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Governor Chet Culver Discusses His Tenure

posted on December 17, 2010

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Closing shop. Less than one month remaining in Iowa Governor Chet Culver's administration before republican Terry Branstad takes over the executive branch of Iowa government. Perspective on the past four years and future plans in a conversation with outgoing Governor Chet Culver on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: The analogy may not be entirely accurate but there is somewhat of a parallel between the posting of many going out of business signs throughout Iowa during the past four years and the preparations for vacating Governor Chet Culver's office. In fact, Governor Culver often refers to tough economic times in defending decisions and policies during the past four years. Campaigning for a second term, Governor Culver acknowledged some mistakes but voters decided against giving him a second term and a returning republican Terry Branstad is Iowa's Chief Executive on January 14th. Governor Culver joins us today reflecting on the past four years and perhaps providing some insight on his future plans. Governor Culver, welcome back to Iowa Press, good to have you here.

Culver: Thank you, Dean. Great to be here.

Borg: Thanks for taking time for us today.

Culver: My pleasure.

Borg: And across the table, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Governor, since the election you have taken some fairly significant steps. You have reached an agreement with the largest union representing state workers. Tell us about your thought process about what you think you can do during this transition period.

Culver: Well, obviously we want this to be a smooth transition. I think it has been. I told Governor-elect Branstad on election night that I wanted that to be the case. However, I still have significant responsibilities all the way up until midnight on the 14th of January and that included working out an agreement with respect to the union and state workers.

Glover: And what else do you feel you want to accomplish in the next month or so?

Culver: Well, obviously we want to do all we can to continue to communicate and coordinate with the incoming administration, that is our top priority, just making sure that they hit the ground running when they start on the 15th of January.

Glover: And you have suggested that if names for the openings in the Supreme Court land on your desk you would appoint them?

Culver: Well, that's what I said after the election. It is clear now that the commission, the Judicial Nominating Commission, has set a calendar and that will not be possible for me to make those appointments. At the time we didn't know what the commission was going to do. Now that they have established a clear calendar, Governor Branstad will be making those appointments and that is fine with me. But the point I was making is that if the commission decided otherwise that I would fulfill my duties and make those appointments.

Glover: And there's been something of a move among some incoming legislators to target the remaining four justices of the Iowa Supreme Court. What is your advice to people who want to do that?

Culver: Well, look, I'm an old government teacher, I respect the independence of our three branches of government. That is why during the election I said that we should respect the Supreme Court decision, that we should support the fact that they are an independent entity and I will continue to believe that. The are a co-equal branch of government and I think it's a pretty slippery slope if we start making these decisions on retention based on one decision at a time. Some would argue that if we're not careful we'll go to a system where the people vote essentially on every single court decision and they sometimes make two or three in a given week and that would I think be a bad thing for our democratic process overall.

Borg: Kay.

Henderson: One other thing that is still on your plate is a project labor agreement for a couple of state projects, for the Mitchellville State Prison and for the Iowa Veteran's Home in Marshalltown. The Master Builders of Iowa asked you not to sign those agreements in early January, the week before you leave office. You have said you are going to. Explain to viewers why you're going to sign those agreements.

Culver: Because the court has already ruled that the Master Builders do not have a legitimate argument. The Supreme Court in Iowa has ruled that project labor agreements are allowed for projects, for certain state projects of a given size. This process has been in place now for several months. We have worked out the agreements. The Master Builders tried to stop these projects on several occasions. They lost at the administrative law judge level, they lost at the district court level so they had their fair chance to make their arguments in the court of law and I'm doing what is in the best interest of these hardworking Iowa families. We're talking about 800 really good paying jobs in Mitchellville, down in southeast Iowa in Fort Madison and I've always been a champion for hardworking Iowa families. And we have a Supreme Court law in this state that says the project labor agreements are allowed. In fact, we built one of the largest projects in our state, the Wells Fargo Arena with a project labor agreement.

Henderson: Mike mentioned the judicial retention elections. Your wife last week, she is a lawyer, First Lady Mary Culver, said now that the election is over she can speak her mind and she said it was a stain on the state of Iowa. Do you agree with your wife?

Culver: She is a very capable, independent woman and I can't imagine that we've ever had a first lady that has been such a wonderful advocate on behalf of the people of Iowa. What she has done traveling this state, fighting for women and children that are at risk, women and children across Iowa, thousands of them that are living in shelters and what she has done as a spokesperson on their behalf is something I'm very proud of and you can ask her maybe if she comes on the show before the 14th of January.

Henderson: But what is your view?

Borg: But what do you think? Do you think the same?

