Job changes. Democrat Bruce Braley giving up his first district congressional seat, hoping for one in the U.S. Senate. And republican State Auditor David Vaudt resigning, right now. We're questioning Braley and Vaudt in two separate interviews on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: In late January we questioned Congressman Braley about eventually maybe running for the U.S. Senate. At that time he deferred saying, incumbent democratic Senator Tom Harkin hadn't disclosed his future plans. The very next day, January 26th, Senator Harkin announced he's not seeking another term and within a few days Congressman Braley announced that he will in the Senate. Well, with those developments we've invited Congressman Braley back to update the conversation. Welcome back.
Braley: Thanks, Dean.
Borg: And that's what we're going to be talking about, you can bet on that. And I think you like to talk about the campaign.
Borg: And across the Iowa Press table James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Congressman, after the events in Boston around the marathon there were some in Congress, including republican Congressman Steve King from Iowa, who said it was time to put the immigration reform push on hold. Do you agree?
Braley: Not at all, Kay. The two issues are completely separate. We've been talking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform for years and just now it seems like we're finally getting to the point where there's bipartisan consensus to move forward. I met this morning with the Greater Des Moines Partnership executive board, they are passionate about finding ways that we can improve our immigration system while at the same time improving our border security. And just this week eight senators came up with a bipartisan comprehensive plan to do that. What happened in Boston was an act of terrorism. Law enforcement officials are working very diligently, even as we tape this program, to try to get to the bottom of who caused this and bring them to justice. So we need to focus on what we can do to eliminate threats like what happened in Boston but to tie them to our conversation on the need for immigration reform is misguided in my opinion.
Borg: Well, but we know you said who did this. We already do know who apparently did it. It's still allegedly. But as you say it is a developing story. But it does have, Kay, as you're intimating here, an effect on immigration.
Henderson: Well, Senator Grassley said today, agreed with Congressman King that it does affect their debate.
Braley: Well, everything that happens in the United States on a daily basis affects the debates we're having. But I think it is premature for people to try to analyze what happened in Boston and make broad conclusions about what that means for our immigration policy. To me it's more of an issue of homeland security and what we need to be doing to protect American citizens. I flew into Des Moines last night and the passenger behind me was wearing a yellow pullover from the Boston Marathon. We know that there were many people at that marathon who weren't from Massachusetts, who came from all over the world, all over the United States to participate in that event. That's why it is an issue that affects every American and we should be focused on getting the facts out before we rush to any conclusions.
Lynch: Congressman, you talked about this being an act of terrorism in Boston. And after every event like this politicians, like yourself, say, you know, we're taking the right measures and the terrorists will never defeat us. But Americans woke up this morning to see a major metropolitan area locked down, people told to stay in their houses, don't open the doors. Doesn't it raise the question the terrorists have already won?
Braley: Well, if the goal of terrorists is to create confusion and anxiety and fear among the American people then they have won because what we're seeing in Boston is people justifiably reacting to a fugitive on the loose and an attempt to apprehend him with one suspect dead. And it doesn’t' matter whether that is an act of terrorism or if there is something where we're trying to find a mass murderer, those types of things create alarm in the communities where they're searching and the entire country. So it is true that they have won from the standpoint of creating fear and anxiety. But they haven't won from the standpoint of changing who we are, what we believe in and that's what we need to keep focusing on.
Henderson: Let's refocus on the deal that was unveiled by the eight senators. Do you support every component of that deal?
Braley: Well, it's a broad outline. It's not even legislation that has been introduced so we know there are a lot of moving parts and not only does it have to get through the Senate, it has to get through the House, including the House Judiciary Committee, so I'm confident there will be a lot of changes before we end up voting on anything in the House of Representatives. But I am pleased that the broad outline they're talking about addresses many of the concerns I've talked about and the need for comprehensive immigration reform -- steps to strengthen our border security, steps to make sure that when we are looking at a pathway to citizenship we are holding people accountable for breaking the law, requiring them to pay a fine, admit they broke the law and move to the back of the line. There are a lot of pieces that are part of this including expanding access to agricultural workers and people with science, technology, engineering and math skills to come to this country and enrich our country. These are the things I hear from dairy farmers in Iowa, seed corn companies and high tech start-ups here in central Iowa. So as a broad outline I think it's promising.
