Passings 2017: The Branstad Era



We cannot let 2017 pass without mentioning the end of a political era in Iowa: The Branstad Era. Gov. Terry Branstad abdicated Terrace Hill to become United States Ambassador to China. He set the record in two separate tenures (before Vilsack and after Culver) for length of service by any governor in American history, at 22 years (16 in the first iteration and six in the reiteration). During that period, you could not discuss Iowa politics without considering Terry Branstad — even during his hiatus when he was president of the osteopathic school, Des Moines University. He wrested complete control of government from the Democrats in his second tour and helped usher in Donald Trump as President.

It was a truly remarkable run. Think of all the judges he appointed to the district court bench over the years, mostly excellent ones. Think how he reshaped the Supreme Court into a more political body that votes along party lines — Branstad’s party line. He crippled the public employee unions. He put the state universities at the heel of business — agribusiness, mainly. He defended the agrichemical complex from all assault and helped make ethanol the fuel of Iowa politics.

Branstad steered the state through the Farm Crisis of the 1980s with a mantra of jobs, any jobs, no matter the pay or the cost. He watched as the state’s manufacturing wage dropped in half and its industries dropped south of the border. He cut every tax he could get his hands on. He put state and local government budgets in strait jackets. And he was everywhere all the time, urging the state trooper to step on it so he could get to that next chicken dinner in Kingsley where he would talk about the weather. He vanquished all comers.

What did he accomplish? Not much over all those years, actually. He would beg to differ. He survived. He dominated the Iowa Republican Party. He was at once pragmatic and ideological. He held government at bay. Viewed from his Winnebago County farm, that was what he was sent to Des Moines to do: to get government off our backs.

While he attempted to rein it in, he used the reins to direct government to help his friends in agribusiness who actually run this state. For example, there is no confined animal feeding coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources anymore. Budget cuts did him in. Oh well. If you don’t have hogs you don’t have much in Iowa, the Branstad thinking always went, and the DNR just gets in the way of hogs. Or, if you complain about the foul water you are told that you are waging war on rural Iowa. It worked wonderfully for him, and he was being honest when he told you that.

Terry Branstad was honest. At least, he was with us. We knew him from his days as a state legislator from Lake Mills. He was a Reagan Revolutionary. He put his considerable determination into the mission of shrinking Iowa government. He did it. There are fewer state troopers, fewer rural teachers, and shrinking appropriations to higher education. Fewer farmers, too. And weaker rural main streets. We asked for it, and we got it.

He did not mislead us in that regard. It is our hope that Branstad will play it the same way in China. His basic honesty and real decency might keep us from ending the world as we know it. His absence from Iowa will change politics in ways that can’t be predicted. We will see what Gov. Kim Reynolds learned from one step behind him, smiling and silent, these last six years. We have a feeling he is a hard act for any Republican to follow. He is the biggest player in Iowa statehouse politics since Harold Hughes. Terry Branstad changed Iowa — in our view to have made it a lesser state. That is no small feat.

Keeping our seats

Our friend Laura Belin at the Iowa political website Bleeding Heartland reports that the Tall Corn State should not lose one of its four congressional districts in the 2020 census. Minnesota and Wisconsin might, she reports after analyzing Census and federal election data. Iowa already has among the biggest congressional districts at about 790,000 population each.

Buena Vista County is in the 39-county Fourth District, of course represented by Republican Steve King, who assumed office after Iowa lost a congressional seat — the Sixth. Belin notes that Iowa hasn’t gone more than 20 years without losing a district. Iowa has grown just enough, thanks mainly to its larger cities, to maintain our four seats by the next Census, probably.

Leading legislators say they are committed to maintaining the nonpartisan legislative redistricting that is the antithesis of gerrymandering. Gov. Kim Reynolds did not respond to Belin’s request for comment. If Iowa goes the way of Texas in drawing districts, we might as well move to Galveston.