116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
I remember the days when nobody viewed the position of state auditor in Iowa as a launchpad for future political stars. Until the last election, the keys to the state auditor’s office had changed hands only four times in 52 years. Even the office of the governor, to which Robert Ray and Terry Branstad were elected for a combined eleven terms, saw more turnover in the same period of time.
But in 2018, a young lawyer named Rob Sand set his sights on the auditor’s race. He brought with him unprecedented amounts of cash, totaling over $1.75 million, outraising the incumbent by more than a 10 to one ratio. The majority of that cash ($1,055,000) came from his wife and her wealthy family. Some of it came via smaller contributions from Iowans who aren’t in the market for a yacht, and a sizable amount came from coastal metropolitan areas.
What is it about a race for state auditor in Iowa (that’s the state with the corn, not the potatoes, thank you,) that has people such as a film producer in New York City, a wealthy retired widow from Atlanta, a motivational speaker from California and a Homeland Security officer in Washington, D.C. forking over thousands of dollars for their candidate?
Nothing, probably. They’re not focused on the regulatory compliance matters of our flyover state. They’re focused on the candidate — a bold, fresh-faced power player capable of delivering big wins nationally for Democrats in the future.
So the position of state auditor, which he won handily with his brimming war chest, is likely just the first step in what Sand intends to be an illustrious political career. What’s next for the confident, collected public official? After ruling out a Senate run, Sand confirmed that he is considering challenging Gov. Kim Reynolds in 2022.
This helps explain why Sand has utilized his office to vociferously criticize Reynolds at every turn. One shouldn’t be surprised by this. To quote a local GOP activist: “Politicians gonna politic.”
Rob Sand is good at politicking. Some of my fellow Republicans would cringe to hear me admit that, but no respectable political organizer or journalist can deny that the charismatic Sand, with his deer hunting bow in one hand and a slice of breakfast pizza in the other, has built an audience — even if much of that audience is on Twitter. He’s also not afraid to brazenly self-promote.
“When I asked Rob Sand … if he could recommend fascinating Iowans to profile,” wrote the New York Times’ Sydney Ember, two months before the 2020 Iowa caucuses, “he suggested himself.”
But Auditor Sand’s latest act of self-promotion seems to have backfired.
On June 3, Sand released a report of a “Special Investigation” accusing Reynolds of violating Iowa law by using her name, voice and image in a television advertisement as part of the “Step Up, Stop the Spread” media campaign encouraging Iowans to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus by wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
The report claimed that by utilizing her image as governor in the commercial, which was paid for with funds from the federal CARES Act, Reynolds was in violation of Iowa Code Section 68A.405A.
The law in question states that a statewide elected official or member of the General Assembly is prohibited from using public funds on any kind of ad or promotional material which bears either their name, likeness or voice. Because Reynolds was the one who signed the law in 2018, Sand claimed in the report that her participation was not just a violation, but a “willful” one.
But Reynolds’ office responded quickly to Sand’s accusation by pointing out a key detail that he missed.
Not a peep was heard U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, arguably the most recognizable name among Iowa Democrats. Of course, he appeared in the same video as Reynolds, so one could assume he didn’t see a problem with it.
“The auditor’s report ignores the opening clause: ‘Except as provided in sections 29C.3 and 29C.6,’” read a statement released by Reynolds’ office the same day Sand’s report was released. “That is a significant error, as 29C.6 relates to the powers and authority of the Governor during a public health disaster emergency.”
In other words, Reynolds was acting well within the law under the existing public health disaster declaration to appear in a taxpayer-funded public service announcement encouraging Iowans to slow the spread of coronavirus. Last time I checked, COVID-19 constitutes a public health disaster.
Glossing over that part of the law was a serious failure on Sand’s part. Failing to direct any inquiries to the office of the governor exacerbated that failure.
“Auditor Sand didn’t once ask to meet with our team regarding his concern or his investigation. If he had, we would have pointed him to this essential part of the law that he clearly missed,” said Reynolds Chief of Staff Sara Craig in a news release.
While Sand would dig in and defend his actions, his peers were eerily silent. No statements were noted from Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls or the since-defrocked House Minority Leader Todd Prichard. Other prominent Iowa Democrats such as former U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer remained mum. Not a peep was heard U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, arguably the most recognizable name among Iowa Democrats. Of course, he appeared in the same video as Reynolds, so one could assume he didn’t see a problem with it.
While not looking to hang Sand out to dry for his faux pas, some Democrats even appeared to push back on the claims in his report. “My non-lawyer’s reading of the relevant statutes aligns with the governor’s interpretation,” wrote Laura Belin of the liberal online publication Bleeding Heartland.
With its political motivations obvious, Sand’s report accusing Reynolds of a serious misdemeanor has mostly run out of steam, kept alive only by a few puffs along the trail of public appearances Sand is currently making.
I doubt Sand be as quick to pull his next hasty political stunt. But the battle lines have been drawn. While the gubernatorial election may be almost a year and half away, the campaigns are clearly in full swing.
In the meantime, if Sand remains hellbent on hunting down public officials who are using taxpayer resources to promote their own images, he might discover his next target by looking in a mirror.
Althea Cole is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org