Ron Corbett tests his message around the state

Possible gubernatorial candidate talks tax reform, water quality

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WINTERSET — When not presiding over City Council meetings or cutting ribbons at business openings, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett for the past year has been quietly traveling the state speaking to community groups of 15 or 20, sometimes more, laying out his “big ideas for big challenges” facing Iowa.

Corbett, 56, so far has spoken in 55 counties, including to 60 Rotary Clubs as well as Chambers of Commerce, Farm Bureau chapters and one-on-ones with community influencers like mayors, city managers and business leaders while promoting his research-based positions, elevating his profile and raising money.

“I have been out talking to various Rotary Clubs and groups and organizations and Farm Bureaus and anybody that’ll listen to me speak,” Corbett told the noon Winterset Rotary earlier this month. “The great thing about Rotary is, it’s supply and demand. Every week you need a speaker and I need to speak every week, so it gives me a good chance to travel around the state and come to good communities like Winterset.”

The speeches are in the name of what he calls his “conservative think tank,” Engage Iowa, which has developed policy papers on water quality and tax reform, and soon education.

Many view the tour as a thinly-veiled foundation for a Republican gubernatorial run. But whether he runs or not, Corbett insists he is gaining traction for his policy ideas in the same vein as other think tanks like the Iowa Policy Project.

Corbett said he formed the think tank because he saw too much top-down policies without public buy-in, a toxic political environment that chokes discussion of critical issues, and a disconnect between what’s good for the state and what helps at the local level and vice versa.

A dash of irony

Small-town Pizza Ranches have become synonymous with Republican political campaigns in Iowa. So it now may seem fortuitous that Corbett’s last speech before declaring on Dec. 19 what many suspected — he won’t seek a third term as mayor and is exploring a 2018 gubernatorial run — came at the Winterset Pizza Ranch.

Also on this day, Dec. 14, was a dash of irony. The Winterset Madisonian profiled on its front page one of its own, local high school alum Kim Reynolds, who is soon to be Iowa’s first female governor and likely the front-runner in any GOP primary challenge.

Reynolds is the hand-picked successor of the longest serving governor in American history, Terry Branstad, who pending confirmation will become U.S. ambassador to China.

Branstad’s departure clears one roadblock atop the Republican field for possible candidates who wouldn’t run against him. But departing midterm inserts another by elevating Reynolds to a job she’ll have for more than a year before facing any GOP rivals in a primary.

Earlier this month, Corbett racked up 720 miles in three days talking water quality policy with Farm Bureau groups in Ventura and Algona, and then his more general “healthy-wealthy” presentation on rivers and tax modernization ideas to the Winterset Rotary.

He’s made similar trips all year, hitting a town or two or three in a few days and then returning to Cedar Rapids.

“I continue to get out around the state, but I’m not doing that at the expense of my role as mayor,” Corbett said.

Rotary regular

At the Pizza Ranch, Corbett, a standout football player at Cornell College who was elected to the Iowa House in his 20s and named Speaker of the House in 1995 at 34, sat at the head table waiting for his cue.

First, the 20 or so Rotarians conducted routine business, previewed an upcoming men’s night and collected “happy bucks” for bits of good news. Then President Heather Riley yielded the floor to Corbett, who had 25 minutes to lay out his vision and another five for questions.

He knew the drill.

“(Employers) ask, if I am going to expand to your town, will I be able to find the workforce?” Corbett said, diving quickly into his policy. “It’s a big concern for employers. We have to be more competitive as it relates to the tax rate. More competitive, a simpler system and a fairer system. And, if we make some changes, our state will become wealthier.”

Iowa has one of the most complicated income tax systems in the country, he said, and it’s costing the state $4 million in lost income to states with friendlier taxes.

On water quality, Corbett called for the state to develop a runoff policy before a federal mandate is imposed to stop pollution being carried down the Mississippi River, where it has created a dead zone in the gulf.

He proposes replicating statewide a model used on the Cedar River called the Middle Cedar Partnership, in which farmers, municipalities including Cedar Rapids and the private sector partner in a nitrate and flood reduction program.

His solution to help both issues: Raise the sales tax by 1 cent, with three-eights of each penny going to water quality efforts and the rest to offset his plan to reduce the state income tax to a 3 percent flat tax.

Here in the conservative-leaning Madison County, which voted 2-to-1 for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, Rotary members listened closely and probed Corbett with a few questions.

One man questioned how South Dakota, which has gained population from Iowa, compensated for having no income tax, and agreed “for the Sioux Cities of the world, it’s a big issue” losing population across the border.

