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Christopher Rants (R-Sioux City)

posted on June 19, 2009

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Borg: Making the case. Christopher Rants leveraging legislative experience and eying a possible run for Iowa's executive branch. We're discussing gubernatorial campaign politics with Sioux City Republican Representative Christopher Rants on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association ... for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by ... the Associated General Contractors of Iowa ... the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. By Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities ... enrolling 25% of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44% of the baccalaureate and 40% of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at www.thinkindependently.com. The Iowa Hospital Association ... supporting the missions and visions of Iowa's 117 community hospitals. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, June 19th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Republican Christopher Rants is serving his ninth term in Iowa's House of Representatives and during those 17, now going on 18 years he has achieved high profile recognition across the state, as Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, also as the party's house leader during majority days and as minority leader in the leaner times. Well, that is the experience that he is bringing into a possible campaign for governor, first campaigning to be Iowa's republican nominee to run against incumbent democratic Governor Chet Culver. Representative Rants, welcome to Iowa Press.

Rants: Good morning, thanks for having me on.

Borg: We're hoping that you have some news for us today.

Rants: We'll try to have something to talk about.

Borg: Well, we'll give that first question to Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and also joining in the questioning today Political Reporter James Lynch from the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids.

Glover: Representative Rants, you've been thinking for a while about running for governor. Tell us where you are.

Rants: Thanks, Mike. After the legislative session ended I hopped in my car and started driving around Iowa. I've done about 11,000 miles so far, probably about 12,000 miles by the time I get home. I hit the road to go listen to Iowans and specifically to listen to what republicans are looking for in terms of a gubernatorial candidate. Today I'm taking the step to form an exploratory committee, that's the first step to take to run for governor. We've hit our initial fundraising targets, we've started lining up supporters around the state but to be honest there's a long way to go. There are a lot more people I need to sit down and visit with, there are a lot more groups I need to spend some time listening to but today we're taking the first step by putting together an exploratory committee.

Glover: What is your timeframe for making a formal decision?

Rants: Well, I don't have a set timeframe. I've always said I'm not bound by a clock or calendar, I think you do things right and that means spending more time on the road talking with folks and talking with donors and sitting around with Iowans and asking them, this is the question I ask folks, what is the conversation that is going on around your kitchen table tonight? What is it that you're concerned about? What are your hopes for your kids? What are your dreams for the future? What are the things that make you a little nervous about? There's a lot of listening I think that republicans need to do if we're going to be successful next fall. There is a common saying in politics that we're at a crossroads, I don't think we're at a crossroads in Iowa. I think we've gone down the wrong road for the last several years and frankly we're off in a ditch. We're going to have to pull that truck out and head back in another direction. But if we're going to be successful at doing that it's not just about winning the nomination, it's not just about winning the campaign or an election, it's about winning change for this state.

Glover: You're in the game, make the case for Christopher Rants being the republican gubernatorial nominee against Governor Culver.

Rants: For starters, let's talk about one of the things that Iowans are talking about around that kitchen table. We've got 81,000 Iowans that are out of work today which means we all, all of us know somebody who has either lost their job or is nervous about losing their job. To be honest that's something I can relate to. Dean talked about my political resume, a lot of people don't know what I did before I was Speaker of the House. I spent the 1990s working for Metz Baking Company in Sioux City and it was a company that had to go through restructuring and market changes and layoffs and you were always worried about am I next in line when that happened. That causes a lot of angst and anxiety around that kitchen table. So, we have to, the republican nominee has to have a concrete plan for how we bring jobs back to this state, how we grow small employers, how we bring not just jobs but good paying jobs with good benefits. Iowa right now is 49th in the nation for new business startups. Our goal ought to be getting up in the top ten. You can't be in the top ten for job creation in the nation if you're also in the top ten for high property taxes. So, the next governor is going to have to put together, I believe, a mechanism so that when we come out of this recession that new revenue that is generated through an economic recovery goes first into a property tax relief account. We can't just take the unexpected revenue that comes in two years or three years from now and go put that back into growing government again, growing the budget by another 20%. It has to be about reducing property taxes because right now that is a job killer for Iowa. I'm sorry, I could talk about that for the next half hour but I know you have other questions.

