Iowa Public Television


Candidates for Secretary of Agriculture and for Attorney General

posted on October 18, 2010

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Tonight’s Iowa Candidates 2010 is the fifth of six programs dedicated to the issues and policies making the rounds prior to the general election of 2010 on November 2. Tonight we focus on the offices of Attorney General of Iowa and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.

Let’s meet the candidates. The republican incumbent for Secretary of Ag is Bill Northey of Spirit Lake. His major party challenger is democrat Francis Thicke of Fairfield. Moving to the office of Attorney General, the democratic incumbent is Tom Miller of Des Moines, and his republican challenger is Brenna Findley of Dexter.

Yeager: Good evening. Tonight’s Iowa Candidates 2010 is the fifth of six programs dedicated to the issues and policies making the rounds prior to the general election of 2010 on November 2. Tonight we focus on the offices of Attorney General of Iowa and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Let’s meet the candidates. The republican incumbent for Secretary of Ag is bill Northey of Spirit Lake. His major party challenger is democrat Francis Thicke of Fairfield. Moving to the office of Attorney General, the democratic incumbent is Tom Miller of Des Moines, and his republican challenger is Brenna Findley of Dexter. We welcome each of you to the program. We’ll have some interesting discussions here. But, Mr. Northey, I want to ask you first, why should people go to the polls on November 2 and pick you?

Northey: Well, I think there's lots of good reasons. Certainly just as far as the background, I’m a farmer from Spirit Lake. I’ve been actively farming up there since the early 1980s and been secretary of ag now four years. So finishing that first term, I think we did a lot of good things including balancing a budget these last four years. I’m so optimistic about the future and the opportunities we have to be able to put into practice some of the new innovations that are out there. We have a great agriculture, a very unique agriculture in this state, and I think there's a lot of things that can be done. And certainly as secretary of ag, I want to make that happen. Our motto four years ago was "markets for farmers, jobs for Iowans." And I think that is certainly the opportunity that we have in agriculture these next four years is creating jobs from this great resource that we have in Iowa.

Yeager: All right. Mr. Thicke, why should people pick you?

Thicke: I’ve been a full-time farmer for 27 years, and I’m also a scientist. I have a PhD in agronomy. And I’ve worked at USDA in Washington, D.C., in the past, where I served as national program leader for soil science. So I’ve worked in administration and as a scientist and also as a hands-on farmer. My wife, Susan, and I have a 450-acre farm in southeast Iowa.  It’s a dairy farm and it's very unique in some ways. One is that it's a grass-based dairy. the cows harvest their own feed, and we have a lot of small pastures, so the cows move around and locate around and harvest their grass much like the bison did on the prairie years ago that built our tremendously deep soils here in Iowa. Our farm is also unique in that it's organic, and we also process the milk on the farm. We have bottled milk, yogurt, and cheese that we process on the farm, and we market it all locally in our hometown. I think this is one of the things that we can do more of here in Iowa. But the reason I’m running, I see that we have some major challenges facing us here in Iowa. We also have some opportunities that we're not taking advantage of and challenges that we're not meeting. One of the opportunities is -- one of the opportunities is we can produce more of the food we eat in Iowa right here in Iowa. We import 80 to 90 percent of the food we eat in Iowa, and that means we're exporting our food dollars. We can produce more of that food here, meaning we can have fresher food, healthier food, safer food, and we could have more diversity on the landscape and we could have more jobs in rural Iowa. I think that one of the major challenges we have is that our agriculture is not sustainable. Since we started farming in Iowa, we've lost about half of our topsoil to erosion and half of our organic carbon, and we are -- this is not a sustainable practice. Science says that we regenerate soil at a rate of about half a ton per acre a year and our corn and soybean production erodes it at a rate of about 500 per acre. So it's not sustainable system. We need more diversity on the landscape. And there are ways we can do that, very exciting opportunities that we can use to develop our ag economy and to make our agriculture more sustainable and more diversified.

Yeager: All right. Mr. Miller, I want to ask you why should people on November 2 put an "x" next to your name.

