Political Mercury

July 28, 2011 |

by Douglas Burns


Christie Vilsack's ‘nice guy' gamble in race with King


Christie Vilsack has presence. There's no doubting that. She's not out of her league on a stage with U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron — not by a long shot.

Vilsack last week in Ames made her announcement as the Democratic candidate for Congress in the new Fourth District, a sweep of 39 counties, much of it in western Iowa reaches that King has had a political Gordian Knot around for the better part of a decade.

She had the family in tow, including husband, Tom, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and a former Iowa governor most Iowans recall dispassionately as something of a technocrat. He should have his wife — a small town girl from Mount Pleasant — up to speed on agricultural issues.

Here's what was striking about Vilsack's congressional announcement: no mention of the word "Democrat" — something Des Moines television journalist Dave Price astutely pointed out to her in a media gaggle. Also missing: any references to King.

After being pressed to comment on King, and what she believes his inadequacies are as a legislator, Vilsack was asked if, as a female candidate, she risked appearing weak, not up to the challenge, by not taking the fight directly at King, or returning rhetorical fire against one of the more provocative and colorful congressmen in the nation.

"There are a lot of ways of being tough, and I think every woman in Iowa understands that," Vilsack said.

Vilsack would not say whether President Obama would campaign for her in western Iowa.

"I wouldn't have any idea right now," she said. "I'm just trying to get my announcement taken care of."

Prediction: expect to see Bill Clinton instead of Obama campaigning for Christie Vilsack in Sioux City, Ames, Council Bluffs and perhaps even Carroll.

The Vilsacks campaigned aggressively and effectively for Hillary Clinton in her failed 2008 presidential run. Time to, as they say, call in the favor.

With King on record as supporting a House Republican budget plan that turns Medicare from an entitlement into a voucher system, there's no better pol in America suited to take it to King on this in rural Iowa than Bill Clinton.

The Vilsack campaign can use King's vote — and doubly so if Medicare remains untouched during debt ceiling and deficit-reduction talks — to roam around western Iowa engaging in the rhetorical equivalent of whacking seniors in the face with Thomas Frank's "What's The Matter With Kansas."

In most rural western Iowa towns, residents would be hard-pressed to name a single gay person or identify a woman in their communities who had an abortion. Many more can go weeks without seeing a recent immigrant. Mess or tweak with Medicare, send 83-year-olds out into the open market with vouchers that may run out in October or even March, leaving them to pray or beg to get through December, and the social issues on which King has built his considerable standing become nothing more than luxuries.

Vilsack, who sought to define the race as a contest between different points of view, declined to elaborate on her husband's recent characterization of the race with King as a "holy war."

"You'd have to ask him because he's the one who said it, but for me, it's going to be a competition, and that's really important for people, to have a choice and to have a contrast, and I think that I'll provide that contrast," Christie Vilsack said. "As I said, I'm interested in problem solving, not partisan fighting."

Tom Vilsack was with his wife at the event along with other family but had no speaking role. He declined to answer questions from the media about his wife's candidacy.

Iowa joins Mississippi as the only states with the distinction of having never elected a woman as governor or to the U.S. House or U.S. Senate.

"There's nothing sexist about the electorate of Iowa, and it will be exciting when we get a female candidate in Congress," Vilsack said.

She added, "This for me is as much about being a small-town person as it is about being a woman." CV


Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.