The Career & Legacy of Governor Branstad

Dec 25, 2015 | 29 min | Podcast | Transcript


Claiming the title. Governor Terry Branstad now the longest serving Governor of any state ever. Insights from journalists, professional colleagues and an academic researcher 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, December 25 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: With every tick of the clock, Terry Branstad is making history. With one of those clock ticks last week, he passed the 21 year record of George Clinton in governing New York during split-tenures more than 200 years ago. Political colleagues and other friends, both democrats and republicans, celebrated the milestone with the Governor at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. And today we're convening a group for some insight on this north Iowa farm boy turned politicians and now with a unique place in history. UNI political scientist Chris Larimer researches and writes about Iowa's governors. Iowa Department of Management Director Dave Roederer is Branstad's former chief of staff. And Tim Albrecht, formerly directed the Governor's communication and media relations with journalists such as Des Moines Register Columnist Kathie Obradovich, and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Tim, when did you first meet Terry Branstad and what was your impression of him?

Albrecht: Well, I'm actually friends with his son so the meeting probably would have occurred then but I doubt he would remember that. So I really got to know him when I began working on his campaign exactly one year from Election Day on November 2, 2009.

Henderson: Dave, when did you first meet Terry Branstad and what was your impression?

Roederer: I met him when he was in the state legislature and I had just graduated, or I was in college during that period of time. And I thought, man, this guy is full of energy. As a legislator he was nonstop whatever issue he had. I wouldn't say we were good friends at that time but I thought, this guy is really, he's got more energy that I've seen in any legislator.

Henderson: So in this century and in last century, Chris, you've written a book about Terry Branstad and Governors of Iowa in general. What would you say is Iowa's first or lasting impression of this Governor?

Larimer: I think that he is accessible, that people can reach out to the Governor's office and get a meeting with the Governor, even though he is now nationally recognized for setting this record, he's still accessible. I think that's a big part of his legacy.

Obradovich: And, Dave, since you have known Terry Branstad the longest, how do you think he has changed over the years?

Roederer: I was thinking about that when we got to the longest serving. Energy wise, no change. He is a passionate about this state today as he was when I first met him as a state legislator. I think through the years of experience you become more wise. He has the ability to dissect issues probably quicker and better than when you're first starting. He's able to put it in context. And he knows the state so much better as well. Listen, when you travel the state, you visit every county every year, you can't pull up a county or a town that he hasn't been to and he doesn't understand the people there.

Obradovich: Yeah, and I don't know if you've known him long enough, Tim, to have noticed a change over the time, but I'll ask you that in case there is something. And secondly, just what do you think that you have learned from him? What is the most important thing you've learned from him?

Albrecht: Well, it was an honor to work for him because as a kid growing up I would see him on my television every day up in northwest Iowa. So he was an iconic figure already when I got to work for him and it was a real honor. But one thing that I've learned about him is that he never forgets anything. He doesn't forget people, he doesn't forget what happens. However, his political memory is actually short. If you look at Senate democrats, for instance, they have really politicized the institution and are taking their cues from Washington, D.C. but they will be the first people to be right next to him when there's a ribbon cutting in their district or to get a pen when legislation is signed. And that is a testament to Terry Branstad. He doesn't hold it against them and he is fond of saying, an adversary one day could be your greatest ally the next.

Obradovich: Well, at his celebration this week, or just recently, Congressman Leonard Boswell was one of the people who spoke, someone who served opposite Terry Branstad in the legislature, and now is working with him on a veteran's Home Base Iowa.

Albrecht: It was a big priority to have this be a bipartisan event so not only did Congressman Boswell speak but Congressman Neil Smith and Congressman Greg Ganske were in attendance. And, as you know, Ganske had defeated Smith in '94. So that is the kind of guy that Terry Branstad is, he can bring people with differing opinions together.

Henderson: How many legislators were there?

Albrecht: There were a number.

Henderson: Democratic legislators?

Albrecht: I know that Attorney General Miller and Treasurer Fitzgerald were there.