Miller: Because I have a passion for this job that revolves around using the law to serve the ordinary interests of Iowans. That energizes me and motivates me. It’s the poll star for our office and I think -- I hope that's good for Iowans. We do a lot of the consumer protection area. That’s an area where we focus because we're all consumers every day. We share that in common. And we've worked in terms of car complaints. We’ve worked in terms of frauds against the elderly. In the last three years, we've worked very hard on the mortgage area because the home is just so important for folks. We set up a hotline that saved a lot of homes. It helps people modify their loans so they can stay in their loans -- stay in their homes. In Iowa where we're so dependent on the farm community, we've done the same thing in the farm area. We have a farm division that's the fighter and protector against fraud. We work in the criminal law area, doing a lot of the murder cases and other difficult cases in rural Iowa. We have a victims program that serves the victims of crimes. And we have a first-rate staff. They’re bright. They work hard. They have integrity. They do the right thing and we call them like we see them. The other real fundamental, other than using the law to serve the ordinary interest of Iowans, is that we call them as we see them. We interpret the law the way it is. We take positions in the legislature which are best for Iowans. So that's the record and that's my passion and that's my goal.

Yeager: All right. Ms. Findley, why should people put -- fill in your name in the ballot?

Findley: Well, thank you for this opportunity. I challenged General Miller to a series of three debates, and so far he's agreed to just one. I think there are a number of important issues in this race that Iowans deserve to hear about, and one of them, of course, is keeping our children safe from sex predators. Parents deserve to know that their kids are going to be kept safe, and as attorney general, I’ll keep our kids safe. Our current attorney general missed an important court deadline and, as a result, two violent sex predators were let out onto the streets. I can tell you that as attorney general, I will work hard to keep kids safe. Another important issue is the lawsuit that many states have joined to stop the federal government from taking over our health care system. I can tell you the mandate that Congress passed that would force Iowans to buy a certain kind of health insurance or face IRS personality, that's not just wrong, it's unconstitutional. And as attorney general, I will stand up for Iowans and protect them from mandate by joining that lawsuit.

Yeager: Mr. Miller, your response to that?

Miller: Yes, two responses. One in terms of the violent and sexual predators. That was a law that we advocated, got the legislature to pass, and we've worked hard on it. We have 84 people that are locked up and secure for Iowans. She mentions two cases, missed deadlines. She doesn't tell the full story there. What happened in one is that usually the judge sets the deadlines within 90 days. He deferred to the court administrator. The court administrator set it a few days beyond. We didn't catch it and we should have. The person -- the person ultimately was released by the Supreme Court. The other case it went up to -- it went up to the Supreme Court. There was an appeal during the proceedings. The case then came back and there were only, like seven or ten days left. The judge then looked at the calendar, thought that he had the authority to set it later on. We did. Everybody did, including the court of appeals. The Supreme Court reversed. So there was much more -- much more to this story. We’re not perfect but we do a great job. We prosecute criminals. We do the sex predators. Our record is a strong one. We have among the best prosecutors and the best lawyers in the state.

Yeager: So the second point, I believe, was about the health care reform. Should we join that -- should Iowa join that lawsuit?

Miller: No, we shouldn't. I told -- I said before we should call them like we see them, that we should operate under the law. And concerning the law on that, it's pretty clear really. The federal government has the authority to do the health care reform. The federal government has enormous power, including power under the commerce clause. And the courts have said that if something affects interstate commerce, the congress has the authority. In this instance what's in question in the lawsuit is the mandate that everybody get health insurance. And the situation there is really pretty simple and pretty clear. The people that don't get health care, some of them get hurt, end up in the hospital, we pay, some of them get sick, end up in the hospital, and we pay. Throughout the country it's billions of dollars at stake. That has an effect on interstate commerce.

Yeager: Do those answer the claims that you make? Did you get a sufficient answer on those?

Findley: Well, no, they don't. General Miller has claimed credit for the law, and the law for the sexually violent predators requires the trial to be held within 90 days, and his office missed that deadline and didn't object when the court set a different date. That’s a serious problem. There are --

Yeager: So the first one and the second one then?

Findley: There are 143 lawyers in that office, so surely someone can keep track of the deadlines. As attorney general that will be a priority for me.