Lynch: Let's talk a little bit about the Republican Party itself. The Iowa Republican Party has lost the house, the senate, the governor's office, you're about 110,000 behind the democrats in voter registration. Is the party able, healthy enough to mount a challenge to an incumbent governor?

Rants: Yes, I think we are. I think republicans are energized. Let's face it, the party has faced some challenges in the past. One of the challenges we face today is sort of this internal warfare that some people are trying to create that frankly is not helpful but we have, as a party, suffered some tough elections the last few years from the national level all across the country down to the courthouse, republicans have lost seats. If we're going to reclaim our place as the majority party and I believe that we can we only do that by offering positive solutions to what those Iowa families are talking about around that kitchen table. If we do that, if we talk to those independents, if we talk to those republicans who believe the party has lost its way in things like fiscal discipline and accountability, if we become the party that is about transparency and reforming government and that's who we are as republicans, if we're successful at doing that I believe we'll bring those independents back, we'll bring the majority back. You know what, Chairman Matt Strawn is taking the party in a direction that I think is really encouraging using the new media, reaching out to groups that we perhaps haven't spoken to but share the same concerns that we do. If we do that successfully we'll be able to win Terrace Hill back.

Borg: The tag that democrats are hanging on you, Iowa and nationally, is a party of no.

Rants: That's a concern and so you're not going to hear me talk about the no to this or no to that, what I want to talk to Iowans about is what we do to get that truck out of the ditch. I think Iowans today know that we have significant problems, they see that we're not going to be able to close the books on June 30th when the fiscal year comes to a close, they see that we have unemployment rising in this state, they hear already in the newspaper stories that these guys write about the fact that our current governor is going to be raising taxes next year, they know all that. One of the things I hear from people today is don't just run a negative campaign and tell me about the other person, tell me what you're going to do. So, as I've been traveling around I've been trying to talk to them about what it is I think republicans can do to make this state better.

Glover: You say you've met your financial goals. How much have you raised? How much are you going to have to raise?

Rants: Well, I think I'm going to have to raise $2 million for the primary. I'll tell you what I raised if you tell me what the other candidates have raised. There are some things I'm going to keep a little close to my vest right now, Mike, I'm sorry but the campaigns sometimes keep those things close.

Glover: I know we think that this election is a long way away, 18 months away, but I know what Governor Culver is doing, Governor Culver is out raising money and he's putting together a field organization, he's hiring staff, he's putting his campaign together. Aren't you getting a rather late start in this whole thing?

Rants: Well, I don't think so. He clearly has a big head start, Governor Culver has been running for the last two years. Before that he didn't necessarily put his campaign to bed after he won the election. But the fact is I think republicans have to go through a sort of a self re-evaluation process or a self-evaluation process. I don't think it's too late to get started but that's why I am filing the paperwork today because we have been on the road raising money and it is a long time and I think it's first and foremost important that we get out and we talk to Iowans.

Borg: You said a moment ago the party has faced some challenges in the past. You have too in that you were replaced as a legislative leader. How do you overcome that because some look at you as damaged goods right now?

Rants: The caucus chose to make a change and at the time, Dean I'll be honest, it hurt, I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt, it hurt a lot. But the fact is, you know, I think it ended up being a good thing for the caucus and that's kind of inside baseball but I also know it ended up being a good thing for me. It gave me an opportunity to sit back and do a lot of self-examination, re-evaluation, I was able to do some things I probably otherwise wouldn't have been able to do. I learned a lot about myself and a lot of my friends. One of the things I learned over the last six months is that being a leader doesn't always mean you have a capital L behind your name. There are some opportunities where caucus members came to me and asked me to take a lead on an issue be it a budget issue, be it the marriage issue, I probably wouldn't be here today if I was still leader of the house republican caucus because I'd be busy recruiting candidates and raising funds and doing all those kinds of things. But I've learned a lot. One of the things I've learned is that when people ask you a question maybe you shouldn't be the first one out there with the answer, maybe you need to take a step back and listen a little bit closer to the question and make sure you understand what they're really looking for. I think that part of the problem we have as republicans is that we're too quick to say we've got the answer. We have to have the answers but we have to make sure that they are the answers to the real questions that Iowans are talking about.

Borg: Are you saying you've been too aggressive in the past?