Borg: I'm wondering, we opened our discussion here, chose to open it with the topic of immigration among all the topics we could be talking about, foreign policy, monetary policy, things like that. In your Senate campaign, where do you think immigration is going to rank as a priority among those who may be choosing whether or not to vote for you?
Braley: Well, I think that immigration is a policy that affects every Iowan whether they know it or not for the reasons that I mentioned earlier. And when you look at what's happening to this state as it gets increasingly diverse it's something that is on people’s minds, we should be talking about it. But look, the most important issues are still going to be the ones that affect people most deeply. How do you have an education system that serves the people of this state long into the future? Because to me education is a bedrock for economic development. How you can provide an opportunity for employers to expand their workforces which is why I introduced my Support Our Start-ups Act and my Main Street Stabilization Act to give those businesses support to be successful. So I think economic issues are still going to dominate the conversation.
Borg: And at the top of the list is going to be what? What will decide this next U.S. Senate seat election as an issue?
Braley: I don't think anybody can tell you that right now, Dean. I think it's going to be a focus on the economy, what we're doing to create an atmosphere where businesses can create jobs and continue to move the Iowa economy and the American economy forward. But what we know from all of the campaigns I've been in, in the past is there are events that happen that shift the conversation. I think health care is going to be a big topic because we're moving toward implementation of the exchanges in the Affordable Care Act and I know there's a lot of uncertainty because some states have been moving very slowly to implement those exchanges. So I think that there are a lot of important issues and that is why I've been traveling around the state talking to Iowans about what is on their minds.
Lynch: It's likely one of those issues in the Senate race will be guns and gun control. And this week we saw gun legislation stymied on a procedural vote and Majority Leader Reid have pulled it from the agenda to give supporters time to rally their support. What's your read on where Iowans are on this issue? Do they want gun control, more gun control? What sorts of measures would they support?
Braley: Well, you keep using the word gun control and I think that's the wrong approach to this problem. What we're really talking about, James, is how we reduce gun violence in this country. And when I think about how we do that I think of families like Ed Thomas' family in Parkersburg, Iowa which dealt with the reality of some of the gun violence issues we have. They're complex. They involve things like keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and people who shouldn't have them. But it also deals with the breakdown in our mental health system in this country. I've been working with a republican chair of the oversight committee on the Energy and Commerce Committee to have a national conversation about the role of mental health in reducing gun violence. And I've reached out to the Thomas family about the possibility of coming and sharing their story at an important hearing next week and I just, as I -- I ran into Aaron Thomas at the Des Moines Airport when I was here last night and talked to him about doing just that. They have an important story to share. So in addition to background checks, in addition to the role of mental illness on violence in our society, we have to have a broader comprehensive conversation about all the factors that are leading to increased violence and not just tie it to gun control.
Lynch: Is this an issue that should be settled at the federal level or state by state, as some people have suggested, that there are regional differences between how Iowans feel about guns and how folks in Connecticut feel about guns?
Braley: Well, I think what you're seeing is because of obstacles and getting even a vote in the Senate on a very limited background check bill that some states are saying, we're going to show the rest of the country true leadership and I think you saw that in states like Connecticut where republicans and democrats came together to try to come up with some common sense constitutional limitations to try to reduce the level of gun violence that devastated families in Newtown. And I think we can learn from what is happening in some of those states and try to get Congress to do its job and have the conversation that people, I believe, in Iowa want us to be having.
Henderson: There's another tragedy in the country and we don't yet know how many people were killed at the explosion of a fertilizer plant in Texas. Are you comfortable with the level of federal oversight of plants like that one?
