Gov. Chet Culver (D)
Elected: 2006, term expires Jan. 2011, 1st term.
Born: Jan. 25, 1966, Washington, D.C. .
Home: Des Moines.
Education: VA Tech, B.A. 1988; Drake U., M.A.T. 1994.
Family: Married (Mari Thinnes); 2 children.
Elected office: IA sec. of state, 1998-2006.
Professional Career: Consumer & environmental advocate, IA atty. gen.’s office, 1991-95; Teacher, Roosevelt High, 1995, Hoover High, 1996-1998.
Chet Culver, a Democrat, was elected governor of Iowa in 2006. He is the son of John Culver, a former U.S. House member (1965-75) and senator (1975-81). His Democratic father lost his Senate seat to Republican Charles Grassley in 1980, and Grassley has held it ever since. Chet Culver was born in Washington, during his father’s first term in the House, went to high school in Maryland and college in Virginia. His family boasts not just politicians but also athletes. His father was a star football player at Harvard University, good enough to be drafted by the National Football League, and his mother was a champion diver and speed skater. His three sisters were college athletes, and he won a scholarship to play football for Virginia Tech University before a knee injury ended his career.
|Chet Culver (D)||569,021||(54%)|
|Jim Nussle (R)||467,425||(44%)|
|Chet Culver (D)||58,131||(39%)|
|Michael Blouin (D)||50,728||(34%)|
|Ed Fallon (D)||38,253||(26%)|
After college, Culver moved to Iowa, where his family name could open political doors. He was a field staffer for the state Democratic party, then chaired by Bonnie Campbell, who had been his father’s state director. Culver went on to work for Campbell’s husband, a statehouse lobbyist, before serving as Campbell’s field director during her successful 1990 campaign for state attorney general. He spent several years working in the attorney general’s office. Campbell ran for governor in 1994 but lost to Republican Terry Branstad. Culver dropped out of politics for a period, taking a job coaching football and teaching government and history at a Des Moines high school.
In 1998, at age 32, he was elected Iowa’s secretary of state, the youngest in the nation at the time. A politician who wins statewide office at so young an age is typically marked as a future prospect for governor, and Culver did nothing in his two terms to take himself off that track. His critics, however, saw a partisan edge to his work. As the state’s elections administrator, he frustrated GOP legislators who wanted changes to Iowa’s voting system, and Republicans also criticized him in 2004 for mailing to every household a voter guide that included an absentee-ballot request. Traditionally, absentee ballots had worked to the advantage of Iowa Democrats. Culver responded that he was merely seeking to increase voter participation. He further angered Republicans when he failed to declare President George W. Bush the winner in Iowa until days after the 2004 election—making Iowa the last state to declare, even though few thought that the remaining uncounted ballots could change the outcome in the state.
In 2006, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack fulfilled a promise made in 1998 to serve only two terms. The only Democrat elected governor in Iowa since 1966, Vilsack was making plans to run for president in 2008. Culver entered the gubernatorial primary with two main opponents: former Rep. Michael Blouin and state Rep. Ed Fallon, who refused to take political action committee money or contributions from paid lobbyists. Blouin, who was the state’s economic development director, had assembled support from most of the state’s Democratic legislators and from organized labor. Fallon ran as a progressive and an outsider. He had supported Ralph Nader over Al Gore for president in 2000. Culver announced his candidacy in November 2005, months after Fallon and Blouin, and he highlighted economic development, education, and energy issues. He proposed a $100 million Iowa Power Fund to create energy-oriented businesses and attract new investment in alternative fuels and technologies. “In the past, Iowa has fed the world,” he said. “Now it’s time for Iowa to fuel the world.”
Culver was the best fundraiser, and his solid support for abortion rights gave him an edge among party activists. He won 39% of the primary vote to Blouin’s 34%. Fallon finished third with 26%. Culver carried 80 of 99 counties, but lost Dubuque County, the University of Iowa’s Johnson County, and Cedar Rapids’s Linn County to Blouin. Fallon’s strength didn’t extend far beyond his Des Moines home. He won Des Moines’s Polk County and Iowa State University’s Story County just to the north.
