Tom Miller and Michael Fitzgerald

Iowa Press | Episode
Mar 11, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and Iowa Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald discuss their work and reelection plans. Both Democrats, Miller is the longest-serving state attorney general in the country, and Fitzgerald is the longest-serving state treasurer.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, and Katarina Sostaric, state government reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

Program support provided by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



Iowa's Attorney General and State Treasurer are both in their tenth terms, the longest serving officials holding those state offices in the country. We sit down with Tom Miller and Michael Fitzgerald on this edition of Iowa Press.


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. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, March 11th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: Our guests today are a couple of democratic politicians who are seeking their 11th terms in office at the Statehouse. Tom Miller was first elected Attorney General in 1978. He ran for Governor in 1990 and returned to the Attorney General's Office in 1995. Mike Fitzgerald has been the State Treasurer since 1979. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press

Miller: Thanks for having us, nice to be back.

Fitzgerald: Thank you.

Henderson: Also joining our conversation today are Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Gentlemen, as Kay noted, you're both seeking your 11th four-year term in your respective offices. I'd like to ask each of you, what do you hope to accomplish in the next four years that you haven't in the previous 40? Attorney General Miller, we'll start with you.

Miller: Well, we've got a number of things on sort of our unfinished agenda that are really important. One is opioids. We have been working for a number of years on opioids with the bipartisan effort with the rest of the state attorney generals and we're about to get significant money and we want to work with the Department of Public Health and everybody else to really make a difference in terms of the opioid crisis and situation, to deal with prevention and treatment in a way that really serves Iowans. And also we've just started working on the fertilizer issue. Fertilizer prices went up just dramatically for farmers, as much as 100% in some cases, 400% in others. So we're working with economists and all the players to figure out why that happened and what we should do. And also I've had, this year I have the privilege of being the President of the Attorney General's Association and you get to choose a priority and my priority is consumer protection. We've got a number of issues, dark patterns, algorithms, marketing to kids. We're working on that and that will continue well into the next term. So there is a huge amount of unfinished business that we want to work on and are excited to. My whole principle of the office is that we use the law to serve the interest of ordinary Iowans. We do that in consumer protection, in the farm division, in criminal prosecution and now on the opioid situation.

Murphy: Mr. Fitzgerald, what's in store for what would be another term in your office?

Fitzgerald: Well, times change and certainly our office has changed with the times. And I've continued to protect Iowa's money and I continue to protect IPERS. There is a constant threat and strong interest groups that want to change IPERS to a 401K and I will continue to be vigilant about that. We also have developed one of the best college savings programs in the country, $7 billion in that with also $4.5 billion has been taken out to help families send their kids to college. Iowans love it and it has performed spectacularly. Also, we have the Great Iowa Treasure Hunt where we have collected literally hundreds of millions of dollars. We have returned $400 million to a half million Iowans. Iowans are familiar with the Great Iowa Treasure Hunt. And I always tell them, call up the Great Iowa Treasure Hunt, put in your name and you'll more than likely be surprised.

Murphy: And remind folks what exactly that program is for people who may not be familiar.

Fitzgerald: The Great Iowa Treasure Hunt is where people forget about bank accounts, checking accounts, savings accounts, people buy bonds or stocks and forget about them, insurance policies. They may move and not get their utility refunds back to them. So, last year alone we got $49 million turned over to us. My goal is to return every penny of that money to the rightful owners. And there is a new area that we have been working on, we have joined with other states, we're trying to get the savings bonds that have been insured but the federal government makes no effort to return these savings bonds to individuals. Iowans estimate it's $300 million belonging to Iowans. So we're working, we've talked to Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst and other legislators and we're trying to get the law passed so they'll at least give us the names and addresses of Iowans that have that money coming because we have a track record of returning money to the rightful owners. And so we want to continue to do it but we want to expand on that.

Sostaric: This question is also for both of you, but I'll start with Mr. Miller. Is it your primary goal to serve another term or to help democrats hold onto a statewide office in a state that is increasingly favoring republicans?

Miller: It's to serve another term. I love this office, it's a great office. You get to use the law to serve the interests of ordinary Iowans. You get to call them as you see them in terms of interpreting the law in everything you do. And I feel incredibly grateful to Iowans to give me the chance to be in this office so long. And also you're never bored in the office. There's always issues coming in. So I want to serve another term. I want to help democrats too, I'm a team player, I always work with Mike and support Mike and work with the rest of the ticket, I will be a team player. But I'm running because I want to be Attorney General again. It's a great office.

