Rest in peace, Joy Corning

Joy Corning was independent. As a state senator and lieutenant governor, she didn’t cater to social conservatives who were gaining strength in the Republican Party of Iowa during the 1980s and 1990s. She paid a price for her principles when she ran for governor in 1998 and got no support from Terry Branstad, along whose side she had served for eight years. She would have been a great governor.

Joy was empathetic. Long before she ran for office, she was a young stay-at-home mom when her husband came home from work with awful news: a woman in their community had died of complications from a back-alley abortion, leaving a husband to raise three children alone. Joy couldn’t stop thinking about that mother. The tragedy fueled her dedication to protecting reproductive rights. “Whatever the circumstances of the unintended pregnancy, we cannot experience the hardship and struggle faced by some women who make this decision. We are simply not in their shoes,” Joy wrote in a guest column for the Des Moines Register this year.

Joy was fair-minded. She was among the first prominent members of her party to support marriage equality in Iowa. During the 2010 campaign, she and former Democratic Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson co-chaired the Justice Not Politics coalition, supporting the retention of Iowa Supreme Court justices who were under attack after striking down our state’s Defense of Marriage Act.

Joy was fact-oriented. While watching the Republican presidential debates, she was repelled by Donald Trump’s “know-it-all demeanor when he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” She came out publicly as #NeverTrump last September and shortly before the election co-authored an editorial endorsing Hillary Clinton, in part because of Trump’s “demagoguery,” “racism, nationalism, misogyny and discrimination against people with disabilities.”

Joy was committed. Some politicians leave the state after their ambitions don’t pan out, but Joy stayed in Iowa and volunteered countless hours for many causes over the last eighteen years. In her obituary, she wrote that she was “most passionate about issues related to children and families, women’s health & rights, equality and justice, education and the arts.” For friends who are inspired to make contributions in her memory, she suggested the Planned Parenthood of the Heartland Foundation, Plymouth Church Foundation, UNI Foundation, or the Des Moines Symphony Foundation. Joy was also a founding board member of 50/50 in 2020, a non-profit seeking to elect more women in Iowa, as well as a founding member of an advisory board for the University of Iowa’s center for gifted education, named in part after my mother. (Joy and my mother became friends when both served on school boards during the 1970s–Joy in Cedar Falls, my mother in West Des Moines. I didn’t get to know Joy until many years later, when I served on a fundraising committee she chaired for what was then called Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa.)

Joy was kind. Former Planned Parenthood leader Jill June recalled her motto: “If you can’t say something nice, be vague.” That approach to life wouldn’t produce good blog content, but it did make Joy a wonderful human being.

After the jump I’ve posted many other reflections on Joy Corning’s legacy. Please share your own memories in this thread.

Statement from 50/50 in 2020, a non-partisan non-profit promoting political equity in Iowa.

50-50 in 2020 is mourning their board member and friend, former Iowa Lt. Governor Joy Corning, who died Saturday night, May 20, 2017. Corning succumbed while in hospice care at her daughter’s residence in Urbandale.

Up until a few short months ago, Corning had maintained a schedule of volunteer activities that typified her life’s devotion to humanitarian causes.

“It was my great pleasure to work with Joy most recently as a member of the board of directors for 50-50 in 2020,” said 50-50 in 2020 co-founder Maggie Tinsman,” but she became a dear friend many years ago, even before we two served in the Iowa Senate together. She was the kind of person we all aspire to be: bright, wise, happy and totally involved in her community. Truly, we shall always remember this exceptional Iowa woman.”

“Iowa has lost a shining inspiration who demonstrated integrity, perseverance and a concern for the common good,” said Jean Lloyd- Jones, 50-50 in 2020’s co-founder who also served in the Iowa Legislature with Corning and Tinsman.

“Joy was proud to have served as lieutenant governor during Gov. Terry Branstad’s first terms, but she was always someone who showed regard for all Iowans, Democrats like me as well as her fellow Republicans. Her openness was a precious and treasured gift, just as Joy was herself.”

In 1985, Corning won a seat in the Iowa Senate and served until she was asked by Gov. Terry Branstad to join the Republican ticket as candidate for lieutenant governor in 1991. She served that term and another term after being reelected in 1995. She served as chair of the National Conference of Lieutenant Governors from 1996-1997.

Corning was one of the founding members of 50-50 in 2020, a bipartisan initiative created in 2010 to get more women elected into the Iowa Legislature, Iowa’s congressional delegation and the governor’s office. Women currently hold fewer than 23 percent of the Legislature’s seats, but now are represented in the U.S. Senate by Joni Ernst. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds is in line to move into the governor’s seat when Branstad is confirmed as U.S. ambassador to China.

In addition to her support for gender equity, Corning was a major fundraiser for numerous causes, and served on the boards for such groups as the Des Moines Symphony, Iowa Women in Public Policy, Money and Politics, and Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 2004.

