116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Terry Branstad took an unlikely path to becoming a living legend among Iowa Republicans.
Raised in a Democratic household near the Minnesota border, then immersed as a college student in one of Iowa's strongest liberal bastions during a time of anti-Vietnam war activism, he nonetheless found a conservative footing.
Branstad, whose political journey began in the 1960s when teachers inspired him to public service, became a devotee of Barry Goldwater-style conservatism. He pulled up his Democratic roots to throw in with University of Iowa Republicans, who were swimming against the political current on campus during the Vietnam War.
'I think he came to realize that given his positions, that he was much more in tune with the Republican Party than he was with the Democrats,' recalled Julian Garrett, a UI classmate who now is a GOP state senator from Indianola. 'He was clearly interested in politics. I think it was a fair assumption that even before he got there that he had been thinking about political things. I'm not surprised that he ran for office.'
Branstad credits Garrett with persuading him to attend a meeting where Chuck Grassley was speaking, telling him, ''You know, those Republicans aren't as bad as your folks told you.'' And the rest, as they say, is history.
'I've been an active Republican ever since,' Branstad said.
Branstad, 70, the farm boy-turned-political icon, is ending a nearly 22-year, five-month run as the longest-serving governor in U.S. history and turning the reins of state government over to his lieutenant, Kim Reynolds, to step on the international stage — assuming a new role as President Donald Trump's ambassador to China in an increasingly volatile part of the world. The U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on his confirmation.
He considers it his biggest challenge: dealing with a powerhouse nation of nearly 1.4 billion people after guiding a state whose count barely tops 3 million.
'It's been a great honor to serve the people of Iowa and to serve for such a long period of time,' said Branstad, whose stamp is evident from the statewide fiber-optic network linking schools, to giant windmills generating energy, to ethanol plants and fertilizer factories dotting the landscape, to the wallet-testing array of gambling options that he initially didn't push but eventually approved.
Stepping down near the middle of his sixth term as Iowa's chief executive, Branstad came full circle during a run spanning four decades that began with him taking office in 1983 as Iowa's youngest governor at age 36 and ending as its oldest.
Iowa Republicans, who engineered a contentious and remarkable conservative shift in direction for state government for Branstad's final legislative session, call him a living legend.
'This guy loves this state, and the people of Iowa understood that and respected it and as a result I think he was the most successful politician in the history of the state,' said Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer who served as Branstad's chief of staff and was the 2002 GOP gubernatorial candidate in Iowa.
'He embodies all those values that you think about when you think about particularly rural Iowa. But not only that, not only did he embody the values, but he lived them,' Gross said. 'He was always there when people needed him.'
Disgruntled Democrats and union workers, less enamored with Branstad's legacy, conjure other images.
'I will not shed a tear for his departure to China. He cannot leave soon enough as far as I am concerned,' said Danny Homan, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61 — the state's largest public employee union, which is challenging in court a law Branstad signed. 'It is unfortunate that he has done as much damage as he has done to this state in his second tenure as governor. I can't envision the good citizens of this state ever electing Terry Branstad to any public office again.'
After undergoing his political conversion at the UI, Branstad did a stint as a military policeman in the Army before returning to Iowa and setting his sights on law school, with a newly grown mustache and a budding interest in political office.
Gov. Terry Branstad: Political Career
His first break came when Iowa's post-1970 census reapportionment created a state House district with no incumbent in Winnebago County, where his family farmed.
Splitting time between going to law school in Des Moines and running for office in north-central Iowa, he began to pave his road to history by claiming his first victory in 1972 with that House seat — the first of what would become an unbeaten election streak that stretched to 2014 when he secured his record sixth term as governor.
'You could tell he was ambitious from the get go,' said Oelwein Democrat Don Avenson, Iowa's longest-serving Speaker of the House, who joined the Legislature the same year and lost to Branstad in the 1990 governor's race. Avenson, who was interviewed earlier this month for this article, died unexpectedly Friday at age 72 after suffering a heart attack.
Branstad's former Lake Mills law partner, Richard Schwarm, said in a 2014 interview it was no secret Branstad had gubernatorial ambitions early. That he got married, finished law school in Des Moines and embarked on a law practice in Lake Mills while running for the Legislature are testament to the dogged determination, self-discipline and work ethic he learned growing up in a Norwegian-American Lutheran farm family in Leland.
'We would drive down to Des Moines for law school and then drive back at night to campaign. He did that three days a week — like gee whiz,' his wife, Chris, said in a 2014 interview.