Henderson: So what happened after I talked to you on the eve of the last election cycle in which you said you weren't going to run again?

Miller: Well, what happened is I kept working in the office and felt that I still had a lot of energy and drive and was enjoying the office. I felt that we are doing some of the best things that we've ever done in the office, have a great staff. So I decided I want to keep doing this. Why give this up at this point when I'm enjoying it, when I have the energy, when we have a great staff, when we're doing good things? I want to keep doing it and do the new things that I talked about before, the fertilizer, the consumer issues and the opioids. So, the unfinished agenda I'm getting back to.

Sostaric: Mr. Fitzgerald, same question. Is it your primary goal to serve another term or to help democrats retain statewide offices?

Fitzgerald: Well, I'd say both. I love being Treasurer. I think we're doing a lot of good for the Iowa citizens, as I said, protecting their money, AAA credit rating for the state is awful important, a lot of things we can help Iowans with. But I'm also very proud of the democratic ticket. It is not put together yet but I know candidates up and down the ticket and in the primary we can't go wrong. We're going to have a strong democratic challenge and I'm excited about being a part of it.

Miller: And we should mention our friend Rob Sand. He is running for re-election too. The three of us are supporting each other and fortifying each other and believe that all three of us have done a good job and deserve another term.

Henderson: Mr. Miller, you are likely to face republican Brenna Bird in the general election. And when she was announcing her candidacy she said that one of the reasons she is running is because it's time to sort of hit back against the authoritarianism of the Biden administration. It's clear that republicans are going to tie both of you to Joe Biden. What is your answer going to be?

Miller: Well, it's a fundamental answer in terms of the AG. And that is, what is the attorney general's office all about? What are your responsibilities? You're exactly right that her whole key to her campaign is that she is against Biden. If you're against Biden, you should support her is what she is saying.

Henderson: And that was successful for republicans in previous off-year presidential elections.

Miller: Well, not against me or Mike. But there is a fundamental problem there. This is a major office where I believe you have the authority and responsibility to use the law to serve ordinary Iowans, that you should be an independent attorney general, interpret the law as the law is written, and not be a partisan or an ideological attorney general. So I think she is on the wrong track on that and I think Iowans ultimately will agree with me on that.

Henderson: Mike Fitzgerald, you will likely face republican Roby Smith who is a current member of the State Senate. He also has invoked the name of Joe Biden as a reason for republicans up and down the ticket to be elected. The recent Des Moines Register Poll out this week showed about a third of Iowans have a favorable view to the President's job performance. Why isn't Joe Biden going to be a drag on your candidacy?

Fitzgerald: Well, first of all, I was glad to hear he's not coming after me because we've done things that are pretty hard to dispute with the college savings and the Great Iowa Treasure Hunt and such. But I think the opinion that people have of Joe Biden is going to improve dramatically this year. I think that because it's always easy to blame the President in power for any ill you may have. But if you look at the Iowa economy it's strong, farmers are getting close to $17 a bushel for beans, $7 for corn, land prices up 29% last year, low unemployment, revenues are up for the state. We have a strong economy here in Iowa. And then we're really at war with Putin and Joe Biden has really proven himself bringing the world together to stand up to this tyrant. And I think all Americans are going to be proud of what he is doing and he is being strong. And that stock market in Russia, their economy, it's crumbling by the minute. So I think Joe Biden's prospects are good.

Murphy: So, speaking of that and the issues with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that has obviously many ancillary effects throughout the country and one of the discussions is whether states should be divesting in companies that are Russia-based. And, Mr. Fitzgerald, you and I have had this conversation previously but I wanted to ask you here, IPERS has state money tied into Russian investments. You're not only State Treasurer but a voting member of the IPERS Board, the state public employee retirement system. Is there discussion being had about that? And should, in your view, the state be divesting from Russian-owned properties?

Fitzgerald: Well, I have made it clear that I think we should be and I have joined with 38 other treasurers calling for public pension funds and companies to divest from Russia. And as we see on the news every night, companies are leaving Russia, but we also have to recognize that the ruble has crashed and the stock market in Russia is closed, it hasn't been open since this has happened. So if you wanted to sell out, you can't. And if you sold out, you get pennies on the dollar. So in a responsible way, I know IPERS will move in that direction as well as other states are. The question is going to be -- and the Russian Central Bank, they're freezing assets to anybody that is not aligned with Russia, so you really can't get it. But we'll be pushing for more measures like to be able to, if a pension fund like IPERS has been hurt or maybe we can sue and get Russian assets like all those yachts you see floating around that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars because we have been damaged by Putin and there is a good legal argument to be made.

