1998 was a big year in Iowa politics. Republican Governor Terry Branstad was not seeking re-election after 16 years in the job. Two democrats launched campaigns for governor — Tom Vilsack and Mark McCormick, a Des Moines attorney who had been a justice on Iowa’s Supreme Court. During that campaign, Vilsack cast himself as the champion of the little guy, as listeners heard in this Radio Iowa report filed during that campaign.

“During the debate, Tom Vilsack said he and Mark McCormick don’t differ much on the issues. Vilsack said their biggest difference was in their clients. Vilsack criticized McCormick for taking a case for I-B-P. ‘It’s o-k for Mark to represent big companies that pollute, big companies that mistreat workers because he believes, and I think in good faith, that he doesn’t have to share the values of that company. He doesn’t have to believe in what they’ve done. I just can’t be that way. I guess it goes back to the playground. I didn’t enjoy being pushed around when I was a kid and I don’t enjoy other folks being pushed around by big folks,'” Vilsack said.

After Vilsack beat McCormick in that primary, Vilsack suffered a few major bumps along the road. Vilsack had to fire one campaign manager who’d been on the job just three days because the fellow went to the office of G-O-P rival Jim Lightfoot and posed as a volunteer.

“Certainly no place for it in my campaign,” Vilsack told reporters in a telephone conference call. “That’s why we moved as quickly as we did to send the young man back home.”

Despite the revolving door of campaign managers, many of the republicans I’ve talked with say one of the reasons Vilsack won the race for governor back in 1998 was that Vilsack not only told people he wanted to be governor, Vilsack told them what he wanted to do once he got the job.

“I’m here today to tell you that we need to begin the process of rejecting the politics of yesterday, the politics of yesterday that simply says all you need to do is cut taxes for the most fortunate of our society and just talk tough on crime and all problems will be solved,” Vilsack said during a speech at the Iowa Democratic Party’s 1998 state convention.

On election night, Vilsack’s republican opponent Jim Lightfoot lost his second-straight statewide race, and Vilsack ended the G-O-P’s 30-year reign in the governor’s chair.

“This election proves one thing,” Vilsack told supporters at a Des Moines hotel. “You’re a winner,” someone in the crowd yelled back. Once the applause and hooting had died down, Vilsack finished his sentence.

“It proves that standing up for Iowa’s working families actually counts.” But after the applause and euphoria died down, Vilsack had to govern. A review of Vilsack’s first days as governor is next in this Radio Iowa’s series examining Tom Vilsack’s career.