Monday I had the opportunity to talk at length with Representative Rod Roberts (R-Carroll) who is one of the seven Republicans competing for the GOP nomination to run against Governor Chet Culver. Representative Roberts has served in the Iowa House of Representatives since January 2001. He also serves as the Assistant House Minority Leader and is the senior member of the House Republican Leadership. Representative Roberts also serves as the Development Director for Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in Iowa.
This will be the first in the series of three blog posts highlighting my interview with him. If you would like to listen to the very raw audio of this interview, go here.
Shane Vander Hart: Thank you so much for taking time to sit down for an interview with me today. I guess the first thing I would like to ask you, is why did you decide to run?
Representative Roberts: Actually, I don’t know if most candidates can answer that question with a moment in time answer. But, for me, there was a moment a year ago September where I had a fundraiser in Carroll where I invited former Governor Robert Ray and former Governor Terry Branstad to come as my guests and we did this program called 30 years of wisdom.
The governors reflected on their 30 years of service to Iowa, and out of that program that evening, a writer, a reporter for the Daily Carroll Times/Herald newspaper interviewed the two former governors and an article appeared where both of the gentleman suggested that Rod Roberts was the kind of Republican who should be considered in the potential field of candidates in the 2010 Gubernatorial campaign; and so as that article went online and got circulated statewide there were people who picked up on it, particularly in eastern Iowa.
Then some of my colleagues in the Republican caucus in the House did, and so they begin asking me are you serious about that? Is that something you are thinking about? You know most legislators especially now having been elected and re-elected to a fifth term… you’ve got some experience behind you, and there are people with time who look at legislators and conclude… “maybe that individual has what it takes to go on to a higher level of elective office.” You know, so they seriously said, “You know you ought to think about doing that.” And really a lot of my colleagues in the House Republican Caucus encouraged me to do this… even some of the members of the Senate Republican caucus who know me well, and I guess that was really the catalyst… that event a year ago September, the article and the conversation it helped generate, and then other people encouraged me to do that from the standpoint that “you obviously have been successful in running in a legislative district that historically is not known for electing Republicans.
Shane Vander Hart: Ok, I didn’t realize that Carroll was more of a blue…
Representative Roberts: Actually the way they described it, and I would have to say it in the right order, my legislative House district is probably the least friendly Republican-looking House district among the 44 members of our caucus…. meaning from a voter registration standpoint, you look on paper and it’s like “you shouldn’t be here, you shouldn’t be re-elected” to represent Carroll County and eastern Crawford County because Republicans are such a small minority of the overall voter registration out of Carroll County.
Shane Vander Hart: Why do you think you’ve been successful running in that district?
Representative Roberts: You know, I first decided to run I looked at election history, and it is kind like when you look at the health of a church, you know tell me what your membership number is and then tell me what your attendance is on Sunday morning. And I’ll tell you which one is a real reflection of the health of that church. Ok, so voter registration numbers are at thus and such. But election history at state and federal levels indicate that quite often Carroll County voted Republican. The courthouse is all Democrat, so I concluded, my impression back home is that a lot of these folks are fairly conservative in both their social and their fiscal, you know, outlook on life. And so I thought, “you know what, I think I can do this.” Coming out of the city of Carroll, the largest community in the district, and being as well known as I was back home, I thought, “you know I could probably overcome that voter registration deficit. And I think that at least the independent registered voters would support me.”
And my first election I ran in 98, and actually lost my first race because I took on an incumbent… I didn’t know any different…. a three-term incumbent, almost beat him, and I decided to come right back and run again. He decided to retire so it was too close for his comfort, so in 2000 it was a contested race and I easily defeated the Democrat, and I guess the theory was proven correctly that having a conservative even if that person was registered Republican, really reflected more of the values of the people in Carroll County than, you know, Democrats don’t tend to be moderate or liberal back over in that area. They are pro-life many of them, and certainly fiscally conservative. And you put those qualities together it’s a very comfortable fit for people back home.
Now it isn’t that once in awhile some of that historic Democrat-leaning tendency manifests itself, as in last year’s Presidential election, President Obama carried Carroll County. And it’s unique in that then Candidate Obama, for some reason concluded, “I think I can win Carroll County, and if I can persuade Carroll County and carry Carroll County I may be able to carry the entire state.” And he did. He was probably in Carroll five times during his campaign, and had a tremendous following out of Carroll County.
Shane Vander Hart: They then saw it as a bellwether county?
Representative Roberts: Umm… hmm, yep, and yet they keep re-electing me and I haven’t had an opponent in four election cycles. But you look at that, and I think life experience from, you know, nearly 20 years I’ve been involved in a leadership role among the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in Iowa overseeing new church development, being involved on a local congregational level with strategic planning and leadership development. And then doing that kind of work, you not only help others develop their leadership potential, but you refine and develop your own through that process.
