A former state legislator who once got in a national spat with Oprah Winfrey has died.
Berl Priebe of Algona served in the Iowa House for four years and in the Iowa Senate for 24 years. Priebe, who raised Angus cattle, took offense to a 1996 Oprah Winfrey show about Mad Cow Disease. Priebe blamed Winfrey for the dramatic drop in U.S. cattle prices. He demanded that Winfrey tell her viewers Mad Cow Disease had not been found in the United States. Winfrey responded, saying she had asked questions the American public deserved to have answered given the Mad Cow outbreak in Great Britain.
In 1988, Priebe brought an Iowa State University nutritionist before his Senate Ag Committee to complain about her warning that there might be a link between grilled red meat and cancer. Priebe quipped that the researcher “got a taste of what it was like to be on the griddle for a while.”
Priebe was one of four senators — two Democrats and two Republican — who were known as the “Montana Mafia.” The senators were known for gathering at Montana’s — a bar near the statehouse — to plot strategy for killing bills they opposed in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Former Senator Jack Rife, a farmer from Moscow, Iowa, who later became the state Senate’s Republican Leader, was a member of the Montana Mafia.
“He was a colorful character,” Rife said this morning from his eastern Iowa farm, where he is cutting hay. “I enjoyed him very much.”
Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs, the current Democratic leader in the state senate, said Priebe had the unique ability to bring the senate to a stand-still.
“He was always quite adept and quite talented at figuring out the kind of amendment to offer that would put the place in a really uncomfortable position,” Gronstal said this morning.
Priebe, who owned race horses, then would often engage in what Priebe called “horse trading” to get something he wanted, in exchange for removing the roadblock he’d designed for another bill.
“It was great when he was on your side and it was maddening when he wasn’t because he could tie the place up pretty well,” Gronstal said.
This example from Gronstal illustrates Priebe’s ability to maneuver the levers of the legislature: “Berl Priebe always passed the first bill of the session, some bill out of ag committee…every single year. Even if somebody else was ahead of him, he figured out some way to make sure that his bill was the first bill to pass in the legislature.”
Priebe was also the long-time chairman of a powerful legislative committee that has the power to reject the rules and regulations state bureaucrats propose.
Priebe died Sunday at the age of 96. A memorial service for Priebe will be held Friday afternoon in Algona.