comes in and goes out. Will you give Iowans an accounting of the state of Iowa's finances within the next month or so? How often do you intend to offer that to Iowans as evidence of how their money is managed?

Sand: There were, so there were a few promises that I made on the campaign that I intend to keep. Adding people with a law enforcement background, making more efficiency recommendations and being someone that goes after anyone where we have suspected wrongdoing regardless of party. More frequent updates was not something that I promised. It doesn't mean that I won't do it. But I want to take care of what people sent me to do before I start looking at other things. And I'd also want to look at the practice of the office. I know obviously once the budget is made every year traditionally there is sort of this pronouncement from the state auditor's office about what that looks like. I intend to keep that tradition. I don't know if I'll do it more often than that or not. It also sort of depends on the state of the budget. If we have a crisis we ought to talk about it, if we don't then there's less to talk about.

Henderson: What do you think your role is within the Iowa Democratic Party?

Sand: I'm a guy with a job. Election night was very weird for me. I did not suspect that I was going to be the only one statewide as a democratic challenger that was going to get across the finish line. Obviously that means that there are more people looking to me to do something. That's not really what I signed up for. It doesn't mean I won't do it but my priorities and what I've been thinking about in the two months since the election has been obviously the holidays and a lot of traveling and then getting ready for the job.

Yepsen: Go back to the Dick Johnson example, one thing he did for his party was to assure the integrity of a Straw Poll that they were doing in the mid-90s at a party event. He was respected and so the party called on him to make sure this thing was honestly counted. Do you see yourself playing any kind of that role, particularly in ensuring the integrity of our caucuses, which are always under fire for having problems and questions about the accuracy?

Sand: Of all the things, again, that I have signed up to do, my priorities are those that I told Iowans I was going to do. I don't know necessarily that something that is more party focused should necessarily be on my to do list. Again, with the caucuses I might get involved, I might not. Certainly if there was something to be looked at there I'd consider it. But they've already got some changes that they have made after four years ago and I think that those have been positive changes probably.

Henderson: You worked for Tom Miller, the long-term Attorney General of the state of Iowa. What advice did he give you for how to conduct yourself in this office?

Sand: That is a really good question and it really speaks to Tom's integrity. We got breakfast shortly after and he said, and I didn't know this, the year that he won he too was one of the only democrats statewide that won. He was either the only challenger or the only one. And he said --

Yepsen: It was 1978 I believe.

Sand: And what he said was it was a strange feeling.

Yepsen: Dick Clark got beat, the democrats lost a U.S. Senate seat.

Sand: Okay, there you go, there you go. And Tom told me, what I decided to do was not worry about the politics and try to figure out what the right thing was to do and do that. My answer to him when he said that was, Tom, it's interesting to me that I you wanted to sit down and tell me that because I already knew that from the way you ran your office that I worked in for eight years. The two people that were my direct supervisor, first one then another during my time in that office, both republicans. Tom is someone who has always tried to be focused on serving the public and it wasn't something he needed to say to me because he had shown me that through his leadership in the office.

Murphy: You mentioned earlier the state budget and wanting to be on top of that and if it ever gets to a crisis level. What is your view of it as it sits right now? The state budget, we're coming out of a few years where they had to make midyear adjustments. That doesn't appear will be the case again this year. Reserves are filling up again. What is your view of the current state of the state budget?

Sand: Because it has been a bit of a yo-yo it's really hard to say where we're headed. Had it not been for the changes at the federal level we would have been in real trouble again this year. But the state coffers benefited from the federal changes and so we were in a situation where suddenly even though we had a few years in a row where we were really headed in the wrong direction and ended up in the red, it got better. I don't think anybody knows what to expect out of Washington, D.C. and so when we are at a line where that has s big impact for us it's hard to say what to expect here.

Henderson: You probably had an idea of how you might work with Fred Hubbell since you spent a lot of time on the campaign trail and appeared at events with other democratic candidates including the candidate for Governor. Do you have an idea of what your working relationship will be with the republican Governor Kim Reynolds?

Sand: I'll know more this afternoon because we're going to have an opportunity to sit down, which I'm looking forward to. She and I actually were on the same 6am flight at some point in December. I walked up to her and said hello, we had a nice chat. The way I look at this is really simple. Iowans sent both of us. They are perfectly well aware that we belong to different parties and yet here we both are. I think we have an obligation to focus on areas where we agree and can do good things and get those things done in order to serve the state.

Yepsen: Auditor Sand, I have an obligation to keep this show on time.

Sand: Sure.

Yepsen: Thank you for your time and for being with us today.

Sand: Thanks for having me.

Yepsen: Good luck.

Sand: Thank you.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week when we sit down with Iowa Political Party Chairs Jeff Kaufmann and Troy Price to discuss an already busy political season here in the state. You can catch Iowa Press at 7:30 Friday night on our main Iowa PBS channel and again Sunday at noon with another broadcast Saturday morning at 8:30 on our .3 World channel or anytime online at iptv.org. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

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