Big decisions ahead for Corbett

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While we’re out making our lists and checking them twice over the next few festive weeks, Ron Corbett will be mulling his political future.

Maybe he runs for third term as mayor of Cedar Rapids. Or, maybe he runs for governor. These are trickier calls than picking out a novelty necktie for uncle Bob.

Choosing got both simpler and more complicated this past week.

We now know Gov. Terry Branstad won’t be seeking a seventh term. That’s because President-elect Donald Trump is nominating Branstad to be the next U.S. ambassador to China.

But with Branstad’s eventual departure, that means Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds takes over the governor’s office. Instantly, Reynolds becomes an incumbent and likely the Republican gubernatorial front-runner in 2018. Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann already says the party is behind Reynolds “100 percent.” Iowa Ag Sec. Bill Northey, who was thinking about running for governor, now says he won’t. Instead, he’s urging unity.

So for Corbett, it’s stay put or commence an uphill campaign against his party’s establishment.

“I have some decision-making to do. It’s not an easy decision one way or the other,” Corbett said.

I honestly can’t say which way the mayor is leaning.

On one hand, he says he’s accomplished much of what he set out to do as mayor. He ran in 2009 to provide leadership on flood recovery and preparations for future flooding. He wanted the city to adopt an “open for business,” economic development philosophy. He spearheaded the effort to pass a local-option sales tax that provides money for street projects.

If he runs for mayor in 2017, Corbett says he’ll need to come up with a new agenda. Maybe he’ll explore the concept of merging local government functions to save money. Corbett contends November’s vote to shrink the Linn County Board of Supervisors shows there’s a public appetite for revamping government operations to cut costs.

On the other hand, he’s spent much of the last year traveling the state and speaking on behalf of his Engage Iowa think tank, which has advocated ideas for addressing tax modernization and water quality issues. Corbett says he’s been to roughly 60 counties. This week he’s scheduled to speak with groups in Hancock, Kossuth and Madison counties, with Adel, Knoxville and Okoboji next.

Engage Iowa, Corbett said, is preparing to release a series of education proposals in the New Year.

“I have been active trying to push the envelope on some of these state issues. So I do have higher aspirations for the state of Iowa,” Corbett said.

So he’s laid the groundwork for his gubernatorial aspirations. But now the ground has been shaken by a Trumpian tremor, with more jolts likely. But it’s in Trump’s success that Corbett sees a rationale for not simply falling in line behind the wishes of party leadership.

“Well, I think Gov. Jeb Bush had the establishment behind him and raised a lot of money. And it didn’t work out for him in the presidential race,” Corbett said.

“But Trump just campaigned against that, didn’t he? Closing the door and basically trying to lock it … it’s not for the donor class and the establishment to decide. It’s for the voters,” Corbett said.

But he concedes Reynolds’ considerable advantages. She has the backing of the Team Branstad, and soon will make history as the first woman to serve a governor. She’s taking the job just as Republicans take over both the Iowa House and Senate, likely providing her with a ready-made list of hefty accomplishments.

Corbett says he’s from the “get-it-done” wing of the Republican Party. But Reynolds will be leading the getting-it-done wing.

Still, I think it’s a mistake for Republicans to close the door on a primary. Not a mistake in political calculations, but a mistake in understanding what’s good for their party and the state.

Gubernatorial elections are the one chance we get to truly hash out big state issues on a big stage. Local legislative races have become a joke, with misleading mailers and ads delivering more punchlines than substance. Open, competitive Republican and Democratic gubernatorial primaries would spark important debates on numerous issues.

I know, primaries can be messy. But ask U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst whether a competitive primary can also better prepare a candidate for a tough general election race. Ask Bruce Braley whether a party in lockstep is such a big advantage, if you can find him.

There are reasons to believe Reynolds will be a successful governor. I harbor hope she’ll have a much more constructive relationship with legislators from both parties than our current my-way-the-highway, unilateralist governor. As a former county elected official, I hope Reynolds breaks from the Branstadian tradition of very low regard for local government.

But the truth is Reynolds has yet to serve a minute as governor. We have no idea how she’ll wield vast executive powers. We haven’t seen her handle a problem or a crisis. So all of this endorsing and unity seems premature. Although I understand from the last election that no concerns about preparation, performance or prudence can outstrip the importance of simply winning at all cost.

“Sometimes there are horses that get right out of the starting gate and end up fading. Others trip coming out of the gate and end up catching up,” Corbett said. “So it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. It certainly has stimulated the conversation about 2018 at a much sooner point ahead of the election cycle.”

Corbett began his political career by taking on an incumbent legislator more than 30 years ago. He became Iowa House speaker after challenging an incumbent holding the gavel. He’ll have to decide “sooner than later” whether he’s willing to do it again.

“Every candidate has strengths and weaknesses. We saw that in the Republican caucus process,” Corbett said. “In the end, Iowans had a choice.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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