Braley: Well, am I comfortable? One of the things that I'm concerned about, Kay, is we have plants like this in many different parts of the country, often times they're in rural settings where they don't have the same type of scrutiny from a national security standpoint they might have in a larger city. So as you look at what's happening here in Iowa with more and more companies that are looking to develop, plants that are going to produce fertilizer which can be used as a component in some of these explosive devices. I think it's something all Americans should be concerned about. But it's just like everything, it's a matter of resources and having the ability to make sure that adequate security precautions are being taken because we've had two moments of silence on the House floor this last week. One for Texas, one for Boston and I think those tragedies reinforce in the minds of my colleagues why it's important to get these things right.
Henderson: President Obama unveiled a budget plan this month that included cuts to Social Security benefits and to Medicare, which is health care for older Americans. Do you support the proposals that he has made?
Braley: I think that a budget is a moral document and I think it is immoral to say that we're going to balance the budget by reducing payments to seniors for Social Security and to people with disabilities the way the chain CPI would do by over time making sure that their payments were less than they currently are. And when you look at the vast number of people receiving those benefits whether they're disabled or seniors who use that as the lion's share of their income there are many other ways you can strengthen and preserve those programs without balancing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.
Borg: Would you go so far as to say it's a sell out by the President?
Braley: No, Dean, look, the President has a tough job because he has a mounting deficit, he's trying to come up with ways to bring people together and do it in a way that is broad and comprehensive. But the thing that people forget is even though there's been a lot of talk in politics about entitlement reform, the committee in the House that should be doing that is the Ways and Means Committee and last I checked they haven’t marked up a single bill dealing with Social Security and Medicare changes.
Borg: A moment ago you referred to the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, some call it Obamacare, kicking in right about the time that people will be going to the polls. You know, people are uncomfortable about change, especially when it affects their health care.
Borg: Can that adversely affect your campaign?
Braley: Anything that is happening in the broader world can adversely affect any campaign. What I've tried to do as it relates to health care is to be honest and candid with the people I represent about what's in the bill and what it's going to do for them. That's why I did 17 town hall meetings as we were putting the bill together and as we continue to see how each state sets up the exchange and whether states take the Medicaid funding that is a critical component of that broader plan then we're going to have a better sense of how it's going to impact people here in Iowa and unfortunately we don't know that right now.
Borg: So, what I hear you saying, it's a possibility, it could adversely affect your campaign?
Braley: Sure it could, just like any other factor.
Lynch: One of the factors that hasn't adversely affected your campaign so far is fundraising. You reported earlier that you've raised more than a million dollars in the first quarter. Some people might say you're getting a free pass in the early stages of the campaign since you don't have any announced opponent. I noticed you've done some fundraising using Steve King, Congressman Steve King from western Iowa as a foil, that he might be your candidate. Do you want to see him as your opponent?
Braley: I have no say in what Steve King decides or any other republican candidate who might want to be a Senate candidate for the Republican Party in Iowa. I was talking to Steve on the floor this week, he didn't share with me what his plans are. I know that whomever my opponent is, this is going to be a very tough race and I'm preparing for a tough race. And I think anyone who spent any portion of their life doing fundraising would tell you that it is not a free pass to do the necessary work to try to build a base of support to run a campaign in a tough statewide race like this one is going to be.
Lynch: How much is it going to cost to run for the Senate this time?
Braley: It's going to be incredibly expensive because this is right now rated as the 7th most competitive Senate race in the country because we haven't had an open seat race like this for 40 years. Both parties are going to be focused on winning this race. So I'm preparing for a very tough race and that is going to take resources in order to get my message out to the people of Iowa.
Henderson: In 2010 you won by a narrow, roughly 2,000 vote margin. What about that race in 2010 has been a lesson to employ in 2014 in an off-election year when not as many voters are casting ballots?
Braley: Well, I think the most important thing I learned during that election was the dramatic change that the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case made on how money is spent in politics because I had almost $2.5 million of outside money spent by secret donors in my race that even today we don't know who provided those funds.
Henderson: Well, it's going to be magnified in a Senate race. So what are you going to do?
