Remembering Governor Robert Ray

Jul 13, 2018  | 27 min  | Ep 4544 | Podcast



Governor for 12 years, but a legacy stretching across generations. We explore the life and public service of former Iowa Governor Robert Ray on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, July 13 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: When Robert D. Ray passed away this past week at the age of 89, well-wishes, memories and his legacy were on the minds of many Iowans. A man who served as State Republican Chairman, Governor of Iowa, Mayor of Des Moines, business leader, Drake University President and much more. But what did he mean to our state, its politics, its culture and its people? To dive deeper we have gathered an experienced panel. David Oman served Governor Ray as his Chief of Staff. Longtime Iowa Press Host Dean Borg covered Ray throughout his governorship. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, on loan from the State Department, worked with Ray on international and domestic issues. And Kay Henderson covers politics today as News Director for Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Now, before we dive in and talk about his legacy, we wanted to take a look back at what Governor Ray told this network in 1982 about his own legacy.

1982 - Dan Miller: What is it that Bob Ray wants to be remembered for?

1982 - Robert Ray: Well, the best reward I could have is if people in Iowa had pride in this state and in themselves. And in answering that type of question the other day I said, I thought maybe what I'm most proud of, and I can't take credit for that but I was here at that time and a part of it, is that people now have much more pride in their state, they're proud of their state, they're proud to be an Iowan, where when I first became Governor many people would still hang their heads in sort of an ashamed fashion and say, well I'm just from Iowa, making people believe that they were ashamed of being from an agricultural state. That is exciting to me to see people being proud of a state that has an excellent educational system, that has natural resources the like of which you can't find anywhere else --

Yepsen: Governor Ray was elected 50 years ago and I want to look at his legacy as we would think about it 50 years from now. And I'd like each of you to weigh in on this question. I'll start with you, Kay. What will Bob Ray be remembered for 50 years from now?

Henderson: Well, I think he was Iowa Nice. We talk a lot about that these days but he personified it, he was gracious and maybe instead of a legacy this could be a lesson. He was also humble. I got a text message from somebody who remembers that he saw Governor Ray and his family having Sunday dinner at a fast food restaurant nearly every weekend when he was the CEO of a major Des Moines insurance company.

Yepsen: Dean, what will his legacy be in 50 years?

Borg: I was struck by what Governor Ray just said in that interview about pride of Iowans. I would have said, without even hearing that, I would have said he was unifying for Iowa. The way he carried himself, the way he led, the way that he espoused civility.

Yepsen: David Oman.

Oman: Well, you get to be Governor by winning and election and Bob Ray was a political genius without having to work very hard, he was simply himself. He ran four campaigns in seven years in the two-term era and people got to know him and knew his humanity, his humor and they knew the direction he wanted to take the state and he leveraged that, maybe not a mandate, but he had momentum to become a really good Governor. And as we've talked, he always seemed to get the big things right. When a crisis happened he knew instinctively what to do and people recognized that.

Yepsen: Ambassador Quinn, what do you think his legacy will be?

Quinn: My hope is that his legacy will be seen as the global, moral leadership he provided that rescued the Vietnamese Boat People when no country in the world would take any of them and he stepped forward and said, Mr. President, Iowa will double the number of refugees we have resettled if you will only reopen America's doors. And he convinced the President to do that.

Yepsen: I want to talk more about that. We have a clip that we want to show of Governor Ray himself discussing the refugee crisis.

Ray: We can realize that first of all these are not Communists that we are trying to help, these are people who are fleeing Communism, these are people being run out of their homes and are being starved by the Communists. And some people have the idea that we're allowing Communists to come here. Some people believe that we're taking jobs from others and that is unfair and yet we have found that the refugees who have come into our state are basically taking jobs that are going wanting, in other words others are not taking them, and in some areas we really need the labor force. And the people that we have taken, for the most part, have been hard workers and they have been very frugal, they have saved their money, they have made down payments on homes and they are paying taxes and supporting their families and they're providing some good service in some areas.

Yepsen: Ambassador Quinn, are there lessons to be learned from the way Governor Ray handled this issue? Are there lessons to be learned for today? You staffed him during this refugee crisis. You were there. What are the lessons we learn about refugees?

