Civic Skinny

July 14, 2011 |

Behind the Regents coup; Pratt aids a colleague


What's behind the coup that drove Dave Miles and Jack Evans out of their leadership posts at the Board of Regents this week?

Three things: The relentless ambition of Bruce Rastetter. The thirst for total power by Terry Branstad. And the lack of interest by Democrats who seem to have other things on their mind.

That's the consensus of some of the few people who actually watch what's going on with the Regents, the nine-person board that oversees the three state universities and the schools for the blind and the deaf. Rastetter, a wealthy businessman, has wanted to be on the Regents for years, and his $150,000 gifts to Branstad's campaign got him a seat earlier this year. As soon as Branstad was elected, Rastetter began angling not just for a seat — but for the seat at the head of the table. That was fine with Branstad, who wants to control all of state government without waiting for the usual niceties of terms and the like. All this has been playing out for several months — but no powerful Democrat in business or in politics tried to step in. Miles (a Democrat) and Evans (a moderate Republican) found few defenders in public or in private, mainly because they didn't seek reinforcements. Neither has a stomach for controversy.

As a result, governance of the state's three universities — entrusted to and wielded by a Board of Regents for the past 102 years — was effectively handed over to Branstad.

It's a stunning shift that will have financial, political — and probably educational — ramifications for years to come. "It's all downhill from here," said a guy who has been deeply involved in education in the state for the past 20 years. Traditionally, he says, regents just said "fuck it" when politicians tried to sway them. Now, he says, the politicians will be calling the shots. And Democrats won't make it easy for Rastetter & Co. "We're heartsick," a top Democrat told Skinny Monday morning — though this Democrat had done nothing to try to forestall the change.

The Regent president is elected by his peers for a two-year term that ends on April 30 of even-numbered years. The post expires in even-numbered years to help ensure independence from governors, whose terms expire in odd-numbered years. Miles says Branstad asked for the resignations — a request he would not have been able to enforce. Miles and Evans at first refused, but unprecedented pressure from Branstad and Rastetter stepped up, and Miles and Evans basically gave up. They said they quit to help the board get "refocused" and to "unite" behind a new president, though it's hard to see how a coup unites a board when the old leaders will still be at the table — present and, presumably, bitter.

The new leadership might be announced by the time you read this. Skinny hears that Farm Bureau president Craig Lang will become president for a few months — probably till year-end — when Rastetter then will step in. Of course, the nine-member board has to elect the leaders, but that now seems an all-but-done deal. ...

Bob Pratt, the chief federal judge for the southern district of Iowa, plans to step down on July 1, 2012, and take senior status, as The Des Moines Register reported on Saturday. What it didn't say: In a collegial gesture not often seen these days, Pratt also plans to give up the title of chief judge on Nov. 1 of this year so his Republican colleague, James Gritzner, can become chief. If Pratt waited longer, Gritzner — who, like Pratt, turns 65 next year and who has been on the court since 2002 — would be ineligible to be chief because of his age. Friends say Gritzner very much would like to be chief.

The gesture may help President Barack Obama and Sen. Tom Harkin get Pratt's successor through the Senate. Harkin clearly will recommend a fellow Democrat. Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley is ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a post that gives him more than the normal political power to clear or block appointments. Grassley supported Pratt in 1997, and Pratt's move to help Gritzner won't go unnoticed.

The 677 Federal district judges have, in effect, lifetime appointments, and they draw full salary — currently $174,000 a year — in retirement. By taking senior status, the judges continue to work but usually on a less-hectic schedule than the full-time judges. Ron Longstaff, Harold Vietor and Charles Wolle currently are on senior status with the court in Des Moines. Pratt's letter to Obama says he intends to continue to "render substantial judicial service."

The intellectual Pratt was confirmed for the court in 1997 after being nominated for the judgeship by President Clinton at the request of Harkin, Pratt's longtime friend. Aside: In 2002, Richard Arnold, a great judge on the 8th Circuit, spoke at a judicial conference. "We ought to show some respect for the state courts," he said. "And this is true despite the fact that some of them got elected by the people instead of being selected, as we were, in a completely nonpolitical process based entirely on merit — my merit, incidentally, being that I was a friend of a Senator." End of aside.

Pratt was in private practice before joining the bench, but before that he was a Legal Aid lawyer. His letter to Harkin, in which he announces his plans, says: "On a very personal note I have always tried to remember the lessons that both of us learned nearly forty years ago while lawyers at Polk County Legal Aid, that 'Justice is the Great Interest of Man on Earth.' I do hope that my service has reflected those values."

He is one of three active judges on the court and the only one appointed by a Democrat. Gritzner and John Jarvey were appointed by George W. Bush.

Four other Iowa federal judges will become eligible for senior status in the next presidential term. Mike Melloy, one of two Iowans on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, will be eligible in 2013, and Gritzner along with Mark Bennett and Linda Reade of the Northern District of Iowa will become eligible in 2014 or 2015. To take senior status, a judge must be at least 65, and his age and years on the bench must add up to at least 80.

One more fact: There has never been a female federal judge in the Southern District. ...

Rose Vasquez of Des Moines, who just cycled off the Board of Regents, has been named to the board of Iowa Public Television. Vasquez, a one-time assistant attorney general, fills the vacancy left by the departure of Michelle Guinn, also from Des Moines, who chose to step down from the nine-person board when her latest term expired. Gov. Branstad also reappointed to the board Bill Withers from Wartburg College. On the IPTV board, Vasquez will be reunited with her former colleague Gary Steinke, who was executive director of the Regents when Vasquez first joined that board. ...

Phil Brasher, who was the Washington bureau (not just the bureau chief — he was the entire bureau) of the Register until the recent unpleasantness, launched a blog on Thursday. It's called FoodWatch ( ...

"The Iowa Republican" is a blog that has "news for Republicans, by Republicans." Here's what it said last week about a press conference by that most Republican of Republicans, Bob Vander Plaats:

"The sometimes bizarre news conference included an inference by [Iowa Family Policy Center] president Chuck Hurley that babies born into slavery were better off than black babies born today because more slave children were raised in 'two-parent households' Bob Vander Plaats saying married couples have 'better sex', and a loud Waste Management garbage truck in the background that was left idling for most of the time Vander Plaats spoke."

Meantime, Tim Pawlenty, whose campaign seems to be going nowhere in Iowa, had an aide apologize on Wednesday for saying Michelle Bachmann "has got a little sex appeal." That one's out of line, he said. On Thursday, he compared his own demeanor to that of Ronald Reagan — "courteous, civil, decent, but strong. You can be nice and strong." And on Friday, he said: "Anyone can stand up here and flap their jaw and give a speech. We've had Obama with all his soaring rhetoric, with all this nonsense, he's like a manure spreader in a windstorm. It stinks. It's flying all over the place, and it's not pretty."

In other words, he said Obama is spewing shit. That apparently was not out of line. There was no apology.

Courteous, civil, decent... CV