Yeager: No, I’m asking on the second question of the health care lawsuit. Does he answer your claim enough?

Findley: No, because the commerce clause applies to interstate commerce, as he says, but the commerce clause cannot govern and mandate to someone that they can be forced to buy a private product from a private party. The commerce clause does not reach that and the Supreme Court in fact has never held that it does.

Yeager: All right. I want to get back -- from commerce to ag. Michael Pollan is a well-respected -- or is a well-written author on food issues. He’s talks many issues and he says that this issue of the Iowa secretary of ag race is the most important race in the country this year. Mr. Secretary, how do you -- do you think it is?

Northey: I think it is an important race. I think we certainly differ on the way we view agriculture, and I think we have a lot of folks that have engaged in the race because of that. I’ve gotten a lot of support. I think this is about the future, about what does agriculture look like. Do we have opportunities for producers to be able to make decisions, or is this a government driven, regulatory driven kind of activity. And so I think the opportunities that we have in modern agriculture to be able to grow and feed a growing population -- you know, we just had the world food prize here this last week and had folks from 65 countries talking about feeding the world. Certainly Iowa, with its special place and all its resources, has a great opportunity to be a part of that, using modern technology to be able to deliver some of that food.

Yeager: Mr. Thicke, do you agree? Is this race seen as one of the most, if not the most important race in the country of this November 2?

Thicke: Well, I would agree and Michael Pollan actually has endorsed my candidacy for this race. I think it is definitely -- we have some major challenges facing agriculture. If you look at agriculture in Iowa anywhere, it's readily apparent that it's highly dependent upon cheap fossil fuels, cheap oil. We are at the end of the cheap oil era. We have no plans on how to power agriculture beyond fossil fuels. That’s a tremendous problem. We can develop the next generation of wind and energy and biofuel systems that can be done on a farm scale that the -- that stay in the pockets of farmers, that power agriculture, and that are truly renewable and sustainable. We can produce more food here in Iowa that local people can eat, and we can keep our food dollars in Iowa. So a lot of opportunities here in Iowa.

Yeager: Is ethanol renewable, though? Do you support ethanol?

Thicke: Myself?

Yeager: Yes.

Thicke: I support the current infrastructure we have. We have a tremendous amount of public investment in the ethanol industry -- the corn and ethanol industry. We need to renew the subsidies for ethanol, so we don't want whole system -- we don't want to jerk the rug out from underneath it and cause it to go bankrupt. However, we've overbuilt the industry, as bill himself has even said, and we built a few too many, under his watch, I guess. So we have to be careful. We need balance here. Even the livestock industry is saying we built too many corn ethanol plants, we need to have more balance here. And they're lobbying against ethanol subsidy renewal in Washington, D.C. so we need that balance here, and we also need to look beyond corn and soybeans. We need to look at how we can diversify landscape. The next generation of biofuels should be perennial crops that protect the soil, protect it from erosion and from leaching of nutrients and from heavy rainfall. So we need to be looking to the future.

Yeager: Mr. Northey is that -- I guess it's more of a response to claims than it is where you stand on ethanol.

Northey: You know, I think the ethanol industry has been tremendously valuable for state of Iowa. We’ve got tens of thousands of jobs out there. We have 40 ethanol plants that are operating. We produce enough ethanol in the state to fuel all the vehicles that we have in the state, twice as many gallons as we produce. We produce 3 billion gallons of ethanol. We use 1.5 billion gallons of gasoline, and that's just -- not just on the farm. That’s for all gasoline powered vehicles across the state. So I think we're doing a great job in looking toward the future producing a domestically produced fuel. At the same time we're looking beyond that. I was just at the poet ethanol plant up in Emmetsburg this last week, and we looked there where they're taking corn cobs and corn stalks and going to produce ethanol out of that. They’re doing that in conjunction with an existing ethanol plant, and I think there's a lot of opportunities to be able to grow that in the future. And I think certainly most of this, almost all of this is being done with private investment, not public investment.

Yeager: What happens, though, if we would switch, like Mr. Thicke just mentioned, to more perennial crops? What would that do to the atmosphere?

