Accentuating the positive. Iowa Governor Chet Culver countering 2010's voter frustration with a litany of first-term achievements. A conversation with Governor Culver on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Some might call it a perfect storm for political incumbents. A struggling economy snatching jobs and draining economic equity is motivating voters seeking change. Political incumbents are hoping voters are listening when they say no matter how much it hurts, things would likely have been worse if we hadn't -- how many times have you heard it -- made tough decisions. Iowa Governor Chet Culver is among the incumbents seeking re-election, and he says he'll be making an official announcement of his candidacy on Monday. From there he'll make a week-long campaign swing around the state of Iowa. He’s seeking a second term against a republican candidate who will be nominated in the primary election a little more than three weeks away now. Governor Culver, welcome back to Iowa Press.
Culver: Great to be with you, Dean. Thank you.
Borg: And across the Iowa Press table, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Governor, as Dean mentioned, you're going to be formally announcing your campaign next week. A lot of us have not been in suspense about whether you want a second term or not. Tell us your message. What argument are you going to use to tell voters why you should have a second term?
Culver: Well, first of all, I can't wait till next week. As I’ve said quite often recently, you know, governing is really tough and difficult. Campaigning is fun. So I’m looking forward to hitting the trail. The lieutenant governor and I will go to 42 cities across the state, along with the first lady. I want to build on our strengths in education and renewable energy, information technology, and infrastructure to create jobs across this straight. Some great things are happening in Iowa. Yesterday we learned that farm incomes are up 10 percent. Forbes Magazine recently said that Des Moines, Iowa, is the best place in America to do business. We have made great progress in the last forty months. We’ve expanded access to health care for 58,000 kids. We’ve opened a hundred new preschools for 12,000 children to go to preschool for the first time. We lifted the ban on stem cell research. We’re now going to find hopefully breakthrough cures at the University of Iowa in terms of Alzheimer’s and diabetes cures of the future. And we've raised the minimum wage. We’ve really stood up and fought for hard working Iowa families too.
Glover: As we step back and look at it, is your announcement going to be a review of your first four years in office or a preview of what you want to do for your next four years?
Culver: More of a preview. This election is going to be about the future. The lieutenant governor and I are very proud of our record, and I’ve highlighted some of the things that we've already accomplished. We feel good about those accomplishments, but the question for the next governor of Iowa, the question is what do you plan to do in the future. And I think there will be an unmistakable choice on November 2, a choice to continue to go forward and build on this progress that we've made in the last four years or to go back, back to the '80s and turn the clock back. I think Iowans are going to focus on the future. I want Iowa to be the best connected state in America . That’s why we're investing hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure repair across this state. That’s why we've secured four billion in federal and state funds for flood recovery. I want Iowa to be the best place in America to do business. I’d like to double the number of Fortune 500 companies that have come to this state in the last four years. Our goal is to double that number, to bring more Fortune 500 companies to Iowa and/or to get the companies like Aviva and IBM to expand here.
Glover: Well, preview. What are you going to offer for a second term?
Culver: Well, as I’ve said, we're talking about building on our strengths, first of all, in information technology, in infrastructure, in renewable energy. One clear goal that we have is we want every child to have access to universal preschool in this state. We’ve come a long way, opening a hundred new preschools, but we have a ways to go. We want every in Iowa to have health care. That’s another clear goal. We want to double the number of Fortune 500 companies that have come here in the last four years. We want to expand those job opportunities. We want to make sure that Iowa remains the renewable energy capital of the United States and the silicon prairie of the Midwest. That means we're going to continue the research and development on second and third-generation renewable energy technologies like growing algae in Shenandoah. We could make that a commercially viable alternative. Emmetsburg, we're investing in cellulosic ethanol. That could become the first plant in America to produce cellulosic ethanol. These are great opportunities for the future of our state and for young people that are looking for job opportunities in 99 counties.
Henderson: Governor, there have been party primaries in other states. There’s been a state convention in another state. This seems to be shaping up to be an anti-incumbent year. How do you address the mood of the electorate?