Quinn: Well, as the Governor just said, he wanted them to be job oriented from the time they came and he made sure Iowans knew that. People would write letters to him saying, they're going to take our jobs. And he'd call them back at night, he had us count up how many jobs are in the Des Moines Register, and he'd tell people go and get one of those jobs. So being forward-leaning, being oriented about refugees and American traditional values and most of all to understand about Governor Ray that he acted not out of any political calculation, never about oh will this be good or bad for me, always because he had within him a moral impulse, like the Good Samaritan his obligation was to human beings who were suffering wherever they were in the world.

Yepsen: David Oman, is this situation we face as a country today at all parallel with what Governor Ray dealt with? It seems there are some differences in the two situations.

Oman: Well, then you were talking about not separating families but people literally dying and the opportunity was to save lives. And we all know that that happened. And now two and now three generations since those people are here, they're valedictorians in their school, they have contributed to the state becoming more diverse and to our economy. I'll echo Ken, the Governor never looked at this issue in a political win/lose context, he never looked at any issue that way. And unfortunately to your question the issue at the Rio Grande and immigration at large is looked at too often as a political win/lose problem and the humanity of it and the morality of it gets lost.

Yepsen: Kay, how could politicians and political leaders today trying to deal with this immigration crisis, what lessons could they learn from Bob Ray and the way he handled the refugee issue?

Henderson: Well, I would defer to Ambassador Quinn on that point. I find it hard to think that there will be a Governor in the state and in this country today who would do what Bob Ray did all those years ago.

Yepsen: Dean.

Borg: I think that the climate is a little bit different now and I don't know what could have been done differently. But you remember that Tom Vilsack talked about, now these are not international people he wanted to bring to Iowa, but Tom Vilsack wanted to increase Iowa's population and there was a lot of pushback by inviting people to come to Iowa.

Oman: David, I'll put a P.S. on that real quickly. It's important to note that those immigrants at that time were legal, they were political refugees. And the other thing that Bob Ray did was to lead and put himself out there, but he was smart enough to realize that others had to come around and he worked with the denominational and faith leaders in our state, local leaders and even media executives.

Borg: That's right, he laid the groundwork.

Oman: This is important to your community. And you get the groundswell, you have the momentum going the right way and it worked.

Borg: Did he at all, Dave, I can't remember, did he at all use media at all in preparing the ground and acceptance?

Oman: Absolutely. He knew this was controversial. It was then nothing like it is today.

Yepsen: Ambassador, how about that? Are there really maybe no lessons to learn? As Dave Oman points out, these were a legal group of people, they were refugees because of something the United States had done, which was drag them into the Vietnam War. We're dealing with an entirely different, our political leaders today are dealing with an entirely different situation, are they not?

Quinn: What Governor Ray did was he put it in terms of his own moral compass, his own religion, his own upbringing and what he saw as the values of Iowa that he had always lived with. That was the key to me.

Yepsen: I want to move on to other subjects. We could spend the whole show on this one. Governor Ray, there are a lot of things that have come up as part of his legacy and I just want to read down through a list of them. The bottle bill. The executive branch reorganizations that led to the creation of the Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resources. The merit selection of judges. No sales tax on food and medicine. Private tuition grants. Collective bargaining for public employees, something his own party started to take apart this last session. A new school aid formula. And he was President of Drake, Mayor of Des Moines and an insurance executive. Dean, what of those items stand out to you as most important out of his legacy?

Borg: Well, I don't know about most important, but it's curious that I think Governor Ray, and others can correct me if I'm wrong here, really looked at his legacy and legislation and looked at the bottle bill as one of his big achievements. And that was very controversial. You talk about resettling immigrants into this country, but the bottle bill was strongly opposed by a lot of money and lobbying and he was able to before ecology became the real trendy thing, but he was doing it as a leader.

Yepsen: It still is opposed by a lot of money today that are trying to get the legislature to change it. David Oman, you watch the current political scene. Will republicans in the legislature finally get rid of the bottle bill, something a lot of people have been trying to do ever since Bob Ray got it passed?

Oman: Well, I sure hope not. The sentiment among Iowans is that this has been good for our state for the last decades. It has kept our landscape much cleaner and maybe it can be adjusted, maybe the deposit can change, maybe other items can be picked up and recycled. It will probably morph into something else. I hope we don't just scuttle it and go back to the way we were.

Henderson: A couple of other things he did that weren't on the list. He signed a law that made Iowa a no fault divorce state, which has changed relationships immeasurably as they break up. He also signed a bill that allowed 18, 19 and 20 year olds to vote, which probably wasn't in his interest as a republican to sign that bill to let younger Iowans vote, but yet he did it.

