“Days in the Lives” of Nussle, Culver

Back in June, right after the two major parties formally nominated their candidates for governor I asked the press secretaries for the gubernatorial campaigns of Jim Nussle and Chet Culver to let me know when I could spend a day — eight hours — traveling with the candidate.  Radio Iowa (o.k., me) did this in 2002 with the two guys running for governor that year, and it was helpful not only to understand the candidates better, but their supporters.

Two incidents stand out in my mind from that 2002 experience.  Standing along a gravel road in some tiny town in northeast Iowa, I asked Governor Tom Vilsack if he liked to campaign.  Vilsack laughed and said "No, but I like to govern and campaigning is necessary if you want to govern."  On a separate day with Doug Gross, the 2002 Republican nominee for governor, I was again struck by his keen sense of humor (I had been around Gross since 1984, when he was then-Governor Terry Branstad’s chief of staff and I was an intern at WOI Radio covering the statehouse — who later got hired at Radio Iowa in 1987).  Yet despite that ever-present humor, Gross was inundated with comments from little old ladies and other women he shook hands with that day.  "You need to smile more," each would say, or some version of that.  His face is arranged in such a way that people who didn’t know him thought he was scowling or frowning, I guess.  And Gross ran into all sorts of people, supporters, who were ready with campaign advice that day. 

So this time around, on my day with 2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Nussle the moment I recall most was when Carlton Harford of Newton confronted Nussle, and told him the Nussle campaign was "getting killed" by the ad featuring Mari Culver.  Nussle thanked Harford for the advice, and told him "we’ve got it comin’" — an ad featuring his wife, Karen. (Fast forward — as you now know, Nussle is now running two television ads featuring his wife:  one is a sort of slide show of photographs she’s taken in Iowa, the other is a testimonial.)

"The first lady is very important, very important in this state," Harford told Nussle as the two men stood on a sidewalk in Newton.  "Look what Christie Vilsack does, see." (Christie Vilsack is the one half of the couple who likes to campaign, by the way.). 

"That’s why we’ve got Darla and Karen planting tulips right now in Pella," Bob Vander Plaats, the GOP’s Lieutenant Governor nominee, told Harford.  (Darla is Vander Plaats’ wife.)

"Good.  Well, that’s what we need," Harford replied.  Harford then relayed the story of how the big "barn signs" he had on his property promoting Nussle had been stolen.  "They even took the posts out of the ground," he said. "That’s not right."

This conversation happened mid-morning on Thursday, October 19, 2006 — during the eight-hour stretch where I trailed Nussle as he campaigned.  A few minutes before, Vander Plaats had introduced Nussle to a crowd of about 50 who had crowded into the Jasper County GOP headquarters.  Nussle gave a pep talk to the assembled GOPers, then he and Vander Plaats picked up their coffee cups and left, quickly deciding to pop in next door at the "Simply Hair" salon where Nussle jokingly asked if they could "take a little off the top.  I’d better not…there’s not that much to cut."  Everyone laughed.  One of the "beauty operators" (that’s what my born-in-1919 mother called "hair stylists") offered to "frost" the tips of Nussle’s hair.  "Oh, that’s possible," Nussle joked.  "Thanks.  Take care."

The next stop for Nussle and Vander Plaats was at a Marshalltown restaurant, where Vander Plaats met up with one of his son’s friends who is attending Marshalltown Community College.  (This was "private time" for the candidates — I drove ahead to Marshalltown to find the Marshall County GOP headquarters and stopped at a store across the street for a coffee and some chocolates that I brought back to the office).    

Getting there early gave me a chance to visit with some of the folks who were gathering to hear Nussle speak.  Barb Livingston, Marshall County GOP chair, declared the race "close."  Joe Ludley of Marshalltown told me he doesn’t like the "left-leaning" media.  "It’s hard to understand why people are reporting what they’re reporting," he said to me.  "You wonder if there is a little bias in the reporting." 

Later that day Nussle, campaign press secretary Maria Comella and I sat down at a table in a coffee shop in Ames.

