Governor Tom Vilsack’s 19-year career in Iowa politics is drawing to an end as he embarks on a bid for national office.
In 1987, Tom Vilsack was elected mayor of Mount Pleasant. The city’s previous major had been shot to death during a city council meeting by a disgruntled citizen upset about his Mount Pleasant property, and Vilsack was a write-in candidate in the special election to choose a replacement. Vilsack was elected the town’s mayor two more times, then in 1992 he won a seat in the state Senate.
But Vilsack’s political career could have ended shortly after that because Vilsack, who was frustrated by the slow pace of the political process, thought about resigning. Long-time state Senator Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs says Vilsack’s law partner, who also happened to be Vilsack’s father-in-law, talked him out of it. “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 says.
Former state Senator Elaine Szymoniak of Des Moines sat next to Vilsack in the senate. “After (Vilsack) gave his first floor speech, I wrote him a note saying: ‘There’ll be a time when I’ll say I knew you when you began.’ I didn’t really look ahead to a national scene, but I was pretty sure then that he’d be governor,” Szymoniak told Radio Iowa in an interview in 2004 when Vilsack was on the list of politicians John Kerry was considering as a vice presidential runningmate.
Thomas A. Fogarty, a former Des Moines Register reporter, covered Vilsack in the state senate, and spoke with Radio Iowa by telephone from his office at USA Today, where he now works. “He was incredibly bright. He was incredibly talented in zeroing in on the points of potential compromise,” Fogarty said of Vilsack back in 2004. “He was extremely dilligent and he was extremely persuasive.”
Fogarty is now an editor at USA Today who no longer covers politics, but he vividly remembers Vilsack’s demeanor. “He has no patience for small talk and I always thought that in the long run that he would be inhibited from advancement in politics because of his personality,” Fogarty said. “I was wrong on that. You don’t get elected governor twice and have a complete inability to deal with people.”
Vilsack’s term as governor officially ends January 12th when Chet Culver’s sworn in as governor. But Vilsack’s next campaign has already begun. He’ll formally announce he’s running for president on Thursday during a speech in Mount Pleasant.