Henderson: Chris, the big parlor game in Iowa right now is will Terry Branstad serve out this term? Will he turn the reins over to Kim Reynolds? Or will he even seek re-election to an even more unprecedented seventh term? As someone who has studied governors, do you have a sense?

Larimer: I don't. I think I would actually ask Tim or Dave what they think on that. I would say this, that a big part of Branstad's legacy, as I said, is his accessibility. I think that plays well with Iowans and they expect that out of their Governor at this point. I think he has changed the perception of the Governor's office. Another part of that deals with the strength of the challenger and if you have a strong challenger that can deter other people from running for office. And I think that was a big part of his comeback in 2010 --

Borg: What do you think his strength is in intimidating others?

Larimer: I think the Branstad name intimidates others at this point and I think it could potentially deter a strong challenger. So if he would want to run I think he would be in good position to win again if he chose to do that.

Borg: Does it also though intimidate others within the party? And I ask you that, first of all you and then Chris and then you, Dave.

Larimer: To some extent it does because in the sense that if they don't see a reason for change then I don't think they would want to put their name forward. The last thing you want to do as a political candidate is your first time out get clobbered. And so I think it potentially does deter some from within the party but not the way it would deter someone from the other party. I think it's a more friendly deterrence I guess.

Borg: To Kay's question, two-part question. One, will he serve out the term and will he run for another term? Emphatically no question, no doubt, I don't even have an ounce of me that says he will not fill out his term. He will complete this term, no question about that. Now, whether or not he runs next term, I don't think he has even thought about that. It's way, way too early with three years left. But to Chris' point, the stronger the candidate on the opposite side, even strengthens Terry Branstad. That really gets his political campaign juices going is that the stronger a candidate, the more he likes it. So that will never be a factor in his mind as to whether or not to run again.

Obradovich: In 2010 he was almost competing against himself in the sense of Jack Hatch wasn't that much of a challenge and so he set up other challenges like trying to win Lee County that he had never won before. Is that an essential part of his character do you think, that he's setting up these competitions even if he doesn't have strong competition?

Albrecht: Yeah, he's a really competitive guy and whether it is via the election or via against other states and governors in other states, he wants to be the top job creator, he wants to be the nation's leader in education, he wants to have the best managed state and every day that is what drives him. So yes, even in years with token opposition like 2014 he still sets those competitions or himself.

Roederer: I think as Tim pointed out, with the Governor campaigns are a means to a bigger goal. Now, over the years it seems like campaigns have become, the goal, the total goal is to win. That's not the case. The reason you run for office to get elected is so you can do something once you get in. So the campaign itself and winning is the means. It's what you do when you get there. And I think that has kind of gotten reversed.

Obradovich: It's a good point though because over the years what I've heard about Terry Branstad is that he campaigns a little bit differently than he governs, that he tends to run more conservatively and he governs more in the middle. Do you think that true, Dave?

Roederer: Well, the fact of the matter is Iowa is pretty much a middle state. One of the things that attracts I think and helps us keep our caucuses is the fact that we're not either a blue state or a red state, we're pretty much a purple type of state. And so when you have somebody like the Governor who travels throughout the state, he doesn't travel throughout the state just because he wants to go to a particular community, he goes out there because he wants to know what those folks are thinking. And so when he is making decisions putting programs together he thinks, okay, well wait a minute, how is this going to be in Freemont County? How is this going to be in a large county like Polk County or Linn County or Johnson County?

Borg: Tim, let me ask, piggybacking on what Dave just said, Iowa republicans have pretty much gone to the right and some of the more moderate, or you might even say liberal, if you can put that in the Republican Party, people have been ostracized. How has Terry Branstad been able to bridge that gap?

Albrecht: Well, Terry Branstad cares about this state and even his fiercest opponents will have to concede that he loves Iowa and that shows through. So when it comes to politics, the way you're describing, he is able to bridge that because he gets things done and he works hard on behalf of all Iowans and that includes the conservative and the moderate wings of our party as well as independents and democrats. He bridges everybody in Iowa and that is really his legacy.