Rants: Yes, my critics have said that I've been too aggressive in the past and I'm not going to argue with them on that point. I'm a passionate guy, there are a lot of things I care about and I care about this state, I care immensely about this state, I care immensely about the future for my two daughters, I care about what kind of community my wife and I live in and sometimes my passion gets a little hot, maybe in the past I've been a little too quick to have the answer. And my past role be it the speaker or majority leader or minority leader sometimes that job required me, part of that job was to be the guy who was holding the sword or the shield for the party. The nice thing about where I'm at now is I don't have to do that. I get to be passionate about the issues that I care about and talk to Iowans about but I don't necessarily have the responsibilities of defending a certain member of the caucus or a certain issue that certain members of the caucus care about. It frees me up to do some other things. I think this primary will have 200,000 Iowans that go to the polls. We were talking earlier past speakers of the house that have run for things not everybody knows, they're not as well known as they think they are, this gives me an opportunity to go out and talk to a lot of those 200,000 Iowans for the first time. I hope some of them are watching today and I hope that when I get out and visit their central committee meetings or have a town hall meeting that they'll come out and share with me what they're thinking about.

Lynch: Christopher, you talk about being passionate about issues, it seems that you and the other folks who are looking at getting into this race are passionate mostly about the same issues. So, is this primary race that is shaping up really a race for the future of the Iowa Republican Party to set the path for the future or is it about who is going to be governor?

Rants: I believe it needs to be about what we do to change this state. In my belief it can't be a campaign that's about slogans or 30 second sound bytes. I think we have a very sophisticated electorate in Iowa that is looking for real solutions. The kind of campaign I'm going to run is one that is going to have a lot of issue papers, a lot of white papers, people who are looking for real answers, we're going to have an opportunity to look at what we're talking about to keep college graduates here, they're going to have an opportunity to look at exactly the details we're talking about for healthcare, exactly what we're talking about when we're talking about property tax reform. Now, sometimes candidates want to stay away from a lot of details because they can be picked apart. The fact is we're running out of time in this state and I think Iowans are ready for some straight talk about real solutions to the problems that we all know we're facing.

Glover: Representative Rants, one of the things that struck me about politics after all these years is that politics whether you're running for class president or president of the United States tends to come down to who people like and who people don't like. With no disrespect you are known as an abrasive, sharp character. How do you convince Iowans you're someone they can like and trust?

Rants: I thought you were going to talk about the big lug for a second there. As I talk to folks people ask that question. Chet Culver is a likeable guy, he is the big lug and nobody means that with disrespect. That was the persona that he portrayed in his campaign and he is a likeable guy. Chet Culver is the guy who you probably want to go have a beer with on a Saturday afternoon. Chris Rants is the guy who you call to come fix the leaky sink or to get your taxes done or to get your kids ready for school. Right now I think we need the guy who can fix the sink, get your taxes in order and get your kids ready for school. I think Iowa has significant problems and we need solutions and we need competence and we need people who are going to be proactive on an issue agenda and not just a lot of politics.

Lynch: You and other republicans looking at this race come from the base of the party which guarantees you 35%, 40% in a statewide race. How do you expand that base, reach out to republicans who are disaffected or disenfranchised and independents and build a majority?

Rants: I think I bring a couple of unique things to the race that make me a unique candidate. One, I've got solid credentials in both parts of the party be it social conservatives, you look at my voting record on those issues from marriage to life issues, solid. Business issues I'm the guy who ran the tax cut amendment, worked on business development issues, those sort of economic and fiscal issues, solid credentials there. I think that makes me a balanced candidate. As I said before a lot of people look at the political experience, I know how to pull some of those levers to make things happen. I've also got experience in the business world. When I worked for Metz I was working on pulling underground storage tanks in Michigan to clean air permits in California. I know why we like doing business in that state and didn't like doing business in that state. So, I think that makes me a balanced candidate. What can unite the party, which we will have to do if we're going to be successful in November, but if we're going to be successful in November I keep going back to this fact, we have to talk to those independent voters about the issues that are important to them and we have to do it in a mode that they are listening to and a way that they understand. Republicans like to talk about the business climate, we've got to talk about jobs, that's what it means to Iowans. We talked about education or paper performance or things like that, we've got to talk to Iowans about what their kids are learning in school and the fact that your kids are scoring today lower than the kids in New Jersey are. We have to make some changes and we have to present little solutions to do that and if we do that well then I think we'll be successful.