Awaiting Culver was U.S. Rep. Jim Nussle, who was unopposed in the Republican primary. An eight-term House veteran and the Budget Committee chairman, Nussle had more experience and polish, which the GOP highlighted. Culver’s campaign responded to the perception that the Democrat was rough around the edges with a smart ad in which his wife, Mari, fondly refers to him as “a big lug.” Culver tied Nussle to the unpopular Bush administration and the national Republican Party, while reminding Iowans about the explosion in the size of the federal budget deficit under Nussle’s watch. Both Culver and Nussle urged more education spending. They were at odds on immigration policy, taxes, and economic development issues. The abortion-rights debate was especially divisive. Culver called Nussle’s opposition to abortion rights and embryonic-stem-cell research an “extreme position.” Nussle appeared to backtrack on abortion in the fall, though he later reiterated that he favored banning abortion except to save the life of the mother.
It was an awful year to run as a Republican in Iowa, and Culver won 54%-44%. He carried Des Moines’s Polk County (56%-42%), Davenport’s Scott County (56%-41%), and both Cedar Rapids’s Linn County and Waterloo’s Black Hawk County (59%-40%). In the University of Iowa’s Johnson County, he won 68%-29%. As of early November, Democrats had cast 89,000 absentee ballots to 50,000 for Republicans, and these ballots accounted for more than a third of Culver’s 99,000-vote margin. Democrats also picked up Nussle’s open 1st District seat, defeated Republican Rep. Jim Leach in the 2nd District, and won majorities in the state House and Senate for the first time since 1992. Going into the election, the Senate was tied 25-25. Culver took office with a 30-20 Democratic advantage. Republicans had previously had a 50-49 edge (with one vacancy) in the House, but Democrats ended up with a 54-46 majority.
The 2007 legislative session marked the first time in 42 years that Democrats controlled the governor’s office and both chambers of the Iowa state Legislature. It was a productive session for the new governor, who was able to pass several major initiatives. The Legislature approved $150 million to increase salaries for teachers and a boost in the hourly minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 in 2008, the first increase in 10 years. It also approved Culver’s $100 million Iowa Power Fund. All told, state spending rose by roughly 10%, partially offset by an increase in the state’s cigarette tax.
Culver also signed into law a bill allowing same-day voter registration, In 2007 conservative U.S. Rep. Steve King and immigration hard-liners sued the governor for violating the state’s official English law by printing voter information in several languages. At the close of his first legislative session, Culver said, “I do feel good about the promises I made to voters.”
By early 2009, however, Culver, like other governors nationwide, was facing budgetary pressures as the recession sent state revenues plummeting. In April, he proposed a $6.2 billion budget that called for $300 million in spending cuts, and said that many state programs would have slashed by up to 8%. The state’s finances were also constrained by recovery efforts from severe tornados and flooding in 2008. The governor had to tap $40 million in economic development funds to help businesses and homeowners waiting for federal disaster aid that was slow in arriving.
Culver’s first term had some other low moments. He stopped payments to a consulting firm that had been hired to help cut costs when an auditor found that the firm cost the state more money than it saved. Chicago-based consulting firm A.T. Kearney was paid $4.8 million for finding a savings of $2.9 million in the fiscal year. In 2007, Culver came under fire from a citizens’ advocacy group for refusing to reappoint three commissioners to an air- and water-quality oversight board. The commissioners were backed by several environmental groups. Among the replacements Culver named were two farmers, prompting the citizens’ group to charge that he had caved in to “corporate agriculture pressure.” Culver also lost important political support from labor unions in 2008 when he vetoed a bill that would have given Iowa’s public employees broad rights to negotiate working conditions, including work shifts, leaves of absence, and early retirement. Several major unions stopped giving to his political fund.