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: Chris, I want to go back to the campaigner in chief, Terry Branstad. '82, '86, '90, '94, 2010, 2014. If you ask democrats they see in Branstad an ability to attack an opponent on their strength. Did you find that in your reporting?

Larimer: Yes I did. Part of it was doing interviews with various individuals throughout the state and that was a big part of it, that Terry Branstad defines his opponents before they can define themselves is one of the quotes from one of the sources in the book. And I think that is certainly the case. He's a very political figure and he understands state politics very well so I think that's part of it. To Tim and Dave's point earlier though about governing with different, within different factions of the party, part of the story is also that Governor Branstad had dealt with a divided or split legislature for most of his time in office. And actually within political science research that is actually to the benefit of the Governor because voters don't have any one particular individual toward which to direct blame. If there's unified control as there was with Governor Culver, if something goes wrong voters can look to the chief executive and direct their blame that way. But if you have a split legislature that actually works to the benefit of the chief executive, so for Governor Branstad he has had that for the last five years, he had that for ten or twelve of those first sixteen years in office, and so governing in that type of atmosphere I think actually works to his advantage in a purple state as Dave said.

Borg: Go ahead, Kathie.

Obradovich: I was going to say, whoever wants to tackle this first, but don't you think that one of his big priorities will be to actually get a full republican controlled legislature for the last part of his term?

Albrecht: Of course. And that is what Terry Branstad does is he wants to help elect republicans up and down the ticket, not even just in the legislature but congressional, senate, so he's a team player and that's another reason he has been able to bridge the divide within our party.

Borg: Dave, what is the most difficult decision you ever saw him make?

Roederer: Dean, fair question. I would say the toughest series of decisions he had to make, it wasn't just one particular decision, but it was during the Farm Crisis, when our state was really --

Borg: What decision was that?

Roederer: It was debt refinancing in the fact that a person who he loved dearly in Ronald Reagan, in his administration, were not responding to the way of which he wanted to do that.

Borg: So what did Terry Branstad do?

Roederer: And what Terry Branstad did is, I'd like to say it in a nice way, he took on the administration and he went out to Washington and he demanded that they pay attention and he and some of the President's closest advisors had more than just heated discussions about it. And the Governor was pointing out that what the federal government was doing was so wrong because that it was costing the federal government more --

Borg: But was it successful? Did he win?

Roederer: It was successful. It took longer than it should have. And that's not unusual from the federal government to see them kind of get it about a year or two late and it helped. It could have saved a lot more farmers and it could have saved our state a lot of angst and pain had they acted a year before they did. But eventually it got done and obviously we're rebounded.

Henderson: Let's explore the legacy a little bit in terms of the party. Dave, you were involved in McCain '08.

Roederer: Yes.

Henderson: Which was sort of a down cycle for the Republican Party of Iowa.

Roederer: That was a nice way of putting it.

Henderson: Trying to be kind. Anyway, how has his return in office changed the GOP and how would you assess his long-term influence in the party?

Roederer: Very quickly putting it into context, Terry Branstad, Charles Grassley, they were outsiders of the party, they were not part of that “party operation" and they ran from the outside and came in. When Terry Branstad got elected Governor he found out that he was the party. Once you become governor you're the rallying point and he has taken that job very, very seriously and he has worked, as Tim had pointed out earlier, and Chris did too, that he has worked to try to bring all factions of the party together and that he has, listen, he can meet with the most moderate republican one hour and then the next hour he may be meeting with the Tea Party folks just to try to show them where we agree on issues and tries to grow the agreement instead of concentrating on where the divides are.

Henderson: Chris, would you agree with that assessment?

Larimer: Yeah I would. Part of the research I did included a couple of interviews with Governor Branstad and to the broader point about his governing style, he admits that governing with a split legislature is actually beneficial. So I think he is obviously going to recruit members of the Republican Party to try to get majority in the Iowa House, excuse me, in the Iowa Senate, as Tim said. But governing with a split legislature I think at this point doesn't scare Governor Branstad in any way. As he said, it is actually to his benefit and I also spoke to Governor Vilsack on this point and he made the same argument, that governing with a split legislature or divided government is actually to their benefit.

