Fred Hubbell: 'Live more purposefully' Democrat says he's no politician, but learned leadership

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell talks March 9 with Kirkwood Community College staff after a tour. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell talks March 9 with Kirkwood Community College staff after a tour. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Fred Hubbell is working to make the most of his “second chance.”

The survivor of a harrowing hostage ordeal that confronted him and his wife, Charlotte, half way around the world in 1981, Hubbell has spent the ensuing years working, volunteering and contributing in ways that have served Iowa.

Now, at 67, the Des Moines business executive born into one of Iowa’s richest and most-influential families has set his sights on becoming the next occupant of the governor’s Terrace Hill mansion — an iconic residence the Hubbell family had donated to the state in 1971.

More at home in business settings than campaign venues, Hubbell is trying to step out from the shadows of being a backer of other candidates and taking on the unfamiliar role of being a self-promoter.

“I’m not a politician. I never have been, but I do have the leadership experience to bring people together and get results,” explained Hubbell, a progressive Democrat who is making his first bid for public office by challenging Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds on Nov. 6.


On the campaign trail, Hubbell is relaxed, easy going and soft-spoken.

Casually dressed, he is at ease in small-group settings, talking to Iowans about their concerns and doing what associates say he does best — listening and being inclusive. Those are welcomed traits, his backers say, after years of unilateral and backroom decision-making by the GOP on changes like converting Medicaid to privately managed care, closing mental-health institutions, revamping public collective bargaining and workers’ compensation laws, overhauling tax policy, nixing local minimum-wage increases and redirecting women’s health care.

During a recent campaign stop in Marshalltown, Bert Permar told him, “I’ve got a friend who didn’t support you because you’re a wealthy man and he didn’t want to have another Trump.”

“I don’t blame him. I don’t either,” Hubbell replied.

“I said you could turn out to be a Franklin Roosevelt,” said Permar.


Close associates say Hubbell would bring the kind of leadership, direction and consensus building to state government absent at the Statehouse since a GOP takeover after the 2016 election.


And, those who know him best say the former head of Equitable and Younkers is way different from the dark images of him being perpetuated in attack ads airing in a high-stakes midterm election cycle.

“That just could not be further from the truth,” said Arnold Engman, a commercial broker in Des Moines who has known the Hubbell family since grade school.

“He’s really a smart person and a very kind person and I think that combination is what we need right now,” Engman noted. “He’s compassionate, but he’s also extremely well-organized. I think he’s got really good, core values and I think that probably helps guide him.

“If you met him on the street, you would never know he’s from a wealthy family or personally so successful in business. He can speak to a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or he could be speaking to somebody who works in a factory and he treats them the same,” said Engman.

Though from a wealthy background, Hubbell said his parents raised their children to be involved, ethical and active in the community. He said he grew up riding his bike to school, playing hockey and ice-skating at a neighborhood pond, playing Little League and backyard sports, helping out a friend on his paper route, and heading west in the family car for vacations.

“My parents didn’t raise us to be any different than anybody else,” he said. “They raised us to be well-grounded and just normal people.”

Wayne Ford, a former state representative and founder of the Urban Dreams nonprofit in Des Moines, said he was impressed by Hubbell and his father after first establishing a relationship with the elder Hubbell through the Hawley Foundation — a major contributor to the inner-city social services and community organization.

“I just remember the sincerity,” said Ford, now retired. “The look they gave me. I didn’t see a color line. I didn’t see anything. They supported me.”


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Ford said Urban Dreams faced some tough times since its inception in 1985 but has managed to “weather the storm” in great part to the backing of the Hubbell family.

“I consider Fred a brother, to be candid with you,” said Ford.

Steve Jennings, then the Simpson College president when Hubbell was on the Indianola private college’s board, said Hubbell studied the issues, got faculty and student input and knew what questions to ask.


“I’ve always thought he was smart and evenhanded. I liked that about him. He’d be first-rate as governor,” said Jennings, who has known him for three decades.

A fifth generation Iowan dating to F.M. Hubbell, who in the mid-1800s built a lucrative law practice and a business empire based on real estate, insurance and railroads, Fred Hubbell studied at the University of North Carolina before securing a law degree from the University of Iowa — where he met his wife now of 42 years, Charlotte, of New Orleans, in a property law class.

“She had a different background,” said Hubbell. “I was already a progressive Democrat from my college days and so was she. We liked the same kind of music and we liked to have a good time but pay attention in school. So we got along well.”

After practicing law in New York for about five years, the Hubbells returned to Iowa where Fred eventually took a leadership role at Equitable of Iowa Companies, which also owned the Younkers chain of department stores.

He was recruited to be in charge of strategic planning and eventually be chairman at Younkers, which was struggling financially due to a farm credit crisis gripping the Midwest in the mid-1980s. After a four-month executive education program at Harvard focusing on case-method studies, he stepped into his first major management role.

“I’d never managed more than a few people and they had several thousand employees. That was a big surprise and a big challenge,” he said. He spent time traveling to Younkers’ 26 stores in five states, he said, mostly listening.