Then my colleagues in the Iowa House have elected me over and again to serve in the leadership team, and I’m the one they keep bringing back and have the most years of service in terms of a leadership role among the 44 House Republicans. So, you know, there are people who recognize leadership ability when, you know, you find a peer group of leaders… you should come back.
Shane Vander Hart: I think that dovetails well into our next question here, why should Iowa’s Republicans nominate you over the others who are running?
Representative Roberts: Actually I thought all along, and why my name was mentioned a year ago, going back to the registration makeup of my legislative district; that after the 06 and 08 general election cycles the Republican Party is the party out-of-favor. Let’s be right up front, and up until just recently most people put a great deal of emphasis on the Republicans have a deficit of over 100,000 registrations to the Democrats statewide. So that is a significant registration hole, and then, of course, independents far out number Republicans’ or the Democrats’ voting blocs, and how in the world are you going to be able to win an election when we’re so far out of favor. And, given the make-up of my House district, there were people who concluded “you know for Republicans to be successful running against Governor Culver we’ve got to have a nominee who can not only bring together the different disparate groups of the party’s base. We’ve got them all over, across the board, but also a candidate who can also appeal to at least the independent registered voters, and, at minimum, conservative Democrats. You’ve demonstrated that you can do that where you come from.”
And that is partly why there were so many early on who encouraged me to do that, because I think… it’s not just that my views align well back home, but I think leadership is identified in different categories. You look at talents and skills, beliefs and values, I think when people make a decision about that chief executive; when they think about choosing someone to serve us as Governor; it’s going to be a combination of those things and temperament and personality. You look at most people who win the race for a chief executive office have certain qualities to their temperament and personality and disposition that are appealing to people in terms of a leader. So it’s a combination of all those things and a likable, friendly person quite often can win a contested race in a field when where you may have someone with a long line of degrees and so forth and so on. Or experience in some particular area of a profession that looks on the surface that hands down that’s a superior candidate. But when people are voting for governor, there are factors that they look at, that some things will weigh more importantly than others.
Shane Vander Hart: And certainly likeability is one, and trust…
Representative Roberts: Absolutely! All those things, so it’s more than just the obvious. There are these abstract values and qualities that the voters look at an individual. That person looks like they could be Governor. They sound like a Governor. They are approachable, friendly. They look you in eye, you know, and shake your hand. It looks like he’s listening to what I have to say, and enter a room and people naturally, “oh.. uh… that’s a nice person over there.” That means something.
Shane Vander Hart: If you were go win the nomination, and then go on to win the general election, what would be the top priority of the Roberts administration? What would be your top agenda?
Representative Roberts: First of all, if you are elected Governor one of your primary tasks is to bring people around you. Just like we say in terms of being elected to the legislature, the most important vote you are going to cast is for your leader, and your leaders.
So as Governor, the most important decisions that you are going to make are those people you select and appoint to key positions of leadership of departments and agencies – the people you surround yourself with, advisors, staff and key appointments to those positions.
Move beyond that and most people ask for a vertical line-up of priority issues or topics, and for me, I’ve said this consistently throughout this campaign, these are more horizontal for Rod Roberts, and it is obvious that the budget is something that we’re going to have to, you know, there’s no question that that is job #1 is to get the fiscal house of the state of Iowa in order once again. I also think that making economic development a priority of both interest and time will be important for the person who’s governor as we come out of this recession. You are going to have to be chief advocate for why Iowa’s a business-friendly place, and why you should come to Iowa to start a business, or invest in your company’s future here in Iowa.
And then I think that I call it, just generally speaking, the fact that we historically seem to be at a place where citizens question whether or not government understands the relationship between the people and the structures of government. You understand who’s really in charge of government, kind of a Civics 101 thinking that people want to have confidence in their government, but right now I think there’s a question about people’s confidence, trust, willingness to follow their leaders in government.
I think the next governor has to be someone who can once again restore trust and confidence. Sometimes in political lingo we talk about truth and transparency in government, but I think it’s far beyond that. I think it’s back to a basic “can you rebuild trust with citizens toward their government?” I don’t know what different ways that will manifest itself, but I really think those we elect to office next year and then probably for several cycles will have to be very conscious of the very importance of re-establishing this grassroots linkage with the structures of government, so we kind of rebuild that trust once again, because it’s been lost. And there is a great deal of unrest with people, and I know that’s a real different kind of category but it is very real. I don’t care what your grandiose vision is for what program or what initiative you want to start… if the people are willing to give you your trust and confidence – I don’t care what it is; they’re not interested.
Shane Vander Hart: Absolutely, absolutely…
Representative Roberts: Two things are pragmatic budget, the economy, and then it is this altruistic, you know, it’s this kind of rebuilding the basic blocks of good government again. And remembering that they are the ones in charge, not you.
Part II will focus on Representative Roberts’ position on fiscal management, government spending and job creation.