Obradovich: And Chris, you did some research on where the Governor's power comes from, and of course a part of Terry Branstad's power comes from his longevity. But statutorily it's not really the strongest governor's office in the country by any means. So are there other ways that you think Terry Branstad has actually grown the power or the authority of the Governor's office?

Larimer: Yeah, I would say it's in the expectations that Iowa voters have for the Governor's office. I think at this point the 99 county tour, the full Grassley, as Jason Noble called it from the Register, is certainly expected and in the interviews that I did throughout the state the three top factors were that the governor has to have an established personal connection, he or she has to work hard and they have to do the full Grassley or the 99 county tour. Governor Branstad, Governor Vilsack and Governor Ray, you can kind of group all three of them together as governors who did all three of those things. They were accessible, they did the 99 county tour, they created a sense of sort of what I call Iowa comfort among Iowa voters and so I think that is expected at this point. And there's a feedback with presidential candidates as well. Iowa voters are at this point feeling hey if I can see a presidential candidate up close I better be able to see my governor up close. And so I think that has changed the expectations.

Obradovich: And, Dave, the Governor has also tested the boundaries of his authority in the budget, for example, he has been in court a number of times over the item veto. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. Is that an intentional thing where he's testing these boundaries or is it just in the course of business that this happens?

Roederer: Kathie, one of the things to remember, the power for a governor comes from people, it's the people out there. That's one of the reasons that he is constantly out amongst people is because when you have the folks with you in our democracy, you do well. If you don't have the people with you, you’re usually referred to as former something or other. As far as the -- I'm sorry, I got off on your question.

Obradovich: About the constitutional authority of the governor and having that being tested in court.

Roederer: Well, one of the reasons is because language isn't always as clear as one might think and issues come up, different things approach, it's never a matter of sitting there saying, okay, let's test the constitution today. It's a set of circumstances that come forward and then you say, okay, do we have the authority, do we not have authority to do that and on those type of issues, especially on item vetoes because our item veto language by the Iowa Supreme court has kind of changed a little bit as time goes on, there hasn't really been all that much case history on it. So the Governor tries to weigh both sides and if he thinks that it's not within his power to do it, he doesn't do it.

Obradovich: And, Tim, the democrats right now are really hot under the collar about some of the executive actions that the Governor has taken, including closing the mental health institutes, including going forward with closing Workforce Development offices, for example, even though the courts disagreed with that item veto.

Borg: Education veto.

Obradovich: The education veto. So, what do you say to folks who are saying, okay, the Governor has been there too long, he is actually abusing the authority that he has?

Albrecht: The Governor always likes to say, people love progress but they hate change. And I think a lot of times that is what this comes down to. And like Dave said, language can be imprecise sometimes and the Governor speaks the language of economic development very well and people understand that he is a job creating Governor and he is going to look out for this state's best interest and he'll always do so based on what he believes is his constitutional authority. And sometimes, yes, that's going to get challenged because people don't like change.

Borg: But, Tim, he has presided also over a couple of decades of erosion in the rural sector, that is you said as job creator, but rural Iowa has declined during those two administrations.

Albrecht: Well, I think that's a national issue and he is acutely aware coming from rural Iowa and a lot of times these businesses, these factories actually do want to expand in rural Iowa but there just aren't the people to fill the jobs. And he has tried to address that through Skilled Iowa, through the Home Base Iowa initiative, inviting veterans from across the country. So he does readily identify with that problem. Just this last session, Connect Every Acre, putting high speed broadband access out there to rural Iowa. So he's aware of this and he's working hard on that every day.

Borg: Chris, before we leave legacy, has he changed the image and the role of lieutenant governor? He's got Kim Reynolds now out with him all the time. I didn't used to see that in past administrations. Has he changed it, conceding that it may be an ulterior motive?

