Government

Mayor Ron Corbett launches 'conservative think tank'

Statewide effort fuels gubernatorial talk, prompts conflict questions

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, shown during a 2014 State of the City address, announced Thursday he has formed Engage Iowa, a think tank for which he has raised $1.5 million and that will pay him $95,000 this year. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, shown during a 2014 State of the City address, announced Thursday he has formed Engage Iowa, a think tank for which he has raised $1.5 million and that will pay him $95,000 this year. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Perhaps Mayor Ron Corbett never came all the way back from his days at the Statehouse and from his time in the late 1990s as speaker of the Iowa House.

Corbett said Thursday he has launched Engage Iowa, a non-profit “conservative think tank” he said Iowa has needed for years to help develop ideas that can steer public policy.

The move surely will fuel speculation that the mayor is positioning for a Republican run for governor in 2018. It shows his capacity to raise money, but also prompts questions about unnamed donors who could have business before the mayor and City Council.

Corbett said he will continue to serve as part-time mayor even as he conducts forums around the state as Engage Iowa’s president.

Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the state’s Republican Party, said Iowa always can use new ideas.

“What better time to do this right now when ideas are flying back and forth,” Kaufmann said, referring to Iowa presidential campaigns. “When the nation’s eyes are on us, I don’t think we can have too many qualified, bright individuals putting ideas out there for discussion.”

In recent months, the mayor’s name has landed on lists of potential Republican gubernatorial prospects for 2018. Corbett said he can’t do anything about what prognosticators say.

“I haven’t determined if I will seek re-election as mayor in 2017 or not,” said Corbett, who was elected to four-year mayoral terms in 2009 and 2013. “I plan on serving out my term.”

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Since the start of the year, the mayor said he has worked to raise money for the new organization and to settle on the issues that Engage Iowa will focus on.

The issues are three: the economy, education and the environment, he said.

In May, Corbett said he departed from his full-time job as special projects manager at trucking firm CRST International Inc. to work full-time for Engage Iowa.

He said he has raised $1.5 million for Engage Iowa’s use over three years from individuals and corporations across the state, with most contributions coming from this area.

Engage Iowa, he said, will have other employees and will contract with university professors and others to help produce position papers. Corbett said his salary will be $95,000 in 2015. He earns $35,202 a year as part-time mayor.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said that Corbett’s creation of Engage Iowa is “another indication that he will run for governor, and is likely to do it.”

Hogg, who has launched his own exploratory committee to consider a run for the U.S. Senate in 2016, said a think tank will allow Corbett to engage Iowans on large policy issues without declaring himself a candidate. The setup is another example of the money needed today to campaign for office, Hogg said.

Corbett said he will announce the members of Engage Iowa’s advisory board in 45 to 60 days, The organization’s corporate documents list John Smith, chairman of CRST, as a director. Corbett said Smith will be on the board.

The mayor said he will not publicize the names of donors and does not have to make the names public in filings with the IRS as a non-profit organization.

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In his role as mayor, he said he will recuse himself from voting on any business that comes before the city from any of the Engage Iowa donors, as he said he has done as an employee of CRST on CRST business.

“Most communities have part-time councils, and many part-time elected officials have relationships with businesses in the community that they serve,” he said.

He said the city’s ethics rules on conflict of interest operate on an “honor system” that he abides by.

Bob Teig, a retired federal prosecutor and chairman of the city’s Board of Ethics, said he does not believe its ethics rules require “that kind of detail” in disclosing donors.

Corbett said he has been thinking for years about creating an Iowa conservative think tank. He recalled a time as House speaker in 1997 when he was pushing for a 15 percent cut in state income taxes and needed a credible conservative analysis. He had to go to a Boston think tank, he said.

As mayor the last six years, Corbett has not been a stranger at the Statehouse, where he served from 1987 to 1999 before becoming president and chief executive officer of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

In 2012, he was a principal author of what became successful legislation that permits communities to use a part of the incremental increase in state sales tax raised in a community for flood protection.

Corbett said Engage Iowa is non-partisan, but said it will provide “common-sense” ideas as a way to “balance” the “ivory-tower” ideas from the “left-leaning” Iowa Policy Project.

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David Osterberg, a former Democratic lawmaker and founder or the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City, said bringing “more data and more science” to policy questions is a good thing.

“Ron was my student at Cornell College so I’m pleased he continues to think data and science are important,” Osterberg said. “I’d rather he just fund the Iowa Policy Project or talk with me about what studies he thinks need more research. Science is not liberal or conservative.”

Corbett said Engage Iowa will issue its first policy ideas this fall on the environment, an area on which he in recent months has spoken out on as chairman of the newly created Iowa Partnership for Clean Water. The group promotes collaboration among farmers and the private and public sectors, in contrast to nitrate-pollution litigation the Des Moines Water Works board is pursuing against three counties.

In its first online video, Engage Iowa says the state may sit in the middle of the country, but “middle of the pack” is not good enough.

“Most in Iowa think we’re on the right track. But we need to pick up the pace,” Corbett said.

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