Northey: Well, I think we need a market for it. And certainly there's a lot of issues out there before we get to the point. But right now I think there's a lot of hope. We’ve looked at some projects within the power fund about how we could use some of those products to produce ethanol or biogas or other kinds of products from that cellulose, from grasses, from trees, other kinds of waste products. At the same token, there's a lot of questions there. Let’s not certainly forget the ethanol industry that's been built that is a bird in the hand. At the same time let's go ahead and look toward those new technologies, but we have a long way before those new technologies are applicable on the farm.

Yeager: All right, Mr. Miller and Ms. Findley, let's talk some oversight. The ag industry came under heavy regulation or heavy scrutiny across the country. Was there enough oversight and regulation on the ag industry in the state? Should there be anything done by an attorney general or the attorney general's office on companies within the state when it comes to oversight and regulation?

Miller: In terms of the ag industry, the primary regulator -- excuse me -- is the food and drug administration in Washington. They have -- they have -- they have the primary authority, and that really makes some sense. What happened here is that in the late part of the 1990s, the Clinton administration was going forward to try and regulate this industry and put in place regulations that would have been significant. Then the bush administration came in, and the bush administration did not do anything in the eight years. They left that -- they left that vacuum. Now the Clinton -- the Obama administration is restarting that regulation. But what -- what happened is that with this sort of really anti-regulation, this extreme ideological anti-regulation that the bush administration brought forward, they sent the signal that, you know, the regulators weren't going to be easy on the industry. And I think that's what really caused the problems that we've seen in the last few months in our state. There are some things that maybe the state can do and maybe the secretary of agriculture has some authority. We’re doing some research on that, working with him on some facts. Maybe the legislature could do some things in terms of vaccination, but the primary regulator is the food and drug administration.

Yeager: Well, where does the role of the state -- say he's flagged as a habitual offender. Where does the state -- if the feds aren't doing it, what does the state do to protect their own citizens?

Miller: Well, when the feds don't do it, as happened during the bush administration, then sometimes that's an opportunity, sometimes that's a need for the states to -- to get involved. But it is -- it is a federal regulatory system.

Yeager: All right, Ms. Findley, a chance for you. Where do we stand on oversight with the ag industry? Should Iowa have done more, even if it is a federal issue?

Findley: Well, I agree with General Miller that it's the FDA's responsibility to regulate that industry. And in fact, at the time of the salmonella egg outbreak, those regulations were just starting to go into effect and had not yet been fully implemented. And that's part of the problem here. Another part of the problem, of course, is something that general miller neglected to mention, and that is in 2005, after prosecuting Jack DeCoster as a habitual violator of our laws, General Miller accepted a campaign contribution from the DeCosters to the tune of $10,000, and that was in a year when he didn't have an opponent and wasn't even facing election. now this year, after I called on him to give it back, he did return the money, but I think it's time for some new blood in the attorney general's office, someone who will do the right thing the first time.

Yeager: All right. So what do you do -- I’ll let Mr. Miller answer that question in a moment. But what do you do, though, from the attorney general's office -- again, if it's a federal law, what do you do for oversight of this industry that employs so many Iowans?

Findley: Right. Well, there I say we need to look at the federal regulations. I think those regulations will work. The problem there was that the regulations had not yet been fully implemented. The other problem is this involves the DeCosters, and they have been habitual violators of Iowa’s environmental laws for a long time. Something that the attorney general should be taking a look at.

Yeager: All right. Mr. Miller claims -- answer the first claim there, if you want to.

Miller: When Jack DeCoster came to Iowa in the '90s, I checked to see what was his history in Maine, because there was some controversy. His history was that if regulators were tough, they were watching him all the time, he did the right thing. And that's exactly what I did in terms of his hog confinement lots. We prosecuted him time and time again, went to the Supreme Court in the 1990s, and eventually got him labeled a habitual violator. Nobody was as strong or tough in Iowa on him as we were, and he got the message. When we had the final designation of being a habitual violator in 2000, I looked him in the eye in my office and I said, "I never want to see a referral to this office concerning your hog confinement lots. I never want to see that. I never want to see a violation that's significant enough to refer to us." He got the message. We’ve never had a referral in the area of the hog pollution that were just terrible in the '90s. And since we developed a different relationship with him, his son became involved. His son did contribute $10,000 in 2005, as I was wrapping up the campaign. That was a mistake. I returned it. But that's what -- that's what the bush administration missed was what I caught, that you have to be tough and you have to watch him all the time. Then he does what he's supposed to do.