Borg: What about geographic appeal and balance? You spoke about balance. A leading candidate or the announced candidate right now, Bob Vander Plaats in the republican party you will be running against for the nomination if you decide to indeed go ahead and announce for governor, you're from sparsely populated areas of Iowa, Sioux City, you've got to translate appeal into the urban areas and the population centers of eastern Iowa.

Rants: The day I hit the road after session started I drove all the way across the state, first off was in Davenport, next stop was in Muscatine, I'm going to be camping out on the eastern seaboard of the state. And as I've been spending time over there and listening to folks do you know what I hear? The exact same issues that they're talking about in Sioux City. Des Moines doesn't understand us, those of us who live on the border and one-third of our population lives along the border. The people in Davenport are facing the same challenges in terms of how we keep jobs in Iowa that the folks in Council Bluffs are, the folks in Muscatine or Dubuque are competing against Illinois and Wisconsin the same way those of us in Sioux City are competing against South Dakota and Nebraska. That's why we have to look at this property tax question. We're already losing people because our border states have a lower income tax climate. But now it's like pulling the plug on the drain because now our property taxes are worse than our neighboring states and we're really going to lose those jobs. So, it's about the issues. I don't think it matters where you're from in this state because we're sharing the same set of concerns, we're sharing the same set of problems and the person who has the answer to those problems I think will end up earning their support.

Borg: So, your challenge as you're telling me urban Iowa and central Iowa doesn't understand you, you were talking about Des Moines, Ames area. You've got to make them understand you.

Rants: I believe, well, what I'm trying to tell you Dean is that the same concerns that I've always heard in Sioux City are the concerns I'm hearing in Clinton and I'm hearing in Davenport and I'm hearing in Muscatine and that is the Des Moines way of doing business doesn't work in this state and we have to be concerned about our border communities, that we have to be concerned about the competition we face from Illinois, from Wisconsin, from Missouri, from Nebraska, from South Dakota. We share the same set of issues regardless of where we live.

Glover: Representative Rants, those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it. There is a historical tradition in Iowa. Iowans tend to re-elect their governors. The last time the sitting governor in this state was defeated was 1962. Why will next year be different?

Rants: Because I think Iowans understand that we're in serious difficulty. Right now the governor has an approval rating that is below 50%. More people disapprove of his job performance than approve of it. We're sitting at a point where Iowans are scratching their heads saying, wait a minute, we're bonding, we've got this bonding scheme that frankly my kids are going to have kids by the time that it's paid for and what did we get out of it. Iowans see that we're losing jobs and when we're losing jobs our governor is on the steps of the capitol talking to you all with the microphones about how he wants to do things that will cost us more jobs in the future be it federal deductibility or eliminating right to work. I think the governor has been pursuing an agenda that is out of touch with Iowans. When 70% of Iowans oppose the governor's bonding scheme it tells me we have a great opportunity. We have a great opportunity to change and put Iowa back on the right direction.

Lynch: Christopher, you and republicans have been hammering the governor on spending and his budgets for two, two and a half years and it doesn't seem to stick. How are you going to make that a campaign issue that Iowans are going to respond to?

Rants: I'll be honest, I think that the bullet is going to hit home in about another week. As of today our revenues for this fiscal year that closes in two weeks are down five percent.

Lynch: The governor says don't worry.

Rants: The governor is wrong, okay, with all due respect. No one blames Governor Culver for the decline in revenue but we do expect him to manage the state's finances so it doesn't cause a problem. We are now two and a half percent below our negative estimate. The governor is going to do one of two things. I don't think you can close the books on June 30th unless he does one of two things. One, he's either going to have to transfer more of that federal stimulus money, that is supposed to be in the Medicaid account paying for healthcare, he's got to transfer that to things like the Department of Economic Development to pay for the golf tournament tent or to the Power Fund and he's got to do that after the books close. Or he's going to have to call the legislature back to take more money out of the economic emergency fund. Our budget is in serious jeopardy and Iowans understand that. We're a billion dollars in the hole when the legislature reconvenes in January, a billion dollars in the hole. There is no easy solution to that and Iowans will understand it not just because they're going to read about it in your newspapers but because their school boards are going to feel the pinch, their counties are going to feel the hurt, their city councils are going to be talking to them about it. Every element of local government is going to be affected by the decisions that this governor has made in the last year and it's a negative one.

