Talking with Branstad: DMU, gas tax and “the speech”

This afternoon I had my first opportunity to interview former Governor Terry Branstad since he started flirting with the idea of running for a fifth term and announced his quest in October.  (To be clear, I made an interview request earlier, but it was just granted and scheduled for today.)

I met Branstad in what I consider the student union at Des Moines University.  As I walked in, groups of students were making their way down a hallway into classrooms.  A few were sitting at tables, staring at laptops or books.

Branstad was walking down the corridor with Tim Albrecht, the new communications director for the Branstad 2010 campaign (and the guy who scheduled this interview).  Branstad, who was carrying a red tote bag filled with work-out clothes, sat down at a “four-topper” (a table with four chairs) and we talked for about 40 minutes.  Mr. Albrecht took my camera and snapped a few pictures.

Des Moines University was the first topic of conversation.  Branstad clearly enjoyed his six years as DMU president.  He had stories about the statue in the entry way and the art installation (an homage to the DNA double helix) that hangs in a prominent place in the lobby of the student union.

“This is where my wife went to high school,” Branstad began.  “St. Joseph’s Academy was a Catholic girls high school on this site.  My wife graduated in 1970.  We got married in ’72 and I ran for the legislature in ’72, got elected.  That was also the year that St. Joseph’s merged with Dowling and they sold it to the College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“And so, in ’73 I was a young state representative.  My wife was my clerk and we got invited to an open house here:  ‘See what they’re doing with the old high school.’  So that was 1973.  In 2003 I was selected as the new president of Des Moines University and first thing we did was tear down her high school and build this beautiful new $24.5 million student education center on this site.”

One of the goals Branstad had for DMU was to make the campus have the “feel” or look of a campus.  “We didn’t have an adequate wellness facility. We didn’t have enough classroom space.  We now have this 400-seat auditorium.  We also interviewed students to see what they wanted.  They wanted a fire place.  They wanted some comfortable chairs. They wanted a coffee bar, so we tried to accommodate what the needs of the students were.”‘

When Branstad arrived in 2003, there were about 1200 students enrolled at DMU.  Today, there are about 1600.  It is the state’s largest medical school and ranks among the top 20 largest medical schools in the country (somewhere in the neighborhood of #16).

“I had worked closely with the school as governor and I was aware of the fact that a lot of doctors, especially in rural Iowa, are graduates of Des Moines University rather than the University of Iowa, so they’re really meeting a lot of the health care needs of rural Iowa,” Branstad said.  “In fact, we have alumni in 94 of the 99 counties in Iowa — and in all 50 states.”

There’ll be more about Branstad and DMU later, next week.

Moving on to other subjects, Branstad addressed the questions about his abilities which were raised by the speech he gave at a GOP fundraiser earlier this month.

“I read the speech because there were certain points that I wanted to make, but it was a mistake to read the speech.  I need to speak from the heart, just as we have here today. I think people see the passion and the commitment that I have, the sincerity, the experience and the knowledge that I have if I just speak from the heart, so I learned a valuable lesson from that one,” Branstad said, with a laugh. “And this is the way we’re going to do it as we go forward.”

Branstad addressed the idea that he has told road builders he would approve a gas tax increase if he’s elected to a fifth term.

“I don’t think we need a gas tax increase and I wouldn’t support a gas tax increase,” Branstad said.  “In fact, I think what we need to do with the Department of Transportation — what we need to do with all state and local government — (is) look at how can we eliminate some of the administrative costs and some of the inefficiencies so more of the user fees, which is the gas tax (and) your vehicle registration, that that goes for what it’s supposed to go to: roads and bridges.”

Branstad addressed a few other issues before he left to go work out in the DMU Wellness Center.  As a retiree, he still has a pass to use the facility.  It’s almost 7 o’clock now and I should leave work so I work out, too.  I’ll be back tomorrow with more from the 11-18-09 Branstad interview.

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About O.Kay Henderson

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