Thoughts on Terry Branstad's longevity and legacy

Terry Branstad front photo photo_front_gov_zpsobbhiahu.png

December 14 marked 7,642 days that Terry Branstad has been governor of Iowa, making him the longest-serving governor in U.S. history, according to Eric Ostermeier of the Smart Politics website. Because most states have term limits for governors, “The odds of anyone passing [Branstad] in the 21st Century are next to none,” Ostermeier told Catherine Lucey of the Associated Press.

Speaking about his legacy, Branstad has emphasized the diversification of Iowa’s economy, even though a governor has far less influence over such trends than Branstad seems to believe. Some have cited “fiscal conservatism” as a hallmark of Branstad’s leadership. I strongly disagree. The man who has been governor for nearly half of my lifetime is stingy about spending money on education and some other critical public services. He opposes bonding initiatives commonly used in other states to fund infrastructure projects (“you don’t borrow your way to prosperity”). But he is happy to provide tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations that don’t need the help, without any regard for the future impact of those tax expenditures on the state budget. Many of Iowa’s “giveaways” in the name of economic development will never pay for themselves.

Branstad’s governing style has changed Iowa in important ways. He has altered Iowans’ expectations for their governor. He has expanded executive power at the expense of both the legislative branch and local governments. And particularly during the last five years, he has given corporate interests and business leaders more control over state policy. More thoughts on those points are after the jump, along with excerpts from some of the many profiles and interviews published as today’s landmark approached.

P.S.- Speaking of Branstad doing what business elites want him to do, Iowa Public Television’s “Governor Branstad: Behind the Scenes” program, which aired on December 11, included a telling snippet that I’ve transcribed below. During a brief chat at the Iowa State Fair, Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter asked Branstad to call Bruce Harreld, at that time one of the candidates to be president of the University of Iowa. That Rastetter asked Branstad to reassure Harreld was first reported right after the Board of Regents hired the new president, but I didn’t know they had the conversation in public near a television camera.

P.P.S.-Now that Branstad has made the history books, I remain convinced that he will not serve out his sixth term. Sometime between November 2016 and July 2017, he will resign in order to allow Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to run for governor in 2018 as the incumbent. Although Branstad clearly loves his job, he is highly motivated to make Reynolds the next governor. She lacks a strong base of support in the Republican Party, because she was relatively inexperienced and largely unknown when tapped to be Branstad’s running mate in 2010. Even assuming she is the incumbent, Reynolds strikes me as more likely to lose than to win a statewide gubernatorial primary. Remaining in Branstad’s shadow would give Reynolds little chance of topping a field that will probably include Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

P.P.S.S.-I will always believe Branstad could have been beaten in 1990, if Democrats had nominated a stronger candidate than Don Avenson. Attorney General Tom Miller lost that three-way primary for one reason only: he was against abortion rights. Miller later changed that stance but never again ran for higher office.


Visiting every county in Iowa every year for more than 20 years has put Branstad in direct contact with a staggering number of this state’s residents at thousands of public and private events. Whatever they may think of Branstad’s policies, everyone who has seen him in action will admit he is good at working a room. He has a legendary memory for names and faces and makes people feel valued during their conversations with him.

Branstad’s Democratic challenger in 1994, Bonnie Campbell, told Catherine Lucey of the Associated Press, “He’s everywhere. People say he came to our ribbon cutting. Everybody feels they know him.”

I agree entirely with University of Northern Iowa political science Professor Chris Larimer, who told the Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich, “I think he’s changed what voters expect from the office of the governor. So if the next person who comes into the office doesn’t do those things, I think he or she would be punished for that.” Governor Chet Culver’s failure to win re-election in 2010 may have been what political scientists would call “over-determined,” given the national Republican wave in the aftermath of the Great Recession. He probably would have lost to Branstad even if he had visited all 99 counties multiple times. But well before Branstad agreed to come out of retirement, I frequently heard Iowans complain that Culver wasn’t seen often enough around the state. People remember meeting the governor or seeing him in person. Local newspapers and broadcast media make a big deal out of a visit by the governor.


