Branstad hears “bigger calling”

paperweightI was going to “live blog” former Governor Terry Branstad’s news conference at Des Moines University earlier this afternoon, but my cell card wouldn’t work.  Instead, I’ll be posting my notes far below, but FIRST, here’s what happened right after someone said,”Last question,” reporters Dave Price of WHO-TV and Tom Beaumont of The Des Moines Register asked questions and Branstad thanked the assembled media folk for coming.

Branstad then walked over and asked if he could hold Bridget, his six-month-old grandchild.  Photos were taken.  Tape rolled.  Bridgett did not make a statement.

There was a rush to get microphones in front of Branstad’s wife, Chris.  I was late arriving after disconnecting from the sound system and unable to get anything usable, other than to notice her husband waded in to sort of deflect the questions and attention from his wife.

The media huddle nearly dispersed.  Branstad and a reporter were joking about one of Branstad’s old bromides:  the only poll that counts is the one they take on Election Day.

Kathie Obradovich of The Des Moines Register opined: “This stuff comes back pretty naturally, doesn’t it?”

Branstad replied, at first, in the negative.  “No, I still have a lot to learn but that’s the great thing about life,” Branstad said.  “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I’d be in this position, but I look at it as, it’s an adventure, an opportunity and I love the state and I’m to go out, you know, and talk to a lot of Iowans and get their ideas.  I certainly have some thoughts of my own of where we can go.”

I asked Branstad if he had promised his wife that she would not have to move into Terrace Hill if he wins a fifth term so she could, instead, stay in what Branstad himself describes as a “beautiful log home” near Boone.  “That’s our retreat,” Branstad said, with a laugh.

“Like Camp David,” Obradovich said.

“Well, let me say this:  we have two grandchildren that live here in West Des Moines and that’s actually closer to Terrace Hill,” Branstad replied.

Emily Price of KCCI jumped in to ask Branstad about the nature of the discussions he’d had with his wife about running.

“Well, we’ve had several family discussions and, you know, we love each other.  We have been through a lot together and I’m very appreciative and understanding of my wife and she is even more understanding of me and so I feel that, yeah, there are some challenges ahead of us, but there’s, I also look at it as an exciting adventure and a new chapter of our life and we’ve been able to do some wonderful things together and I just know that this is something that we can do that responds to a concern and a need that a lot of Iowans see.”

Christine Paladino of WOI-TV asked: “Did you think about running for a few years or was this pretty recent?”

Branstad: “No, no.  This all happened in the last few months.” Branstad started to walk away from reporters, toward his wife who was holding baby Bridget/their grandchild.

“Are you going to nominate (Chris) for the Nobel Peace Prize?” I asked as Branstad walked away.

Branstad turned to face me (and the cameras) just as he reached his wife.  “I don’t know,” Branstad said, breaking into a huge smile. “They give those things out pretty easy.”  The Branstad family laughed together over that one.

If you want to listen to Branstad’s 22 minute long news conference, click here — that’s also the Radio Iowa story.  Below are my typewritten notes from the news conference.

Branstad walked into the room and started talking.  He did not have on the lavaliere microphone, however, and there was no sound for the TV and radio folks who’d pulled into the sound system to record every moment.

“Oh, wait a minute.  I don’t have my microphone on yet,” Branstad said.

A few moments pass.  Branstad reenters, center stage.  “Is that working now?” Branstad asks, laughing a little before adding: “Take two.”

“Well, thank you all for coming today and welcome to Des Moines University.”  Branstad introduces his family, starting with his wife Chris, followed by daughter Allison who he reveals is a third grade teacher in Waukee; Marcus, Eric and his wife, plus the “newest member” of the Branstad family.  Bridget will be six months old in about a week.

Granddaughter McKinzie isn’t here, though.  “She was given the choice of whether she wanted to play with her friends  or listen to her grandfather speak and she chose to play with her friends, so,” Branstad said, laughing. “I am indebted to my family for their support.”

Branstad talked about his speech to the faculty, staff and students of Des Moines University.  “At noon I announced that I intend to retire as the president of Des Moines University to fully explore the possibility of becoming a candidate for governor in the year 2010.  This was a difficult decision because I love this place.”

Branstad said the noon-time event had been “emotional.”

“We’ve accomplished wonderful things here…We’ve gone from 1200 to 1800 students,” Branstad said, before talking about the scholarship named for Willie Glanton, a DMU trustee, and her husband, a federal judge who passed away several years ago.

