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Guest Commentary

The Branstad regime: most scandalous ever?

10/8/2014

Given Iowa’s reputation for clean government, it once was of no particular notoriety for an office holder to rank among Iowa’s “most scandalous ever.” Some Illinois politicians would kill for a record that good!

Time was when a scandal at the capitol meant a public employee overstayed a lunch break.

Meredith Willson captured such indignation with his Music Man lyric “Make your blood boil? Why I should say!”

Times have changed. Public outrage and indignation have dwindled about as much as news coverage when it comes to mis-steps in Iowa government.

When Iowa’s reputation had some credibility, even the national press was astonished by unseemly events in the Hawkeye state.

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Here’s what TIME reported almost 80 years ago, Sept. 30, 1935, under the headline “Iowa: Corruption in the Corn:”

“By last week a pair of grand juries had succeeded in thoroughly besmirching the pretty picture of tall corn, prize hogs, rollicking State fairs and honest farmers which Iowa presents to the world. The juries’ findings pointed to such corruption in high offices as to put the Democratic Administration of Governor Clyde LaVerne Herring in definite political danger…”

(A Woodbury County grand jury had indicted 60 public officials including the attorney general — a Polk County grand jury five — on charges related to bootlegging and bribery. But Herring was not involved and in 1936 was elected to the U.S. Senate.)

Other unseemly events in Iowa include: the hypocrisy of rural “dry” legislators who became soaking “wet” in Des Moines; the 1943 oleomargarine controversy when lawmakers knuckled under to dairy interests and restricted sales of oleo in Iowa; the Mingo stag party scandal of 1986 involving more than a score of legislators.

Jim Flansburg, then editor of The Des Moines Register editorial pages, explained Iowa’s response to Mingo: “We do not have a corruption problem here in Iowa, so we tend to get very excited about the appearance of anything that even smacks of corruption.”

But times have changed and, given Iowa’s history, you can make the case that the current regime of Gov. Terry Branstad may be the most scandal-ridden in state history.

Consider:

• Legal costs likely will amount to $1 million or more in Branstad’s questionable and needless effort to get rid of Workers Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey. Godfrey, whose term would have expired with Branstad doing nothing, left early anyway for a better federal job. He was highly regarded for his work in Iowa, but he is a Democrat and even worse a gay Democrat.

• The Branstad administration has wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money to pay off state employees who, contrary to Godfrey, agreed to go quietly.

• The Iowa Supreme Court is among the nation’s best when it comes to protecting civil rights. Yet, in his 2010 campaign, Branstad audaciously pledged to restore respect for Iowa judiciary. He’s done this in a backhanded way. The Iowa high court ruled it was unconstitutional for him to close some two-thirds of the state’s unemployment offices; Polk Country District Court Judge Scott Rosenberg said Branstad ignored state law by peremptorily closing the Iowa Juvenile Home. Weary of such rejection, Branstad took steps to subject administrative law judges to political pressure by making them “at will” employees.

The list goes on. Instead of responding with a yelp, the public responds with a yawn.

Branstad says any criticism should be swept under the rug because “I do not micro-manage.”

Long-time observers of Iowa politics — noting how Branstad favors party loyalty over competence when it comes to appointments and administration — characterize the governor as “reckless” or “arrogant” this time around. Public opinion polls offer another view, that he is popular enough to be a shoo-in for re-re-re-re-election in a month.

“Make your blood boil? Why I should say!” CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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