Early clues about the Kim Reynolds leadership style are not encouraging

Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds will likely begin performing the duties of our state’s highest office very soon, following Governor Terry Branstad’s expected confirmation as U.S. ambassador to China. Speaking to journalists, some Republicans who have worked with Reynolds have enthused about her willingness to study the issues and be engaged in policy-making as part of her long preparation for the job.

Unfortunately, the way Reynolds has handled the controversy surrounding her authority to appoint a new lieutenant governor has revealed a willful disdain for research and opposing views.

Now, she admits she may have trouble working with Attorney General Tom Miller, whom she views as “my legal counsel” interfering with “my plan.”

If recent events reflect how Reynolds will approach other complicated and contentious issues, Iowans have reason to worry.

STANDING BY WHILE STAFF TRASH A PRINCIPLED FORMER COLLEAGUE

The first warning sign came in February, when State Senator David Johnson asked Miller to answer nine questions related to the coming transfer of power. His six-page letter quoted potentially contradictory passages in the Iowa Constitution: one gives the governor broad appointment powers, the others stipulate that when there is a vacancy in the highest office, the governor’s powers “devolve upon the Lieutenant Governor,” who is subsequently “acting as Governor” and “performing the duties of the office.”

Miller had released a brief informal statement in December, endorsing the Branstad administration’s view that “upon the resignation of Governor Branstad, Lt. Governor Reynolds will become Governor and will have the authority to appoint a new Lieutenant Governor.” But Johnson cited the “importance and urgency” of clarifying any confusion about the succession. As the only independent now serving in the state legislature, he expressed a “heightened interest” in making sure officials strictly follow the state constitution, without “consideration of partisan interests” or “favor or benefit to any majority or minority political party.”

Reynolds could have welcomed a thorough review of transition questions, to clear up any ambiguities and perhaps reduce the risk of future litigation. For that matter, she could have exercised her own right to request a formal opinion from Miller back in December. Then the attorney general’s staff could have started working on the document right away.

Or, the lieutenant governor could have at least acknowledged the sincerity of Johnson’s concerns. Reynolds and Johnson served together in the Iowa Senate in 2009 and 2010. Although they didn’t sit on the same committees, they must have been well-acquainted as two of only eighteen GOP senators at the time. (Johnson was a lifelong Republican before leaving the party last June to protest the impending nomination of Donald Trump.)

But no, communications director Ben Hammes had this to say about Johnson.

Two months ago, the Iowa Attorney General and the Iowa Secretary of State gave Iowans a definitive answer that Kim Reynolds will become Governor of Iowa and she will have the power to appoint a new Lt. Governor. We continue to agree with the Attorney General and the Secretary of State. The Constitution and Iowa Code are clear. Suggesting anything else, even over six-pages, is simply political grandstanding.

Hammes did not respond to my follow-up questions about this oddly defensive stance. Why wouldn’t Branstad and Reynolds welcome an official opinion from Miller on this subject, if the constitution and state law are so clear? Why not settle any outstanding questions about terms such as “devolve” and “act as governor”?

Johnson has been a legislator for nearly 20 years. No one I know shares the senator’s views on every issue, but everyone who has followed his career affirms that he is a principled person. He clearly put a lot of thought into his letter. To dismiss the act as “political grandstanding” was a cheap shot.

Compared to what Reynolds and her minions unleashed on Miller last week, Johnson got off easy.

PILING ON THE EFFORT TO DISCREDIT THE ATTORNEY GENERAL

In his hagiographic profile of Reynolds last December, the Des Moines Register’s chief political reporter Jason Noble quoted several Republicans raving about the lieutenant governor’s willing to research and listen to a range of views.

“She is someone who never wants to be in a situation where she’s caught uninformed or unaware,” [former Branstad Chief of Staff Jeff] Boeyink said. “She goes overboard, in terms of doing the additional study on her own and making sure that she fully grasps the nuances of policy and the positions that the administration will take.”

Renee Schulte, a Republican former state legislator and now a political consultant who has represented clients in the governor’s office, said she, too, has noted Reynolds’ diligence — an attribute augmented by what Schulte views as her approachable manner and willingness to listen.

“She takes perspectives from others, and she studies really hard,” Schulte said. “I’ve seen her really dig into issues and learn about them.” […]

“She never walks into a room and assumes that she is the only one with something to offer,” [Wisconsin’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Rebecca] Kleefisch said. “She’s intellectually curious, she’s humble and she’s willing to learn.”

