Branch hopping. State representative Rod Roberts campaigning to move from the legislature to the governor's office. We’re questioning republican gubernatorial candidate Rod Roberts about his executive branch aspirations on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Iowa republicans voting in the June 8 primary will be choosing among three candidates for their best shot at retaking the governor's office after twelve years of democratic control. Originally six republicans were in the race for their party's nomination, three ending their campaigns as fund-raising and polling indicated questionable success for them. The three remaining: Former Governor Terry Branstad of Boone, who was our Iowa Press guest last weekend, Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats, who will be here next week and state representative Rod Roberts of Carroll is across the table today. For the past ten years he's been representing Carroll County and adjacent portions of Crawford and Sac counties. Representative Roberts, welcome to Iowa Press.
Roberts: Thank you, Dean. Good to be with you.
Borg: And I think you know the people across the table from us --
Roberts: Yes, I do very well.
Borg: -- because they're at the legislature with you almost every day when it's in session -- Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Representative Roberts, I’d like you to give us your campaign commercial. We figure a candidate at some point during the show is going to do that anyway, so let's let you do it up front. What’s the commercial for Rod Roberts?
Roberts: Thank you, Mike. 2010 I believe is going to be a historic watershed election year. Based on nine months of campaigning across the state of Iowa, I have found citizens to be aware and engaged of government and politics in a way that I’ve not seen in my adult life. They’re ready for change. And it's not from the standpoint of the government bringing change; Iowans are going to make changes within government and in terms of leaders who serve them in government. And they're very open to somebody new as a candidate from a grass-roots base of support to be in this republican primary. And they're very interested in somebody as an alternative candidate to two better-known individuals, and I think a stand a very good chance to be a strong alternative candidate who will be a surprise candidate on June 8.
Glover: Well, one of the things that primary voters do is they pick a candidate who can win the general election. In other words, they pick a winner. Make the case that you can win in November.
Roberts: I believe that I can win in November because I have consistently demonstrated election after election as a state representative that I can not only appeal to republicans as a conservative candidate running for a legislative office but I’ve also been able to appeal to independent registered voters and democrats and build a coalition with a broad cross section of registered voters. I believe that's the winning combination for a conservative candidate to emerge to appeal to a very wide audience of voters across the state of Iowa that we're going to need to defeat Chet Culver in November.
Glover: But the polls and the money would say otherwise. How do you respond to that? The polls show you trailing. You’ve got less money than your rivals.
Roberts: All the polling that I’ve seen that people have really emphasized is in a hypothetical matchup in the general election against Chet Culver: how do these individuals fair? As a new candidate who has emerged, it's taken till about a month ago for the field to be set, and now you find Iowans looking very closely at this new individual, the third alternative candidate, and I believe that our campaign's momentum has been gaining ground ever since that March 19 filing deadline and people are very open to somebody new. I think that I can come through this primary election not only strong but I think in the general election very capable of carrying a compelling conservative message to all Iowans, and I can build the momentum and the support that can defeat Chet Culver in November.
Henderson: I’ve been covering you as a gubernatorial candidate since last summer, and in almost every speech you make what I reference as the happy warrior argument. You present yourself in a different way compared to your rivals. Why do you do that?
Roberts: It's part temperament, it's also because my favorite republican president was Ronald Reagan, and I think that would be an apt description of the approach he took to his public service and the way that he served in the executive office of president. I believe that people appreciate a candidate and an executive who is friendly, civil, and respectful, but at the same time knows what they believe, knows the ground they stand on, and has a sense of where they would go in the direction that they would lead.
Henderson: I spoke with Christian Fong, one of your former competitors, a candidate who dropped out of the race after Thanksgiving, this past week. He said that millennials and generation X voters are turned off by the sloganeering of the tea party movement. Do you agree that there is sort of a turn-off factor for some voters regarding the message that the tea party is pushing?
