BURLINGTON, Iowa – The Republican and Democratic candidates for governor wasted no time Saturday night digging into the merits of a $100 million tax break that lured a $1.6 billion fertilizer company to Lee County.
And while exchanges in a debate between them about that controversial deal was hot enough, the rhetoric’s temperature increased even further in the debate’s second half when Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and Democratic challenger state Sen. Jack Hatch lobbed accusations of improper behavior as elected representatives.
Hatch hammered at Branstad for his handling of closing Workforce Development offices, the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, shifting the classification of some jobs to political appointments, secret settlements for state employees who were dismissed from their jobs, payments to employees to remain silent about being dismiss, a do-not-hire list for state jobs, the firing of a state trooper who complained about a speeding incident involving a trooper driving the governor, and Branstad’s handling of a discrimination lawsuit filed by former Workers Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey. Godfrey is gay.
“It is the most scandal-ridden administration in the history of this state,” Hatch said.
Branstad defended his record, saying he signed an executive order to stop secret settlements and wanted to expanded that to the Legislature and local governments but that Democrats in the Senate, which they control, killed the effort. He also defended his actions against the other accusations, including the lawsuit, saying anyone can file a lawsuit and he is prepared to give a deposition for Godfrey’s after the election.
“Iowans know me. They know I’m honest, straight-forward,” Branstad said. He said he holds weekly news conferences, travels to all 99 counties and is accountable. “I have nothing to hide.”
JOBS AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Saturday’s debate, the second in a series of three leading up to the Nov. 4 election, was hosted by the Greater Burlington Partnership, The Hawk Eye newspaper in Burlington and KWQC TV-6 News. A southeast Iowa audience at Edward Stone Middle School heard Branstad and Hatch spar about its stated purpose — economic prosperity and job creation.
Branstad welcomed questions about the deal to attract Orascom’s Iowa Fertilizer Company to Lee County, bringing the plant up immediately during his first comments as an example of how the state has added 240 jobs to southeast Iowa.
Hatch said Iowa’s tax break contribution for the Egyptian company was too much for the number of jobs it created. “It was a reckless deal. It was a bad deal. It was a terrible deal,” Hatch said.
“Without the incentives we would not have gotten the jobs,” Branstad countered.
Hatch said he wanted the state to have four regional economic development authorities that would help communities build jobs from the community. He’s talked about this before.
Branstad, meanwhile, hailed Iowa’s unemployment rate, comparing it favorably with neighboring Illinois — something he frequently does with several issues to bring attention to governors from that state who have landed in prison, although he often emphasizes the Democrats among that group. One, Dan Ryan, was a Republican.
Branstad called having regional economic development efforts a mistake because of the resources the state can provide.
Iowa’s unemployment rate in August was 4.5 percent, the same as in July and slightly less than the 4.7 percent in August last year, Iowa Workforce Development figures show. That is based on a labor force of 1.63 million people, 31,000 more than in August 2013.
The state’s unemployment rate was 6.4 percent in August 2010, the last year of former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver’s tenure, when 1.57 million Iowans had jobs, Workforce Development records show.
Branstad said he has fulfilled promises to grow jobs in the state since returning to the governorship. “I’m proud of the fact that we work with local governments and the local economic development people,” he said.
Hatch called Branstad’s approach top-down. Hatch’s approach, he said, is to have local government officials steer economic development. “I think it’s wrong to be able to say it’s only going to be Des Moines that is going to make those decisions,” he said.
Steve Bisenius, executive director of the Lee County Development Group and a Keokuk Republican at the debate to support Branstad, said before the debate that holding it in southeast Iowa was important, in part, because of state assistance for Iowa Fertilizer Company. Bisenius has said the plant is expected to bring 240 to 250 jobs to the area.
“We really appreciate it. Southeast Iowa has been a traditional manufacturing mecca, old heavy industry, and we’ve gone through our ups and our downs,” Bisenius said. “Clearly, with the advent of Iowa Fertilizer Company revitalization, on this topic of Iowa jobs, economic development, it’s very critical to ourselves.”
Hatch’s followers at the debate were not so certain about how much Iowa will benefit from Iowa Fertilizer Company. “It’s all in one corner of the state. It’s leaving out all the other counties,” Bill Thele, a Democrat from Burlington, said. “What about northwest Iowa? You know, they need some economic development there as well.”
Don Harter, another Burlington Democrat, said, “I think we could have had that company come here with a lot less money. …That appears, to me, to be bad business practice.”
The candidates were questioned by panelists from KWQC-TV and The Hawk Eye. Hatch was asked how he could say he supports small businesses but also an increase in the minimum wage. “Good question,” he responded, eliciting laughter from some in the audience. “You’re assuming that all small businesses pay minimum wage.”
He added that no Iowan should have to work 40 hours a week but still be in poverty.
Branstad said a minimum wage bill failed to leave a Senate committee on which Hatch sits because leaders in the Democratic-held Senate would not move it forward. Hatch responded that Democratic leaders did not want to pass a bill that Republicans would kill as a political ploy to their supporters.
THE OPINION POLL FACTOR
Earlier in the week a Quinnipiac University poll showed Branstad with a 60 percent to 37 percent lead when asked whom they would vote for if the election where held today. The poll, taken Sept. 10-15 of 1,167 likely Iowa voters, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
The poll showed Branstad running strong with people calling themselves political independents, with 62 percent support compared to Hatch’s 33 percent.
Perhaps the most telling result in the poll, given the support Branstad has elsewhere in it, is that 82 percent of those polled said their mind already is made up, leaving Hatch with a small margin for catching up if the poll results hold.
The poll also suggests that those questioned have not focused much on Hatch, although Hatch said Saturday night he intends to let people know plenty about him before the November election. In the poll, 44 percent said they have not heard enough to have either a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Hatch.
That compares with only 7 percent needing more information to judge Branstad. Among those who cast that judgment, 59 percent of voters having a favorable opinion, compared to 29 percent for Hatch, the poll showed.
WE ASKED VOTERS WHAT ISSUES THEY WANT THE GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATES TO ADDRESS BEFORE THE NOV. 4 ELECTION:
After the debate both candidates predictably were pleased with their appearances. Hatch said he attacked Branstad on integrity issues because he was asked in the debate about accountability.
“The fact is, this governor doesn’t feel he needs to be accountable,” Hatch told reporters. “To hear the governor say these are wild accusations means there’s something more there, and Iowans are going to have to think about that.”
Branstad said he was prepared for Hatch’s accusations. “I have press conferences every week. I have tough questions asked of me all the time. I trust the people of Iowa,” he said.
Branstad also said the fertilizer plant was a good example of a locally-driven project. “This plant that he complains about was initiated by the people in Lee County. The state partnered with them and it’s been wonderful for this whole area.”
The next, and last, debate is to be held Oct. 14 in Sioux City. Branstad and Hatch previously debated at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 14.