I asked Nussle to critique my work.  "What have I gotten wrong?"

"In all honesty, I don’t know of anything," Nussle said.  "I mean, a headline here.  A perspective there.  Maybe. I don’t know."

"Has anything about the way the campaign has unfolded surprised you?" I asked next.

"Oh, yeah, but everything outside of my control, you know.  ‘The year.’  ‘Mark Foley.’  You know, all of those kinds of things that are really outside of an ability to impact from Iowa," Nussle said.

Nussle had some interesting insight into the nature of campaigns (re: advertising and reaching voters) that I’ll save for another day.  I’ll backtrack a little now to fully describe the day.  After the Marshall County GOP headquarters stop (you can listen to Nussle’s speech in the "Campaign Countdown" section of RadioIowa.com), Nussle went to the Lincolnway Energy Plant near Nevada.  U.S. Ag Secretary Mike Johanns was there to greet him and tour the plant.  I went along.  As everyone in the entourage was donning their hard hats, I asked Nussle about his green wrist band.  It is a "jimnussle.com" wristband that he hasn’t taken off since he started this campaign.  Bob Vander Plaats rolled up his sleeve and showed me his green jimnussle.com wrist band, along with his blue one.  The blue one says "pray."

As we walked around the property, Vander Plaats and I had an on-going conversation.  At one point, I asked him what his win/loss record was as a coach (Nussle had made a reference to BVP’s winning record in a recent speech) and Vander Plaats guess-timated it was something like 63 victories, with fewer losses, but I can’t read my handwriting — it could be 47.  At one point in the tour, the plant manager pointed out a bug collection hanging on a wall in a control room of the plant.  "This looks like something out of ‘Silence of the Lambs,’" Nussle joked. 

"My mother didn’t let me see that movie," Vander Plaats joked in reply. 

"My mother probably saw the movie," Nussle said.  "She likes Anthony Hopkins." 

After the ethanol plant tour, Nussle and Vander Plaats split up.  Nussle went into Ames, filled up his minivan with gas, and then did the coffee shop thing before attending a session in the Ames business park with over a dozen business leaders from the community.

"Thank you for the chance to be here," Nussle told the group, all of whom were sitting on chairs, resting their elbows on the tables in front of them.  "I won’t stand, so we can keep this informal. I’d like this to be a conversation."  Nussle then launched into a discussion about economic development and answered questions from the group.  My eight hours were up by the end of this event, so when Nussle took off for a fundraiser later that night in Council Bluffs, I headed back to Des Moines.

A couple of weeks earlier, on Friday, October 6, 2006, I spent eight hours on the camaign trail with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chet Culver,  The afternoon started at City High in Iowa City, where Culver spoke to a couple of hundreds kids.  Culver was introduced to the crowd by a couple of students. 

"It’s great to be at City High," Culver began.  "Are you going to beat Prairie tonight?  Are you going to win the ballgame?"  The clapping and whooping subsided, and Culver began talking about teaching high school "government, history and applied economics" courses — with a little bit thrown in about Bruce Smith (the NFL star who Culver practiced against as a freshman in college on the Virginia Tech).  Culver also talked about the importance of parental involvement in the lives of their children, but there were no parents, other than the teachers in the room, though.  He concluded his "speech" part by talking about making college more affordable. 

Next, after a panel of students asked Culver questions, he gave the answers you’d expect if you’ve been following the campaign debate.   The first question was about promoting alternative energy.  The second question was:  "what is the first big change you are going to make as governor?"  (Culver began by praising out-going Gov Vilsack, then he listed Vilsack agenda items — pre-K expansion, water quality, raising teacher pay. — and said he would carry on the work on those items, but also added he would streamline state government, too.)  The third question was about ethanol. 

The fourth question:  "The Fort Madison prison facility has experienced several break-outs recently. How important is it that you resolve this problem and how would you do it?"

Culver told the students "public safety will be a top priority."  He touted the endorsement he got from AFSCME, then continued with much the same answer you heard him give at the debates when asked about this topic.

