Tax issues can tax a campaign

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So I was a sixth-grade Republican in 1982, with a Branstad bumper sticker on my Trapper Keeper.

It was the first gubernatorial election I cared much about. Then-Lt. Gov. Terry Branstad once spoke at a graduation ceremony in my hometown, so naturally, I supported him.

When a classmate with more Democratic leanings panned my sticker choice, the retort was easy. Roxanne Conlin doesn’t even pay taxes. Everybody knows that. Making friends with my political opinions, even back then.

Conlin was the Democratic nominee that year, a former U.S. attorney who looked like a decent bet to be Iowa’s first female governor. That is, until July 1, 1982, when she released a financial disclosure showing Conlin and her husband paid no state income taxes in 1981, despite their $2.2 million net worth. Her husband’s real estate business suffered losses, offsetting income tax liability.

Of course, the Trapper Keeper in my mind opened this week as we learned Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump’s 1995 New York state tax return reveals a $916 million loss that may have allowed him to skip paying income taxes for years.

So a candidate running to break Iowa’s gubernatorial glass ceiling was undone by a tax issue. Now, a candidate trying to stop Democrat Hillary Clinton from breaking into the presidency is being damaged by a similar problem, though much larger in scope.

In 1982, according to The Gazette’s archives, Branstad was “shocked.” In 2016, less so.

“My feeling is we ought to be focusing on the issues. We ought to be focusing on what can be done to make America competitive again,” Branstad told reporters asking about Trump’s troubles. “That’s what the American people want to talk about, not all these personal things.”

Branstad insists it actually makes Trump the perfect candidate to fix flaws in the tax system.

That’s very close to arguments made by Conlin, who called the tax disclosure a “phony issue” and a “smoke screen” to obscure real issues. The problem for Conlin was, less than a month before her disclosure, she gave a blistering speech to the Democratic state convention assailing Republicans as the “party of privilege” with bankrolls and tax shelters. Oops.

Conlin insisted her experience would help her reform the tax system. “It seems to me that the opposite of hypocrisy is to call for reform in areas that will affect you personally,” Conlin said in July 1982.

Branstad played up his own “modest means.” Gov. Robert Ray called Conlin a “hypocrite.” There were “Taxanne” bumper stickers and “I paid more taxes than Roxanne” buttons. Republicans demanded Conlin release more tax records. Conlin’s springtime lead in the polls over Branstad evaporated. So did her fundraising, according to news accounts.

Branstad won easily. The Gazette’s longtime political reporter Ken Sullivan asked Democrats for their take on what happened.

“Taxes, taxes, taxes,” said then-Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Dave Nagle. As Conlin lost, Democrats took control of the Legislature.

So take heart, governor. And if Trump loses, his tax shuffle will hardly be the only reason.

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