Government

Iowa GOP starts to pick at Hubbell's business record

Record of leading Younkers in '80s comes under scrutiny

Democratic nominee for Governor Fred Hubbell points as he talks during his election night party at The River Center in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jun. 5, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Democratic nominee for Governor Fred Hubbell points as he talks during his election night party at The River Center in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jun. 5, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Iowa Republicans have opened a new front in the campaign for governor, charging Monday that Democrat Fred Hubbell is running from the truth about his time as chief executive of Younkers.

The attack is based on the closure of Younkers stores in smaller communities while Hubbell was the retail chain’s chairman from 1985-92.

Hubbell “put profits over people and made decisions that kicked working people to the curb,” according to Republican Party of Iowa spokesman Jesse Dougherty.

The Hubbell campaign called it an attempt to divert scrutiny of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “disastrous record.”

“So she’s going back nearly 30 years to drag up misleading facts, cherry-picking from Fred Hubbell’s business record of creating Iowa jobs,” campaign spokeswoman Remi Yamamoto responded.

But his decisions as CEO of the retail chain are relevant because Hubbell has talked about his time at Younkers “as his connection to rural Iowa and what he understood about Iowa,” Dougherty said.

The charges come as Hubbell, who won a six-way primary for the Democratic nomination earlier this month, has been accusing the Reynolds administration of not investing in rural Iowa, a practice he says encourages migration from outstare Iowa to the metro areas.

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“We’re not making investments in rural Iowa with housing or high-speed internet,” he said after a campaign stop Sunday in Cedar Rapids. “People are being forced to move out of their communities to Des Moines and Cedar Rapids to find a job because we’re not making those investments in rural Iowa.”

Younkers closed stores in rural Iowa “in favor of ‘larger markets’ with higher returns,” Dougherty said. Today, Younkers has stores in 15 Iowa communities, all with populations greater than 20,000. Younkers announced earlier this year that all its stores are closing this summer as part of a liquidation of Bon-Ton, its current owner.

“The decisions made at Younkers tell Iowans everything they need to know about Fred Hubbell,” Dougherty said.

Hubbell attributed the earlier store closings to the 1980s farm crisis.

“That was a tough time. But our commitment was always to make sure our business was stable and could grow and could employ as many Iowans as possible,” he said during recording an episode of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” that aired over the weekend. “Sometimes you have to make these kind of decisions.”

The Iowa GOP cited Des Moines Register stories in which Hubbell and other Younkers executives attributed layoffs to “weak sales and increased debt” and closings to stores being “marginally profitable.”

“Obviously, we get a much better return on our investment in our larger stores,” a Younkers official said then.

The Hubbell campaign said the record of Hubbell’s leadership of Younkers shows that he expanded job numbers from 3,000 to 4,100, established “generous” overtime and day-off policies, invested in the community by establishing Farm Aid scholarship and led to “customer satisfaction that made (it) one of the most prosperous retailing chains in the country” in 1991.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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