Culver: Well, first of all, Kay, it has truly been an honor and a privilege to serve as the 40th governor of this great state. I’m a proud fifth-generation Iowan. I’ve truly enjoyed the opportunity to serve through some pretty tough times, some real challenges. And I think by November 2, again, voters will realize that there's a clear choice about going forward and building on the progress we've made in the last four years or going back to the failed republican policies of the past. We’re hearing it in this primary: trickle-down economics, tax cuts for the wealthy corporations. Those policies have been tried, and they've been failed in the past. And I think voters are going to learn very clearly about the choice that we have: Do we want to continue to allow women in Iowa to make their own health care decisions? Do we want to continue to do stem cell research? Do we want to continue to provide educational opportunities for children to go to preschool? These are all things that the opponents on the other side want to take away. They want to repeal that process. So this is really going to be a referendum on our state's future on November 2. It’s my job, starting on Monday, to crisscross this state to work as hard as I can to talk about our record of accomplishment that we're very proud of but to also focus on our goals for the future.
Borg: As long as you said referendum, I might just as well say here, some are saying too it's a referendum on same-sex marriage.
Culver: I don't think it will be, Dean. I really don't think that that will be the case on November 2. I think that Iowans are going to want to go forward. The overwhelming majority of Iowans do not want to amend our constitution in a way that we all know would be discriminatory. That, again, a choice about going forward and being more progressive in this state or going backward. And that will be a big question on November 2.
Henderson: Governor, there are some democrats who are less than enthusiastic about supporting your candidacy, given some of the actions you've taken in the past three and a half years. How do you address the concerns of democrats?
Culver: Well, Kay, we have brought this party together. We are unified. We are strong. I do not have a primary challenge. I think that suggests that the party is united. I just received the unanimous endorsement of the Iowa Federation of Labor. Planned Parenthood of Iowa has stepped up and endorsed my candidacy. We had the best session of the legislature this year working with majority leader Mike Gronstal and Speaker Pat Murphy, and we got the people's work done. And the most recent poll actually showed that I have as much if not more support from the Democratic Party than any one of my republican opponents has from the Republican Party, and that suggests that we are building this party. And actually we have 100,000 new members of the democratic party of Iowa, thanks in part to president Obama.
Glover: If you talk -- well, let's talk about President Obama. If we talk about an incumbent who is not on the ballot this year, it's President Obama. His numbers have gone down. He carried the state fairly easily. He won the caucuses and launched his campaign here, so he has a presence here. Do you want him in this campaign? Would he be helpful and would you like to have him come and campaign for you?
Culver: Absolutely. In fact, he was just here. I was with the president in southeast Iowa. He’s been very supportive in terms of our state's goals related to expanding health care access to more kids, our goal of making Iowa the renewable energy capitol of the United States . We need a partner in the White House. We need a partner in this administration to help us on flood recovery. They have been extraordinarily helpful. They’ve had 12 cabinet secretaries come to Iowa in the last year and a half to help us on our flood recovery efforts. The vice president is going to be here on Tuesday to help on my re-election announcement, and we're glad to have him in this state as well.
Glover: So you'll invite the president out as part of your campaign operation, and you think he would be a positive?
Culver: Absolutely. And look, Mike, I don't -- you know, Chuck Grassley’s numbers are at historic low levels. The fact of the matter is in my case I’m doing everything I can to keep our economy moving forward, to create jobs. Forbes Magazine said that not only is Des Moines the best place in America to do business today but Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is one of the best places in America to get a job. And overall they ranked Iowa fourth in America in terms of doing business. I’m just telling you this to suggest that, yeah, we've been through some tough times. We’ve had historic floods. We’ve had an historic economic downturn, and we even had a pandemic, the new flu to deal with. But Iowa is coming out of this recession. We’re going to be one of the best positioned states in America when we get out of this recession, and the economic indicators are improving. And I tell you all that to suggest that the voters' moods will also improve when they see progress, when they see that federal building going up in Cedar Rapids, the new federal building that was destroyed with the floods. They’re going to say, well, someone is getting the job done in terms of rebuilding our second largest city, and our administration is proud of that record in terms of flood recovery too.