Braley: So, the point I was trying to make, Kay, is that was an incredibly valuable lesson for me. I shared that lesson with my colleagues and I shared it with other candidates to let them know you can't assume anything other than the fact that if people want to spend that money against you, you'd better be prepared to respond to it and yet at the bottom line for me, the best way to win this seat, is to get out and spend time with the people of Iowa and give them a reason to vote for me, not just a reason to vote against someone else.
Borg: But it appears that you will have a free pass to the nomination, that you’re not going to have to engage and spend money on getting that nomination with the Democratic Party.
Braley: Well, you say free pass, Dean. I can tell you that my team and I have worked incredibly hard to put myself in a position to have broad support within my party to be the nominee. I don't consider that to be a free pass, I consider that to be the result of a lot of hard work and relationship building.
Borg: You challenged me on free pass, you challenged Jim on gun control. But that's not why I'm ending the program. We are out of time. Thanks so much for being with us.
Braley: Thank you for having me.
Borg: And there is more of Iowa Press just ahead. State Auditor David Vaudt is joining us before leaving for a new job outside Iowa. Our discussion with Auditor Vaudt coming up in just a moment.
Borg: Contact the Iowa Press staff online at our website or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Borg: David Vaudt surprised Iowans earlier this month resigning after ten years of being Iowa's watchdog. On July 1st he'll chair the Governmental Accounting Standards Board. Welcome back to Iowa Press.
Vaudt: Great to be here, Dean.
Borg: And across the table you know Jim Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and Radio Iowa's Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Explain what this job is.
Vaudt: It's an interesting thing in the accounting world. In the accounting world, the Financial Accounting Foundation oversees all the accounting standards set in the United States and they do that through two boards. One board is called the Financial Accounting Standards Board and that actually deals with the commercial, business type standards. And the other is the Governmental Accounting Standards Board that sets standards for state and local governments and that's the board that I'll be chairing.
Lynch: David, when you first ran, you ran as the only CPA on the ballot in this race and said that was a valuable asset to have a CPA as a state auditor. During your time you've been part of the investigation of several embezzlements, the largest being CIETC, but a lot of them involving smaller units of government, local cities and that sort of thing. Has this always been going on or it is just, were you better at uncovering these embezzlements? Or is this a growing trend that we should be aware of?
Vaudt: You know, I think frauds regretfully occur all the time but I think with some of the publicity that we've gotten from doing the reports that we do that I think it has helped bring people forward to say there's something unusual going on here, there's a red flag, somebody should take a look at it. So I think it has spurred that and I think definitely the CIETC salary scandal was one of those that did that. It was very highly publicized and I think it made people think, if I see something unusual it's not that I'm accusing somebody of doing something wrong but it's something that somebody should look at and I think there's a lot more of those tips coming forward.
Henderson: The scandal surrounding the Central Iowa Employment Training Consortium, I think I have that name correct, came about because of a whistleblower who came to you. Is there anything that legislators need to do to make sure that whistleblowers of the future are protected?
Vaudt: I think definitely in that case the whistleblower stuff helped but I think we always want to make sure that we protect those people that are willing to step forward and bring those issues forward because it is a really concern for many employees to say, if I see something wrong will I lose my job? What will happen to me? And that's something we always have to make sure we protect those people that are willing to step forward and do the right thing.
Borg: Does Iowa have sufficient protection?
Vaudt: You know, Iowa has a whistleblower law, I think we can always take a look at it and see if we can't improve it. I think there's always concern that some people can fall through the cracks and I think that's my biggest concern is that we always want to take a look at that and make sure we're keeping up with what other states are doing and make sure that we protect our people.
Henderson: Your last day as auditor is sneaking up, May 3rd. Do you have anything left undone? Do you have any regrets?
Vaudt: I really don't have anything left undone. There's always project going on and my office will carry on and finish those projects and my successor --
Borg: Well, I don't think she's talking about any audit left undone. She's talking about some philosophical thing.
Vaudt: Yeah, and definitely from my perspective no, I think we've accomplished a lot in Iowa's financial management. That's really been a major issue of mine from day one. And we're in much better financial shape than we were ten years ago and our budgeting practices, if maintained, will sustain us long-term and that's really a big area that I focused on.