Borg: But Dave, you asked me the question initially, he probably wouldn't have put this way up there, but I think what it did for the state, the school aid foundation plan, that equalized the money that was going into individual school districts across the state, I think that was a big achievement.

Yepsen: Why, Dean? Why was that?

Borg: Because before then school districts had a lot of property, commercial property, factories and so on in their school district were able to property tax them and provided all the bells and whistles for their students and their schools. And other districts didn't have that property rich tax income. They were starving. And so Governor Ray in this plan equalized it with state aid.

Yepsen: Kay, the collective bargaining formula. It was Bob Ray's, he pushed it through the legislature, although there were a lot of republicans at the time who opposed him, it was very controversial in the House. Now the state has repealed much of it but there's still talk about doing something with it. What do you expect the legislature to do going forward about collective bargaining for public workers?

Henderson: Well, if it's a republican-led legislature there are many republicans who don't think there should be public sector unions. So that could be the next wave if there is a red wave, if you will, in the election in 2018. One of the things about that collective bargaining law that he signed, which I found fascinating to learn this week, is that one of his childhood church friends was John Connors, who was a well-known union representative for firefighters who was involved in developing that legislation. So it was almost his own Tip O'Neill, Ronald Reagan experience to craft legislation that really calmed the state down, according to the historical accounts that I read. I was in elementary school at the time.

Yepsen: Go ahead.

Quinn: What I observed showing up from Washington, D.C. where I had lived and worked through Watergate and the Nixon resignation was number one, Bob Ray through his openness, his integrity, maintained faith in government here, which was very different from where I had lived, where I came from and perhaps not noticed as much by Iowans who lived here all the time.

Yepsen: Because of Vietnam and Watergate?

Quinn: Yes, yes. There was such distrust of the government and he kept faith in government by his openness in what he did. The second thing is that he governed as Governor of all the people, seeking to find ways to knit the two sides together, to build what were democratic issues, republican issues, where is the middle ground.

Yepsen: David Oman, on this laundry list of issues that I read what stands out to you as something that maybe I either missed or particularly important that was his legacy?

Oman: I'll come back to that in a moment. I want to follow up. Bob Ray didn't care if a good idea came from a democrat, a republican or somebody wrote him a letter. And from time to time, collective bargaining was a good example, Kay, they would come up with something and he would look at it on the merit and decide that he thought it was good for Iowa. That was always the test. If the policy was right, the politics would take care of itself. And sometimes the democrats didn't know whether to laugh or cry because he'd poach their ideas. To your point, you gave a terrific list, David. I'd mention a couple of others if I might. The community college network and this network, Iowa Public Television, were established in the late years of Governor Hughes' administration. But for this network to go on the air they needed a building and a studio and for the colleges to teach young people they needed to have a campus and buildings on those campuses. He really found the money to get those projects underway and on the ground. And I think that will also be an important part of his legacy.

Yepsen: We're going to switch gears -- I wanted to switch gears to the things he didn't do and I'll start with you, Ambassador Quinn. Any leader leaves office with a long list of accomplishments, some failures. Two-part question, was there anything you think he failed at? And secondly, what didn't he get done that he wanted to?

Quinn: Well, I don't know that I'm in a very good position to answer either one. I think he felt that he had taken and brought the refugees in. There's probably still some work to do nationally about that policy and he worked on that afterwards. And I don't remember, I can't think of a thing that he failed at.

Yepsen: David, failures or things left undone?

Oman: I'm not sure you'd call it a failure.

Yepsen: Well, no politician likes to --

Oman: Right, we talked about it in later years and you might recall this, Dean would for sure. But at one time the reserves were coming in really well and the Governor was concerned that the balance was so much, the surplus was so high --

Borg: Oh yes.

Oman: -- that the legislature would spend it and he'd have to veto, an item veto. And he thought, well let's give $50 million back. And at the time Arthur Neu and some others thought, let's use that money one-time to improve the corrections system and the prison system. In later years he acknowledged that might have been the right thing to do.

Yepsen: Is there anything you can think of that was left undone, a project, a program, an endeavor?

Oman: Again, I think updating Fort Madison, updating Anamosa, those are really old structures, probably would have been a good to-do.

Quinn: One bit of unfinished business was how he transformed the Iowa National Guard. The Iowa National Guard that we take such pride in today was the lowest rated in America, 56% of strength, adjutant's general removed for cause and he brought in new, honest, tough leadership and they were beginning to rebuild it. But that was not finished.