Yeager: I know the other two gentlemen want to discuss this issue a little bit. Mr. Northey, when it comes to -- this became a bad public relations for the state of Iowa, even though Iowa may not have been at full responsibility. Where do you fit in and what should you have done differently unless you agree with what you did following that outbreak?

Northey: Yeah, I do think certainly the FDA is responsible for that safety of shell eggs. USDA is responsible for the safety of liquid eggs or processed eggs.  I think that's a good thing. Certainly we need one set of food safety standards all across the country, because the eggs on our shelves come from Iowa and many other states as well. So I think that's a good thing. I think one of the important things is to remember that we have a producer that had a problem and had a serious problem. And I believe the new rules, the new FDA rules will catch this kind of problem in the future. At the same time we had everybody else out there that was doing a good job and had no problem at all. In fact, we see that generally in the response of the public as they continue to consume eggs because they trust the system and they certainly see that the rest of the folks are doing the right thing.

Yeager: All right. Mr. Thicke, what do you think Iowa should have done as secretary of ag?

Thicke: You're right, it was a black eye for Iowa. And egg safety has been fifty years behind the times. I’m a dairy farmer and I have very rigorous standards for dairy food safety. Eggs have been behind the times, and it's true that the FDA’s new rule is good. It’s not enough, however. It’s not going to inspect all these large egg facilities for fifteen months. That is not enough. Now, bill says he believes that that's going to be good enough, and I don't think it is. I called the state veterinarian office in Maine, which put in place over 28 years ago a more rigorous food safety program. And they have DeCoster there and they have told me that they did it for DeCoster and they have DeCoster under control. I think we need to take the program they have in Maine and adopt it here in Iowa. And it's paid for by the producers -- egg producers, not by taxpayer money. I think we need to do that, we need to demonstrate that until the FDA demonstrates they have the wherewithal to really inspect -- because fifteen months is not enough. I have my dairy products inspected -- tested monthly. We need much more rigorous inspection. So I do not feel it's enough. We’re the number one egg producer in the -- the number one egg producing state, and we have DeCoster here so we need to be proactive. We need to be the leaders in this. Some will argue that this is a federal program. In dairy production the federal FDA does give us basic standards, but the states can modify and augment these things. In this case I think we need to take the FDA rule and then beef up where it's weak and enforce that until FDA can demonstrate it can do its job.

Yeager: I want to ask -- we've got a couple minutes left here. I want to ask -- for those who haven't been watching this program, tell them -- tell the people of Mitchell County, Lyon County, why is this race important to them. Why should they go and vote and study up on the attorney general race? Mr. Miller, I’ll start with you.

Miller: The attorney general's office is an extremely important office in our state. I often say that it's the second most important office to the governor. The governor is the most important, has enormous powers. But the attorney general represents state government, has the obligation to counsel them and to see that they're on the right track, to represent them in court. The attorney general's office is very, very involved in the criminal process. We have an area prosecution unit that goes out and does cases with county attorneys, murder cases, sexual abuse cases, those kinds of cases. We set the tone in terms of the legal environment in the state. We defend the state against hundreds of millions of dollars of lawsuits, and we're responsible for the rule of law. I believe that everybody should be treated fairly and equally under the law, businesses, consumers, everybody. Those are very important responsibilities. And, you know, I just encourage voters to vote in our race and to vote in all the races, that the opportunity and the obligation to vote is extremely important in our country. They’re saying people aren't going to turn out. Iowans are contrarians when they're told they can't do something. I hope Iowans turn out in record numbers.

Yeager: All right. Ms. Findley, tell me why the folks in Linn County or Pottawattamie County, why should they be going to the polls and studying this race before they go to the polls.

