Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett tells me he’s already sent out 400 copies of his book “Beyond Promises,” mostly to legislators, Republican Party leaders and media types.
One landed on my desk. Inside, Corbett wrote “Hope you enjoy the book. You might even remember some of the stories.”
Its true, I do remember. I covered him for a few years as Iowa House speaker in the late 1990s and have been around these parts for his entire time as mayor. I’ve written reams about the guy. I once dubbed his first-term Cedar Rapids City Council allies the “Ron Squad.” So clever.
But do you think he mentioned any of it in his book? Nope. So typical.
I know this because I read it cover to cover. Did I enjoy it? Actually, I would have enjoyed the mayor yanking back the curtain, revealing stunning, unknown details and dishing behind-the-scenes dirt. But this is a campaign book, a political pitch, intended to introduce Corbett to Iowans as he contemplates running for governor. “Beyond Promises” has a mission, and it’s not to deliver shock and awe.
It’s the first such book I can recall coming from a gubernatorial aspirant. Corbett is formally launching the book, written with former longtime Gazette city hall reporter Rick Smith, at an “Oprah-style” interview session Monday at the Cedar Rapids Public Library downtown. Then comes a book tour, book clubs, etc.
A month from now, he’ll probably be running for governor.
Smith is the deft scribe, but “Beyond Promises” clearly is in Corbett’s voice. It’s akin to a 200-plus page State of the City address, laden with anecdotes, recollections and lessons learned. Its first chapter, describing the city’s rapid response to last fall’s flood, recalls portions of Corbett’s final address in February. At no point, however, does the mayor break into “Sweet Home Cedar Rapids.”
But mostly, the guy who describes selling bumper stickers in high school, magazines in college and Peppy’s ice cream is making a sales pitch.
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He’s an ideas guy. He’s got a think tank. He sketched out the Growth Reinvestment Initiative, which eventually provided crucial state funding for Cedar Rapids flood protection, on a steakhouse napkin. Inspiration for creating the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund was sparked playing laser tag. The “Fifteen in Five” initiative pushing local quality of life projects? It came to him in a bed-and-breakfast in France.
Get this guy into a French laser steakhouse and no telling what might happen.
He insists he has the skills and tenacity to make his ideas happen. Much of the book is devoted to war stories from the Legislature, the Chamber of Commerce, where he served as president, and city hall. Corbett contends he’s a consensus builder who knows how to sell, when to push and when to retreat.
He devotes two entire chapters to a pair of clashes with Gov. Terry Branstad, even as the mayor describes them as kindred “common-sense conservatives.” One fight was over education reform during the 1998 legislative session, the last time the GOP held the Statehouse trifecta, and the other over project labor agreements on flood recovery projects in 2011.
Corbett won in 1998 but had to back down in 2011. Perhaps a 2018 primary against Branstad’s handpicked heir, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, will be the rubber match.
Corbett addresses gubernatorial campaign criticisms he knows are coming. He devotes a chapter to his work with local labor unions, emphasizing that Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump also appealed to working class union voters. To those who might argue he’s some squishy moderate or RINO, he makes multiple references to his support of home schooling, abortion restrictions and the state’s Defense of Marriage Act. If his stance on marriage has changed, he’s not sharing.
And if that’s too conservative, Corbett supports raising the sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund for water quality. Those license plates that fund the Resource Enhancement and Protection program, or REAP, were his idea. Heck, as a young lawmaker he successfully banned Styrofoam cups in the House and lobbied for the addition of changing tables to restrooms.
“In a broader sense, I’ve never thought of myself as an unbending ideologue,” Corbett writes.
The book is full of Corbett’s recollections about growing up, first in Pennsylvania, then in Newton, Iowa. “Ronnie Joe,” as he was nicknamed, checks off all of the Norman Rockwell boxes, humble beginnings, hardworking parents, Little League, altar boy, pennies on train tacks and a first kiss from Renee Rickard. She swore not to tell, but then ran around yelling “I kissed Ronnie Corbett.” A lesson for dealing with the press, perhaps.
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Ronnie Joe was only nickname one. An uncle dubbed him “Chubb” because, you guessed it, he was chubby. In Newton, because he kept messing up his layups in basketball, he was dubbed “Wong,” a combo of Ron and wrong. The Reynolds campaign is taking notes.
And there’s football. Lots of football. Corbett played for Newton in its powerhouse heyday and made it to the state title game. He played at Morningside in Sioux City (Attention northwest Iowa voters) and at Cornell, where he still holds a rushing record. He filled out paperwork hoping for a shot with the Dallas Cowboys and L.A. Express of the old USFL. Makes believing he can be governor look downright rational.
But this is no tell-all tome. He devotes a chapter to how he met his wife, Benedicte, on a trip to France, notes they divorced in 2014 and says they remain friends, but there’s no explanation of the split. Late in the book, Corbett announces he’s engaged to be married later this year to Carrie Kennedy, an IT professional from Cedar Rapids.
He recounts his mother’s struggle with addiction to crack cocaine while she was working as a nurse in Washington, D.C., and how it made news while he was speaker.
Corbett does openly admit embellishing the story of a one-punch fight he lost as a kid. Gotcha.
“In political speech after political speech it was my fish story. Each time my glasses got thicker, the punch quicker and harder and the blood redder in the snow,” Corbett writes.
I can see the TV attack ads now. One punch Corbett. Wrong for Iowa.
Near the end of the book, the ideas guy correctly points out Iowa “hasn’t had a robust discussion of issues for nearly a decade.” The 2010 gubernatorial campaign largely was about then-Gov. Chet Culver’s managerial competence. The 2014 race was so lopsided, Branstad won easily without having much of an agenda at all. I’d also add recent legislative campaigns based mainly on fluff and fog.
“Beyond Promises” seems to be Corbett’s promise to not let that happen again.
“People tell me it would be an uphill battle to run against someone in my own political party who is already in the governor’s office. But what worth doing isn’t an uphill climb?” Corbett writes.
I agree with the mayor that it’s high time Iowa had a real campaign about competing ideas, instead of a another battle dictated by fake news, incessant polls and shady ads paid for with dark money. I’m not sure Corbett, or anyone, can make it happen. Not even a think tank can fill our empty politics.
But let’s fire up the lasers, get this guy to a steakhouse and find out.
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