• Iowa’s popular governor suddenly put on defense
     | April 15,2014
    ap photo

    Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad speaks to reporters outside his formal office at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. Branstad is fending off multiple mini-scandals and has become a political target in a mid-term campaign.

    DES MOINES, Iowa — In Terry Branstad’s nearly 20 years as governor of Iowa, he has earned a reputation for steady management, frugality and a distinct absence of drama. Gray-haired, smiling and always attired in a crisp business suit, he’s been a model of Midwestern stability and owner of a public approval rating over 60 percent.

    But the 67-year-old governor now finds himself in an unfamiliar position. He’s fending off multiple mini-scandals and has become a political target in a mid-term campaign that was supposed to be about the Democratic president’s problems, not his.

    In the last few weeks, Branstad has come forward grim-faced to face questions about why his administration pushed dozens of state officials out of their jobs and paid some to keep quiet about it; whether it kept a blacklist of banned former employees, contrary to a judge’s opinion about the legality, and whether an appointee was mishandling unemployment cases.

    The latest eruption came Tuesday, when he abruptly fired an administrator he had been defending for weeks.

    The cycle of explaining and defending comes as a surprise to those who thought such doings ended with the turbulent tenure of Branstad’s Democratic predecessor, Chet Culver. So far, it isn’t posing a threat to Branstad’s re-election - the Democratic lawmaker challenging him, Jack Hatch, has less than a tenth of Branstad’s campaign treasury and isn’t well known.

    But some Republicans are growing anxious. The party is trying to win an open U.S. Senate seat and control of the state Senate, both of which have been held by Democrats. A strong, unhampered Branstad was supposed to help lead that effort.

    “These distractions are not healthy for anybody,” said Jeff Boeyink, Branstad’s former chief of staff. “The governor’s chief asset is his honesty and integrity. Anything that threatens that is a potential problem.” But, he added, “Iowans will give him the benefit of the doubt.”

    Branstad insists the problems are temporary.

    “It’s just a bump along the road,” Branstad told The Associated Press last week. “There’s always going to be little problems along the way.”

    But the drip-drip of disclosures in the controversies shows no sign of ending. Senate Democrats say they suspect a pattern of secrecy and inside maneuvering in the administration, and intend to keep digging with hearings to get to the bottom of it.

    “I don’t think this is over, not over by a long shot,” said former state Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky. “I think that it really does point to a culture of arrogance.”

    After serving four consecutive terms in the 1980s and 1990s with few political challenges, and then a stint as a college president, Branstad returned to the governor’s office in 2011 pledging to address a $900 million state deficit left from the recession.

    The details of how Iowa accomplished its cost reductions are now coming to light. After 1,200 state jobs were eliminated by attrition or layoffs, 321 employees were given termination settlements, some of which included confidentiality agreements. Ten employees who signed the agreements were paid a total of $427,000.

    A story in The Des Moines Register revealing the agreements prompted an outcry over why the state was spending money to buy silence.

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