“I learned quickly that the people in the stores knew a lot more about the business than I did or some of the executives did because they lived with the customers and they lived with the merchandise every day,” he said. Under his guidance, Younkers more than doubled annual sales.

From there, Hubbell was put in charge of Equitable in 1987, which had a stable but stagnant insurance business. By offering new products and new market approaches, the business began to flourish until being acquired by a Dutch company later.

Hubbell retired but said the experiences of helping turn around a struggling operation and jump-starting a business that was successful but stalled has prepared him for the challenges he would face as governor in revamping a privately managed Medicaid system and redirecting state resources going toward corporate tax breaks into more-productive and needed priorities.

Hubbell said he got a good look at the workings of government as leader of the Iowa Power Fund and interim director of the Department of Economic Development when he was in charge of cleaning up Iowa’s film tax credit scandal.

He said his recruiting abilities and leadership qualities will be an asset in overseeing state finances and recrafting a Medicaid enterprise he said is currently focused on profits for out-of-state companies at the expense of Iowa providers and Medicaid members.

“He’s very good at making decisions,” said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who worked with Hubbell on the film tax credit scandal and has been a neighbor in Hubbell’s Des Moines neighborhood for about 35 years. “He would listen, he would analyze it and then he would make a decision and a good decision.”


Hubbell said his quiet resolve probably is an outgrowth of his experience sitting in a parked jetliner in Pakistan when hijackers stormed it with hand grenades and automatic weapons and ordered the 116 people aboard to surrender passports — including himself, his wife and three other Americans.

During the ordeal, the plane was diverted to Afghanistan and then Syria by three armed hijackers, who at one point shot a Pakistani diplomat a few feet from the Hubbells and tossed his body from the plane.


“We didn’t know if any moment was going to be our last moment on that plane,” said Hubbell, who was 30 at the time. Luckily, his wife was released after six days and he spent a total of 13 days as a hostage before he and the remaining passengers were released.

“There was not much to occupy my time but my own thoughts,” Hubbell said. “So I sat there and I thought, I thought about how I would do more, live more purposefully if I got a second chance at life.”

Ford said he never talked about the hostage ordeal with Hubbell but saw the aftereffects one night when he offered to walk Hubbell to his car after a meeting at Urban Dreams in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Des Moines.

“Fred looked at me dead in the eye and said, ‘Wayne, I can take care of myself,’” Ford said.

Hubbell has brought his no-fear approach to the political arena these day, facing a barrage of attack ads and Republican name calling.

Republican Party of Iowa officials have blistered Hubbell with a litany of monikers, including Sir Frederick, Far-Left Fred, Fantasy Fred, #PhonyFred, Hollywood Hubbell, Hubbell Trouble, Des Moines liberal and the launch of three websites:, and

“We have some catchy nicknames to show his arrogance,” said state party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “I don’t think it’s throwing mud saying that Fred Hubbell is arrogant and Fred Hubbell is aloof. This doesn’t have anything to do with Fred Hubbell’s wealth, what we’re saying about him. It has to do with his attitude. We celebrate entrepreneurship.”

Kaufmann said his party has gone after Hubbell for untruths about his tenure at Younkers and for not releasing more specifics of his tax returns “because he’s got his nose up at the trough of tax credits and taking it in” while criticizing them as giveaways.


The GOP chairman said Hubbell has been running “an Iowa sucks campaign” along with TV commercials showing dark images of Reynolds “and saying that she’s mismanaged the budget when we’ve got a surplus. If Kim Reynolds is throwing a little mud, he’s throwing an avalanche of earth and soil and dirt on her. Is she standing up for what she believes? You bet she is.”

But political scientists say the 2018 midterm in Iowa poses problems for Republicans who rallied around billionaire Donald Trump in 2016.

“Two years ago being an elitist was a sign of success. Rich people shouldn’t have to release their tax returns if they don’t want to and this year, well, they do,” said David Andersen, an Iowa State University assistant political science professor.

Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said Hubbell is running on the theme of policy and leadership while Reynolds is running “basically as (Joni) Ernst 2.0 — in other words I’m a good Iowa girl with good country values. She’s running as everybody’s kid sister that you want to go shopping for you because she’ll get the best bargains.”

But Andersen raised a caution flag that campaign imaging can carry unintended messages.

“Touting a low-level job at Younkers is smart because most Iowans can relate to that. It resonates with them, it’s personable,” he said. “But using that as credentials to run the state, I don’t think that works very well.”

Fred Hubbell

Age: 67

Political Party: Democrat

Family: Charlotte, wife (m: 1976): three children

Education: University of North Carolina, bachelor of arts degree; University of Iowa College of Law, law degree; Harvard Graduate School of Business Program for Management Development, certificate program

Professional: chairman, Younkers retail department stores; president, Equitable of Iowa; chairman, Iowa; Power Fund Board; interim director, Iowa Department of Economic Development; served on numerous educational and nonprofit boards of directors


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