Culver’s next stop that Friday was at a law office a couple of blocks from the University of Iowa campus, across the street from a hospital (NOT the U of I’s Hospitals and Clinics).  Culver made a couple of hours worth of fundraising calls.  I went to eat lunch in another part of Iowa City, and when I arrived back at the office, Culver was walking up and down the sidewalk in front of the office as he talked on his cell phone.  It was at this point that I met, Gabe, Culver’s 14-year-old nephew from New York State who was in Iowa for a week to "help" Uncle Chet.  Taylor West, Culver’s campaign press secretary, spent a while describing her Iowa State Fair gastronomical exploits to Gabe and me as we waited. 

Next, after a failed attempt to drive the campaign van to the start of the parade route, the four of us (candidate, Taylor West, Gabe and I) got out and walked to the gathering area where a bunch of Johnson County Democrats were standing, preparing to walk in the University of Iowa homecoming parade with Culver.  Some of the U-of-I students in the mix were wearing Halloween-style costumes (there was a sort of good witch and one fellow was dressed as a pea pod, for example).  One of the students told Culver she had just voted for him via absentee ballot, and a picture was snapped. 

Then, it was off to the races.  I was in marching band in high school and college, and this was a speed-walking kind of affair.   I trailed the Culver group, and after Culver would shake somebody’s hand in the crowd, I would interview them.   Culver’s 68-year-old mother was also part of the parade walkers, and at the conclusion I interviewed her.  She was back in the area to attend her 50th high school class reunion in Cedar Rapids, although she didn’t graduate from there.  She finished high school in California as she was invited to Long Beach to train for the US Olympic team. 

By the time the parade was over, the "harvest moon" was high in the sky.  "Hey, let’s take a family picture with the moon in the background," Culver said to his mother.  "Let’s get Gabe over here."   So the three stood in the middle of the intersection of two big streets in downtown Iowa City with the moon hanging above them.

Culver and his entourage then walked a couple of blocks to an apartment building which had a sort  of outdoor atrium.  This is where Johnson County Democrats rallied after the parade.  I didn’t get a chance to sit down and talk with Culver. The interview occured as we walked along an Iowa City street to get to the rally site.

"That’s pretty typical," Culver said of the day.  "It was just incredible.  The crowd.  That was fantastic.  It doesn’t get any better than this."  I asked him what a typical campaign day was like.  "I went to bed last night at one in the morning after a long day and I was up at 5:30 and on the road at six.  Kissed my kids and my wife and got in the car.  In Davenport at 9.  Back here in Iowa City at noon.  It’s a lot of committments and it’s a big state but I want to be the hardest working governor we’ve every had and one way I can prove that is on the campaign trail."    I started to ask the "what has surprised you" question about the campaign, but a guy stopped Culver and wanted to give him an article to read.  Culver stopped and took the article.

At the conclusion of their discussion, the man wished Culver good luck.  "Thank you.  Luck helps," Culver said in reply as he resumed walking.  Another person stopped Culver to shake his hand.  Then another.  I never did get to ask the question because at this point the Culver entourage had reached the site of the rally.

"I’m going to buy the Saturday (Des Moines) Register," one man on the steps said to me as I walked by, trailing Culver.

"I don’t work for the Register.  You’re thinking of Kathie Obradovich," I told him.

"She works for Radio Iowa," Taylor West, Culver’s campaign press secretary, told him before I had a chance to say anything more. 

"I see you on t.v.," the man added, as I shook his hand, laughed with him, then walked on to keep up with Culver and crew.

Dave Loebsack, the second district congressional candidate for Democrats, introduced Culver to the Johnson County crowd after giving a 10 minute speech.   "We won this county for John Kerry by almost 20,000 votes folks…We can win this seat," Loebsack told the crowd. 

You can hear Culver’s speech in the "Campaign Countdown" section of RadioIowa.com.   

My eight hours with Culver ended after that speech and I drove back to Des Moines.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About O.Kay Henderson

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