Lynette Judd pushed back on the sales tax idea, calling it regressive — or more financially burdensome to those with less income.

Later, Judd, who described herself as liberal, said she didn’t agree with Corbett on everything but appreciated his positive, solution-oriented approach compared to heated political rhetoric.

Engage Iowa BACKING

Before Corbett spoke, a volunteer for Engage Iowa, Andy Anderson, a former legislative candidate who said years ago he urged a younger Corbett to get into politics, distributed policy booklets on Corbett’s flat tax.

Folders carried glossy one-sheets about a “conservative solution for Iowa’s water quality” and “Iowa has an income tax problem,” a glowing editorial about Corbett, a biography highlighting his political accomplishments and an envelope suggesting donations of $100 up to $2,500.

The material is paid for through Engage Iowa, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which allows Corbett to promote his policy ideas but not a run for office.

As a nonprofit, Engage Iowa is required to file an annual tax form 990, a public document.

Corbett is president of the organization, which has just three listed employees: himself, a part-time treasurer and an unpaid three-hour a week vice president — John Smith, who is also chairman of Cedar Rapids-based trucking giant CRST International, according to the most recent filing from 2015.

The form identifies no oversight board, and Corbett said an advisory panel planned for 2015 still is being formed.

Corbett is the highest paid employee, earning $93,750 a year from the think tank. The biggest expenditure, the record shows, was $120,000 to G & S Resources. That is a Lake Mills-based political firm — headed by Republican insiders Doug Gross and Rich Schwarm — that consulted on Mark Jacobs’ unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2014, according to the Iowa Republican.

Engage Iowa raised $448,275 in donations, according to the form, but from whom is a mystery.

No requirement exists to disclose the donors, and Corbett said he doesn’t plan to — even though disclosure could remove any doubt he’s receiving money from people or companies with business before the city of Cedar Rapids.

Corbett has said he would recuse himself if any such situations arise, and noted the city has a process to file ethics complaints.

Megan Tooker, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, said while it would be unethical for him to take donations from those doing business with the city, there is no requirement to reveal the donors.

“If he is raising money for his think tank, he wouldn’t have any duty to disclose it to us, but he couldn’t just transfer money from that entity to his campaign account,” Tooker said.

‘moderate conservative’

Brent Siegrist of Council Bluffs, executive director of the Iowa Area Education Agencies, is a former Republican lawmakers who served with Corbett in the House and remains a friend.

Siegrist described Corbett as a “moderate conservative” and said his Engage Iowa message is finding a receptive audience, even in conservative western Iowa. But he acknowledged Corbett would face a “difficult landscape” and challenging a sitting governor is a “daunting task.”

“He likes to get things done and bend what the traditional orthodoxy of the party has been,” Siegrist said. “People like someone who’s a pretty straight shooter. Occasionally, in the Legislature he was the bull in the china shop. He speaks his mind and that’s a good thing. The last political election taught us people appreciate that. That’s why it plays well.”

Another longtime ally and adviser, Steve Grubbs, said one area Corbett stands out is his ability to bridge the urban-rural divide.

“He’s an urban mayor with deep relationships with the Farm Bureau,” Grubbs said.

On the other hand, Corbett has detractors, including some who say he’d divide the party.

Branstad said Corbett would be making a mistake to run for governor.

Former Reynolds and Branstad aide Jimmy Centers said it’s a “wise move” to set up a think tank to travel the state, make connections and influence policy. But he cast doubt on whether Corbett’s positions would hold up with western Iowa voters.

“Once you leave a city or a region, it is much different to run statewide,” Centers said. “It will be a challenge to raise his name ID in pockets where Republican voters live and work. In northwest Iowa, he will have pretty low name ID up there.”

On the road again

In announcing his decision not to seek re-election as mayor on the Simon Conway Radio Show last week, Corbett rattled off his successes in tackling incumbents.

Still, he said he is undecided on his political future. He plans to wait a few months to see how the landscape shapes up. He promised a “special announcement” at the end of his final State of the City speech Feb. 22.

Engage Iowa will live on either way, he said. Corbett plans to continue traveling the state, calling attention to his issues as he finishes his mayoral term, likely hitting some of the same groups again when his education position paper is published, he said.

“I didn’t form Engage Iowa as an organization to run for governor,” Corbett said. “I formed it as a way to start discussion and debate. I believe in a bottom-up approach to solutions, and this is a great way to interject discussion.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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