Roberts: I think Christian Fong very accurately describes the differences in generations of Iowans. He represents a younger, professional class of Iowans who have a very different view of what effective government is about. Quite often people associated with the tea party movement and these patriot movements, they're of an older generation and they have a different approach to how they express themselves toward elected officials and what they'd like to see changed in government. And what's important is that a candidate be true to himself, be engaging and able to approach people across the spectrum of age, of demographic and background, and share ideas and principles and a convincing message that attracts everyone regardless of their unique demographic background to build that, you know, I think formidable base of support that can then go on and win in November.
Borg: Representative Roberts, you called yourself in the last few minutes here a surprise candidate, an alternative candidate. Alternative to what? That indicates there's a divergence here someplace.
Roberts: Yeah, that's a very important distinction to make because you have two other republican candidates who are, in most respects, better known than I am. You have a former governor and you have an individual who has been running for this office for the better part of a decade. So here I have emerged out of this period of eight to nine months of traveling the state campaigning hard as a third alternative candidate to those two better-known individuals who has demonstrated strong grass-root support. He had way more signatures on our nomination papers than what were required, and hundreds of signatures kept pouring in after the filing deadline. What I believe is going on is that people are very open to somebody new and different and they appreciate somebody whose approach is civil and respectful but very principled and certainly has that theme of a conservative candidate for governor.
Borg: Can that lower key tone of your campaign? Can you win against Chet Culver? That’s going to be rough and tumble.
Roberts: I believe that I can. You know, there are great similarities with a gubernatorial primary race in South Dakota eight years ago. Mike Rounds, who won the 2002 republican primary election in South Dakota, was the third alternative candidate to two better-known, better-financed candidates that particular primary election, and he trailed behind in the polls. And in the last two to three weeks of that primary election, he surged because the voters who looked at those two better-known individuals concluded we need somebody different this time. And Mike Rounds not only won the nomination, he went on to become the governor of the state of South Dakota. I believe that Iowans have concluded when it comes to Chet Culver, we want somebody different as our governor. And I believe that the republican nominee on June 8 will go on to become the next governor of Iowa. And I think that I’m the candidate best able to take to on Chet Culver and attract what would normally be his base of support, bring them on board with my campaign, and that's the winning combination you need to beat him in November.
Glover: Representative Roberts, the last time Iowans defeated a sitting governor was 1962. Why are they going to defeat the governor this year? I believe that Chet Culver has failed in his leadership, and I believe Iowans' evaluation of Chet Culver here in the fourth year of his first term in office will be based primarily upon his failed leadership for the state of Iowa. And in challenging, difficult times like we have now in Iowa, people expect the governor to be able to lead, and that's what I hear all over Iowa. It’s not just republicans. It’s independents and democrats who have concluded together that Chet Culver just has not been able to perform in a way that is effective as our governor, and he needs to find another line of work. And they're very open to somebody new and different this time.
Glover: Flush that out. What has he done wrong? What would you have done differently? I mean he inherited a recession, a national recession that dried up state tax collections. He’s made tough choices, he says. What would you have done differently?
Roberts: I actually believe when he was first elected in 2006 we were not on the cusp yet of this national depression. Actually we had come out of that slow economic period post 9-11. The economy had rebounded. We were able to rebuild our cash reserves and were seeing revenue come into the state at some pretty healthy levels. Chet Culver's problems began when he started spending money that far exceeded new revenue into the state, did that year after year, set us up for a moment now with this current recession to fully expose the dangers of excessive unrestrained spending. That’s why we now have this budget mess. That’s one thing. another thing I hear when I travel Iowa is the problem that he had a year ago when the supreme court came down with its ruling marriage, he had led Iowans to believe if the court ruled as it did, he would be out front leading the charge to do something about that and restore traditional marriage. Within a matter of hours, there was a simple press release from his office that was somewhat ambiguous yet suggested that maybe he's not so adamant and strong about defending marriage. And within several days he had a formal press release where he did a 180; he flip-flopped on that. And it's one more indication if you say something, mean it. If you believe something, you stand your ground on that. And that's what an effective leader is and that's what people respect in a leader and in a governor. And you cannot flip flop. You can't vacillate. He’s done that and he's not been good in managing the taxpayers' money, and people are fed up with that.
