Iowans Weigh In On Branstad Legacy as He Prepares to Leave Office

May 15, 2017

Governor Branstad is about to complete his tenure as Iowa’s and the nation’s longest serving governor with his likely confirmation soon as U.S. Ambassador to China.    As Iowans weigh in on the Branstad legacy, views differ depending on whether you’re looking at Branstad’s earlier terms, or those he’s just completing.    

For Des Moines attorney Doug Gross, Gov. Branstad’s chief of staff in  his early years in office, it's not difficult to name Branstad's biggest achievement from that time up to now.

We watched in dismay as the floor fell out of our economy. -Gov. Branstad 1990 Condition of the State Address

“I think the most important thing he did as governor he took a state that had not grown and had shrunk in population for a hundred years and for the first time is growing,” Gross said.   “Particularly the urban centers are growing and creating enough critical mass to sustain the state long-term.”

That’s significant given what happened in Branstad’s very first term, the farm credit crisis of the 1980’s.       

“We watched in dismay as the floor fell out of our economy, land values plummeted, bankruptcies mounted, unemployment neared double digits, and many Iowans moved to other parts of the country in search of jobs,” Branstad said in his 1990 Condition of the State Speech.  “Never again will we let our economy rest on a one-legged stool.”

He really did protect our groundwater. -David Osterberg

And over time, Gross says the one-legged stool of agriculture became a more diverse economy, through Branstad’s tireless promotion of value-added agriculture, alternative energy and insurance and finance.      

Gross also praises Branstad’s early achievements in education and the environment and others who worked with him in those years agree.   David Osterberg with the Iowa Policy Project was in the legislature when the Groundwater Protection act was passed in 1987.

“There the governor was active, he had his own bill, he thought about the issue,” Osterberg said.  “He learned a lot about it, and he really did protect our groundwater, our drinking water.”

Jan Reinicke was with the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Iowa State Education Association during Branstad’s early terms.  

I have a lot of friends who are state employees who are super sour on Gov. Branstad. -Tammy Foltz

Reinicke said he was known as the "Education Governor".

“He chaired the Education Commission of the States during that time period,” Reinicke said.   “He worked with us on a $100 million salary increase in 1987.  It was a progressive piece of legislation at the time.”

Those early programs also included all-day kindergarten.     

The ISEA went on to back Branstad for re-election in 1990.

In still other early initiatives garnering praise, Branstad expanded children’s health care and called for comparable worth, equalizing pay for women in state government jobs.

But praise from some Iowans is tempered by dissatisfaction with the governor’s second set of terms.   

Legacies are difficult things to assess right at the time. -David Yepsen

"We’ve got a very aggressive renewable energy program in place and he’s been a big advocate of that,” said small business owner Dan Doran, outside a Fareway store in Boone recently.    “I think that's a forward looking approach, but one of the negatives I see is quite frankly he supported Donald Trump.”        

“If he was a CEO of a company, he was good at promoting the state of Iowa and getting our brand out,” said Tammy Foltz, an instructor at Des Moines Area Community College who was also at the grocery store.   “But I have a lot of friends who are state employees and they are super sour on Governor Branstad.”

That’s a reference to the governor signing a bill weakening, some say gutting, collective bargaining for public workers.   And those who praised the "Education Governor" of the earlier years are sharply critical now.  

“Public education K-12 and probably all levels has been seriously underfunded,” said Jan Reinicke.

Doug Gross criticizes a shift in higher education, recalling Branstad’s appointee to head the Board of Regents in the 80’s and 90’s, Marvin Pomerantz.

“Marv had his enemies but there was no stronger advocate for education including higher education than Marvin Pomerantz,” Gross said.   “He succeed in working with the governor at getting funding and faculty salaries at a good level and improve those institutions.

“Then in the second cycle, you had Bruce Rastetter, a capable salesman and businessman, but no one would call him a tireless advocate and leader in education,” Gross said.  

Gross says the changes reflect the Republican party’s move to the right.    And he says over time, Branstad became more hands-off on the detail.     That’s reflected in his closing of the Mental Health Institutes, and the privatization of Medicaid.  

Someone with very little negative to say about Terry Branstad’s legacy is the president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Craig Hill.   

"When you think about Terry Branstad you have to realize what an ally and champion he's been for agriculture," Hill said.   "He has been a promoter and an advocate for growth in agriculture and actually flexing our muscles in what we do best." 

Hill cites value-added agriculture in particular, making chemicals, plastics and adhesives from plants instead of petroleum.   But  Hill  cites a shortfall in Branstad’s last term in office.   He wishes the governor had left a long-term funding mechanism for water quality.

On the positive side for education,  many  have high hopes for Branstad’s new teacher quality program  which lets teachers advance in their careers without becoming administrators.  

“That's a big change and a significant achievement,” said Margaret Buckton with the Iowa School Finance Information Services.  “It has good intentions and good hopes for results.”

One longtime observer of Iowa politics says defining a legacy at all is a little suspect.

“Legacies are difficult things to assess right at the time,” said former Des Moines Register writer David Yepsen.   “Ask me in 15 years.”   

Yepsen says after living in Illinois where the budget is a shambles, he has a new appreciation for good fiscal management.

“The mundane thing of a balanced budget, cash reserves, a good bond rating,” Yepsen said. 

That may be Branstad’s biggest achievement, even if some critics don’t like how he and Republicans in the legislature got there.