Larimer: Well, I think it's a good question. I actually haven't thought of it that way but I think it may just be simply the case of recognition on the part of Governor Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Reynolds that if she would want to run for the top position she's going to have to be familiar with every part of Iowa. And so I think it may just be that the expectations of the Governor's office are starting to spill over into the lieutenant governor's office.

Borg: What do you think, Dave?

Roederer: The fact of the matter is the Governor made it very clear when he selected Kim Reynolds, now Lieutenant Governor Reynolds that they were going to be a team and they were going to work together. And they get along very, very well. And they do not travel together all the time. The Lieutenant Governor has her schedule, he has his. But yeah, I would say they're as in sync as you could have two individuals be in sync.

Henderson: You were involved in the previous 16-year run. What changed? That dynamic didn't appear to be evident when Joy Corning was his running mate and co-governor.

Roederer: Joy Corning did a tremendous job and it was the first time a governor and lieutenant governor ran as a team. And so I think there was a little bit of a trial and error period during that period of time. Times were a little bit different then so the issues were a little bit different. Lieutenant Governor Corning brought great strengths as does Kim Reynolds. I think that Joy Corning had really, at first didn't think that she would want to run for governor on her own. So those dynamics were a little bit different as well.

Henderson: Chris, let's talk about the national influence of this longest-serving Governor in the universe. I'm thinking back to his previous run in the first four terms. He influenced welfare reform at the state level but when there's a discussion about welfare reform at the national level everybody points to Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin as the germinator of that idea. Why is Terry Branstad's influence nationally not been as great as one might suspect from someone who has served so long in office?

Larimer: Well, I think part of it is just the way that politics is covered. I think certainly national politics, the conversation is about how polarized it is. I don't think among folks who follow state politics, I think Governor Branstad is certainly recognized. Part of it is there's a lot of policy experimentation going on in the states and so I think governors are still a key part of that. I think Governor Branstad may not necessarily have the signature policy like a Tommy Thompson on welfare reform. But I think in terms of governing style, relationships with voters, fundamentally changing the expectations that voters have and how constituents relate to a governor's office, I think he has had a significant impact. So I imagine when they have the National Governor's Association meeting here in Des Moines next summer I would think that some of his colleagues are going to be talking to him, maybe not necessarily about particular policies, but about constituent relationships.

Obradovich: We've been talking about the Governor's legacy, Dave, but he likes to say he's not finished yet. So is there something to come that people will look to do you think as the Governor's legacy or his legacy legislation for the end of his last term, if it's his last term?

Roederer: You mean the end of this term. I don't know, I feel a little uncomfortable talking about legacies because I don't think legacies really come into effect until after somebody has been gone for a number of years --

Borg: What she's really asking is, in the Condition of the State is he going to reveal something?

Obradovich: What's the next big thing?

Roederer: Yeah, like I'm going to tell you what the State of the State is going to be. No, seriously, I would say stay tuned.

Obradovich: Stay tuned. Well, what about you, Tim? What do you think will be coming that will put a cap on Terry Branstad's time?

Albrecht: To the earlier point I think that he's not one who wants to grab national headlines, he's not going to be flashy in the policy arena. But what was interesting to me at the longest-serving event at the Fairgrounds this month was the Chair of the National Governor's Association, Governor Herbert said, when we gather for our meetings and Terry Branstad talks, we all listen. So I do think he does have an influence on his colleagues and he has that quiet influence that maybe we don't see every day but is felt throughout this country.

Borg: Well, we're going to have to draw this to a close. Thank you for your insights. It has been interesting.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press, a half hour earlier next week at 7:00 New Year's Day, noon as usual on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today and happy holidays, Merry Christmas to you.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. I'm a veteran. I am a builder. I'm a volunteer. I am a teacher. 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. Iowa Communications Network. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign advocates for access to high speed broadband in all corners of Iowa for education, public safety, health care, government and economic development. Information is available at Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa PBS.

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