Murphy: Speaking of foreign investments, or maybe divestments, there is a bill that has passed both chambers of the legislature regarding state funds invested in companies that boycott Israel. Some people argue that it was narrowly tailored to address the specific company of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. I was wondering if you have any, from your perspective as Treasurer, your thoughts on that legislation?

Fitzgerald: Yeah, their parent company was who they were going after. We already do not invest in companies that boycott Israel. So it gets a lot of attention, it's not going to change the way any of us invest or live.

Henderson: So Iowa has no investment in Unilever?

Fitzgerald: Well --

Henderson: Which is the parent company of Ben & Jerry's.

Fitzgerald: I think we do have, IPERS does have some because they're in an index fund, so they do have some. But it's a European company. And so it's not an American company. But I think everybody that I know of has been supportive of boycotting companies that boycott Israel.

Sostaric: Mr. Miller, in 2018 you refused to defend Iowa's fetal heartbeat abortion law in court and a letter from your office said it was because you had a core belief that this could potentially undermine women's rights. But last month your office argued that the Iowa Supreme Court should overturn abortion rights protections at a time when those protections are also kind of hanging in the balance at the federal level. Has your core belief about that changed?

Miller: It has not. Here is what happened. The cases are really two distinct cases. In 2018 the hope of those that passed that legislation was to overturn Roe vs. Wade at the federal level, at the U.S. Supreme Court level. In the current case that we're involved in, it involves the state case and the state Constitution and also it involved, where we're involved are on two really preliminary motions one of which is very important. The one is should the legislation be found unconstitutional because of a single subject? And that potentially involves a lot of different potential laws that have enormous ramifications for us to deal with. The second was the issue precluded a very technical question, was the issue precluded as a result of the previous litigation? So we have been involved on those two issues. Depending on how it comes back, if there is a great deal of similarity, even though it is state and federal, we would probably withdraw and have someone else do it on the merits of the issue.

Sostaric: You hired the Governor's legal counsel and he in court argued that the decision that the Iowa Supreme Court made protecting abortion rights to a strong level was wrong.

Miller: What he argued just at the end when those two basic decisions were, those two basic issues were dealt with, I think was what the standard should be in terms of review. Should it be the scrutiny standard that currently is in place or should it be the undue burden standard that is in the federal Roe vs. Wade?

Murphy: Mr. Fitzgerald, I wanted to bring it back to IPERS here again. In 2013 on this show you argued that, or suggested maybe I should say, that benefits should be capped in that program in order to keep it healthy for the long-term. Is that still your position today?

Fitzgerald: Well, IPERS has had three fantastic years of growth. It is over 88% funded on a smoothing basis, but if you look at just our assets versus our liabilities, IPERS is 100% funded. So the need to put in more controls on IPERS, not necessarily at this time. So I wouldn't support that. But I still bring up there are strong special interest groups out there that have a lot of say in Iowa politics and there are some republican Senators that would love to turn it into a 401K system and that would be devastating for the 360,000 Iowans that depend on IPERS, but also the counties, every county in Iowa and in many of them IPERS is, their IPERS check is kind of the biggest payroll each month. So it benefits all Iowans.

Murphy: And that was a pretty heated topic in the State Capitol a few years back. I personally haven't heard that in recent years. Is that a legitimate concern still? Or has that issue maybe died off for now?

Fitzgerald: I think it's a legitimate concern and the reason it died off, I went around two the western rural areas of the state and the State Treasurer normally, maybe one or two people show up, but if you're there to talk about IPERS, the buildings were packed. You go to Red Oak and you get 150 people. They are concerned, what is going to happen to IPERS? And their social media lit up and the message got back to the Governor, who on this show wouldn't answer David Yepsen's question about would she not change IPERS to a 401K. And by the end of it, when Kay asked her that it was, oh there would be no change to IPERS. So Iowans have to be vigilant and I'll be vigilant in protecting IPERS.

Miller: You have a good memory on that. You're onto that issue, which is a good thing, you're exactly right on the issue to protect IPERS.

Sostaric: Mr. Miller, you mentioned earlier about the potential settlements with the makers and marketers of OxyContin and related to the opioid crisis. How much does Iowa stand to benefit from those settlements?