In a separate feature published in January, Noble alluded to Reynolds having a “perfectionist’s attention to detail.”

If only we had seen anything like those qualities during the past week.

Miller released his response to Senator Johnson on May 1. At a press conference, he discussed at length the “extensive legal and historical research” that caused him to conclude Reynolds lacks the authority to appoint a new lieutenant governor. In addition to analyzing language in our state constitution, the 23-page formal opinion cited seventeen Iowa court decisions, one U.S. Supreme Court decision, and state Supreme Court rulings or attorney general opinions from Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Michigan, Arkansas, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, California, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah.

Miller’s opinion discussed evidence from the debates during Iowa’s 1857 constitutional convention and a passage from the Annals of Iowa noting Joshua Newbold did not appoint a new lieutenant governor when he assumed the governor’s powers in 1877 “because the lieutenant-governorship was not vacant.” It explored federal constitutional language and practice as well. None of the vice presidents who became president when the U.S. Constitution had “devolve” language resembling Iowa’s attempted to appoint a new vice president before the next election.

During his press conference, Miller admitted that staff led by Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson eventually convinced him to revise the view he had expressed in December.

Where was the lieutenant governor who, according to Republican allies, “goes overboard, in terms of doing the additional study on her own”? Who “takes perspectives from others” and “studies really hard”? Who is “humble” and “willing to learn”?

She was missing in action.

Reynolds didn’t wait one hour to consider whether Miller had made any valid points before declaring the attorney general wrong.

In December, Attorney General Tom Miller researched the law and concurred with the Secretary of State and our office that, upon Gov. Branstad’s resignation, I become Governor and have the authority to appoint a new Lt. Governor. Since then, I’ve been moving forward with that understanding. Now, five months later, just one day before Governor Branstad testifies before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Attorney General has reversed himself, but the law hasn’t changed. The law still states that as Governor, I vacate my role as Lt. Governor and am able to appoint a new Lt. Governor. With the law on our side we will move forward with his first conclusion as we examine our options in light of Tom Miller’s reversal.

In the same rapid-response press release, Branstad leveled a serious charge at a man who has been Iowa’s top lawyer for even longer than he has been governor: “Tom Miller has allowed politics to cloud his judgment and is ignoring Iowa law.”

Attack dog Hammes went further still: “Now, just because the democrats do not control the Governor’s office, Attorney General Miller wants to pretend like this law does not exist, and issue a non-binding opinion. Quite frankly, this is what Iowans are sick and tired of. The Attorney General should be upholding the law, not ignoring it.”

News flash: a law doesn’t supersede language in the state constitution. The 2009 statute allows a governor to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office. But as Miller’s opinion explained (pages 16 through 23), the lieutenant governor’s office is not vacant when the lieutenant governor is “acting as governor” or “exercising the office” of governor, under various sections of Iowa Constitution Article IV.

Many other GOP elected officials or professional campaign operatives chimed in with public comments accusing Miller of rank partisanship. I did not see one prominent Iowa Republican acknowledge that reasonable minds could differ on the succession questions, let alone that a large body of case law and historical practice supports Miller’s opinion.

Later the same day, Reynolds continued to hammer home her talking points in an interview with WHO-TV’s Dave Price. Again, she expressed absolute certainty about her administration’s reading of the constitution. She robotically repeated that “nothing has changed” since Miller agreed with their office in December. Within a few minutes, she claimed several times the attorney general was playing politics.

Reynolds didn’t go so far as to say she will definitely appoint a lieutenant governor, but she seems to be leaning in that direction. When Price mentioned that someone might sue if she disregards the attorney general, she sounded exasperated:

If I’m sued, this is another unfortunate–I really don’t believe that he needed to weigh in on this. It says that the, you know, his number one constitutional duty is to defend the state and state officials in court if we’re so sued. And by him issuing this opinion, he takes himself out of that. So I wouldn’t, he wouldn’t be able to represent me if I was in fact sued if I move forward.

And, you know, it was Senator Johnson that asked for the opinion, and this doesn’t impact the duties of him being senator, and so therefore he [Miller] had no obligation to issue an opinion.