'He just got this political bug, I think probably in the eighth grade or sixth grade or something like that, and it just kind of drove him pretty much for the rest of his life,' said Mrs. Branstad, who met him on a blind date in October 1971.
Branstad was the first Reagan conservative to take control of government in Iowa, Gross noted, which made him somewhat of an insurgent among the GOP moderates who at the time backed Gov. Robert Ray. Branstad was not exactly Ray's favorite to succeed him.
'So he bucked the establishment, if you will, to become governor of Iowa,' Gross said. 'So that's something to always remember. That's always kind of infused in him.'
One of Branstad's toughest election contests came from within — a 1994 primary challenge from then-U. S. Rep. Fred Grandy, R-Sioux City, who criticized Branstad as 'the MasterCard governor' for fiscal missteps. He once called Branstad's appeal 'cryogenic politics: stick with me and we'll be frozen in time.' But Branstad had the last laugh — Grandy became one of the defeated in his election record.
Branstad established himself as a steady, tireless campaigner who visited all 99 Iowa counties every year and became a political tactician with a knack for deflecting criticism in a series of gubernatorial wins over Democrats Roxanne Conlin in 1982, Lowell Junkins in 1986, Avenon in 1990, Bonnie Campbell in 1994, Chet Culver in 2010 and Jack Hatch in 2014.
'He was everywhere doing everything,' said Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, who was first elected in 1972, the same year as Branstad. 'He was a good politician. He didn't seem radical, but he had positions that seemed more or less comfortable — but not that comfortable.'
Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford noted some have referred to Branstad as 'governor for life' due to his campaign prowess.
Former Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, joked that Democrats needed to stop running candidates with names Branstad could use in rhyming campaign attacks: junk-bond Junkins, don't gamble with Campbell or big-debt Chet.
'He was always able to make Iowans a little bit nervous about what the Democrat that was running against him might do,' Gronstal said.
But Avenson said it was more than that. Branstad used his money-raising ability to define his opponents early on in ways that created doubts in voters' minds. Then he backed that up with instincts, political skills, good timing and an element of luck.
'He has the ability to raise a lot of money and first and foremost that is his political advantage,' Avenson said. 'But he also loves campaigning and he's good at it. He goes to little small towns and the next time he shows up, he remembers your name. When you talk to him about such-and-such a person in Elkader, he knows his uncles and his cousins. I mean, he's really good at retail politics.'
Goldford recalls being at Branstad's headquarters the night he cemented his comeback by defeating Culver in 2010, marking the first time Iowans had unseated an incumbent governor since 1962.
'I think what thrills him above all else, other than the fact that he is a policy wonk, but the challenge and joys of electoral campaigning and victory — I think that has meant the world to him,' Goldford said. 'My impression as I watched him that night was he's in his particular version of heaven. There's no place that he would rather be.'
Former Branstad staffer and campaign strategist Tim Albrecht said he was honored when Branstad took him on to handle his email and social media duties as he re-entered the political arena after a 12-year hiatus. The governor was 'an icon' when he was growing up, Albrecht said, but also knew how to adapt to changing political currents.
'I think it's a testament that he recognized this was going to be a different campaign,' he said. 'Too often people want to run their last campaign. But instead, Terry Branstad was always forward looking.'
Avenson arrived at the Statehouse with Branstad in early 1973 among a class of 52 freshmen legislators. He recalled Branstad as a vocal, traditional business-oriented conservative who later became a pragmatist as governor.
Branstad, for instance, arrived fresh from the 1982 campaign trail to face myriad budget problems at the early stages of the state's worst farm debt crisis. Despite signing a pledge not to raise taxes, the first bill he signed raised the sales tax from 3 to 4 percent.
'I came in at a really bad time,' said Branstad, ticking off statistics of double-digit interest rates, plunging land values, mounting farm foreclosures and 38 bank closings. 'My first term was really a difficult, stressful time, especially in agriculture.'
Avenson agreed: 'Those were bad times. Farms were going under left and right; bankers were getting killed, beaten up, there was no security in the Capitol and there were angry farmers there every day.'
From day one, Branstad's mantra was economic development, diversification, educational opportunities and fiscal responsibility.
But, at the same time, Branstad — who has presided over 23 legislative sessions that include a pair of special sessions in 1987 and 1992 — understood the give-and-take of the governing process.
He had to deal with legislatures controlled by the opposition, or that were politically split between the two chambers.
