Iowa’s ‘pragmatic politician’ Branstad is about to break 211-year-old record

Source: By Robynn Tysver, Omaha World-Herald staff writer • Posted: Monday, December 14, 2015

Terry Branstad, the humble Iowa governor whose sole piece of political flash is his Tom Selleck-size mustache, is about to whip the historical footnotes off a Revolutionary War hero.

Branstad will become the longest-serving governor in U.S. history on Monday, besting a record that has stood since 1804.

It is a record Branstad and others expect will last for some time to come.

And it is a record the six-term governor says he owes to his upbringing as a farm boy whose parents got up early and worked into the night. His late father, Edward, once famously promised at age 70 to cut his workload — to 10-hour days.

“I like to say nobody works harder than I do,” Branstad, 69, said in a telephone interview. “I grew up on a farm, and I learned to work hard at an early age. And (Iowans) know I love this state and I love working hard for Iowa every day.”

To mark his longevity in office, Branstad is set to hold two public events Monday. First, he will preside over a coffee reception in his formal office at the Iowa State Capitol from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The public is encouraged to attend.

In the evening, Branstad will be the guest of honor at a fundraiser held at the State Fairgrounds. More than 1,000 tickets have been sold for the event, with proceeds fittingly going toward a fund dedicated to restoring Iowa’s historical monuments.

It is clear that Branstad, who describes himself as competitive, relishes setting a record that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon. (It’s worth noting that Branstad, only a few minutes into the interview, also couldn’t resist crowing a little bit about the Iowa Hawkeyes’ win over Nebraska in football this year.)

Branstad also appears to like the idea that he is beating a record set by one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, a member of the Continental Congress who was called up for military service in the summer of 1776 and missed signing the Declaration of Independence.

Brig. General George Clinton presided over New York for 21 years. He was a good friend of the nation’s first president, George Washington, and he helped to organize the defense of New York during the Revolutionary War. He also served as vice president for two different presidents: James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

One reason Branstad’s record may hold for many years is because of term limits. Iowa is one of just 13 states in the nation that does not have term limits for its governor. Also, there are few current politicians in a position to serve that long. The closest contender was former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who left office last year with 14 years under his Western belt buckle.

“It will be a formidable record,” Branstad said. “The saying is that records are made to be broken, but there are only 13 states without term limits, and you have to live in one of those to have a chance.”

And — who knows? — Branstad could even run for a seventh term in 2018, putting his record even more out of reach.

So far he’s left his options open, although some doubt he will run again.

“It’s hard for me to visualize him not doing the job,” said Craig Robinson, the former political director for the Iowa Republican Party. “I don’t think he’s going to run again, but I do think this is in his blood. This is his life. This is his calling.”

Like the Revolutionary War soldier-governor Clinton, Branstad racked up his record during two separate stints in office. His first 16 years started in 1983 — the year Sally Ride became the first female U.S. astronaut in space and Michael Jackson performed his famed “moonwalk” dance move for the first time. Branstad then took 12 years off, working in the private sector, before launching a comeback bid in 2010 that unseated then-Gov. Chet Culver.

There is no single reason for Branstad’s success, said several political insiders and political science professors.

His low-key, non-firebrand approach to politics wears well with Iowans from all walks of life, both rural and urban, said Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

“He may not seem the most charismatic person,” Hagle said, “but Iowans know he’s working hard and he’s looking out for Iowans.”

Jerry Mathiasen, a former deputy chief of staff for Branstad who currently works in Council Bluffs, attributes Branstad’s staying power to his love of Iowa and his ability to connect with voters.

“It’s really quite an accomplishment and it does echo what a lot of people are saying: Branstad is synonymous with being the governor of Iowa,” said Mathiasen, who is the current president of the Pottawattamie County Community Foundation.

Branstad also has been helped by Iowans’ tendency to commit. Voters in the state have a history of holding onto beloved political incumbents as long as possible.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is still going strong in the Senate after nearly 35 years, while Tom Harkin recently retired after serving in the U.S. Senate for 30 years.

Christopher Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa, recently wrote a book about Iowans’ affinity for incumbents. It was aptly titled: “Gubernatorial Stability in Iowa: A Stranglehold on Power.”

Before Branstad there was Gov. Robert Ray, who served for 14 years in the 1970s and early 1980s. In fact, Ray was Branstad’s mentor. And Branstad served as Ray’s lieutenant governor, succeeding his boss in 1983.

When Branstad stepped down the first time he was followed as governor by Tom Vilsack, who served for eight years. Larimer is convinced that Vilsack could have won several more terms if he had wanted.

During his research, Larimer said he found that Ray, Vilsack and Branstad had several things in common. All three made it a practice to travel across Iowa frequently and meet as many Iowans as they could. And all three were seen as modest men who listened to their constituents.

In fact, since the start of his career, Branstad has traveled to all 99 counties in Iowa every year.

“The conclusion I came away with is that Iowans seem to expect any statewide official to be accessible and they need to feel comfortable with that person,” Larimer said. “If they do, they are willing to give them a little more leeway when things are bad.”

And things haven’t always been great for Branstad.

When he took office the first time, Branstad immediately had to deal with the financial crisis that had hit the Farm Belt. There were stories of farmers committing suicide and rural neighbors banding together to protest a farm being auctioned off to pay the bank loans.

As a former farmer himself, Branstad understood the pain rippling through the agriculture industry, said Tim Albrecht, his former communications director, who now works in the private sector.

“During the farm crisis, he wasn’t telling farmers what they wanted to hear,” Albrecht said. “He shared their pain, their grief, their sorrow.”

Albrecht believes Branstad’s ability to lead Iowa during those dark days and his commitment to diversifying Iowa’s economy may be his greatest achievements.

Branstad has made a name for himself as a solidly pro-business governor, more interested in luring businesses into Iowa and creating jobs than serving up political red meat and crossing partisan swords.

He’s the guy who helped bring Facebook to Altoona and Google to Council Bluffs.

“He’s made income growth a priority and bringing high-paying jobs to Iowa,” Albrecht said.

The question now is whether Branstad may be the last of a dying political breed: a governor more interested in stoking the economy than engaging in partisan squabbles. A guy who wears well with voters across the political spectrum, including independents.

In this day of hyperpartisanship, Branstad stands out as a rarity, said Robinson, the former GOP political director who now is editor of an online magazine called the Iowa Republican.

He is the type of governor who isn’t beholden to his base — and doesn’t have to be, because his standing with Iowans is solid, Robinson said. In fact, some Republicans have privately grumbled about what they perceive as a lack of commitment from Branstad to their core issues. There have been no sweeping tax reform bills passed, Robinson said, and there have been no significant anti-abortion bills passed on his watch.

“I don’t know of another politician with Branstad’s approach to government who could be elected out of the gate — a kind of pragmatic politician who is going to do what’s best for the state and not what political parties want,” Robinson said.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever see another Iowa politician with the real focus that he has on governing.”