By Jerry Harrington
This is the third and final installation in Iowa History Journal’s special series on Iowa governors of prominence.
Robert Ray and Terry Branstad’s terms as Iowa governors span much of the final third of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Combined, they have been elected governor 11 times — Ray five times and Branstad six. Their total time in office was more than 34 years and, in Branstad’s case, it’s still continuing.
While Ray was known as a moderate and Branstad a conservative, their common thread has been their ability to connect with Iowa voters time and time again, gaining their continuous approval to lead the state. It is their long time in office — and the lasting legacies of their administrations — that make both Ray and Branstad governors of significant influence in Iowa history.
Robert D. Ray — A Good Man Who Did a Good Job
When Iowans look back upon Robert Ray’s long tenure as governor, most cite at least three accomplishments. One is his heartfelt and forceful leadership in welcoming Southeast Asian refugees to Iowa after the upheaval of the Vietnam War. Another is the 5 cent deposit law that has helped keep Iowa cleaner.
A third legacy is the image of a low-key, pragmatic leader who skillfully managed the state for nearly a decade-and-a-half — one who maintained unprecedented popularity and left an improved and better managed state government.
Ray was born in Des Moines on Sept. 26, 1928, and attended school there, earning a bachelor’s and law degree from Drake University. While in law school, he married his high school sweetheart, Billie. After serving time in the military, he became a trial attorney, eyeing a career in public service. He twice ran for office — for Polk County attorney and a state legislative seat — but failed to win either.
If getting himself elected wasn’t in the cards, Ray decided he would work to elect others, becoming Iowa Republican Party chairman in 1963; at age 35, he was the youngest state GOP chairman in more than a century. Ray assumed the post shortly before the party faced devastating electoral losses across the United States with Republican Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat to Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In Iowa, Democrats won all statewide elected offices, as well as both houses of the legislature and six of seven congressional districts.
Ray successfully led the Republicans to a comeback two years later and, in 1968, used this platform to run for governor. He ran as a moderate Republican against two other conservatives in the Republican primary.
During the primary campaign on a rainy April 22 day, Ray was flying in a small airplane near Clear Lake. The plane crashed, sliding for half a mile on a muddy field. While no one was killed, Ray was knocked unconscious and later woke up in the hospital. He recovered from the accident and gained a hefty amount of publicity which his campaign extensively exploited.
Ray’s campaign also stood out with a theme song on television and radio ads featuring Iowan Marilyn Maye with a revised version of her national hit, “Step to the Rear (and Let a Winner Lead the Way),” rewritten to highlight the candidate.
Ray won the September 1968 primary by splitting the conservative votes and defeated Democrat Paul Franzenberg in the November election, carrying 83 of Iowa’s 99 counties.
Ray inherited a state bound in the cultural conflicts of the 1960s, including campus unrest, protests against the Vietnam War and the military draft. But the new governor approached them with a thoughtful, measured attitude and resisted confrontations. Said Sandy Boyd, president of the University of Iowa, “He seemed to respond in a way that made things better, not worse.”
Terry E. Branstad — Governor Across the Decades
The political compass of Terry Branstad was set early — by a teacher and a book.
The teacher was Lura Sewick, who taught eighth grade U.S. history and a young Branstad in Forrest City. The book was Barry Goldwater’s “Conscious of a Conservative,” read by Branstad as a youngster. Sewick’s inspirational teaching ignited a passion for public service in this rural Iowa student and Goldwater’s writings instilled within Branstad a conservative ideology.
The result has been an Iowa governorship stretching across four different decades. Now in his sixth term and 21st year as Iowa’s chief executive, Branstad stands on the verge of breaking the record as the longest serving governor in U.S. history, surpassing George Clinton of New York.
Branstad recently visited with Iowa History Journal to reflect on his long career as the state’s governor.
“Lura Sewick was one of those teachers who just loved teaching,” he said. “She really brought history to life and inspired me to enter government service. She had a tremendous impact on my life.”
Goldwater’s book, given to Branstad by his uncle, began the transformation of a young Democrat into a Republican; Branstad grew up in a Democratic family and his mother served on the Winnebago Democratic County Central Committee. However, when he went to the University of Iowa in Iowa City in the mid-1960s and became active in the Young Democrats, he “didn’t feel at home in that group” and shortly became a Republican.
Following graduation and service in the military, Branstad began studying at Drake Law School in Des Moines, selected because it was close to government action in the state’s capital city. There, he met his future wife, Christine, on a blind date in October 1971 and they were married the next summer.
At this time, Iowa legislative reapportionment resulted in an open Iowa House district that included parts of Winnebago, Hancock and Kossuth counties in north central Iowa. Branstad, while in law school, jumped at the chance and was elected to the legislature in 1972 where he served three terms. In 1976, as a supporter of Ronald Reagan, he was an alternate to the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City.
“Through my involvement with the Reagan campaign, I got to know a lot of people throughout Iowa including Ray Hagie, president of Hagie Manufacturing and influential within the Republican Party,” said Branstad. “At the end of the convention, he told me, ‘If you’re ever interested in state office, I’ll support you,’ and that got me thinking about higher office.”
When Lt. Gov. Art Neu of Carroll decided to retire in 1978, Branstad announced for the seat, won a three-way primary and was elected in the fall, serving for four years under Robert Ray.
“I learned a lot from Governor Ray,” said Branstad. “He was very outgoing, very personable, very accessible. Our backgrounds were very different — he was from Des Moines, I was from rural Iowa, I’m more conservative than he — but I’ve always had a great deal of respect for him. Also, he was very aggressive about international trade and forged the groundwork for our sister-state relationship with China.”
When Ray announced he wouldn’t seek another term in 1982, Branstad secured the Republican nomination unopposed and defeated Democrat Roxanne Conlin. The race was most prominently known for Conlin’s mid-campaign announcement that she and her husband had not paid state income tax the prior year, causing her support to drop, and the candidate never recovered.
When Branstad took office as governor, he confronted one of the gravest financial disasters faced by Iowa in generations — the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. A combination of national and international factors, including a Federal Reserve Board policy of high interest rates to fight inflation and a grain embargo against the Soviet Union, devastated the farm economy. This caused crop prices to drop below the cost of production, land values to plummet 63 percent and 38 rural Iowa banks to close. Iowa state revenues plummeted.
With farmers needing help, the governor’s office created the Rural Concern Hotline to provide assistance where possible and the state tried to help producers with debt restructuring as much as it could. A key effort was working for debt restructuring on a national level, a promise Branstad had secured from President Reagan.