Yepsen: I remember sitting in the back of his limousine visiting with him about that, the guard. And he thought the National Guard was important to have as a counter weight to the professional military, civilian control. Dean --

Borg: He did not use that National Guard, Dave, irresponsibly. And I remember you and I, I think you were a student at the University of Iowa, I was a news person covering those campus riots, anti-Vietnam protests at that time, I think 1970 was the time. The University of Iowa actually, because they couldn't control what was going on there, actually cut classes and sent people home in the spring ending the spring semester. But he did not, Dave, call out the National Guard. Kent State had just, the Governor there had called out the National Guard at Kent State and three students were shot accidentally.

Oman: It was '72. You were at WMT, I was at KXIC, David you were there as a student. He brought in the Iowa Highway Patrol. You've written about this. The troopers went around to these clusters of our friends, our students and where are you from? I'm from Oelwein. Well, I'm from West Union. And these troopers were talking with these young mostly men and just diffused the situation --

Borg: It's very, very volatile, you never saw the Governor there, but his personality was certainly imposed on this volatile situation.

Yepsen: I give a great deal of credit to Bob Ray and to a young University of Iowa President named Sandy Boyd who together, under a lot of pressure, as newcomers in their jobs, to knock heads and crack down, prevailed and showed some real leadership. We're running out of time. What made Ray a good leader? He emerged out of a narrow win in the republican primary in 1968, plurality vote, he had to fight off a re-election fight with his Lieutenant Governor Roger Jepsen in 1970, he almost got beat in 1970 and yet he eventually rose above that. What was the thing that sparked, Dave Oman, that sparked his rise to maybe a more elevated status than he had when he first took office?

Oman: Well, as I talked earlier, he always put policy first, let the political chips fall where they may. He was of the old school thought that elections are won in the middle. Now it's all about drive the base, stoke the base, polarize the electorate and beat the other team. He wanted independents to support him, he wanted democrats to come around. I remember in '78 when he won his fifth election, in the kitchen at Terrace Hill upstairs the word came in he got 59% and he said, I only got 59? That's a landslide, Governor. But he was able to reach to people across party lines and that is what gave him the political success.

Yepsen: I remember talking to him about polls and he had about a 60% job approval rating. I said, what do you think of that, Governor? And he said, who are the other 40%? Dean, what in your mind shot him into political stardom?

Borg: I think it was a serendipity event. It was that airplane accident, number one, he was in a very tough primary at that time and his first time running for Governor and he broke his leg, was incapacitated, but Billy was out campaigning on a low key basis. But that sort of catapulted him into the public eye and they began to see the Ray personality.

Yepsen: It was an aircraft issue that also catapulted him politically. The government Air Guard plane had crashed into a house, the government wasn't paying his bills and Bob Ray grounded the National Guard. The Pentagon woke up at that, wrote the check and his poll numbers never came back down.

Borg: Talk about not calling out the National Guard to the University of Iowa and yet doing something as in your face as grounding the Air National Guard to make the federal government compensate people who had their house destroyed.

Yepsen: Kay, we've got less than two minutes left. Could Bob Ray win a GOP primary today?

Henderson: I don't think so. I think the problem that we have is that Bob Ray was a republican for his time. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and he imposed price controls. So it's a different Republican Party today.

Yepsen: Real quickly for each of you. Ken Quinn, I'll start with you. What lessons should a political leader today take from Bob Ray's life?

Quinn: Personal connection to every citizen. People understood and thought and believed he would listen to them, take their views seriously and he wrote to thank everybody who did anything for him, including hanging up his coat.

Yepsen: Dave Oman.

Oman: Be open, be genuine, be accessible, transparent. Be who you are.

Borg: I can't add anything else because that is who Bob Ray was and that was his personality. That's why he succeeded is that he valued people.

Yepsen: Kay, what one thing should political leaders emulate that Bob Ray brought?

Henderson: You can't make it up, he just had it. If you don't have it, you can't make it.

Yepsen: I think a sense of humor is important. The last time I saw him, David Oman will recall this, we went to visit him at Wesley Acres and Governor Ray was in the infirmary and asked, what are you doing now, David? I said, well, I'm down at Southern Illinois University and I teach a political science class. And he looked up and said, what makes them think you know anything about that?


Yepsen: And then he got that million dollar grin and his eyes twinkled. A great sense of humor. Thank you, everybody, appreciate it. And thank you for joining us. Iowa Press is taking a summer break starting next week and returning August 24th after the Iowa State Fair, just in time for the 2018 elections. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.




Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

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