Borg: But, governor, as you're accentuating the positive, as I said earlier, there is a negative, and that is the issue that's being investigated now by a special prosecutor -- Lawrence Scalise has appointed -- about casino interests contributing to your campaign. How are you going to keep that from being a continuing lingering distraction to the campaign?
Culver: Well, casino interests have contributed to campaigns in this state for a long time. Since Terry Branstad introduced gaming to Iowa, republicans and democratic candidates have accepted --
Borg: But that is not the issue here. The issue is something that's hanging over you and your campaign and really your credibility and reputation.
Culver: Well, our office and our campaign is not the center of this review. There is an allegation that three individuals made a contribution that was not lawful. That’s the investigation. That’s the question that Larry Scalise is going to investigate. But our conscience is clear. I have 7,500 contributors across this state and across the country that have willingly stepped up to support my candidacy. We expect that every one of those donors follow the rules. And if they don't, there will be consequences. So I have no control over what those 7,500 people do. It’s their choice and it's their decision to make sure they are in compliance with the rules and the laws as required in this state.
Glover: Governor, that's a fine answer to the substance of Dean's question and to the legalities of what's going on out here. But there's another side of the equation, and that's the politics of it. The fact is over the next few months, there are going to be a lot of stories written that say Culver, gambling contributions. Whether or not you're directly tied to it, it's a political clout. Isn’t in fact that going to linger for a while, because it doesn't strike me that this goes away quickly?
Culver: Well, there are a lot of things that are completely out of my control, Mike. Obviously we want this to come to a quick and speedy resolution, and we are going to be completely cooperative, as we have been, in terms of any questions that might arise. And we've done nothing wrong. So things happen in life and in politics and in governing sometimes that are out of your control, and you just do the best you can to deal with the facts. And the facts are on our side in this case. And finally, you know, we have 17 casinos in this state. They have contributed to republican candidates for governor, to republican legislative candidates. It’s not uncommon for an elected official, republican or democrat, to accept a contribution. And, again, it's incumbent upon those donors to make sure the rules and the laws are followed.
Glover: How long do you expect this to go on?
Culver: I have no idea. I am focusing on what I can control, and that is doing the very best job every day as the governor of this great state, getting the job done in terms of governing effectively, managing state government, and then at the same time running a winning re-election campaign, which I’ll kick off next Monday.
Henderson: One of the reasons there is a special prosecutor is Attorney General Tom Miller said there was an appearance of a conflict of interest because you have hired Deputy Attorney General Donn Stanley as your campaign manager. Didn’t you exacerbate this problem?
Culver: Not at all. I have the best campaign manager in America . Donn Stanley is a veteran of Iowa politics. He also happens to have a job in state government. He’s taken a leave absence for six months to run my campaign. And that was ultimately a decision that Tom Miller made, and we respect that decision.
Glover: Let's talk about one of the criticisms that people have lodged against you in both your campaign and your office staff. There has been something of what some people say is a revolving door in your campaign and in your office. Your campaign manager has left. Your chief of staff has left. Answer that question. Is in fact your office and your campaign become something of a revolving door?
Culver: No. it is completely normal to have people come in and out of the private sector into government. Not every state employee is a career civil servant. We have tens of thousands of state employees. They decide in terms of what they want to do in their future. And like administrations before mine, there -- typically you have people that come and you have people that decide to leave and do other things. But what matters most, Mike, is do we have the "A" team. Do we have the best team possible in the governor's office today, and the answer is yes. Jim Larew is an extremely capable chief of staff. We’ve brought on some very talented new people, including Jim Flansburg who used to be a reporter, well respected. He’s now our communications director. We’ve brought on a lot of new talented people, and I wish those that have left all the best luck in the world. The same is true with the campaign. Donn Stanley is the best possible campaign manager that I could have running this reelection. He has brought on a number of extremely talented, capable people that want to make sure that this state continues to go forward and not backward on November 2. And I couldn't be more pleased with the teams that are in place both in the office and on the campaign.
