In January of 1999, Tom Vilsack was sworn in as Iowa’s 40th governor. Republicans Bob Ray and Terry Branstad had been governor for 30 years, and Vilsack offended statehouse democrats and the state workers union that had backed him when he chose to keep many of the administrators who’d been working for the previous republican governor. Lowell Junkins, the democrats’ 1988 candidate for Governor and a former Iowa Senate leader, is a backroom advisor to Vilsack and Junkins contends Vilsack kept those managers around to signal he was willing to work with republicans.
“It was well intended,” Junkins said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “It was an act of statesmanship from my perspective and he got bit by both sides. It’s a case where statesmanship really did just cost him a big kick in the pants by both sides.”
Then came the death of two-year-old Shelby Duis. The Spirit Lake toddler died of child abuse — even though signs of that abuse had prompted state social worker calls to the child’s home in the weeks before her death. Vilsack attended a forum to try to difuse the community’s anger about the child’s death. Vilsack staffers say they were shocked when Vilsack ended up talking publicly about his own abuse at the hands of his alcoholic mother. The stir his comments spawned didn’t die down for days, which Vilsack acknowledged during a statehouse ceremony.
“After having talked a lot about this over the last couple of weeks, my inclination was to be silent about this because I’ve probably said enough,” Vilsack said. “But then I realized that’s precisely the problem with this situation is that too many people are silent, too many people don’t talk about it, too many people don’t deal with it and as a result children get hurt.”
Vilsack received praise for talking publicly about a painful past, for encouraging victims of abuse to seek help and for being a role model for abuse victims. But Vilsack was also criticized. Republican Senator Mary Lundby of Marion said Vilsack’s revelations were diverting attention from the fact that the state “safety net” hadn’t protected Shelby Duis.
“Having watched President Clinton over the last eight years, I thought it was particularly like that kind of activity where you cry or elicit some kind of sympathy so that we don’t deal with the real issue,” Lundby said. “There are a lot of sad things in my previous life, too, but I don’t bring them up every time I have an issue to work on.”
The Vilsack Administration weathered the storm, and Vilsack’s Lieutenant Governor, Sally Pederson, sat down with legislators to revamp the state’s child protection system. Vilsack also survived an earthquake and rioting early in his years as governor. Details in the next installment of Radio Iowa’s review of Governor Tom Vilsack’s career.