Henderson: This past week many Iowans wrote a check to the state of Iowa and to the federal government as they filed their income taxes. You proposed in the past week a 10-percent reduction in personal income taxes for Iowans. That follows a proposal that you advanced in 2009 to completely eliminate the corporate income tax. Are you finding that Iowans are more concerned about pocketbook issues or social issues?
Roberts: It crosses both important categories, but certainly you cannot ignore one over the other. And I have strongly emphasized that as governor I will focus on job creation. You have 110,000 Iowans out of work. From a historical perspective, it's fairly high unemployment here in Iowa. And I believe the governor needs to proactively work to create a friendly business environment that is conducive to job creation, not by tens and fifties but by thousands of people. Eliminating the corporate income tax will be one way to provide a powerful stimulus to business here in Iowa. And I’ve been taking time to visit with individuals who are leaders within, I call them, medium sized companies located here in communities across the state of Iowa and ask them what would this mean if we eliminated this corporate income tax. They said we would take that revenue, reinvest it as capital and expanding facilities, buying new equipment, upgrading technology, and we would hire new people. And that, then, would create a rising tide of revenue to the state that eventually will allow us to also reduce personal income tax rates.
Henderson: Yet in the news release announcing your call for a 10-percent reduction in income taxes you noted that there would be a decline in state revenue and you would be able to shrink the size of government.
Roberts: There's no question right now we have to pay attention to cutting expenditures. We’ve got to address the problem of unrestrained spending the last several years. We’ve got to cut the budget. But I think the benefit of cutting taxes for business will in fact set the state apart, and we will be able to dramatically grow business and see jobs created. And it won't be state government being the catalyst to create jobs. We’re going to get out of the way and allow business to do the job of creating new jobs for Iowans. And I think by providing that cut to corporate income tax, it will be the stimulus we need not borrowing money to try to generate job creation, which doesn't work. allow the private sector to do this, and I believe eventually that increased revenue to the state, as people go back to work and they pay personal income tax and sales tax revenue, we will more than address our budget problem and increased revenue will provide the opportunity to cut taxes for individual taxpayers too.
Borg: Your strong comments just a moment ago about Chet Culver -- and you called it the flip-flop on gay marriage -- leads me to believe that you may be agreeing with one of your opponents, Bob Vander Plaats, that this election is a referendum on gay marriage.
Roberts: For a lot of Iowans, it will be.
Borg: Well, what about you?
Roberts: I believe that it is. I think part of the outcome to this republican primary election and ultimately Chet Culver's defeat in November will be because so many people are upset with what Chet Culver did or didn't do and leaders within the democrat controlled general assembly did not do, which was allow the people themselves to weigh in on this question and have a vote on the question of marriage here in Iowa. It’s really about respect now. It doesn't matter so much what individual lawmakers think or what the governor's personal preference might be -- and he can say all he wants. Well, personally I believe marriage is one man/one woman. What the people of Iowa are interested in, when do we get to weigh in on this and settle this matter. So it's about respect for the voters and the citizens of this state to have their say.
Glover: Is it realistic for legislators to talk about legalized gambling in this state, or is this state so hooked on gambling that we have no choice but to continue down that path?
Roberts: I believe that we have gone so far down this path, as you've described it, that it's clear to me right now the people of Iowa are accepting of legalized gambling and we have pretty well saturated the state of Iowa with it. Most people live within an hour or an hour and a half of a casino. If they want to gamble, they can access that in a number of different locations. I’ve always contended so many people want to gamble, the rest will never gamble and there's a limited market for this. I think we've reached the saturation point.
Glover: So there's a request for four more casino licenses.