Richard Doak discussed in a December 13 commentary for the Sunday Des Moines Register that during his first term, Branstad reorganized state government so as “to concentrate more power in the hands of the governor.” Since returning to office in 2011, he used his item veto power to close dozens of Iowa Workforce Development offices around the state. The Iowa Supreme Court later declared that veto unconstitutional in a unanimous ruling, but by then the closures were a fait accompli. Branstad got away with closing the Iowa Juvenile Home and two in-patient mental health institutions, against the will of the legislature. He ignored legislative input when deciding to privatize Medicaid management in Iowa. In fact, administration officials discussed those privatization plans with some insurance industry representatives long before state lawmakers were informed about the new policy.

Most recently, Branstad has gotten behind an unprecedented attempt to use administrative rule making to change the tax code in a way that has always required legislative action in the past. Sad to say, Republican lawmakers are putting their support for corporate tax cuts ahead of the principle of legislative authority to write tax law.

Meanwhile, the Branstad administration’s disregard for local control is one of the under-reported Iowa politics stories of the last five years. The trend didn’t start in this decade; Branstad signed into law a statewide ban on agricultural zoning in 1995. Prohibiting counties from restricting the size of farm operations fueled the growth of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Iowa livestock production.

His first day back in the governor’s chair in 2011, Branstad signed an executive order “prohibiting the use of Project Labor Agreements by the State of Iowa and its Political Subdivisions on Public Works Projects effective immediately.” Too bad no city or county government challenged that executive order in court, because as Todd Dorman observed, the directive was quite broad in scope.

Branstad’s office and the media portray Executive Order 69 as simply banning the use of pro-labor PLAs on state-funded projects. It goes much further than that.

In fact, Branstad’s order prohibits any government subdivision in the state, from state agencies to cities, counties, heck, even tribal councils, from using a PLA on any project that spends public money from virtually any source imaginable. Branstad even tries to revoke contracts forged before his order.

Branstad made commercial property tax reduction a top priority of his fifth term, and when the state legislature focused on that issue in 2013, he favored a Republican approach that reduced revenue to local governments. The Iowa League of Cities and Iowa State Association of Counties preferred an alternative commercial property tax plan offered by Senate Democrats.

Branstad declared in 2013 that early school start dates were not “fair” to Iowa’s tourism industry. The following year, he instructed the state Department of Education to stop letting school district officials set their own academic calendars, in the absence of any evidence that school start dates affect tourism significantly. Branstad has also backed statewide “core curriculum” requirements, which reduce the power of local school district officials.


Branstad has always been a “business-friendly” governor. Occasionally advocates have played to that bias to get him on board with progressive policies. An environmentalist who was active in politics during the 1980s told me recently that Democratic lawmakers secured Branstad’s support for the country’s first Renewable Portfolio Standard by pushing the “economic development” angle of wind power. More often, Branstad’s tilt toward corporations has worked against the public interest. In his latest commentary, Doak discussed the many ways Branstad “has placed state government itself in the service of business.” I would add a few more points to his list.

Soon after winning the 2010 election, Branstad asked Iowa Workers Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey to resign years before the end of his fixed term. The governor explained that decision as follows in a July 2011 radio interview:

Talk to the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. They’re the ones that encouraged me to make a change there. So the business groups in Iowa are the ones that told me in no uncertain terms that they were not happy with the direction under Mr. Godfrey. And I feel that what we’ve done is appropriate. And I just would like to have a new direction in that agency.

You heard him: a business lobby group told the governor “in no uncertain terms” their opinion about a state official. He followed their lead. ProPublica’s Michael Grabell reported last week in richer detail how Tyson Foods, Beef Products Inc., and the Association for Business and Industry influenced Branstad’s determination to get rid of Godfrey.

In 2012, the Iowa Department of Public Safety halted electrical inspections of farm buildings. Branstad had criticized those inspections after hearing “horror stories” from farmers.

