Staff Columnist

Finally, a defeat for political bullying in Iowa

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testifies Friday , June 14, 2019, in a Polk County co
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testifies Friday , June 14, 2019, in a Polk County courtoom. He is named in a lawsuit brought by a former state employee who asserts that Branstand wanted him out because the employee is gay. (Pool photo from the Des Moines Register)

If former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad had just appreciated the wisdom of insulating some sensitive state jobs from the ever lurching waves of partisan whim, he could have saved us a lot of time and money.

Instead, after seven years of costly litigation, a Polk County jury found this week that Branstad discriminated against former state Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey, whom the former governor pressured to quit. The jury awarded Godfrey, who is gay, $1.5 million, although the final award is uncertain. Current Gov. Kim Reynolds might appeal.

I’d like to think this sends a strong, clear signal that misusing power to bestow favors and exact retribution is no way to run a Statehouse. But who am I kidding? These are now features, not flaws, under the Golden Dome of Wisdom.

But it’s a welcome measure of justice at a time when political bullies appear invincible. It’s certainly justice, at long last, for Godfrey, who refused to back down.

When Branstad was swept back into office by voters in 2010, he had promises to keep, mainly to business interests that bankrolled his comeback. It was in that “to the victor, go the spoils” spirit that Branstad demanded Godfrey’s resignation. When Godfrey refused, pointing out his six-year term still had five good years left, Branstad and his minions slashed the commissioner’s salary. That’ll teach him for following the law.

Never mind that the governor had control over dozens of powerful appointments. The law left this one beyond his grasp, and he’d do whatever it took to remove Godfrey and replace him with someone more sympathetic to business. Never mind that the state’s compensation system was well-regarded under Godfrey’s watch.

Godfrey filed a lawsuit. The jury found Branstad was in the wrong.

Now, of course, if the verdict stands, it will be you and I who likely pay the freight. Maybe those captains of industry Branstad tried so hard to please by bullying Godfrey could pass the hat.


I’ve heard some of the governor’s allies insist Branstad didn’t know or care that Godfrey is gay. America’s longest-serving governor doesn’t have a discriminatory bone in his body, they say.

But the jury, who sat in a courtroom and heard weeks of testimony, came to a different conclusion. And besides, where was Branstad, who claims to “treat everyone … with respect and dignity,” when LGBT Iowans were fighting, uphill, for respect and dignity under the law?

Branstad has been happy to benefit politically from the backing of conservative zealots who would shove LGBT Iowans back into the shadows, not unlike he tried to shove Godfrey out the door. In 2010, Branstad refused to take any stand at all as Bob Vander Plaats and his family leaders crusaded to shove out three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled for marriage equality. So, when push comes to shove, actions speak far louder than hollow words.

And consider the flip side of this defense, that Branstad just wanted a more business-friendly workers’ compensation commissioner. He simply wanted to place a fat thumb on the scales of a system intended to provide a fair, impartial process for injured workers. Swell.

If only Branstad had respected that system. But who am I kidding?

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