Culver: I think that we need to support, as I said earlier to Mike, the independent judiciary system, that we should respect the fact that they are a co-equal branch of government.

Henderson: There is also a lawsuit been filed this past week which challenges the method by which judicial retention elections have been held.  You used to be Iowa's Secretary of State, as such commissioner of elections for eight years. Do you think the method by which the judicial elections are held in Iowa is suspect?

Culver: That is a great question for Mike Mauro. I have not been familiar with the legal arguments related to that most recent challenge.

Borg: What about the retention, not the retention but the nominating process? Should that be changed?

Culver: Absolutely not. It is the best in the nation.

Borg: What about the political balance of that commission?

Culver: The political balance is healthy. It is important to have that flexibility. What I find interesting is that for sixteen years when former Governor Branstad was governor we used the exact same process. Before that, for fourteen years with Governor Ray, we selected judges using the current process.

Borg: And it was flawed then -- is it flawed now?

Culver: Well, I don't think it was flawed then because Governor Ray nor former Governor Branstad tried to ever change it for that period. It works better than any selection process in America. Obviously when you have democrats in control of the Governor's Office for twelve years in a row you're going to have more likely than not more commission members, the lay people will probably lean a little to the democratic party but that was the case when Terry Branstad was governor and Bob Ray was governor that the overwhelming majority of those at will or lay people were also republican.

Glover: Moving forward from here, as you look around Iowa politics and the Iowa political landscape what role do you want to play in democratic politics in the state?

Culver: Well, you know, we'll see. I have been so privileged, Mike, to serve as a statewide elected official in Iowa now for twelve years. It has been an honor and privilege and I really want to thank your viewers today for giving me that incredible opportunity to lead this great state that I love so much as the 40th governor of Iowa. And we'll see what the future holds. Number one, I want to be the best father in America. I have two incredible kids. My daughter Claire is nine, my son John is eight. Family is first and everything else beyond that will take care of itself.

Glover: Is it fair to say you won't be inactive?

Culver: Well, we don't know. It really depends on what I decide to do professionally and that is not clear at this time.

Henderson: What role do you think the judicial nominating election had in your contest? Do you think it played a significant role in your defeat?

Culver: It was a big issue. I mean, we had a record turnout for an off-year election and that is saying something. I think it is fair to say that a lot of people came out to vote based on that judicial retention question. And I was on the other side. I was advocating to keep the justices. I was fighting for civil rights. I think it would be wrong to amend our constitution in Iowa in a way that is discriminatory and wrong. So, I'm proud of the position that I took. And sometimes in politics that's kind of how things shake out.

Glover: It probably hurt you?

Culver: I'll leave that up to you all to kind of analyze that. But to Kay's question, the fact that we had a record turnout and the fact that that question was on the ballot certainly had an impact on the race.

Borg: Do you feel that you were running really against two campaign leaders, Bob Vander Plaats and Terry Branstad?

Culver: Not necessarily, not necessarily. I'm a student of history and government. I wanted, you know, 1980 my father was on the ballot. That was a major kind of tidal wave, my father lost in 1980 when Ronald Reagan swept 49 of 50 states. I know well that my father also won in 1964 the first time he was on the ballot in part because of the Lyndon Johnson landslide across America. So, I understand that that pendulum swings back and forth and the way I look at it I was very fortunate that three out of the four times I was on the ballot starting in 1998 I was going with the tide and I'm grateful for that.

Henderson: Well, let's analyze some of the parallels between 1980 and 2010, both big tide elections, republican tide elections. When did you see it coming? And was there any way Chet Culver could have won in 2010 despite whomever your opponent may have been?

Culver: Absolutely I believed I was going to win that race, as all of you know, up until around 11:00 on election night when it looked like it was mathematically impossible. So, I had great faith and confidence that we could overcome the political environment in the Midwest and in the country. That is why we went to 82 cities in the final 11 days, that's why I campaigned with so much enthusiasm and I had a lot of fun and I was just hopeful that we would get that message out. And the message I really made in the closing days is that we're the third best run state in the United States of America. And I said during the campaign, you know, why would you fire the coach? If you're the third best in America -- in Atlantic Monthly they had an analysis of every state, they looked at our AAA bond rating, our $800 million cash reserves, the fact that we're leading America in renewable energy, producing 20% of our power from renewable sources, we're number one in terms of healthcare for kids. So, you know, I was confident that we could get some of that good news out there despite the overwhelming mood in America that wasn't really favorable because of the worldwide recession.

Borg: But in this case in firing the coach it wasn't the athletic director who made the decision, it was the fans.