State Senator Jeff Danielson spoke to Christinia Crippes of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier:

Iowa Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, who represents the district similar to the one Corning represented about 30 years earlier, got to know Corning particularly well in the past few years. Though they sat on opposite sides of the aisle, he serves as a Democratic co-chair for No Labels in Iowa and she had served as a Republican co-chair for the organization dedicated to getting past partisan division in politics.

He recalled being snowed in, in New York City in 2015 after an event for No Labels, and how that gave them a chance to talk more about their political beliefs and how to walk the path in the middle-ground, rather than at the extremes of politics.

“We could use a lot more Joy Cornings in politics these days,” Danielson said, adding, “She had a fight, in a caring way, inside of her.” […]

“That’s what I picked up from her the last couple years,” Danielson said. “Courage in the middle of politics is not often recognized and rewarded. She really helped me figure that out.”

Des Moines Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich commented,

My closest contact with Corning came after she had left the lieutenant governor’s office in 1999. She worked to elect more women to public office and encouraged many to run. She cared about keeping politics out of the judiciary and worked to defend Iowa’s judicial nominating system. She was marginalized by the Republican Party for her support of gay marriage and abortion rights, which made her one of the nearly extinct breed of GOP moderates.

On many of those issues, she lost more battles than she won, but I never heard one discouraged word from her. She was unfailingly gracious but never stuffy. She modeled civility in politics and tried to help political opposites find common goals.

Sally Pederson, who co-chaired the Justice Not Politics organization supporting the retention of Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010, remembered,

“It was an honor to work so closely with her on behalf of an independent judiciary, and across party lines. In a time when partisan rancor defines our political process, Joy refused to let labels define her. She was defined by her convictions, and worked hard to see them realized.”

Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu broke the news of Corning’s terminal illness in a column last month:

This is how meticulously the 84-year-old former lieutenant governor approaches the end of her life, which could come any time. She plans for it without fear, anger or bitterness. Her liver is failing, and hospice workers are coming in. They can’t make her well again, so they focus on making her comfortable, with massages, morphine or whatever is needed.

The illness is a resurgence of a liver condition diagnosed 21 years ago, when she was serving as Terry Branstad’s lieutenant governor. It had been latent since, she says: When it was diagnosed, “the doctor said I could live 20 more years.” […]

She has been a vocal member of what sometimes seems an endangered species in Iowa and nationally: a moderate Republican. In the past year, she has had letters and op-eds published in the Register decrying funding cuts to Planned Parenthood, on whose board she once served, and expanded gun rights. She endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in a piece co-signed by three Republican former legislators, which accused Donald Trump of promoting racism and misogyny, among other things.

But even as her party has moved, in her words, to the far right, “I stay because I want people to know there are moderate Republicans,” she said.

Basu posted on Facebook this weekend, “With the passing of Joy Corning, Iowa has lost a great humanitarian and voice of moderation in the Republican Party. Wish there were hundreds more like her. Thank you, Joy.”

Many people gave me permission to publish thoughts they shared on Facebook.

Janet Galloway Huston, Joy’s longtime friend and former neighbor:

I wish to pay tribute to Joy Corning, a wonderful woman, friend and mentor, even to those of us on the other side of the aisle. She was a force of nature in Iowa, and she leaves her positive touch on all of the causes she championed. She staunchly remained a republican — a pro-choice, pro-women, pro-social equality republican — in the face of a political party that no longer embraced her, or its long held GOP values. Joy had a long and storied and memorable and enviable political career, but some of her greatest accomplishments came from her stalwart support of Planned Parenthood, her love of the symphony and expanding the arts in Iowa. She supported republican and democratic women alike who ran for public office, and was one of our best champions. And she cherished her family, celebrated their accomplishments, and stood with them in sorrow. Our world needs more Joys in public life. God speed, Joy. I will sorely miss you.

Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools:

Will miss Lt Gov Cornings voice on important issues impacting our state. She was the first leading Republican to add her voice to marriage equality and was an incredible supporter of Iowa Safe Schools and so many other progressive causes. Thank you Joy for making Iowa a better place.

Jill June, longtime leader of Planned Parenthood:

Some people really fit their name. Joy Corning was one of those people. In addition to joy, her heart was filled with love, hope and optimism. She was a proud champion of women’s rights and never hesitated to take on assignments to empower others. She had a great motto that I never quite learned to master, “If you can’t say something nice, be vague”. Her passing is a great loss to her family and community. She was the quintessential role model of a Civil Servant in a world that has grown increasingly uncivil. We can take some comfort in our gratitude for her abiding love of us and the wisdom she so generously shared. Hers was a life well lived and one that is remembered.