At this point, Branstad starts reading from a script.  “And yet, thousands of Iowans from all across our state have asked me to reenter public life, to become a candidate once again.  I’m very touched and humbled by that interest and that support and I’ve said I’ll give that serious consideration.

“…To fully explore this possibility I need to leave Des Moines University….I am not resigning, I am retiring…By retiring, I am eligible to use the Wellness Center and I also get invited to the holiday parties and that’s important because I want to stay connected with this Des Moines University community…I’m proud of this institution.”

Branstad talked about Des Moines University for a few minutes, about his management style as DMU president and when he was govenror for 16 years.

“As you know, I left office about 10 and a half years ago with a $900 million surplus and a record level of employment and then I look at the fiscal debacle that exists today and I believe that we can do better.”

After a few more sentences, Branstad concluded and threw it open to questions.

The first question is about his decision to say he’s still exploring the idea rather than an outright declaring that he’s running for govenror.

“First of all, I’m humbled by the thousands of people that have written or emailed or contacted me and urged me to run,” Branstad said, before outlining his decision to go on a steel-wheels tour of Iowa before making a formal declaration.  “That’s why I’ve chosen to retire and now will have time devote my full attention to examining this possibility.”

Time frame for decision?

“I always say I only have one speed: overdrive,” Branstad said.  Branstad said he has to go to a meeting in Vegas Saturday through Tuesday.  “Then I will come back and begin the process of getting around Iowa…I want to specifically get on college campuses and talk to students as well because it’s their future we’re talking about.”

Are you the frontrunner?

“I don’t take anything for granted,” Branstad said.  “…You’ve got to earn the support and respect of the people and I hope to do that.”

You decided you weren’t going to seek another term in 1998.  What changed your mind?

“The circumstances of today,” Branstad said, listing a variety of things he sees the failings of current Governor Chet Culver.  “…We need to get our fiscal house in order…We have this tremendous budget mess.”

When Hillary Clinton ran, the nation found out that Bill Clinton — like any older point guard in the NBA — had lost a step, that his political instincts had atrophied during his time out of office.  Can you guarantee Republicans that you still have the acumen and the instincts to run in 2010?

“First of all, I would ask people to look at what I’ve accomplished at Des Moines University,” Branstad began, talking about being hired, then morphing into the “team” he put together and about how what he’s learned in higher education will make him more effective.

Next question is about the critics who cite the tax increases he signed into law as governor.

Branstad said critics were “pulling things out of context.  They don’t mention all the taxes we cut.”  Branstad listed getting rid of inheritance tax on lineal descendants; lowering the top income tax rate from 13 percent to 8.9 percent; property tax reductions.  He also said he’d insisted the state increase state aid to schools, “so that the share that was paid by property taxes was dramatically reduced.”    Branstad said he had raised the sales tax, but when he left office it was still “less than neighboring states” and lower than the national average.

“I will be glad to debate anybody on my record on taxes, but this isn’t about the past, it’s about the future,” Branstad said.  Branstad closed this answer with a reference to the so-called Fisher Commission and GAAP accounting.  Glover’s cell phone rings.

You had 16 years in office.  Is there anything left undone that you want to go back and finish?

“It is strictly in response to the current situation,” Branstad said, stressing that he could work in a “bipartisan way” to fix the state.

What’s your personal motivation?  You’ve been there, done that.  What do it again?

“I am sick about what’s going on today and I guess I believe that I have the experience and the ability to make a different and I want to,” Branstad said.  “…I love Des Moines Univesity and I hate leaving here, but I think there’s a bigger calling I have right now and I believe at this point in time in history, the people want a leader with experience and somebody that can put the state back on track.”

There are already Republican candidates talking about those issues.  Why does it have to be you?

“My wife asked the same question,” Branstad said.  The family laughed.  “…I love all of the other candidates that are running on the Republican ticket and they all have the right to run.  They don’t have the name recognition that I have.  They don’t have the experience that I have and I guess I think that the people of Iowa by the thousands are saying we want a leader with experience.”

What do you say to Republicans who say you aren’t conservative enough?

“You know, this is pretty amazing because in most of my life I’ve been accused of being too conservative,” Branstad said.  “I am a conservative.  I’m proud of my conservative record and I’ll be glad to defend it and whatever, but I find it almost, well, I find it laughable.”

Branstad added he wouldn’t get into a “tit for tat” with anyone.

The “one more question” notice is issued by a staffer.  I’m going to pack up to be ready to go.

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About O.Kay Henderson

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