Culver: That's right. That's right and that's totally understandable and I respect completely, I am at peace with the decision that those fans made. But I also continue to be touched by the people that I meet every day that have said very nice things about our record. Last night, for example, a woman went out of her way to thank me for my four years of service. This morning I looked at a Christmas card that someone sent to Terrace Hill thanking my wife and I for our service. So, we still had about 400,000 people, 400,000 fans fighting for us.

Borg: What we're talking about today is legacy and four years is a relatively short time to establish what we call a legacy. But a governor's decisions are indelible and easily seen now. But back in February 2007, just after Governor Culver took office, we asked him about his aspirations that would establish his legacy.

Glover - Iowa Press 2007: What are your top priorities? What are the things -- I guess it's a way of asking what do you want to be remembered for?

Culver - Iowa Press 2007: We can not do everything that people want us to do but we can do a great deal. So, I think when it comes to the budget I hope that I'm a governor that is fiscally conservative, that I leave the state's fiscal house in better shape than I found it.

Borg: That legacy aspiration slip away from you?

Culver: Not at all. We have a $900 million surplus...

Borg: But it was a campaign issue.

Culver: Well, it sure was and there was a lot of political rhetoric around that issue. The fact is, Dean, today the budget is smaller than it was when I started in February or January of 2007. When I took office we had a AA bond rating. On my watch, for the first time in Iowa history we have earned a AAA bond rating and those bond ratings were just reaffirmed within the last several months and our surplus is one of the highest in America. Revenue projections continue to increase every quarter. The Revenue Estimating Conference just met a couple of weeks ago and increased their projections once again. So, I'm glad that you showed that clip because we have managed this budget during the toughest times in Iowa history.

Borg: But I think Mike is probably going to follow up with the fact, and you go ahead, Mike, but there's a big hole in that budget coming up, isn't there, Mike?

Glover: Well, there is but let's look big picture. You're coming up to the end of your term as governor. What do you want to be remembered for? What is going to be your legacy? That was a question I asked you four years ago, I'd like to ask you that question now. What do you want your legacy to be?

Culver: Well, number one, I am a committed father, that I took the time to make sure that my family did well through those challenging times that I served as governor, that my priorities were in order in terms of my family and my faith and I feel good about the fact that we're leaving Terrace Hill stronger and really content and fortunate that we had this experience as a family together. Beyond that I think the fact that Iowa is now recognized across America and around the world as the leader in renewable energy, that we've gone from producing five percent of our energy from renewable sources when I took office to twenty percent today which is actually number one in the world, that percentage per capita. The fact that as governor we built 40 wind farms partnering with the private sector, with utility companies like MidAmerican Energy and local communities like Riceville, Iowa to build these wind farms and that we have employed thousands and thousands of people. We're now making the towers and turbines and blades for these windmills in places like Newton. So, I think I've delivered on the promise that I made to make Iowa the renewable energy capitol of the United States and the silicon prairie of the Midwest because we are doing cutting edge research related to second and third generation renewable energy technologies unlike anywhere else in America.

Glover: And you touched on this earlier but where do we go from here? What is the future for Governor Chet Culver and is it in Iowa?

Culver: Well, the future is going to be bright. I am very optimistic, I am excited about some of the opportunities that lie ahead. We hope to continue to live in Iowa. I'm a fifth generation Iowan and I love this state. My children are very happy in their old neighborhood once again and attending Sacred Heart in West Des Moines.

Glover: What are some of those opportunities?

Culver: Well, I'm hopeful that I'll be able to find a full-time position in the renewable energy sector. That is really my top preference. I also prefer being a CEO. I really have enjoyed running a large $6 billion dollar entity.  Again, I think we've governed effectively, balancing the budget for four years in a row, earning a AAA bond rating and managing through some tough times, making some tough decisions.

Henderson: Would you ever run for office again?

Culver: It's too early to know that right now. Again, I've been privileged to serve the people of Iowa now for twelve years in statewide elective office. I have been in politics for closer to 20 years starting right out of college in 1988 working for the Iowa Democratic Party. So, I'm really excited about pursuing some of my other dreams that I have. And I said this just recently when I traveled abroad to highlight what we've done in Iowa related to the Iowa Power Fund, I was actually in Brazil on behalf of the National Governors Biofuels Coalition, I am the chairman of that entity and I said at every meeting that there's nothing more important as far as I'm concerned in the world today than energy security. And I want to be a part of that discussion, I want to help lead America towards energy independence and I'm very excited about the opportunities in renewable energy to create good paying jobs in Iowa, across the Midwest because job creation is really what it's going to take to turn our economy around in America.

Henderson: I'm going to tick off some of your signature achievements -- I-jobs, the Power Fund, public pre-school. Republicans are going to dismantle all of those. What does that say about your legacy?

