Senate refuses to confirm two Board of Regent appointees

Cramer's bid for the board and Lang's reappointment were both denied

DES MOINES – Two of Gov. Terry Branstad’s picks to serve on the state Board of Regents for the next six years were turned down for their appointments by the Iowa Senate on Monday.

A contentious floor debate over Brooklyn dairy farmer Craig Lang’s reappointment as board president and Branstad’s selection of construction company executive Robert Cramer of Grimes ended when Democrats who hold a 26-24 Senate majority failed to deliver the 34 affirmative votes needed to confirm gubernatorial nominees.

Lang’s nomination failed on a 30-20 vote, while Cramer lost by a 27-23 margin. Webster City physician Subhash Sahai, the governor’s third nominee to the regents, did win confirmation on a 45-5 vote.

Immediately after Monday’s vote, Branstad issued a statement condemning the Senate action.

“Both Robert and Craig answered the call to public service, and they both deserved the opportunity to serve on the Board of Regents. Craig Lang showed great leadership while on the Board of Regents and Robert Cramer brought unique experience in the construction industry,” the governor said. “I am greatly disappointed that these two fine individuals were treated in such a shabby manner.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said every senator takes seriously the responsibility to review the qualifications of gubernatorial appointees and determine whether they should be confirmed. He noted that for the third straight year, the Democratic-led Senate has approved 99 percent of Branstad’s nominees.

“The few appointees that failed to be confirmed received serious, substantial consideration and their non-confirmation came after concerns were addressed in a professional manner,” Gronstal said in a statement. “Gov. Branstad’s repeated cries that “Washington-style politics” led to the defeat of a tiny number of his appointees is ridiculous and historically inaccurate.”

Lang, whose current term expires April 30, was diplomatic in his reaction to the Senate’s rejection of his reappointment, saying he respected the decision and -- while disappointed with the results -- he thanked the senators for their stewardship and “productive conversations.” He thanked fellow regents, staff, the governor and others for their efforts during his six-year stint on the board and said he is proud of the accomplishments that occurred while he was a regent.

However, Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock decried the verdicts for Lang and Cramer.

“It is truly sad that this happened to two qualified and competent candidates. This take-down was completely unnecessary,” Dix said after the regent votes. “Senate Democrats played politics today and focused on the nominees’ personal convictions, which have little to do with their ability to serve.

“This all comes back to the dust-up over Iowa State University and the Harkin Institute,” he added. “I hope that moving forward this does not happen again. As legislators, we need to set a better example and work more constructively to settle our differences.”

However, Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, noted that Democrats have approved virtually all of Branstad’s selections to state boards and commissions this session, and previously had confirmed Lang as an appointment of former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver six years ago.

“Based on his record, I think we can do better,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, who floor managed Lang’s nomination.

On Cramer’s confirmation, Quirmbach said he did not believe Cramer would bring a welcoming view of academic freedom to the board that oversees the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.

However, Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, expressed concern that majority Democrats were being intolerant in defeating the nomination of an appointee who “has great qualifications” but has faith beliefs and values that differ from theirs.

Dix decried what he viewed as the “politicizing” of the confirmation process by engaging in personal attacks and applying a “political litmus test” that is inappropriate – contentions that Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, dismissed as inaccurate. Hogg said he did not want to put someone on the Board of Regents who would “discriminate against gays and lesbians.”

For his part, Branstad maintained a strong vote of confidence for his three regent appointees throughout the confirmation process, including penning a letter and having it delivered to all 50 members of the Iowa Senate, expressing support for his nominees to the Board of Regents.

Bob Downer, a regent member from Iowa City, said a number of controversies cropped up in the past several years that affected the regents. He pointed to the board vote two years ago to create the Harkin Institute at ISU, which “has seemed to be an issue that would not go away. I think that’s unfortunate.”

“I have felt that the matter should have been left where it was decided in April of 2011 and that we should have moved on,” Downer said. “That doesn’t seem to have happened on that particular issue, and that has particularly driven a fair amount of what has gone on since.”

Regent Katie Mulholland, of Marion, said it was tough to hear about the Senate’s rejection of Lang because it’s a volunteer board that requires many hours of effort, especially from the board president.

“I feel bad that that service wasn’t recognized and the willingness to work with people and find middle ground,” Mulholland said. “I just feel bad because I think Craig did a nice job of coalescing the board through a rocky time. He has always been focused on what would be best for the students.”

Lang, a former Iowa Farm Bureau president, drew considerable scrutiny from majority Democrats over the regents’ handling of the ill-fated Harkin Institute at Iowa State University during a time when he led the nine-member panel. Concerns over academic freedom led U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to decide in January that he would not leave his professional papers from four decades in Congress with his alma mater, Iowa State University.

Senate Democrats also expressed concern over the way the regents’ panel has handled a contract extension for University of Iowa President Sally Mason and the heightened influence of politics on the board that oversees Iowa’s three public universities and two special schools.

During a Senate hearing last month, Lang assured state senators that ISU and the regents are committed to maintaining academic freedom of its scientifically based research, and he said comments he made that ISU should speak with “one voice” on agriculture issues were misconstrued by the media.

Lang, who admitted to having made mistakes during his regent tenure, told senators he was pleased that the board was able to freeze tuition for in-state students, succeeded in convincing lawmakers to increase state funding at universities, and conducted successful searches for new presidents at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa during his time as a regent.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Cramer came under pointed criticism about his past actions as a member of the Johnston School Board and his association with a group that successfully defeated the 2010 retention of three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were part of a landmark court decision that paved the way for same-sex marriages in Iowa.

Cramer, president and CEO of Cramer and Associates, contended that his social conservative activism had been “blown out of proportion” in opposition emails designed to “smear” his reputation. He said he expected to bring an attitude of tolerance and academic freedom to his new post if he was confirmed as a regent.

Cramer said he has experience as a consensus builder and his preference would be to keep politics and social issues away from the university oversight board. He hoped his expertise in the construction field would be an asset at a time when the University of Iowa is gearing up for $1.3 billion in flood-related building improvements.

--- Diane Heldt of The Gazette contributed to this story.

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