Roberts: We have a racing and gaming commission that has citizen members, and their charge is to receive these applications, consider them, weigh all of the information, do the research, and then come up with an informed decision: is in fact another one, two, or however many new licenses warranted here in the state of Iowa? They’re going to make that determination with these four applicants I believe next month. And I think once they do that, I think you will see Iowa completely saturated, and I would not be surprised if they allow for another one, two, or more licenses. It could very well tip the scale here in, Iowa and one or two existing casinos could find themselves in financial trouble.
Glover: If you sat on that committee, how would you vote?
Roberts: Personally I’m not a proponent of gambling, so I don't know if they will have allowed me to be a member of that commission because they'd know my bias going in. I think it is inappropriate for the governor to try to influence this commission as it has the applications in front of it, as it's deliberating and making an informed decision. And even as a candidate running for governor, I may express my personal preference, I’m not a proponent of gambling; but at this point the process we use in Iowa, agreed to by the legislature and the governor, is that we allow the racing and gaming commission to make this decision. They will do that based as much on a business marketing reason as anything else, and I think now that we're so close to the decision, you let it play out. And I really think whatever they decide sets the stage here in Iowa for years to come.
Glover: You know, one of your opponents is a former governor, Terry Branstad, who presided over the birth, if you will, of the gambling industry in this state. Was that a mistake? Was it a mistake to start down that path? I mean it's win thing to say here's what we do now that we have this gambling industry. But was it a mistake to start down that path?
Roberts: A year and a half ago I was in a public setting where the governor was asked questions with regard to reflection on his sixteen years of service. And in that public setting, governor Branstad in a moment of transparency and honesty said, you know, the one decision that I perhaps regret most during those sixteen years was the decision to legalize gambling in Iowa. And I think in his own words he's admitted to that, and I respect that. You know, in hindsight we can all look back and go, boy, I’d have done that one over if I’d have had a chance. Because I don't even believe at that point the former governor knew just how significant the industry would become and how the proverbial tail is going to wag the dog on this thing, and it has. And so I can appreciate that sentiment. I think he would do it differently today. I would not have legalized gambling if I had been governor, but at this point it's water under the bridge. It’s behind us. You have nearly twenty years of history now, and I think that the state's responsibility is to regulate and manage this industry very, very well. And as governor, I will do that. But I believe we've reached the saturation point and there's no reason to continue to expand gambling here in Iowa beyond whatever the decision is made next month by the Racing and Gaming commission.
Henderson: You and other --
Borg: Go ahead, Kay.
Henderson: You and other republicans have been critical of what's called I-jobs. It was a borrowing plan that Governor Culver advanced to in part respond to some of the infrastructure problems created by 2008 flooding and also to finance infrastructure projects around the state. What do you find most objectionable to that, and how would you finance infrastructure problems like many cities face sewer problems?
Roberts: Well, several years ago the governor decided that we ought to take more money out of our rebuild Iowa infrastructure fund, which is a pay-as-you-go capital -- capitals fund here in Iowa. Money was taken from that, put into the general fund, and when the floods happened and when the need became apparent to provide resources to help not only relieve flood victims over in the Cedar Rapids -- or the eastern Iowa area but help provide resources to rebuild, here you have that capitals fund that now has been used up. It’s not available. And all we had left was the economic emergency fund, and every dollar in that should have been sent to eastern Iowa. Instead only $50 million was sent. $100 million was left back. We should have immediately gone into special session early that fall after the flooding and we should have appropriated every dollar out of that economic emergency fund for flood relief and assistance because that's why the fund was established, why the money is collected. The governor then said, well, I guess I’ll have to borrow the money since we no longer have the pay as you go account, which we should have kept. So he proposed a bonding plan, $1.66 billion in principle and interest that Iowans will have to pay back over twenty years. Iowans are adverse to that in their own lives, and they do not like the idea of government here in Iowa borrowing money and then requiring our children to pay off the debt.
Glover: Representative Roberts, it wouldn't be an official Iowa Press program if we didn't spend a little time talking about just pure politics, so let's turn to that.
