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Political Mercury

Harkin: Branstad speeding episode recalls Jepsen’s highway ‘immunity’ plea


The ongoing controversy over Gov. Terry Branstad’s speeding state sport-utility vehicle recalls a 30-year-old episode involving another high-profile Republican, says U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

In a media conference call Thursday, Cityview asked Harkin if the unfolding story on the recent Branstad traffic incident summoned the memory of U.S. Sen. Roger Jepsen’s April, 1984 encounter with police in Virginia.

“Well, I have to admit, yes, and when I was in Iowa this weekend, I heard it being discussed,” Harkin said.

Jepsen — a Republican whom Harkin would defeat — claimed congressional “immunity” when police pulled him over on a Virginia highway leading to the nation’s capital for illegally driving in a restricted high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lane with no passengers.

Jepsen escaped $35 in fines with the excuse — and police said he had been using the lanes illegally for four years to drive from suburban Virginia to Washington, D.C.

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“When former Senator Jepsen was using the HOV lane in violation of the law, he’d been pulled over, he showed them his Senate ID, and told them he was a senator and they couldn’t arrest him, so they let him go,” Harkin said. “Sometimes people think this is a small thing. But it’s the kind of thing people recognize as the arrogance of power, the arrogance of privilege, the arrogance of position. We’re public servants. We’re not above anybody. We should be subject to the same laws.”

This past April, Iowa Car 1, the governor’s official Chevrolet Tahoe, was the subject of a police chase. Law-enforcement officials suspended a pursuit of speeding Car 1 when they realized Branstad was the passenger.

Branstad has said he and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds were too engaged in state business to notice their Tahoe zooming at what one cop described as a “hard 90”

mph past car after car, and even a school bus, on U.S. 20 and I-35 in north-central Iowa. The state patrol laser-clocked Car 1 doing 84 mph, 19 mph over the posted limit.

“We didn’t even know about this at the time,” Branstad told reporters. “Oftentimes, I’m working on signing papers, answering phone calls and doing other things, and I have confidence in the drivers and they’re making the appropriate decisions under the circumstances.”

State officials fired Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation supervisor Larry Hedlund after he complained about the Branstad vehicle speeding. The governor insisted in a news conference last week that there is no connection between the dismissal and speeding issue.

Harkin said elected officials should be more cautious with their actions than other citizens because of the example they set.

Jepsen faced other issues in the 1984 Senate race, including his ties to President Ronald Reagan, who in the early years of the Farm Crisis, had fierce critics in Iowa. A family values conservative, Jepsen also suffered politically from the revelation that in 1977 he bought a membership at the Leisure Spa in Des Moines, where patrons could, according to press reports at the time, expect “nude encounters.”

Jepsen said he joined the spa in a moment of “curiosity and weakness.”

Harkin said he’s not sure how the mix of issues played out with voters in 1984. But Iowans didn’t forget Jepsen’s rank-pulling on the Virginia highway, Harkin said.

“Little things add up,” Harkin said. “I think something like what Sen. Jepsen did is just another little thing that added to Iowans’ concern or at least their perception of him as not being a responsible public servant.” CV

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

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