From Leland to Beijing

BY ART CULLEN

It’s a long way from Leland to Beijing. No doubt that must have crossed Terry Branstad’s mind sometime during his trip up the golden elevators at the Trump Tower on Tuesday, where he was offered and accepted the ambassadorship to China. Born on a Winnebago County farm 70 years ago to Ed and Rita. Graduate of the University of Iowa. Hung a lawyer’s shingle in Lake Mills and ran as a firebrand conservative for state representative. Served as lieutenant governor to Bob Ray. Elected governor in two different tenures — before Vilsack and after Culver — and now the longest-serving governor in United States history.

He makes progressives spit nails.

He guided Iowa through the Farm Crisis and held the state together with Sen. Tom Harkin, his political opposite.

He just engineered the complete Republican takeover of Iowa government.

He finished Hwy. 20 by trudging and shoving and cajoling and appointing over a 30-year period, his ode to Western Iowa. He sticks with it. He has been the greatest champion of renewable energy, ethanol in particular.

He has single-handedly reshaped state government through executive order, making it leaner and less responsive to the most vulnerable among us, and making local residential property taxes rise all the while he slept at Terrace Hill. He has presided over a decline in openness and honesty in government during his second iteration. He appointed a bunch of good old boys to run our state universities with ill effect. He gave away the farm to an Egyptian fertilizer giant and to a pork plant that Wright County doesn’t need and Mason City didn’t want. He appointed some narrow-minded men to the Iowa Supreme Court, which has taken on the taint of politics.

He cannot be beat.

He is up-front. He is friendly. He is pragmatic. He is simple. He is disciplined. He believes in a conservative life. He works harder than anybody.

And he loves Iowa.

Which is why we were a little bit surprised that Branstad actually took the job. We thought he would be a tremendous agriculture secretary to succeed Tom Vilsack, but Branstad hates Washington. His wife, Chris, has never been one for the spotlight and galas. The governor is a common man who we think would chafe in black tie and tails. He would rather eat ice cream in Mason City.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman described the mustachioed governor as an “old friend of the Chinese people.” For certain, he is a friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom Branstad connected with in 1985 when Xi was a young regional ag official who stayed in Iowa during a tour. Xi was awed by Iowa’s agricultural productivity, efficiency and research base. When he became president in 2012, Xi toured the USA. He stopped on the East Coast, the West Coast and in Iowa, where he called on Gov. Branstad. He said he wanted to learn more from Iowa, especially in the area of crop genetics, to feed his growing nation. Iowa State University has deep connections with China’s ag research community. Tyson has deep interests in China’s growing appetite for protein. John Deere sees a huge market. Renewable energy companies would love to get in there.

Nobody in America is a better friend to Xi than Branstad.

That’s important when the President-elect is going off calling the leader of Taiwan and angering the Chinese, who consider it part of their nation. He has threatened retaliatory trade measures and has made hostile comments about the Communist nation’s moves in the South China Sea. These are tense times with China, and Trump is making them tenser on purpose.

Branstad has Trump’s ear as well. The governor’s son, Eric, headed the Iowa campaign where Trump won resoundingly. Believe it or not, Branstad could be an important voice of moderation in the Administration’s foreign policy. Branstad is pro-trade. He is pro-agriculture. He is pro-food. He knows how to be deferential. He knows how to calm an alarmed politician — he has spent a career enraging and calming Iowans, who have displayed a certain demand for decorum previously.

Branstad should be a calming influence.

We are proud as punch that an Iowan will be the face of the USA to the most populous nation on Earth.

It is a long way from Leland and its corn fields, the Surf Ballroom where he danced as a teen, and the Mason City ice cream parlor, where he learned the lessons that will serve him well in the corridors of power at Beijing. Stay humble. Don’t go off half-cocked. Know you can win before you start a fight. Always communicate. Terry Branstad will do well.

THE CAMPAIGN FOR the 2018 governor’s race starts now.

As this is written the details are not all clear. We presume Branstad will leave his office early next year, after the legislative session is gaveled in. He will relinquish his office to Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who will become the state’s first female chief executive. She could stand for election in 2018 and likely will face a primary challenge from at least Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett. We presume that Reynolds will enjoy successful legislative sessions with an all-Republican legislature. Reynolds’ job will be to keep the legislature from rambling off the road too far right. Aides say she is ready.

Democrats have any number of possibilities. Tom Vilsack. Mike Gronstal. Sen. Liz Mathis of Cedar Rapids, a former TV news anchor. State Party Chair Andy McGuire, whose husband is from Holstein. Who knows who else? This after the party was routed in the statehouse just last month. Democrats are sick and reeling. A leader must step up quickly. Someone who can call out with clarity when the GOP freight train is about to plow over something valuable and good, like the public employee pension system and the state Medicaid system, like our K-12 public schools and community colleges. Someone who can bring working folks back to the fold. Someone who can work as hard campaigning as Terry Branstad did. This is their opportunity to recover.