Iowa's governator is back

Friday, January 18, 2013

Son of a gun, I think Terry Branstad is back.

It took a couple of years for him to get his sealegs under him, cowtowing to corporate business to get some job-creation street cred built up, playing reasonably nice and mostly flying under the radar. Months went by without seeing his name in any big headlines in the statewide news.

But now, with $5.3 billion in new industrial developments in the state, a budget deficit turned into a suplus within 24 months, unemployment down from over 6 percent to under 5, T-Bran has his traction, and feathers will be ruffled.

There are more headlines involving Branstad actions in today's paper than there have been in the entire last year, I suspect.

I think of Branstad like the house I grew up in, or the solid maple tree in my yard - they've just always been there. All my life, practically. Steady and unmoveable. Haven't heard a word about a term limit since he returned to office.

There are things about Branstad and his policy that I'll never agree with - the destruction of the workforce offices via a Governor's veto was a disasterous mistake, I think. He still hasn't managed to bury the hatchet with organized labor. I was a bit shocked that he didn't say a word about the environment in the condition of the state speech. And I'm now worried too that he seems willing to hold future school investment hostage until he gets the reforms he plans approved.

But in general, I find myself thoroughly admiring this guy, which is something you'll hear me say very, very seldom when it comes to politicians.

For a highly-educated man with great successes in law and business, Branstad speaks plainly, and I like that. It's an Iowan trait - wandering, flowery sentences filled with big words for big words' sake isn't our style. Iowans want leaders who say what they mean and mean what they say.

A lawyer you can understand? In his condition of the state speech, he was down to pratical business in 20 seconds flat, by my watch - wham, wham, wham. He allowed himself just one goofy Hallmark sentence, surely a world record for political speeches: "Iowa is like a lighthouse, beaming a bright light of opportunity to those seeking a better life within our borders." Yeah, I'm guessing an intern wrote that line.

My grandmother used to say of people - and this was high praise - "common as an old shoe."

What that means is that no matter how high they climb in life, that person never thinks they are better than anyone else. They are as comfortable having a discussion with folks at a old kitchen table as they are in smoked glass and leather conference room.

The opposing party is quick to point out his flaws, as it should be, but I don't think you'll hear anyone say that he isn't honest, or decisive, or down-to-earth, or an incredibly hard worker. Old shoes sometimes fit best.

While you have to be a good speaker to get your butt in the big chair in Des Moines, to be successful at it, you more importantly have to be a good listener. Branstad is a master - on every occasion when I've encountered him, he starts off shooting the breeze, and before you know what he's up to, he's not only picking your brain on a half dozen subjects but shaking it upside down to see what you know that might fall out.

I like the fact that Branstad is fearless. Nobody is going to back him down. Maybe that comes from serving in the Army in Vietnam as a young man. It is also very Iowan not to take much crap.

And this may sound naive, but I like that the man has manners. It's something you don't see a lot of anymore, so when you do encounter it, you tend to notice.

It's not a bad thing to have a Governor who thanks everybody he comes across on a visit for letting him come to their town. A guy who holds the door for people behind him - doesn't have his State Patrol guard do it.

At one recent meeting in Storm Lake, I sat next to Branstad. He gave a speech to maybe 25 people in a little rural city with the same fervor as he would for a thousand wealthy CEOs in Des Moines.

Afterward, he sat figgiting at the table. "I really have to go, I have another stop to get to," he whispered to me, with a note of desperation in his voice.

I waved a hand, goodbye, but he didn't move.

"Well, I can't get up when someone is talking!" he whispered back.

The most powerful man in the state, a politician who has served more years as governor than anyone in the history of Iowa, deathly afraid he might be impolite if he snuck out of a routine meeting a little early while somebody was blathering on. I like that.

Most of all, what I look for in a good leader, and almost never find, is enough conviction to be willing to kick your own party in the rear when it needs it.

"Nobody of either party has had the guts to stand up and say, 'We need to take on entitlements,'" he has said, for example.

In his speech this week, Branstad was typically candid. While he tooted his horn on successes, he noted, "an honest assessment would suggest we still have much work to do," and he admitted that not enough has been achieved for education.

Governor: "We were reminded of this yet again last month when a new study showed our students' ranking on vocabulary tests had slipped into mediocrity."

Students: "Slipped into what?"

(Disclaimer - I stole this joke from Rev. Dave Swinton. It was too good to resist.)

If past performance is any indicator, Branstad will attack his current top goals, education reform and health, with the same energy and stubborness as he has in balancing the budget. But these are issues that are too big even for a governor to handle alone, and there will need to be some concensus among legislators and Iowans of all walks of life to get these jobs done.

I confess that I wondered, when Branstad chose to run for governor again, if he still had the stuff, the fire, the gumption. In sticking his chin out on two if the most vexing issues in the state this week, it looks like Terry Branstad is all the way back in the fight.