Later the same year, Branstad issued an executive order granting “stakeholder groups” new levers for blocking potentially “burdensome” administrative rules. Home-builders used that process to gut a state rule requiring developers to put 4 inches of topsoil back on new home construction sites.

Utility company lobbying prompted the Branstad administration to rewrite and eventually reject a $1 million federal grant intended to promote solar power in Iowa.

Branstad replaced one member of the Iowa Utilities Board and demoted another, soon after representatives of MidAmerican Energy complained to the governor about one of the board’s rulings.

While at this year’s Iowa State Fair for the annual Governor’s Charity Steer Show, Branstad had a telling conversation with Bruce Rastetter, his top campaign donor who now runs the Iowa Board of Regents. Iowa Public Television recorded their interaction and included the footage in the documentary “Governor Branstad: Behind the Scenes.” (Thanks to the Twitter tipster who brought this to my attention.) Here is my unofficial transcript, beginning at the 25:10 mark.

Rastetter: Before I forget, I’d like you to call that candidate we have at [the University of] Iowa.

Branstad, nodding: Yep. OK.

Rastetter: I think he’s fine, but I’d just like, if you could encourage him-

Branstad: Yeah, I’ll call him and encourage him.

Rastetter: what a big difference you could–he could make, and your experience. He met you in the second term [Branstad was governor], when IBM owned a software company in Iowa, and he is terrific.

Branstad: Well, can you send me an e-mail with just the facts, and I’ll do that?

Rastetter: Yes, with his phone number on it.

Even a cynic has to be amazed by the power dynamic here. Rastetter didn’t ask Branstad if he would consider calling the candidate for the university presidency. He gave him instructions: I’d like you to call him. Branstad didn’t ask why Harreld was “terrific” or better than other candidates for the job. Just tell me what to say and I’ll say it. Incidentally, Rastetter didn’t send that e-mail after all: instead, he called the governor’s chief of staff to provide the requested information about Harreld.

Please share your own thoughts on Branstad’s legacy in this thread.

From Richard Doak’s commentary in the Sunday Des Moines Register on December 13, “How Branstad reinvented governorship”:

More significantly, Branstad enlarged the role of the governor. No longer merely the state’s chief executive, he became the state’s salesman in chief. As the state’s No. 1 sales rep, he calls on business prospects, leads overseas trade missions and generally tries to increase business in Iowa.

Other governors have tried to lure businesses to Iowa, but Branstad made the job central to his very being. His official biography boasts of his “hands-on, round-the-clock approach to economic development.”

Moreover, he has placed state government itself in the service of business. Nearly every session of the Legislature when Branstad was in office saw a new tax break for businesses or business executives. The latest was a tax reduction for commercial property, which left the state short of money to adequately fund schools.

The net effect over the years has been to make the state tax system more regressive.

Along with tax cuts for business have come the ballooning “incentives” handed out to businesses in the form of tax forgiveness, credits and outright gifts of money.

The Branstad administration has put the state in the service of business in more subtle ways, too, such as trying to skew disputes over unemployment and worker compensation claims in favor of business owners over workers.

And then there is the recent effort to hire private contractors to provide government services such as Medicaid. Privatization amounts to the state paying businesses to do work that used to be done by public employees.

From Kathie Obradovich’s column in the Sunday Des Moines Register on December 13: “5 ways Branstad changed Iowa forever”:

Branstad was a reluctant abettor, if you will, in creating Iowa’s gaming industry. After twice vetoing a state lottery, Branstad approved it in 1985 and now presides over a state with a billion-dollar-plus, regulated casino industry.

Branstad’s insistence on tight oversight and regulation and the lack of major scandals have helped gain widespread public confidence and support. The prospect of further gaming expansion, such as regulated online casino games and video lottery, are just a matter of time. […]

After failing to enact major education reforms before he left office the first time, Branstad made it the mission of his new gubernatorial tenure to overhaul K-12 education. The Department of Education announced last week that all but 40 school districts are now participating in the teacher leadership compensation program, which dilutes the dominance of seniority in setting teacher salaries and pay increases.