Miller and his staff did their best to determine what the Iowa Constitution says about the lieutenant governor’s authority.

In Reynolds’s worldview, the attorney general’s “number one constitutional duty” is to stand ready to represent her if she gets sued for doing whatever she wants.

Not only does non-lawyer Reynolds know the attorney general got the opinion wrong, she says he should have refused to answer Johnson’s questions.

Reynolds noted that in 2012, Miller had declined a request for a formal opinion on the closure of the Price Lab School at the University of Northern Iowa, on the grounds that he might need to defend the state in court later.

Not meaning to diminish the importance of a school where teachers and students flourished, or the backroom deal that led to its demise, one can hardly compare Price Lab closing to the constitutional matters Johnson raised.

If Reynolds appoints a new lieutenant governor and has to leave office before January 2019, an unelected person would become governor. Iowa’s Constitution doesn’t read like the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, under which Gerald Ford, never elected as vice president, became president following Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Article IV, Section 19 of our constitution, amended within living memory (1988), puts the Iowa Senate president next in line to perform the governor’s duties. Miller’s opinion (page 22) pointed out that “Iowa’s legislators and voters were obviously aware of the change in the federal system [….] Yet, Iowa did not attempt to follow the new federal model.”

Reynolds did not leave any space for the possibility that Miller might have re-evaluated his position based on facts and cases he hadn’t given proper attention in December.

Bottom line is, I think the law is clear, I think Iowans see this as politics. The timing is interesting. Why five months later? Why right now? I don’t believe anything has changed, and I really believe people are sick of politics, and I’m focused on doing the job, and I look forward to serving Iowans as governor of this great state. […]

I do honestly believe that Iowans expect a governor and a lieutenant governor, and they’re just tired of the political games that they see happen in politics today.

Journalists should be asking Reynolds and other Republicans why they insist on attacking Miller’s motives instead of engaging with his legal arguments.

NEEDLESSLY PERSONALIZING A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION

One of the most under-reported Iowa political stories of the last 25 years is how thin-skinned and vindictive Branstad can be. Find a Republican who was active in state politics during the 1990s and ask about fallout from Fred Grandy’s 1994 primary challenge against the sitting governor. If you promise to keep everything off the record, you are likely to hear stories about Branstad seeking revenge against Republicans who had endorsed the congressman.

Reynolds has overcome major personal struggles, but her political career has mostly been free of disappointments. A rare exception was her defeat at a district nominating convention in late 1998. Reynolds didn’t handle that setback gracefully, refusing to endorse her GOP rival Claude Neill for the special Senate election, which he eventually lost by 117 votes.

Many insiders confirm that Reynolds has learned a tremendous amount working by Branstad’s side for more than six years. One would hope she wouldn’t emulate her mentor’s tendency to hold grudges, though.

So it was alarming to read in the Des Moines Register that Reynolds now “questions” her ability to work with Miller. My transcript of a clip from her interview with political columnist Kathie Obradovich:

Reynolds: I don’t know, I’ve even said I don’t what our relationship is going to be like, a little bit strained, going forward, because I had my-

Obradovich: Your relationship with the attorney general?

Reynolds: I mean, I had my legal counsel tell me one thing and then five minutes later, he reversed from what he told me in December, and so, you know, it just–that causes some problems because I laid out my plan and started the process based on what he told us in December.

Wow.

Reynolds views Miller as “my legal counsel.” No. She will be able to hire counsel in the governor’s office. The attorney general is not the governor’s lawyer.

Miller shouldn’t have given Reynolds the green light in December. He should have said, “I’ll need to study this question further.” But he’s not the one making it personal now. Even after Republican officialdom spent days bashing him, Miller never rose to the bait or accused Reynolds of risking a constitutional crisis in order to gain political advantage. He never hinted that he wouldn’t be able to work with the incoming governor.

So what if she’s vetted and interviewed some lieutenant governor candidates these past few months? It’s hardly a major inconvenience, and the time hasn’t been wasted, because Reynolds still needs to choose a running mate for next year’s governor’s race. The difference is, if she abides by Miller’s opinion, she will have to use campaign resources to organize and pay for that person’s public events, rather than bill the taxpayers.

Obradovich speculated,

There’s been no reason to doubt that she can handle that [working productively with Miller]. Reynolds has an open, engaging personality. She wants to focus on the goal and she doesn’t seem the sort to get sidetracked by petty (or not-so-petty) grudges and grievances.