Former State Senator Beverly Hannon:

Joy and I were both elected to the Senate in 1984. She and I served on the Education committee, where she was a strong advocate for public education. One time Sen. Tom Mann, the only minority in the Iowa Legislature at that time, wanted to make a point about how much college athletes endured, often not getting an education and risking their health and future. He was not on the education committee, but asked me to file a bill or amendment for him, to pay college athletes rather than just “use” them. I did and it was assigned to me. I got several Democrats on the Educ. committee to support Tom’s effort, but needed another vote. I explained what Tom wanted to do to Joy and asked her to help me get it out of committee on to the Senate floor where we knew it would die. She was reluctant, but finally agreed to sign on. Colleges did not like it at all, of course, but Tom was able to bring a great deal of attention to the problem, even being interviewed by national media. Joy and I were on the same side on many issues even though she was Republican and I was Democrat. I considered her a friend. Rest in peace, Joy.

Joy Corning and Bev Hannon at Pioneer Lawmakers, April 2015:

Former State Representative Phil Wise:

I was in the General Assembly during Joy Corning’s two terms as Lt. Governor. She was a pro-education, pro-choice moderate. She could never win the Republican Party’s nomination today. She was also a good and decent human being with real compassion for people. Iowa is diminished by her passing.

Alicia Claypool:

I got to know Joy, who was recruited by Mary Louise Smith over 20 years ago, to get involved with the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. She was very generous with her time, insights and experience over the years, helping to fundraise and support bipartisan efforts for the advancement of women, religious, racial, ethnic and LGBTQ diversity, an independent judiciary, and women’s reproductive health care. She was the epitome of graciousness and kindness. A great role model who leaves a big hole in our hearts and our state.

Peggy Huppert, state director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

I’ve known and worked with Joy since the 1980s, when I was the lobbyist for the Iowa Women’s Political Caucus and we won an important victory outlawing marital rape. (Yes, it wasn’t that long ago that it was perfectly legal for a husband to rape his wife.) But I really got to know her 2 years ago when I worked for No Labels and she was the state co-chair with Jeff Danielson. We met at her apartment to plan and plot. She gamely spent a 4-hour shift at our State Fair booth. And the three of us flew to New Hampshire together for the big national gathering. She was a rock, absolutely consistent and dependable over the 30+ years I knew her. She was classy and smart and full of integrity. But she also had a wicked and sly sense of humor, as we discovered on the airport shuttle when she regaled us with her take on all the Republican presidential candidates at the time. Joy, you will be missed in so many ways by so many people. And you will never be forgotten.

Judge Larry J. Eisenhauer:

While she was Lieutenant Governor she spent a day observing me in the juvenile courtroom in Polk County. We became members of a mutual admiration society. She dedicated much of her career to issues involving children. I remained an admirer as she stood up for judicial independence.

Keith Uhl:

In addition to moderate GOP politics once, I had the privilege to serve recently with Joy promoting women to office in 50/50 in 2020 where she was a tireless worker and enthusiast to young women considering an election for public office. We served together on Plymouth Church’s Board of Christian Social Action, also, with important but unheralded actions – that was Joy. The good spirit lives, as does Joy’s.

Statements released on May 21 by Governor Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds:

“I was saddened to hear today of Joy Corning’s passing. Joy was a very dedicated mother and grandmother and an excellent role model. Joy was a strong advocate for quality education and served as President of the Cedar Falls school board, before defeating an incumbent to serve in the Iowa State Senate. I was impressed by her commitment to education and was proud to have selected her to be the first person to run for lt. governor after the Constitution was amended to have the governor and lt. governor elected as a team. She was an outstanding, unflappable leader who treated everyone with the respect and dignity they deserved. Joy’s three daughters and their families are in our family’s thoughts and prayers.” –Gov. Terry Branstad

“Joy Corning was a tremendous mentor and role model for me personally, as well as so many other women. I treasured the times we got together, and the guidance and encouragement she gave me. We had both came from very similar backgrounds serving in local and state government before serving as lt. governor. We also were both proud mothers to three daughters. Family was always very important to Joy and I appreciated the example she set in having a professional career, while always putting her family first. I’m going to miss Joy and the guidance she gave me. The entire Corning family is in Kevin and I’s thoughts and prayers.” –Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds

Representative David Young posted on Twitter, “Lt.Gov . Joy Corning was always willing to help anyone in need. We keep her in our prayers as we remember a life well lived.”

Senator Chuck Grassley commented on the same social media platform, “Sry 2 hear of the passing of fmr Lt Gov Joy Corning + fmr IA House Speaker Don Avenson Both dedicated public servants + worked 4 common good.”

Longtime Republican operative David Kochel tweeted, “I will miss Joy Corning. She spent her life making Iowa and everything around her better. A wonderful public servant.”

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  • Thank you

    I can’t offer personal memories, but I certainly appreciate your sharing the memories listed above. I didn’t know her, but I read stories about her, and a few times, heard her speak. She was so, so classy. There should be a better word for the kind of classy she was.