Findley: Right. Well, because in order to get Iowa back on track and back to work, we need somebody new in the attorney general's office. We talked about some of the problems the state is facing, and it's time to get Iowa back to work and back on track. That’s important. I’ll also say that I’ve been campaigning in all 99 counties, because I know that in order to do a good job for Iowans as attorney general, it's important to listen to people in every county. When I’m out on the campaign trail, one of the most common questions I get is who is our attorney general. And when I tell them, they're reminded that they haven't seen him in decades. In fact, our current attorney general was elected back in 1978 when he was my age, 34. So it's time for a change in that office. Time for someone who will listen to Iowans and go to all 99 counties every year. I promise to do that.

Yeager: You see more of your role as visiting every -- 99 counties as opposed to spending as much time in the office doing legal issues, or how does that -- where is that balance?

Findley: The way I see it, the people of Iowa, the taxpayers are my clients. And so I know that as a lawyer, in order to do a good job, you have to know the concerns of your clients, and the concerns of every county are different. That’s why I need to go and listen to people. I’ll still be in the office.

Yeager: I need to listen to these two people as well. Mr. Northey, tell the people who are in the city of Mason City and Iowa City and Waterloo, why should they care about agriculture?

Northey: They absolutely should not only in the large towns but certainly in our small towns. ag is a huge part of Iowa’s economy, about 25 percent of the state’s economy is wrapped up in agriculture. So it's not just the folks from the small towns, it's cedar rapids. Cedar Rapids is the number one corn processing city in the world. It processes 1.2 million bushels of corn a day. That’s 1,200 semis every day running in and out of Cedar Rapids just to deliver the corn that's there, let alone taking the products out. So we have a huge number of jobs in this state, certainly managing the natural resources as well and protecting our soil and our water that's out there across the state, as well as the opportunity that we have to be able to export products. We export 7.5 billion worth of ag products a year.

Yeager: All right. Mr. Thicke, tell the folks of Sioux city and Decorah and Dubuque why they should care about the office of ag.

Thicke: Well, if they eat food and they drink water, they should have an interest in agriculture. if they're concerned about the water quality of the lakes and rivers that they have recreation in, it's important. we have 430 or more impaired waters here in Iowa, and agriculture is a contributor to that. we have to recognize that and take responsibility for that. there are solutions out there, but it's going to take a systemic change. it's not going to help to around the margins ad more -- and a little more of this and that. we need to have systemic change. we need perennial crops in the landscape. if we can transition our biofuels to perennial crops, we'll make tremendous progress. a third of our corn crop today goes to biofuels. we could make tremendous progress in helping make the landscape more resilient to heavy rainfall and flooding and leaching of nitrates that causes dead the zone down in the gulf of Mexico. so agriculture is very important to all of us, whether we are farmers or whether we just eat food.

Yeager: All right. I’m going to give you a last quick up or down question. should there be term limits for your office?

Northey: No, I don't think so. I don't personally --

Thicke: If we can't get public funding for elections, I think we should have term limits.

Yeager: Okay. Mr. miller?

Miller: It would be hypocritical of me to be in favor of term limits. I’m not favor much term limits.

Yeager: All right. ms. Findley, same question.

Findley: I can tell you what, in the year 2040 I won't still be running for attorney general.

Yeager: All right. thank you very much. I hate to you off but thank you to each of our candidates for your insights and perspectives on these issues of the campaign of 2010, specifically as it relates to the offices of Attorney General and Secretary Agriculture. Tomorrow evening we conclude our six-part candidate series, and we turn our attention to the office of Secretary of State, where three candidates are seeking your vote. Incumbent democrat Michael Mauro is being challenged twice on the ballot by two contenders, republican Matt Schultz and libertarian Jake Porter. We discuss the policy and politics of the current campaign, and you can join us at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow evening. I hope you will be able to join us for that program. That concludes our Friday evening edition of Iowa Candidates 2010. My name is Paul Yeager. Thank you so much for joining us here on statewide Iowa Public Television.

Funding for this program was provided by Friends of Iowa Public Television, the Iowa Public Television Foundation and generations of families and friends who feel passionate about Iowa Public Television programs.

Tags: agriculture attorney general Bill Northey Brenna Findley campaign 2010 Democrats elections Francis Thicke interviews Iowa Iowa Secretary of Agriculture politics Republicans salmonella Tom Miller