Henderson: Governor Culver, your critics have said it's not only not normal but it's questionable that your chief of staff John Frew left to become project manager of a construction project in Cedar Rapids that's receiving I-jobs funding. I-jobs, of course, is the program which you helped establish which finances construction projects around the state. Is that a level of -- is there some sort of question in your might about the propriety of that decision?
Culver: I think any of those questions should be left to the former republican speaker of the house and now mayor of Cedar Rapids, Mayor Corbett, and the nonpartisan city council in Cedar Rapids that hired Mr. Frew. Those were decisions made by the mayor and the city council.
Borg: As long as Kay brought up I-jobs, I wanted to ask a little bit more about that. The state borrowed money to create what is Iowa’s stimulus program, creating jobs, I-jobs. But those jobs have been slow to be created. I mean the vision that you had hasn't quite come true. Doesn’t that take a lot of the luster off that campaign banner?
Culver: No. In fact, the vision is coming true, Dean. Iowa is going to be the best connected state in America in large part because of I-jobs. We’re also going to help communities like Cedar Rapids and Oakville recover from the fourth worst natural disaster in U.S. history because of I-jobs. $300 million in I-jobs funding has gone for flood recovery alone. So just ask those businesses in Coralville that are now going to have a flood wall because of I-jobs protecting one hundred businesses, thousands of employees, hundreds of millions of dollars in economic investment. We are rebuilding this state one community at a time. We’ve secured $4 billion total in state and federal funds, including about $300 million just in I-jobs funding alone.
Borg: Has it -- has it been as rapid, though, as you had wished?
Culver: Absolutely. We are moving as quickly as we can. In Iowa we have a somewhat narrow construction period. And right now there's going to be more dirt moving in this state than at any time in history in terms of infrastructure projects. What I’d like you to do, Dean, is go to talk to the mayor of Jessup, Iowa, who because of I-jobs is rebuilding their city hall. They have had a double-wide trailer in Jessup as their city hall. We stepped up and helped them modernize that important investment in that community. They’ve also leveraged hundreds of thousands more in other funds, federal funds, their own money. Ask the mayor of Emmetsburg or Spencer or Mason City what these I-jobs projects have meant to their communities, not only creating jobs in terms of construction jobs short term but, more importantly, long term creating the conditions for additional job growth and more investment. Because IBM came to Dubuque, Dean, in large part because it is a well-connected city. Google came to Council Bluffs because they have a modern, well-connected infrastructure, thanks in part to I-jobs projects and also Mayor Hanafan's leadership in Council Bluffs. That’s what I-jobs is about. It’s an investment in the future of Iowa, making it the best connected place in America . And finally, we have a responsible way to pay for it. We are using gaming revenues that are already being earmarked for infrastructure --
Borg: To pay off the borrowed money.
Culver: To pay off the bonds. We’re not raising taxes to pay for I-jobs.
Glover: Let me take one of the criticisms that your critics have levied at you. You’re taking a lot of this federal stimulus money, a lot of the I-jobs money, which is borrowed gambling money, and pouring it into ongoing projects. When we run out of this one-time money, we're going to fall off a budget cliff. How do you respond to that?
Culver: We are going to create the economic environment for more investment, for more job creation in the future. Let me give you one example. In Davenport, Iowa, because of the Iowa jobs and infrastructure initiative, we're investing in a sewer project there that will allow the city of Davenport to develop 20 square miles that is otherwise undeveloped today, unincorporated. So that small investment in that sewer project is ultimately going to mean hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development, housing projects, commercial projects, more job opportunities. That is a -- just one example. We’ve now invested in 1,500 projects across the state of Iowa. One of my frustrations in terms of those that have opposed I-jobs is what is their solution. How do you help the folks in Oakville and Charles City and Elkader? How do you replace that fire station in Charles city if you don't help with state resources? What, do you have a bake sale? Do you have a $300-million bake sale to pay for flood recovery? Those communities needed our help. The democratic -- democrats in the legislature and our administration, we stepped up and we found a way to help immediately. And that's going to be on the ballot too on November 2 is who has stepped up and helped in terms of rebuilding the state from that historic flood.