Culver: It is yet to be seen what they're going to be -- what they'll dismantle and what they won't dismantle. And so the fact is that we delivered on our promises to expand pre-school to more than 20,000 children, we delivered on our promise to turn Iowa into the renewable energy capitol of the United States in part because of the Iowa Power Fund. And we did what it took through I-jobs, the Iowa Jobs and Infrastructure Initiative to ensure that places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, our second largest city and small communities like Oakville, had a chance, just have a fighting chance to recover from the worst flood in our state's history. And half of that money went to flood recovery, about $400 million dollars.

Borg: We're running out of time ...

Henderson: 50 years from now might your legacy be the smoking ban?

Culver: We will see. I'm a young man so I'm not really focused on legacy. I focused every single day as governor getting up, working as hard as I can and let me tell you one thing, I feel really good about our team. I want to thank Patty Judge, the First Lady, our dedicated staff at the Governor's Office, our amazing department directors who have worked tirelessly to help make Iowa the third best run state in America.

Glover: One of the defining moments of your term in office was your standing up to labor and vetoing one of their labor priorities. That sort of defined your relationship with a core democratic constituency. In retrospect was that a mistake?

Culver: You know, I'm not looking back, Mike, I'm looking forward. I've learned very well in this job as governor that every time you make a decision you're going to have people that agree with that decision and people that don't agree with that decision and every time you make a decision the press is going to have a lot of questions about it. So, I'm not looking back, I feel good about the way that we have governed effectively, I think I have been fair in terms of my commitment to hardworking Iowans including our public employees and I think I have been fair to management as well.

Glover: Moving forward and looking at the big picture, now that you can step back a little bit, what is the health of the Democratic Party in this state?

Culver: Well, we had a tough year. We had a tough cycle in 2010 and we have a lot of work to do. But the republicans ...

Glover: ... organization ...

Culver: The republicans have certainly shown that you can come back and they did a good job between 2008 and 2010 of getting organized and winning seats and I think the democrats need to ...

Glover: Is it message? Is it organization? Is it structure?

Culver: Well, there are three important components in terms of political organization. You've got your ground game, your field operation, you've got the message, the policy and fundraising and you have to do all three of those things well whether you're running for office or if you're a state party or national party. I am encouraged, I will say, that Tim Cain is our national chairman. He is a former colleague of mine, former governor of Virginia and I told him when I met with him last week in Washington that we couldn't have a better, stronger leader in Chairman Tim Cain at the national level so 2012 is going to be a great year for democrats.

Borg: Governor, thanks so much for being with us today and we hope to have you back again sometime in the future.

Culver: Well, thank you and I hope to continue to work with all of you in the press. It has truly been an honor and privilege and, Dean, I want to thank you for being the host of one of my favorite shows, Iowa Press, and I will continue to watch.

Borg: Thank you, thank you.  On our next edition of Iowa Press we're continuing our conversation with Iowa's governors. We'll be talking with former Governor Tom Vilsack now in the federal government as Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration. You'll see our conversation with Tom Vilsack at the usual Iowa Press times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning.

Borg: This past week we, the Iowa Public Television family, indeed all of Iowa lost one of its television personality icons.

Mary Jane Odell passed away at the age of 87 this past week. Noted as an extraordinarily talented interviewer for more than 40 years, Mary Jane became an on-air talent known far and wide by her first name only. She was the go-to interviewer long before she came to IPTV in 1975 where she excelled in a number of daily and weekly formats. Mary Jane began her Iowa broadcast career in 1955 as Mary Jane Chin on KRNT-TV Channel 8 in Des Moines. She was a true broadcast pioneer in that women, at that time, weren't fixtures in the newsroom but a fixture she was and her star shined the brightest as an intelligent, well prepared and thoughtful personality and interviewer.

Before coming to IPTV, Mary Jane had an eight year run in Chicago, voted the best interviewer in Chicago and two Emmy awards later she returned to her home state and to IPTV in 1975. Mary Jane was a native of Algona, a graduate of the University of Iowa, president of her senior class and she earned Phi Beta Kappa honors. She also made her mark as a public servant. Mary Jane was appointed Secretary of State by Governor Robert Ray in 1980 and then was elected to that post in 1982 and went on to serve a total of seven years at the Iowa statehouse.

Her awards, countless. Her intelligence and diligence, appreciated. And her contributions to the broadcast industry in Iowa and beyond are immeasurable. Those who worked with her, and that includes me, and those who appreciated her work will miss her.


Tags: Chet Culver Democrats economy First Ladies future governors Iowa Iowa legislature Iowa Supreme Court judicial retention Mary Culver Mary Jane Odell politics