Glover: Let's look at the health of the Republican Party. The republicans have lost the house, the senate, the governor's office, and President Obama carried the state by a hefty margin in the last election. What’s the health of the Republican Party?
Roberts: I believe the Republican Party is seeing a resurgence, but I would temper that by saying what's happening at the grass roots with citizens has as much to do with disappointment in the two-party system. I think citizens have grown weary of the two parties constantly working against each other and almost polarizing people. And I believe that in 2010 the voters are going to make a strong statement as much as about the party system and politics as usual as they are the candidates themselves. The Republican Party here in Iowa I think has been reenergized because of the election of president Obama, because of the failure of Chet Culver, and people are activated in a way now where they're going to be a powerful influence in this upcoming election cycle.
Glover: It strikes me, though, that the energy is not in either party. The energy is outside of the two parties. How does the Republican Party benefit from that?
Roberts: Actually at the grass-roots level, there's a lot of energy outside the party but there's a lot of energy within the base -- the grass roots of the Republican Party. I’m not talking about the organizational structure and leadership of the party. I’m talking about Iowans who are affiliated, registered as republicans. They’re as activated and energized as citizens who are involved in the tea movement, the 912 movement. They all are. This is a vast swath of the electorate here in Iowa who are energized and activated. Now, the party does have an issue. And in the other two candidates, former Governor Branstad and Bob Vander Plaats, it's very apparent that people who support either of those two candidates have a real problem with the other candidate. We do have disunity within the party. I believe that helps the alternative, Rod Roberts, to be the candidate who can appeal to republicans who might naturally support Bob Vander Plaats or be more comfortable supporting Terry Branstad but who are concluding a divided republican party after the primary cannot succeed against Chet Culver. We need a candidate whom we can all rally behind and unite behind. I’m that candidate because a united republican party can then go into the general election and with a united front then make an appeal to independents and at least conservative democrats to build the base we need to defeat Chet Culver.
Henderson: How do you gauge the anti-incumbent mood? It strikes me that earlier in this program you have referred to yourself as a new face. Governor Branstad is seeking a fifth term. You referenced Bob Vander Plaats as running for governor for most of the past decade. Are you trying to fashion yourself as the anti-incumbent?
Roberts: I think there is a strong anti-incumbent mood right now. And it's certainly stated that our elected officials in Washington, D.C., are unresponsive to the will of the people. And there's strong term limit sentiment expressed toward Washington, but I think here in Iowa you find people also concluding with former Governor Branstad, sixteen years is a long time for someone to serve in that office. And you're asking for another four years for a total of twenty, and a lot of Iowans find it very difficult to believe that any one person can be that indispensable to leading as governor. And with Bob Vander Plaats, you have somebody who has been working at this for the better part of a decade. People know who he is and it's almost that there's a weariness that's crept in, and I’ve uncovered this. It’s like, you know what, we're moving on and we're looking for someone new to get behind and support. And I’ve attracted a lot of those people who formally may have been supporters of Bob Vander Plaats but they're very happy to be on board with me.
Glover: Let's say it doesn't work out. Let’s say you don't win the republican nomination, you don't win the governor's office. What role does Rod Roberts want to play in republican politics moving forward?
Roberts: Well, first of all, I do believe I’ll be the surprise candidate on June 8 and go on to win in November. But given the hypothetical question you raised, first of all, this has been one of the highlights of my personal and professional life, running for governor. Nine months and it's been outstanding. No matter what happens, I will have benefited from this. I think my influence goes on beyond this and certainly my involvement.
Borg: And that's all the time we have. We’ll finish on that positive note. Thanks so much for being with us today.
Roberts: Thank you.
Borg: As I said at the beginning of today's program, our visit with Representative Roberts today is the second of a three-part series with republican candidates for governor. Next, Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats joining us next weekend to discuss his candidacy. You’ll see Bob Vander Plaats at our usual Iowa Press times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. And reminding you too that the internet is your communication link to our Iowa Press staff. The e-mail address is at the bottom of the screen, firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d like to hear from you. I’m Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.