The Meatpacking Industry

While Mike Blouin and Governor Tom Vilsack have repeatedly said Vilsack did not press Blouin to run, nor has Vilsack endorsed his former economic development director in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Blouin has adopted a key campaign strategy Vilsack employed in 1998.

At the time, Vilsack was a not-very-widely-known state senator running against Mark McCormick, a Des Moines lawyer and former Iowa Supreme Court Justice. Vilsack let loose with a furious attack on McCormick for doing legal work for, you guessed it, IBP. It is one of the issues that helped propel Vilsack past McCormick in the primary.

For the past few weeks Blouin’s paid media has pounded away at Culver for being a paid lobbyist for IBP. I was first introduced to Chet Culver when he was 22 years old and standing in the statehouse rotunda along the railing, a common lobbyist hand-out. Ed Campbell made the introduction. Culver shook my hand, uttered some pleasantry that has escaped my mind, and walked away. I stood for a while longer to chat with Campbell, the former Iowa Democratic Party chairman who had run for governor himself (and whose wife, Bonnie Campbell, would run for governor herself a few years later).

Culver was working as one of Campbell’s associates, and IBP was one of Campbell’s clients, and that’s why there is paperwork which shows he was a paid lobbyist for IBP. Culver has called it was his first job out of college, and denies the idea he was a statehouse powerbroker leaning on legislators for IBP.

Campbell issued a written statement last week about the dust-up:

Former Iowa Democratic Party chair Ed Campbell released the following statement regarding Mike Blouin airing the first attack ad of the Democratic gubernatorial primary:

“There is a clear line between respectful debates over issues and ridiculous personal attacks by desperate candidates. Unfortunately, Mike Blouin has crossed that line.

Blouin is attempting to smear Chet Culver based on a job he held in his early 20’s. The problem is that Blouin has his story wrong. I should know, because Culver worked for me then.

In the early 1990’s, Culver worked for me as an administrative assistant and was required to fill out various registration forms as a condition of employment. Make no mistake: Culver never lobbied on behalf of IBP, who was a client of mine at that time. For Blouin to willfully argue that Culver is anything other than 100% committed to supporting family farms, protecting workers, and defending our environment is dishonest and irresponsible.

Blouin knows better, and it’s a shame he has dragged his campaign to this negative point. Let’s keep this campaign focused on Iowa instead of cheap attacks on fellow Democrats.”

We recall in the Radio Iowa newsroom an instance in which Campbell defended his wife much more vigorously when she was running against then-Governor Terry Branstad. Branstad was hammering Campbell nearly every day on the death penalty after a young girl from Grinnell had been kidnapped and murdered. Anyway, one day as I sought reaction from Campbell’s camp to another Branstad attack, it was Ed Campbell who called back. “People who live in glass houses should look in the mirror,” was part of Ed Campbell’s response.

Anyway, back to this year and today in particular, Culver’s camp has dug up some dirt on Blouin, enlisting State Senator Dick Dearden of Des Moines as a character witness. Dearden swears on a stack of mourning doves that Blouin was a leading advocate for luring an Excel plant to the east side of Des Moines a few years back. (Don’t get the mourning dove reference? Dearden has repeatedly tried to change state law so hunters can legally shoot doves.) Blouin’s camp responds that Blouin only attended meetings about the proposal (he was with the Greater Des Moines Partnership/Chamber of Commerce at the time) because former Des Moines Mayor Arthur Davis asked him to. Davis, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman who headed the state’s largest law firm, died a few years ago, so he can’t confirm that story. The Blouin camp produces two state legislators — Senator Matt McCoy and Representative Jeri Huser — as their character witnesses. Both say they were in on the meetings and back Blouin’s side of the story. Dearden, meanwhile, says Blouin’s got it wrong because Preston Daniels was Des Moines mayor at the time, not Davis, and Dearden appeared on a telephone conference call organized by the Culver campaign and told reporters his story, then endorsed Culver. Just for your scorecard at home: McCoy and Huser have endorsed Blouin. And Blouin has the backing of 21 of the 25 Democrats in the Iowa Senate as well as 40 of the 49 Democrats in the Iowa House. Culver now has the backing of one state legislator (Dearden). None of the 48 House Democrats are backing #49 — Ed Fallon, who’s been a member of the Iowa House for 14 years. Blouin’s website has an “endorsements” tab linking to lists of prominent Democrats backing his campaign. Culver’s website does not list any endorsements.

Fallon today won the endorsement of the Iowa Sierra Club at an event over the noonhour in Marion. According to a news release, the Sierra Club has about six-thousand members, which is about the size of Centerville (population 5924) but not as big as Fairfield (population 9602). Fallon’s campagin website has a position paper posted on “clean water.”

Back to the topic of meatpackers, it is fascinating that yet another Iowa gubernatorial campaign is focusing on IBP. Democratic gubernatorial candidates like Lowell Junkins in 1988 took former Governor Terry Branstad to task for allowing his Department of Economic Development give state grants to IBP. And now IBP doesn’t even exist. At one time IBP was the world’s largest butcher, but it was swallowed up by Tyson in 2001. At its zenith, IBP slaughted 26 percent of the beef in the US and 12 percent of the pork. See the Wikipedia reference for IBP.

Democrats routinely villify IPB for “union-busting” charging that IBP refused to pay the wages in the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union contract. You can go on-line and read all sort of NLRB rulings, for example, a 1980 case in which IBP fired a hand full of union workers who went on strike. There’s also IBP’s connection to big oil, since Occidental Petroleum acquired the company in 1981. And IBP was found guilty of colluding with a big New York supermarket chain to fix the price of beef. That lawsuit started in 1977 and IBP lost the case in 1981, just before the Occidental merger.

Other than the occasional mention of IBP in 1998’s gubernatorial campaign and again in this year’s contest, there are few public references to the now defunct company swallowed up by Tyson and I’d bet few younger Iowans have much of an opinion about IBP. But remember, it’s the older voters Blouin & Culver are cultivating because older Iowans vote in greater numbers and those folks have memories of IBP.

The meatpacking industry in general has been lumped in the illegal immigration debate lately, which is perhaps why the Culver camp has retaliated by bringing current operator Excel into the mix.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.