“I think people are so sick of this political, partisan environment that we find ourselves in,” Reynolds said. “They’re tired of it. They want their elected officials to just do their job and to get things done. You know, both parties. I’m not poking at one side or the other.”

Got that? The lieutenant governor isn’t “poking at one side or the other.” Must be a coincidence so many Republicans have been tearing down Miller on her behalf.

Notably, Iowa’s new self-styled warrior against “this political, partisan environment” never raised her voice against one act by fellow Republicans during the 2017 legislative session. I wouldn’t expect her to oppose conservative ideology, but you’d like to think the next governor would occasionally stand for basic human decency. Reynolds said nothing when a mostly status-quo budget cut grants supporting domestic abuse and sexual assault victims by 25 percent. Nor did she try to “get things done” for thousands of sick and suffering Iowans who could (but thanks to House Republicans won’t) benefit from medical cannabis.

LACK OF SELF-AWARENESS

Your unintentional comedy for the week appears near the end of Obradovich’s latest column.

Who tells you things you may not want to hear? “Well, my husband does a pretty good job of that,” Reynolds said with a laugh.

But seriously, she said, that’s the chief of staff’s role. “You never do yourself justice if you surround yourself with ‘yes’ people. And the staff will tell you, even if I present to a group or I do a press conference or whatever, I want an honest evaluation of how I’ve done. It’s critical to becoming better.”

The whole world just saw how Reynolds reacted to a guy who told her something she didn’t want to hear.

The whole world just saw how open Reynolds is to an “honest evaluation,” if that evaluation gets in her way.

Everyone and his brother joined her in assailing Miller’s integrity. They’re still doing it.

Our soon-to-be-governor may envision herself as a person who can accept countering views, but the collective GOP temper tantrum over Miller’s well-researched opinion tells a different story.

UPDATE: Regarding the constitutional amendment allowing the governor and lieutenant governor to run on a ticket, Darrell Hanson commented:

I was a Republican state legislator in 1988 when we passed that amendment, and I was actively involved in the debate over it. While I can’t speak for any other legislator involved in passing that amendment, I certainly assumed that our constitution didn’t give an elected Lt. Gov. the power to name a new Lt. Gov. when the elected Lt. Gov. fills a gubernatorial vacancy.

  • Two points!

    Two points is what wrestlers get for a take-down, when they get control of the wrestling match by putting the other wrestler on the mat. You sure can write some powerful take-downs! Keep up the good work, looking from angles ignored by others and writing your indictments with clarity seldom seen in politics.

  • Thanks, and I remember Darrell Hanson...

    …and if I had realized how good the Iowa Legislatures of the Eighties would appear from the year 2017, I would have appreciated them more at the time.

  • The only partisan cheering I've seen is all from the GOP

    And it started before most of them could have even read the opinion, which really offended me. They didn’t even pretend to address the opinion on its merits. They decided their strategy was to attack from a “it must be politics” angle. But when you read the decision, it’s legally and historically sound (and I’ll admit, I don’t usually like that originalist style of writing, and bristled at first, but it won me over with legislative history of what the drafters actually wanted). It’s really hard to argue that it’s politics after you read that. Moreover, what do Democrats really have to gain from this opinion? There’s no Lt. Governor for a year+, until the next election. But the next two people in line are still Republicans (Senate President and Speaker of the House).

    I don’t really see this as “kneecapping” Reynolds. It’s just an interpretation, not a personal attack. Previous groups who’ve met and amended our Constitution seem to have had some ambivalence at times about the succession issue, but they worked it out. If the legislature now wants to mirror the current federal procedure, let them propose a Constitutional amendment that would do so, but acknowledge that that’s against the intent of 1857 drafters (who wanted an elected Lt. Governor to succeed a Governor). Or maybe come up with a novel way to honor the drafters’ intent. It is at least worth a hearty debate on the issue, if the procedure is going to be changed. This opinion at least acknowledges that history, and places it in historical context before the next step is taken, whatever that may be.

    But the politics? They’ve all been coming from the GOP. And they’re not pleading their case well, in my opinion. I think all of your points are well-taken. I would add that Miller and his staff are bound by ethical rules and would not just be playing politics. But I’m sure the Republicans wouldn’t take that seriously, either.

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