Government

Branstad rejects claim he pressured gay official

Former GOP governor testifies he supports same-sex marriage

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testifies Friday in a Polk County courtroom. He is named in a lawsuit brought by a former state employee who asserts that Branstad wanted him out because the employee is gay. (Pool photo by Bryon Houlgrave/Des Moines Register)
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testifies Friday in a Polk County courtroom. He is named in a lawsuit brought by a former state employee who asserts that Branstad wanted him out because the employee is gay. (Pool photo by Bryon Houlgrave/Des Moines Register)

DES MOINES — Former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad sat in the witness chair in a Des Moines courtroom for nearly six hours Friday and forcefully rejected allegations he tried to force a state administrator to resign seven years ago because the official is gay.

“I was raised by a Jewish mother who was very sensitive to discrimination and she taught me to treat everyone with respect and dignity,” Branstad testified. “ … That’s the way I’ve always operated. I’ve never worried about what somebody’s sexual orientation was.”

Christopher Godfrey, who is gay, was the state workers’ compensation commissioner in 2011 when Branstad returned to the governor’s office after a 12-year hiatus.

Branstad asked Godfrey to resign, then cut his pay by a third when Godfrey refused. Godfrey filed a wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuit in 2012 and the case has gone to trial before a jury this month.

Branstad admitted under questioning from Godfrey’s attorney, Paige Fielder, that same-sex marriage was a political flashpoint in 2010. But he said he “didn’t know” the Iowa GOP’s platform called for repealing a state law that provided legal protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual Iowans.

“I’ve never had any objection to protecting people … that are gay … from being mistreated or discriminated against because of their sexual preference,” he testified.

Branstad told the jury he did not want prominent Christian conservative Bob Vander Plaats as his running mate in 2010 because banning same-sex marriage would have been the focal point of the campaign. Branstad, late in the day, suggested public attitudes about same-sex marriage have evolved.

“People have accepted it,” he testified, “and I support it.”

Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testified he has hosted “pride” events at the ambassador’s residence in Beijing and said his current chief of staff is gay.

In his fifth hour of testimony, Branstad briefly broke down in tears as he talked about the honor of serving as ambassador to China.

During the court’s morning session, Branstad testified he’d gotten complaints from the business community about the way Godfrey handled workers’ compensation matters and wanted a replacement.

“We’d gotten a tremendous amount of concern expressed by the big organizations like the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Motor Truck Association and individual employers from around the state,” Branstad said.

He admitted Friday he did not have the authority to fire Godfrey and had not conducted a performance review or read Godfrey’s file. But Branstad said did have the ability to cut Godfrey’s salary to the lowest level of the scale established by the Legislature.

“I felt that a salary at the top of the range, certainly considering all of these problems about performance, was not appropriate,” he said.

Branstad, under questioning from Fiedler, admitted he and Godfrey spoke in person just once. The former governor said he was unaware of statistics about the number of cases Godfrey’s office processed and how business fees for workers’ compensation claims had actually declined during Godfrey’s tenure.

Friday’s session ended about 4 p.m., the only day Branstad was scheduled to testify. The trial continues next week.

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Des Moines lawyer Roxanne Conlin, Branstad’s Democratic opponent in 1982, has guided this case for seven years but was not there Friday.

Conlin became ill last Friday, complaining of the air quality in the Polk County Courthouse, which is under renovation. Fiedler said Conlin is following doctor’s advice to not return to the building until renovations are complete.

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