If you look at Tom Vilsack’s resume, it looks like a flow chart that a college professor would use to illustrate how to move up the political ranks. Vilsack was elected his town’s mayor three times, then he won a seat in the state legislature which he held for five years. Vilsack followed that with two successful campaigns for governor and now in his fifth year as governor he’s on the list of folks democrat presidential candidate John Kerry’s considering as a running mate. While we don’t yet know how this latest chapter in Vilsack’s political story will end, we do know how Vilsack’s life began.
He was orphaned, then adopted by Bud and Dolly Vilsack. Vilsack grew up in Pennsylvania, got his college degree from Hamilton College and his law degree from Albany Law School. Vilsack describes Mount Pleasant, Iowa as his adopted hometown. It’s where his wife, Christie Bell, grew up, and Vilsack often describes his first visit. Vilsack’s friend Lenis Moore of Mount Pleasant tells a condensed version of the story.
“The first experience he had in this small town of Mount Pleasant was a potluck family dinner,” Moore said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “(Vilsack) was so impressed by and struck by the sense of family that existed that he wanted very much to have that not only for himself but for his family and I think that played a great part in their decision to move back to Mount Pleasant.”
So, Tom Vilsack married Christie and began practicing law with his father-in-law in his wife’s hometown. After the town’s mayor was shot to death during a city council meeting in 1987, Vilsack won the job of mayor in a write-in campaign. Then, he ran for the state Senate in 1992. Vilsack’s political career could have ended shortly afterwards, though, as Vilsack thought seriously about quitting politics. Senator Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs says Tom Vilsack’s father-in-law pointed him in a different direction.
“He had one of those, you know, kind of heart-to-heart (conversations) with a man he had a lot of respect for, and love and admiration for. He had a heart to heart with him, and what I remember is Tom says that’s when he decided he could stay in the legislature for a while and do some o-k stuff, or he could go and really try and make a fundamental difference, and he decided I’m going to run for governor and try to make a fundamental difference in Iowa,” Gronstal said during a Radio Iowa interview.
But first, a review of Vilsack’s time in the State Senate is next in this Radio Iowa series examining Tom Vilsack’s career.