He ended up signing four gas tax hikes and two sales tax increases, but also cut income taxes and made major conservative policy gains during three years Republicans controlled the General Assembly.
'The thing I know about Terry Branstad as governor while I served was that he was an absolute pragmatist,' Avenson said.
Perhaps at no time was that more evident than in his approach to gambling. Branstad twice vetoed legislation to create a state lottery. But after getting booed at a UI football game and other events, he signed the Legislature's third try in 1985 on the west steps of the state Capitol amid much fanfare.
Indeed, Iowa experienced an explosion of gambling options under Branstad, with his signature on bills permitting parimutuel horse and dog tracks and riverboat gambling that started as a low-stakes tourism draw but morphed into casino wagering that tops $1.3 billion a year.
'Frankly,' Gross said, 'I think what would happen is he would have this philosophical tug of war within him, between this ideological part of him that said 'small government at all costs' and then this other part of him that said, 'I love the state of Iowa and we need to get something done and we need to do something,' and usually the love of Iowa would win out — in most cases.'
Gronstal, who was a partisan counterweight for much of Branstad's tenure, viewed their shared time at the Statehouse as 'a tale of two Branstads' — one who was willing to seek common ground in the 1980s and early 1990s. and then later one who was much more partisan, unilateral and less compromising after he returned from the private sector to government work in 2011.
Gov. Terry Branstad: Governing
It was during the latter time the governor closed the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo and mental health institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, and turned the state's Medicaid program over to three private managed care insurers.
Branstad has put his signature on a wide-array of topics that affect Iowans' daily lives.
He signed two historic tax cuts, in 1997 and 2013, but also approved two sales tax increases, signed several increases in the state's cigarette tax and the fuel tax — most recently a 10-cent per gallon hike in 2015.
He also eliminated the inheritance tax for lineal descendants, phased out the sales tax on machinery and equipment, approve a first-of-its-kind biochemical production tax credit and led a massive reorganization of state government to cut the number of agencies from 68 to 24.
He also worked with lawmakers to end the state's retail liquor monopoly, sell state-owned liquor stores and set the legal age for drinking and gambling at 21.
He signed a mandatory seat belt law and three-tier graduated driver's license system for teens, but nixed a two-tiered motorcycle helmet law. He approved raising the speed limit on interstates to 65 mph — ending the 55 mph limit established in 1974 during the energy crisis.
He was a tireless supporter of renewable energy. His time in office produced the 1987 groundwater protection act, the 1989 Resource and Enhancement Program, the 1995 master matrix for siting large-scale commercial animal feeding operations and this decade's voluntary nutrient reduction strategy, focusing on improving water quality.
He promoted a three-phase teacher salary and performance program, created a statewide fiber optics network linking schools, signed bills covering open-enrollment and home-schooling, banned the use of corporal punishment and barred schools from starting classes before Sept. 1 but then agreed to roll that back to Aug. 23.
Other significant changes under Branstad's watch include raising the state minimum wage to $4.65 by 1992, outlawing assisted suicides, observing Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a state holiday, setting a $3 gift limit for elected officials, allowing limited medical use of cannabis oil, establishing drug-testing of private-sector employees, implementing a welfare overhaul, setting up the Hawk-i children's health program and banning cigarette sales from vending machines.
He signed a ban on late-term abortions, approved parental notification of teen abortions and most recently signed a 72-hour waiting period — which is being challenged in court — and a ban on abortion procedures after the 20th week of pregnancy.
He also signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1998 to ban same-sex marriages in Iowa, which was overruled in 2009 by the Iowa Supreme Court. Then he appointed three justices to replace those who voters ousted over their decision.
He also appointed scores of Iowa judges, issued a moratorium on farm foreclosures, declared drought, flood and bird-flu emergencies and aided in emergency efforts after United Airlines Flight 232 crashed at the Sioux City airport in 1989 with 296 aboard, killing 112.
In his final legislative session, he signed a major rewrite of Iowa's collective bargaining law for public employees — which also is being challenged in court — and approved workers' compensation benefit limits, agreed to expand gun rights and authorize 'stand your ground' lethal force, toughened distracted driving laws and agreed to legalize the limited sale and use of consumer fireworks.
On both sides of the political aisle, observers give his governing accomplishments somewhat mixed reviews.
His effort to increase Iowa teacher salaries to the national average got close but then fell off. The same was true for his initiative to make Iowa the healthiest state.