Henderson: Governor, at the beginning of this program, you mentioned an expanded state investment in preschool. The three republicans who are seeking their party's gubernatorial nomination each say the state can't afford to fund preschool programs, especially the money that's been allotted this year to provide preschool to four year olds.
Culver: I just could not disagree more. I hope every voter understands that that is on the ballot November 2. Do we want to continue to invest in our children or not? I say yes, we will continue to invest. I am proud of the fact that we've opened a hundred new preschools in forty months for 12,000 kids. Look, I’m one of the only governors in America that's been in the classroom. I’m the proud parent of two amazing children, John and Clare, who are now nine and seven. They were fortunate to have an early opportunity to go to preschool. As a result, they're really doing well in school today. I want to give every Iowa child that same opportunity. Furthermore, we already are partnering with the private sector and nonprofits and churches on the empowerment preschool program. So for the republican candidates for governor to want to take that investment away is wrong, and that will be on the ballot. And we need to give these young people the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential. Ninety percent -- ninety percent of brain development occurs 0-6. This is an investment we can't afford to not make in the future. And as governor, I will continue to make that investment.
Glover: Governor, it wouldn't be an official Iowa Press show if we didn't spend at least a couple of minutes talking about just pure politics. Your predecessor served two terms. His predecessor served sixteen years. His predecessor served fourteen years. You’re running for a second term. Talk to me about how long you envision -- how long would you like to be governor?
Culver: I want to be governor so that I can see this flood recovery effort all the way through. That will take a few years. Look, I’m a fifth-generation Iowan. My parents and grandparents on both sides are from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This is personal to me. I want to make sure I stand up and fight every day as long as I’m governor for those flood victims, for those businesses. so we want to fight at least for four more years to see this rebuilding effort all the way through, to expand access to early childhood education for kids, to make sure we continue to be the renewable energy capital of the united states. And beyond the next term, I can't predict. But I want to tell you, I hope that Iowans give me a chance, and I’m here today to ask your viewers for their vote on November 2.
Glover: So you're not saying a second term is it. You’re saying we'll see.
Culver: One day at a time. One day at a time. I can't predict the future. I’m focusing today on everything that I can control. And the two things I can do today is, number one, make sure that government continues to run effectively, that we have the best managed state in America and, two, to do what I can to get re-elected in six short months.
Glover: Do you have long-term ambitions beyond the governor's office.
Culver: I have a short-term goal today of doing the very best job I can as governor. I also hope I’m given the privilege of serving a second term, and the future will definitely take care of itself. And let me tell you one last thing. The future in Iowa is very bright. We’ve had some dark clouds across the horizon in terms of the economic downturn and the floods of '08. But there is a shining new day just around the corner, and I hope to have the privilege of serving in the future as governor too.
Borg: And I’m way out of time. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Culver: Thank you, Dean.
Borg: On our next edition of Iowa Press, switching to the Iowa legislative branch, we'll have senate democratic majority leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs and from the House of Representatives, republican minority leader Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha. The two legislators, Gronstal and Paulsen, at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. Another special program reminder, on Thursday of this coming week, May 20th, you'll see the three men wanting a spot on November’s ballot opposing Governor Chet Culver. It’s a debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register. Candidates Terry Branstad, Rod Roberts, and Bob Vander Plaats challenging each other face to face. The day is Thursday. It’s live at Noon on IPTV's World channel. If you don't see it live at Noon, it will be rebroadcast at 7:00 that night. That’s Thursday night on statewide Iowa Public Television. I’m Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.