Ultimately, however, the Branstad years were marked most indelibly by the hollowing out and wholesale consolidation of rural school districts. Branstad didn’t cause this trend and he tried to alleviate it in some ways, such as building the fiber-optic Iowa Communications Network to facilitate distance learning. The fact is, though, he maintained a school funding formula that largely directed state dollars to where the students were — and increasingly, that was not in rural Iowa. His veto earlier this year of over $55 million for public schools was seen by some educators as a way to accelerate rural consolidation.

From Kyle Munson’s interview and profile of Branstad for the December 14 Des Moines Register, “Landmark longevity: Branstad seals governor tenure record”:

Even Branstad’s foes agree that this guy genuinely loves retail politics and has been an enthusiastic, unwavering cheerleader for Iowa — with an emphasis on fiscal conservatism and big business.

“He can rattle off talking points on just about any topic,” said Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom, an Iowa City Democrat locked in a furious political battle to block the governor’s controversial privatization of the state’s $4.2 billion Medicaid program. But he qualified his praise: “Just don’t get too far into the weeds.”

“He’s tenacious,” Bolkcom added. “What can you say. … He loves to travel around and talk to people.” […]

Branstad grew up the son of Edward and Rita Branstad — a Norwegian Lutheran father who farmed and a Jewish mother who worked at Reuben’s department store in Forest City. […]
His mother also was an energetic Democrat. Her oldest son helped plaster the county with bumper stickers on behalf of Democratic Gov. Herschel Loveless (1957-61). In 1960, he supported Kennedy and Johnson for the White House.

But by 1964, he was an ardent fan of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater after he read the Republican presidential candidate’s seminal book, “Conscience of a Conservative.”

“Goldwater’s philosophy appealed to him,” said Branstad’s biographer, Mike Chapman of Newton. “We’ve got to control the size of government, or they’ll control us.”

Branstad switched parties during his second year at the University of Iowa.

From Catherine Lucey’s report for the Associated Press on December 13, “Iowa’s governor is out of fashion but never out of office”:

Unlike many of the 2016 hopefuls touring Iowa, Branstad is not a culture warrior, a business tycoon or a policy maven. He’s an old-fashioned retail politician who visits all of Iowa’s 99 counties every year. His schedule is jammed with tours of mom and pop businesses, keynote speeches at trade shows, talks at rural schools and the signing of seemingly endless proclamations on everything from motorcycles to college applications.

“He’s everywhere. People say he came to our ribbon cutting,” said Bonnie Campbell, a former Democratic attorney general who ran unsuccessfully against Branstad in 1994. “Everybody feels they know him.” […]

David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register political reporter who knew Branstad when both were University of Iowa undergraduates in 1960s, said Branstad had his own style as a student and as a young state lawmaker.

“He was this right wing kid from northern Iowa,” said Yepsen, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, adding, “a lot of elites dismissed him or ridiculed him.” […]

“It’s uncanny, his memory,” said Jeff Boeyink, who managed Branstad’s 2010 campaign. He said people frequently brought Branstad photos of themselves with him as a baby and the governor could nearly always remember the moment.

From O.Kay Henderson’s December 11 report for Radio Iowa, “Branstad hits 7,642 days as governor Monday, setting national longevity record”:

Branstad’s first foray into politics, though, came in 1972 when he successfully ran for an open seat in the Iowa House. Richard Schwarm and Branstad were students at Drake Law School at the time.
“He’d always wanted to run someday. He hadn’t anticipated it would be while he was in law school, but it opened up, so it was a team effort of College Republicans at Drake and then the people back here where he’d grown up,” Schwarm says. “…Sometimes the first race you run and win is the most exciting.”