K-12 schools have not achieved world-class status with public education funding growing but at a slower pace. An effort to build from the bottom with an emphasis on elementary school reading skills came unraveled in the just-completed legislative session. Likewise, state universities became business incubators under Branstad's watch but ended with lackluster funding that likely will mean higher tuitions.
"I think he wanted to do dramatic things and important things on education, particularly as it relates to K-12, and wasn't able to do that and in many ways we fell behind. I think that's one of the sadder legacies as I see it of his term," Gross said.
Branstad proposed unsuccessfully to finance water quality improvements by diverting a share of future revenue now earmarked for school infrastructure but the idea failed to make a splash and he left that issue as a major topic for Reynolds. He also pushed for but was unable to reinstate a limited death penalty as a deterrent for heinous crimes against minors or law officers, and a brief effort to change Iowa's no-fault divorce law did not achieve traction.
Branstad did succeed in shrinking the size of state government in his later years, but the state general-fund budget still topped $7 billion under his watch and is projected to end the current fiscal year next month with a minuscule ending balance after borrowing from state reserves to balance the ledger.
Much of Branstad's focus has been a commitment to grow jobs and attract businesses to Iowa.
Gov. Terry Branstad: The Economy
He points with pride to the fact that Iowa's unemployment rate is hovering near 3 percent — lower than the national average — and his administration's economic recruitment efforts have secured more than $14.1 billion in capital investments since 2011 and likely to grow this year along with Iowa's $8 billion tourism industry.
During the Branstad era, Iowa has become home to high-tech data facilities for Microsoft, Facebook and Google to go along with a proliferation of meat- and-grain-processing facilities, ethanol and bioenergy plants, mega-fertilizer plants, wind farms, advanced manufacturing, insurance, financial and broadband services.
Branstad has crisscrossed the country on 'Sell Iowa' trips and has led Iowa trade missions around the world, including six to China since heading up a sister-state delegation to Hebei province there in 1984.
Lt. Gov. Reynolds, who has worked side-by-side with Branstad since 2010 who also counts China among the nations she has visited in leading trade sojourns, called him a 'servant leader,'
'The minute his feet hit the floor, he is thinking what he can do to make Iowa better,' said Reynolds, who plans to carry on his initiatives to expand manufacturing, upgrade STEM education and workforce skills, and recruit veterans and retain Iowa graduates for careers of the future.
Branstad credits getting rid of the sales tax on machinery and equipment with attracting companies like IPSCO Steel, Cedar River Paper Company, PMX and Cargill's soybean complex in Eddyville. And he believes Iowa's biochemical tax credit will help attract the next generation of bio-based advancements.
Detractors have criticized Branstad's focus on big business and corporate agriculture, investing too much in tax giveaways at the expense of other pressing needs.
But he said he believes limits on collective bargaining and workers' comp approved in the 2017 legislative session will build on momentum created by the 2013 tax cut, the biggest in the state's history.
'I feel I'm leaving the state in good shape,' Branstad said.
Gronstal, however, said the rightward swing of the political pendulum that Democrats feared and worked for years to thwart hit the Statehouse with a vengeance in 2017.
Branstad — who was governor from 1983 to 1999 and from 2011 to now — will leave office as the nation's longest-serving governor ever.
That record stood for over 200 years until he surpassed former New York Gov. George Clinton on his 7,642nd day in office on Dec. 14, 2015.
Jeff Kaufmann, a community college history instructor and chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, said Branstad is a 'once-in-a-lifetime leader' who has achieved legendary status as well as a permanent place in history.
'I'm a student of Iowa history and I've taught history for a quarter of a century,' Kaufmann noted. 'I don't know of another politician in this state that has had a greater influence and a greater impact on Iowa than Terry Branstad.'
Branstad said he's proud that Iowans supported him time and again but the important thing, he said, is what his administrations were able to achieve.
'I think revitalizing and diversifying the Iowa economy, rebuilding the (State) Historical Building, which we did, this Capitol building — we did the restoration under my first 16 years as governor, the (state) fairgrounds,' he said. 'I've been kind of the restoration governor that's kind of helped revitalize and restore the Iowa economy.'
Given that many states have adopted term limits for governors, Branstad expects his record may last a while.
Gov. Terry Branstad: Place in History
Gross said Branstad matched well with the people he governed and, while the governor ranks as 'the most extraordinary politician' in Iowa history, the skills he employed getting elected were merely a means to an end, and his ultimate contribution was steering Iowa through some challenging times.