Glover: Representative Rants, again, with no disrespect meant, I sometimes measure the political health of a politician who is in office by the field of candidates lining up to run against that politician. At this moment we have Bob Vander Plaats who has run twice before and you lining up to run against Governor Culver. With no disrespect meant, those are not the biggest names in republican politics in this state. Why don't we have really heavy hitters out there?

Rants: Well, I'm glad that they're not out there and I'll be honest, Mike, I understand that you're a skeptic that I'm going to have to win over, over the next 18 months. I think Iowans are ready to listen to any candidate who presents real solutions. Sure, it's an uphill battle, okay, it's going to be a tough fight. I have no illusions about that. My dad used to tell me that -- I'm going to mess up my dad's quote -- anything worth doing well is not necessarily easy to do. I think this is worth doing and it's worth doing well. So, it's an uphill fight but it's a fight worth fighting for because we've got to change this state and I think that when Iowans get to the ballot box next year they're going to see two very different competing visions of what this future can be.

Glover: And part of your future is going to lay on what kind of year next year tends to be politically. History would teach us that the first term, mid-term election of a democratic president would be a pretty good republican year. On the other hand the economy is pretty sour which tends to work for democrats. Give me your take on what next year is going to be like.

Rants: As you look at what's happening nationally one of the challenges republicans have had for a while is the pendulum has been swinging against us. The polling that I've seen is that pendulum has stopped swinging and is coming back. Yes, we have a popular president but there's a big disconnect between the popularity personally for Barack Obama and the popularity and support for his policies. I hear from a lot of people who are concerned that this country is moving awfully fast in a direction that nobody thought we would be going, the sort of disregard to a belief in the free markets and our capitalist system when you see banks being nationalized, you see auto companies being nationalized. The federal government can decide who the CEO of a major American corporation is going to be and decide what people are paid, what's next? I think that causes -- the rapid pace of change is going to cause a lot of concern for a lot of people and we see it being echoed at the state level as well.

Glover: Should he have stood by and done nothing in the face of the banking crisis or the auto industry?

Rants: I'm not saying he should have done nothing, I'm not sure that what he chose to do is the right answer.

Borg: I'm talking about the disasters in eastern Iowa. You're from far western Iowa.

Rants: But I was over there, I was over there when the water was rising and I was over there as soon as it crested and started coming back down.

Borg: But so has Governor Culver and would you as governor -- how are you going to campaign in that disaster area?

Rants: I know that we will see a lot of pictures of the governor with somebody on his shoulder...

Borg: But will you also show concern?

Rants: Absolutely.

Borg: How?

Rants: Dean, one of the reasons I've been over there is because I was invited in by the city council to come say you need to see what's going on. I was leader of the caucus at the time. They asked us -- I remember meeting with the city council members over there and the county supervisors saying we need to have a special session and I listened to their concerns and that's why I echoed their call. Unfortunately, this governor chose not to answer their concerns and chose not to call a special session and that's one of the reasons I believe that aid has been delayed. We've got almost 300, 290 some people still living in trailers in Cedar Rapids. I don't know that you can measure any sort of success when we've got almost 300 people living in trailers. It's not just state government, I mean, obviously they've had problems with local government. I think you're going to see new council members ...

Glover: Was he wrong with response to the floods?

Rants: I think he was too slow to act. One of the things I told the governor when we had a conversation during the flooding is the response while the flooding is going on, the sandbagging and things like that, that's the easy part, that's the easy part. It's how you rebuild afterwards that is going to be a lot more challenging, a lot more difficult and I think we should have been in a special session last year. I think aid was delayed.

Borg: We're out of time. Thank you very much for spending time with us today. On our next edition of Iowa Press discussing national politics with Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the high profile former chair of the republican national committee and now generating speculation about a possible run for the party's 2012 presidential nomination. Haley Barbour next weekend at the usual Iowa Press times, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association ... for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by ... the Associated General Contractors of Iowa ... the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. By Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities ... enrolling 25% of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44% of the baccalaureate and 40% of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at www.thinkindependently.com. The Iowa Hospital Association ... supporting the missions and visions of Iowa's 117 community hospitals. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.

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