Iowa's Vilsack Casts Large Shadow from Small State

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack casts a broad-shouldered shadow and carries himself with a quiet confidence. But lately, the Midwestern Democrat has been anything but quiet.

Scathing national speeches against the Bush administration, presidential campaigning for U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and his post as head of the Democratic Governors' Association have catapulted Vilsack into the national spotlight, and he seems comfortable in the glow.

"(Vilsack) doesn't look like a fish out of water when he's here in Washington bashing the president. There isn't this bumpkin feel to him. Yes, he's a smaller state governor, but there's a savvy to him," said Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of National Journal's, The Hotline.

Vilsack, 53, demonstrated this forward savvy last month with a politically charged economic speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "Here's my bottom line," Vilsack said, speaking firmly and articulating his words. "(The Bush) administration has pursued the most shortsighted, breathtakingly misguided economic policy of any in my lifetime."

Despite the attention, Vilsack insists he's not angling for the vice presidential nomination or any other national office. He says he loves his job and is focused on serving out his second term as governor on Iowa's smaller stage.

In fact, the idea of a spot on the Democratic ticket seemed to surprise the governor when reporters asked him about it after his Georgetown speech. "Whoa, where did that come from? I'm flattered that you'd even think that, but that's not what this is about," Vilsack said.

As a Democrat born in Pennsylvania, Vilsack's election in 1998 to the state's top office surprised many Iowans who had been led by Republican governors for more than 30 years. But he proved himself worthy of the job by being re-elected to a second term in 2002.

Friends and foes alike call him thoughtful, intellectual and a bit of a policy wonk.

"He's very bright, he's very articulate. It doesn't make him right on the issues, but it makes him a worthy adversary," said state Rep. Christopher Rants, the Republican speaker of the House who often clashes with Vilsack in the Legislature. "He gives a good stump speech."

Lawyer and Democratic lobbyist Bill Wimmer, who has known Vilsack for more than three decades, said the governor has previously shied away from the limelight. He called Vilsack "one of the most humble people you'll ever meet."

"When he first became governor, it was embarrassing for him that when he walked into a room, everybody stood," Wimmer said. "That's just the way he is. It's embarrassing for him to get the attention."

Vilsack is a self-imposed lame duck. He pledged during his 2002 campaign not to run for a third term, but he hasn't said what he plans to do when his time as governor is up in 2006. "I don't know what the options are, but I do know I've kept my law license and could go back tomorrow and practice," Vilsack told Stateline.org.

The governor's ambiguity has fueled skepticism among some Republicans in the state who think he is looking for a ticket out of Iowa. "I don't know what his intentions are, but he's very clearly looking to raise his national profile," said Gentry Collins, deputy chairman of the state GOP. Vilsack is an "extremely ambitious individual," said Eric Woolsen, a conservative columnist for Iowapolitics.com who helped run the opposing gubernatorial campaign for Republican lawyer Doug Gross in 2002.

The Hotline's Todd said, "The guy has ambition. I think he wants to think about running for president," either in 2008 or 2012.

Regardless of what path Vilsack's future holds, his past is firmly rooted in politics.

Orphaned at birth and adopted in 1951, Vilsack grew up in Pittsburgh and later attended Hamilton College in upstate New York. It was in the college's dining hall in 1968 where he met his future wife, Christie.

"I was putting my tray away at dinner one evening when this good-looking young man came up to me, and he said, Who are you going to support in the election, Humphrey or Nixon?' That's the first thing he said to me," the Iowa first lady told Stateline.org. "We met really with a political line, and we've been doing politics ever since."

The young couple moved back to Christie Vilsack's hometown, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, after Vilsack graduated from Albany Law School in 1975. In that small, conservative town of 8,000 people, Vilsack practiced as a trial lawyer and became active in the community, heading the local rotary club and volunteering for United Way of America.

His political career began several years later when he was elected mayor of Mt. Pleasant in 1987 under tragic circumstances. His predecessor was shot and killed during a town council meeting by a resident upset that his sewer system had backed up. The former mayor's father asked Vilsack to run for the seat. His political path then led to the state Senate in 1992, and six years later to the governor's office.

Vilsack said he's proud of such initiatives as the Iowa Values Fund, a public-private partnership to boost Iowa's economic development that recently awarded state incentives to 28 new business projects. The grants the largest in state history aim to create or retain more than 1,700 jobs through nearly a half billion dollars in capital investment. Vilsack also wants the Hawkeye State to lead in biotechnology and was a founding member and former head of the Governor's Biotechnology Partnership.

"I think there's a lot more to be done in that area, where we take what we grow and what we raise and convert it into the building blocks of a stronger economy," Vilsack told Stateline.org.

Vilsack's second term has been characterized by partisan bickering. He's often sparred with the Republican-controlled Legislature, which took the governor to court over line item vetoes he made last year in the Iowa Values Fund bill that the GOP says are unconstitutional. There's also a battle brewing over the budget. Vilsack wants to expand the state sales tax to generate funding for Iowa's schools and universities and raise the state's cigarette tax to pay for health care programs.

"Vilsack is not as popular now as he has been at other points in his tenure," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "It's just a very contentious time in Des Moines right now and the governor contributes to that some, but he's not solely responsible for the current atmosphere."

Despite budget deficits and economic hard times, Vilsack said he hopes to leave a positive legacy.

"What I would like folks to think about is that we attacked a lot of issues and made progress during one of the most difficult economic times, when we were subject to a terrorist attack and many of our young people were sent off to a far away land to war," he said in an interview.

Vilsack's friends and colleagues call him an "education" governor, highlighting the issue he's most passionate about.

Christie Vilsack, a school teacher for more than 30 years, said her husband enjoys visiting classrooms and reading to school children, as he did last week to mark Dr. Suess' birthday. The governor read his favorite children's book by Suess, "Thidwick the Big-hearted Moose." It's the story of a moose with gigantic antlers who feels responsible for all the forest animals.

The governor identifies with the moose, his wife joked.

Despite the pressures of the public limelight, Vilsack keeps in close touch with friends, often entertaining them at his home. He also enjoys spending time with his two sons, who've both inherited a penchant for politics. Jess, 26, recently graduated from law school, and Doug, 23, is spending the summer running a non-profit project he started, "The Paddle for the Presidency." The project involves a canoe trip down the Mississippi River. Along the way Doug and his friends hope to raise money, hold political rallies and register young people to vote.

Vilsack is an avid reader; he prefers non-fiction and collects presidential biographies. He's especially interested in the Kennedy family, but his wife revealed that his book shelf includes volumes by or about everyone from John Adams to Ronald Reagan to Hillary Clinton.

When Vilsack can find the time, he steals away for an evening jog with "hard rock" in his portable CD player. He often runs up to 15 miles on the weekend. He once completed marathon distance on a track, and still hopes to run a full-fledged marathon one day.

"He doesn't look like a runner. He's more like a Clydesdale. He's big and he's not very fast, but he improves his time and he's kind of proud of himself that as he gets older he's done better," Christie Vilsack said.