'I think his most significant achievements are that he helped guide us through the farm crisis and he helped diversify our economy in a way that makes us stronger long-term and as a result of that really reversed a century-long trend of declining population for the whole state,' he said. 'I think that's a pretty significant achievement.'
Much of Branstad's longevity in office can be attributed to his personal touch with Iowans, whether it was showing up for ribbon cuttings, marching in parades, signing autographs, posing for photos or issuing proclamations.
'I've always been a people person. I go to every county every year. I enjoy that. That kind of stuff I find to be fun and it really worked,' he said. Even now, Branstad occasionally eats lunch in the Capitol and works the tables of lobbyists or visitors congregating in the rotunda for tours.
Gov. Terry Branstad: Personal Touch
'Work hard — those two four-letter words that will never get you in trouble,' said Branstad, who also said it helps to have a positive attitude, set realistic goals, look for opportunities and maintain personal contact with people.
It was that welcoming attitude at play in 1985 when Xi Jinping, then a Hebei provincial official and director of the Shijiazhuang prefecture feed association, visited Iowa as part of a sister state/province program and met Branstad during an event at the Capitol.
That simple act blossomed into an international friendship that now has Branstad perched at the start of what he calls 'the opportunity of a lifetime' as ambassador to China.
'All of his good luck has come the old-fashioned way — luck is a residue of hard work,' said Susan Neely, who worked for Branstad on his first campaign and served as his communications director and 1986 campaign manager.
'He's tried to do the right thing. He is gracious and welcoming to people — like President Xi in 1985 — just because that's the Iowa way and it's nice to see good things come as a result of doing things the right way,' added Neely, who now serves as chief executive of the Washington-based American Beverage Association.
That view, though, is not universally shared.
Many of the Capitol visitors have been people upset with his support for corporate 'factory farms' or Iowans displeased with what they view as an anti-worker mood in the Capitol, spearheaded by a governor whose opposition to collective bargaining and unions dates to his early days in the Legislature.
Avenson said the 'bad blood' has roots in Branstad's refusal to fund an arbitrator's binding wage award to the largest public employees' union in the early 1990s, which was upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court and took two special legislative sessions in 1992 to finally sort out.
Gronstal said Branstad seemed 'enthralled' by the efforts of Republican Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey to weaken public collective bargaining laws and average people's voice in the workplace.
AFSCME's Homan contends Branstad's legacy will be remembered as attacking workers, lowering their standard of living and leading 'a race to the bottom.'
'We had 12 good years between Branstad 1 and Branstad 2 where people in this state got a fair shake,' Homan said. 'His goal is to take away every right from every employee in this state.'
David Oman, a former GOP state chairman who served as an aide to both Ray and Branstad, said Trump's choice of Branstad to be his ambassador to China represents 'the capstone' for the governor's career and is a well-deserved honor.
For his part, Schwarm said he was not surprised by Branstad's rise as a political star — but he was surprised that his conservative friend became a close associate of one of the world's most-powerful Communists.
Gov. Terry Branstad - Next Stop: China
'I'm approaching this with eyes wide open,' said Branstad, who jokingly tells people he sees at the Capitol to come visit him in China. 'It's probably the biggest challenge I've ever had in my lifetime, but I'm in a unique situation since I'm an old friend of the leader of China and a confidante of the president of the United States.
'I'm hopeful that I can play a key role in helping address some of those critical challenges that we have in dealing with China and some of the issues with North Korea and all those others in that part of the world,' he said.
Goldford noted that foreign policy and diplomacy increasingly are run out the State Department and the White House, and ambassadors tend to be messengers from the White House or people who deal with day-to-day routines.
Branstad does bring a unique arrangement with him to his new role, Goldford said, 'but the Chinese are pretty hard headed when it comes to their politics and their foreign relations.
'They're pretty much foreign policy realists and I would be shocked if in fact they refrained from doing something they saw as their national interest because they were concerned about upsetting their dear friend Terry Branstad,' he said 'In other words, I don't think they're going to do something or not do something simply because of a friendship with Gov. Branstad if the issue in question is important enough to them.'
When his tenure in China is over, the outgoing governor said he will return to Iowa. In typical Branstad style, he did not limit his future endeavors — including another run for governor.
'I'm 70 years old. I look at this as probably the capstone of my career. I want to do the best I can there,' he said at the close of an interview. 'But I feel good, I'm trying to stay in good health and I guess you never want to rule anything out. But I'm certainly not contemplating doing something like that.'