I first met a governor on the same day I first rode in a helicopter. That was a big day back in September 1970s or 80s-something. Don’t pin me down on the year.
I was a kid, maybe 9 or 10. My uncle’s insurance company landed a helicopter on the University of Northern Iowa campus and gave my family a ride. Later, we went to a UNI football game. Our seats were near Gov. Robert Ray’s perch. Friendly guy. He shook my hand and signed my program.
For a lot of Iowans of my generation and older, Ray was the gubernatorial prototype, the smiling, affable Republican chief executive from central casting. His death Sunday at age 89 launched a thousand recollections and tributes, overwhelmingly positive and well-deserved. His drive to help and welcome Southeast Asian refugees fleeing death and destruction in their homelands stands as a monument to what generous, compassionate and fearless leadership can accomplish.
I’d encourage today’s GOP politicians to visit this monument. Soon.
Speaking of accomplishments, Ray’s list is striking.
He presided over modernizing the way Iowa funds its public schools, largely shifting the burden from property taxes to state funds. Ray helped craft and signed legislation in 1974 creating a collective bargaining system for public employees. There were environmental achievements, including the “bottle bill,” passed to help keep cans and bottles out of our ditches.
Nonpartisan redrawing of congressional and legislative districts, judicial reforms and broader government transparency all occurred on his watch. The list goes on and on.
And they’re striking not just in volume but staying power. Ray’s achievements were built to last. They still benefit Iowans to this day.
What could have been his secret? I dug up a 1979 People magazine profile of Ray where he was quoted describing his first day on the job.
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“Finally I asked for a moment alone, sat back in that big chair and decided that the only way to do this job was to listen to everybody, know the options … knowing I was going to get the flak,” Ray said.
It’s no secret Ray, by all accounts, was a consensus-builder. He was a governor who saw value in listening to all sides, and in actually using what he heard to shape policy. He was a loyal Republican, to be sure, but he also was a governor who worked for all Iowans, not just his partisan allies. His approval rating, according to that People article, was 86 percent.
Contrast that with the vicious, veering hyperpartisan payback politics of our current moment. At the Statehouse, reaching consensus has been replaced by kicking in doors. It’s awfully tough to “listen to everybody” in backrooms. But the partisan base and donor class are heard loud and clear.
Ray’s collective bargaining compromise survived four decades, but was gutted in less than 10 days by the current Republican legislature. Now, some outraged Democrats running to regain Capitol control vow to repeal Iowa’s decades-old right to work law. When the dust settles, the only thing built to last will be the cycle of political paybacks.
Ray provides us with a blueprint for breaking that cycle. It’s his legacy. Refusing to follow it will be ours.
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