Miller: Well, there's a series of settlements, but there is one very large one that deals with the three distributors, the three large distributors in Johnson & Johnson and that is going to be a lot of money over a long period of time. It is going to be about $174 million over 18 years. And half of that money is going to go to cities and counties and half to the state. So there will be about $87 million at the state. We start out with about $6.5 million for next year. And as I said, it's not a lot of money but it's not an insignificant amount of money. And what we want to do is sort of use the multiplier effects, to use it in ways we can leverage things, and the two areas that come to mind most significantly are prevention, that in 1996 opioids were prescribed very rarely, and that is exactly right. They went way up and then they have come down. But have they come down enough in terms of the prescriptions? So we've got some things, some surveys, some means to sort of deal with that, maybe some public education. And then the other is treatment. The answer to a large number of these problems is treatment. And when treatment is successful it can turn a person's life around. And opioids have an enormous impact on a whole family that also you have to keep in mind in terms of dealing with this and your purposes. So we think that more treatment and particularly some more in the area of medicine-assisted treatment will work and help turn people's lives around.

Henderson: Mr. Miller, you made a deal with the Governor whereby she gets essentially veto power over whether you get to join multi-state lawsuits. Critics say that sort of defanged your office. Why did you make that deal?

Miller: Well, the critics are wrong, Kay, and let me tell you why. There was legislation passed that would have limited very significantly my ability to get in litigation in federal court and particularly in suing the Trump administration, but some other litigation as well. Also it would limit my ability to make comments to federal agencies. So I went to the Governor and made my appeal in terms of the authority of the office, just like she protects the authority of her offices, and we entered into a compromise. So a number of things were, I could continue to do like the comments and related things. And on the litigation, well it was important to me in terms of the powers and duties of the office that it was our agreement, that it wasn't in the Code, it wasn't permanent, when we leave it would go back to where it should be. And so she has authority on some litigation, particularly in federal court, but not multi-states. Multi-states are like the opioids and the core of what we do. That is state litigation and she has no authority in terms of filing the lawsuits. So it was a compromise that really made some sense and was entered into in good faith by her and me and that seems to be working well.

Henderson: So why did you hire the Governor's legal counsel? People really scratched their heads at that one.

Miller: Well, that goes back to sort of the professionalism of our office and the idea of to hire really good, able people to do the work in our office. And Sam Langholz is the person and he came to our office and asked if there was a possibility that he could work in our office. And we thought about it very quickly and very seriously. We knew him, he is an incredible legal talent, incredibly bright and able. We had worked with him when he was the counsel to the Governor and that was a professional relationship, relationship where we respected him and he respected us. And we thought that he could make a significant contribution to our office. We were exactly right. He has done just incredible work in our office. He has worked a lot with our Solicitor General Jeff Thompson. They have been a great partnership. And Jeff Peterzalek, our other chief litigator, he has been involved in employment cases, jury trials, he has been involved in significant litigation. So I thought that hiring him would further the interest of the office, which would further the interest of Iowans. And I believe I have been proven exactly right.

Murphy: Gentlemen, we have just a little more than a minute left. In that time remaining, we've got new reporting from the Des Moines Register about the Iowa Caucuses and wanted to ask you both as members of the Democratic Party, the reporting suggests that there is a proposal in front of national democrats that would alter their presidential nominating system and might threaten Iowa's first-in-the-nation status. I'm curious to hear from you both and Mr. Fitzgerald we'll start with you. Is this a concern to you? What is the case for keeping Iowa first? And are you concerned that maybe that process is maybe being changed and Iowa will lose that spot?

Fitzgerald: Well, I'm certainly concerned about it, all Iowa democrats are concerned about it. But as long as I can remember, every four years we go through this again at one level or another. But we have a good team out there with our party chair and Scott Brennan arguing for Iowa's case that it's a fair playing field in Iowa and remind folks that we nominating Barack Obama, a black man, when nobody thought a black man could be elected President.

Murphy: Mr. Miller, in the about 30 seconds we have left, what about the concerns about the caucus format and that it makes it hard for some people to attend? Isn't there a case to be made for having a state that just has a primary first?

Miller: I don't think so. We keep expanding the caucus to try and accommodate the interest that you're talking about. But in a caucus it is the ultimate in retail politics. The candidates have to come out and convince people to be for them and it's not TV ads, it's personal contact and speeches and it's real important for that filter to be in place before someone gets to be a nominee or President and we have performed incredibly well, as Mike mentioned, the Obama situation and Jimmy Carter got his start here as well.

Henderson: Well, gentlemen, we have reached the end of this episode of Iowa Press.

Miller: But not the end of the caucuses, we're going to win, we're going to fight like hell to keep the caucuses here.

Henderson: Thank you both for joining us today. And on behalf of everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.



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. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at