Borg: Well, that gets to your successor. That successor will be appointed by the Governor because you're mid-term here. Are you comfortable with that -- because in the past, not only with your office but in past state auditors, there's been an adversarial relationship or not exactly comfortable relationship with the Governor, yet the Governor this time appoints state auditor -- are you comfortable with that?
Vaudt: Yeah, I am. I think definitely especially if we bring in a CPA our professional background teaches us that we have to be independent and objective and have to do the right thing and it is all of our ethics training and stuff in the CPA world that really tells us do what's right and you'll be rewarded for it and don't allow pressure to affect what your job is.
Lynch: David, some people would suggest that the state auditor shouldn't be elected, it should be an appointed position either by the Governor or, you know, nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. Would that be a good idea to have an appointed state auditor?
Vaudt: I truly believe, Dean, independently elected is the best route to go. It truly makes you accountable to the taxpayers of Iowa and I think it truly shows that you are independent even from your party. And I've been able to demonstrate that. Yes, I'm elected on a party ticket but I do what's right for Iowans and that's who I report back to. So I really like that approach.
Borg: Are you counseling at all, excuse me Jim, counseling at all with the Governor on who could be your successor?
Vaudt: I've had some conversations with the governor's office and with the Governor and have volunteered to meet with potential candidates if they want to learn more about the job and provide some input to them. So definitely have reached out to them.
Lynch: Is there a lot of interest?
Vaudt: You know, I don't know for sure. Everything is being channeled through the governor's office and obviously he has been in China this last week so I haven't heard a whole lot but I'm sure next week we'll probably start hearing more about who are some of the potential applicants.
Henderson One of the things you told us when you announced that you were taking this new job is that in that role you're sort of shooing politics. As you sort of exit from a hyper political atmosphere, will you miss that?
Vaudt: You know, I will miss a lot of the things I've done here as Iowa's state auditor. It's been such a pleasure to travel around the state and I've got to meet people that I would have never other met, otherwise met if I hadn't run for state auditor so that's been a real joy for me. I will miss that part of it. But as I always tell people, you know, no matter what environment you're in there are always some politics there. When I was with a national CPA firm there was politics. And there are different interest groups that I'll be dealing with at the GASB, there will be those preparers of financial statements, the auditors of financial statements and the users of financial statements and they all come with different perspective and it's going to be working with them to try and do what's best.
Henderson: What is the biggest looming problem among public interest, public bodies? Is it pension systems?
Vaudt: You know, pension system is definitely something that is getting the forefront right now and part of that has been driven by the change that the GASB board made to actually put those liabilities on the balance sheet. But I think a lot of it too is that each state wants to do what is best for their state and they try to do that with limited resources, try and keep their taxes and their fees down and at the same time prioritize their spending. So there's a lot of struggles there.
Lynch: You've been in office ten years. Is that long enough for people to be in politics to be in that sort of -- at that level?
Vaudt: I will definitely tell you I think we've accomplished a great deal in ten years and I think every elected official who puts their heart and their passion into what they're doing can accomplish a lot in a relatively short period of time. But I still would have enjoyed continuing as Iowa's state auditor too.
Borg: This is a big question for such a short time that we have remaining, just a few seconds. But does Iowa have too many governmental units for auditors to audit?
Vaudt: You know, I think we'll see a transition to probably fewer governmental units.
Borg: No should we right now consolidate?
Vaudt: Yeah, consolidate. I think we should continue to look at, at least sharing services and consolidating and especially we've got a lot of very small governments and could the counties somehow work with those local governments. But it's going to be something that needs to come up from the bottom. In other words, we need to work with our cities, our counties, our townships to say what could we do differently and could we make it more efficient and effective than it is today?
Borg: Thank you, Auditor Vaudt. Good luck in the future.
Vaudt: Thank you.
Borg: And we'll be back next weekend with another edition of Iowa Press. Statehouse politics and health care policy then. Two key negotiators in the ongoing Medicaid expansion discussion, State Senate President Pam Jochum of Dubuque and Representative Walt Rogers of Cedar Falls. Same times, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.