Godfrey saga shows executive power must have limits

(Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
(Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Someday, if we ever have a different governor, let’s hope he or she learns from the saga of Christopher Godfrey.

Godfrey is Iowa’s workers’ compensation commissioner. Or at least he will be until later this month, when he takes a new job as a judge for the federal Employees Compensation Review Board. The fact that Godfrey has landed a better gig is proof that sometimes, even in politics, good guys still can win.

Godfrey was appointed as state commissioner in 2006 by Gov. Tom Vilsack and was reappointed in 2009 by Gov. Chet Culver to a six-year term. The Iowa Senate unanimously confirmed him.

Then came Gov. Terry Branstad’s 2010 victory. Not long after that, Branstad demanded Godfrey’s resignation. Godfrey, with roughly five years left on his legislatively approved term, refused to go.

So Branstad sent his top aides to inform Godfrey that if he didn’t quit, the governor would slash his $112,000 salary by $36,000, setting his pay as low as legally allowed. Godfrey again said no dice. Branstad’s power play eventually resulted in a lawsuit filed by Godfrey, who is gay, on multiple grounds, including discrimination. So far, the state’s bill for defending the governor’s actions in court has topped a half-million dollars. Godfrey may be taking a new job, but he has no plans to drop his legal action.

The thing is, there was no good reason to hound Godfrey out of his job. There’s no evidence he did a bad job. To the contrary, there’s plenty of evidence that Iowa’s workers’ compensation system has been well-regarded nationally under his watch. The Work Loss Data Institute, which evaluates state systems, has given Iowa high marks,

“The good news is that Iowa was ranked No. 1 in the nation, getting an A-plus grade for its workers’ compensation system,” crowed Iowa House Republicans in 2009.

Branstad simply wanted to replace Godfrey with someone who would be more friendly to businesses. That’s his default approach. He likes both kinds of regulators. Pro-business and very pro-business. No book about the Branstad era will be titled “Team of Rivals.”

This is the sort of saga that separates the political hacks from the few reasonable people left in the business. The hacks think governors should roll in and fire everybody who isn’t on the right team. More reasonable folks would point out that’s no way to run a government that’s supposed to represent the entire state, not just political patrons. That’s why some important jobs, like Godfrey’s, have terms that transcend elections.

The hacks would counter that both sides do it. And that’s true, but not always. In 1999, Gov. Tom Vilsack took all sorts of flak from his fellow Democrats because he refused to wipe out all vestiges of the Branstad administration. Vilsack’s decision was lousy politics but good government.

Truth is, governors have the power to make dozens and dozens of powerful appointments. The fact that Branstad would go to these lengths to get his hands on one job that eluded his grasp tells you quite a bit about how he views the limits of executive power. After nearly 20 years, he doesn’t see any.

l Staff Columnist Todd Dorman appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com.

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