Schwarm, who lives in Lake Mills, set up a law practice with Branstad there and Schwarm wound up serving as chairman of the Iowa GOP during the late 1980s and early ’90s. Schwarm has been part of every Branstad campaign. That includes Branstad’s successful 1978 campaign for lieutenant governor and the surprise of 1982 when then-Governor Bob Ray announced in March of that year that he wouldn’t run for reelection. […]

Branstad’s biography is being released and a gala is planned on the Iowa State Fairgrounds Monday night [December 14] to celebrate his new status as the nation’s longest serving governor. Schwarm, who first met Branstad 45 years ago, will be there, with a wealth of stories to share.
“There are stories, but some of them may not be the best place to tell there — although, with Terry, almost all the stories are G-rated,” Schwarm says, with a laugh.

From Henderson’s December 14 report for Radio Iowa, “‘It is a significant milestone,’ Branstad says of longevity mark he achieved today”:

Governor Terry Branstad got up, put on a suit and tie and at 8:30 a.m. he delivered the welcoming speech to a group of business executives and state officials gathered for a day-long meeting in Des Moines. […]

Branstad told his early morning audience he’s putting together his priority list for the 2016 Iowa legislature and he invited the group to share any policy ideas they may have.

“We’re not done yet,” Branstad said at 8:45 a.m. today. “We’ve got a lot more we want to do.”

Branstad joked that he’s a “pretty competitive person” and while Branstad has said he hopes Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds becomes the first woman to win the governorship in Iowa, Branstad hasn’t said whether he’ll retire or seek reelection to a seventh term in 2018.

From Eric Ostermeier’s December 8 post at the Smart Politics website, “Terry Branstad and the Top 50 Longest Serving Governors in History”:

As for Branstad, perhaps his most impressive electoral victory of his six gubernatorial wins was his first – way back in 1982.

In that cycle, then Lieutenant Governor Branstad defeated Roxanne Conlin by 6.2 points to fill retiring Robert Ray’s open seat.

Branstad held the seat for the GOP during a cycle that saw a massive Democratic wave. Nine of the 16 Republican-held seats on the ballot in 1982 flipped to the Democrats (in Alaska, Arkansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin).

Branstad also was the only Republican nominee to hold an open GOP seat, with the nominees in five other states failing in their bids (Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin).

No doubt Iowa’s famous aversion to electing women to high office played a role in that 1982 campaign. The Branstad campaign also exploited Conlin’s (legal) use of tax shelters with “TAXANNE” bumper stickers.

Final note: Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Todd Dorman wrote an interesting column about New York Governor George Clinton, who was the country’s longest-serving governor until today. Clinton was among the founding fathers and as an anti-Federalist played an important role in the U.S. adopting a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Click through to read the whole piece, but I can’t resist highlighting this immortal line: “So before Branstad blows through the record like a speeding SUV passing a shuttered mental health facility on its way to a fertilizer plant ribbon cutting, let’s ponder Clinton.”

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  • Groundwater Protection Act, fiscal accountability, and other thoughts

    The landmark Groundwater Protection Act was also signed during Branstad’s first term (1987).

    Your summary quoting Munson indicates he was a Goldwater Republican, having switched during his second year in college. Minor point, though, he was not old enough to vote then.

    Finally, no one mentioned the massive government funding f***up that occurred during his first string of terms culminating in the Fisher Commission and his having to accept some very harsh medicine to atone for his administration’s (with the complicity of the General Assembly) massive structural deficit that came to light in the early 1990s. That he ran in 2010 as a fiscal fixer-upper was beyond laughable after he was forced to take Generally Accepted Accounting Principles casto oil in the early ’90s to purge his administration of its bad practices.

    • it's true

      And that’s another reason Democrats should have nominated someone other than Don Avenson in 1990. He was too invested in papering over the budget problems himself to make a compelling case against Branstad on fiscal policies.

      That fiasco from the early 1990s is one reason Fred Grandy came so close to beating “the MasterCard governor” in the 1994 gubernatorial primary. Social conservatives saved that one for Branstad by about a 52 percent-48 percent margin.

      Some environmentalists still marvel that Branstad was persuaded to sign the Groundwater Protection Act.