As governor, Kim Reynolds has many responsibilities.
The governor is commander-in-chief of the Iowa Army National Guard and is charged with transacting all the state’s executive business, making sure laws are faithfully executed, granting pardons and making appointments to courts and commissions.
In her 17 months as Iowa’s 41st governor, Reynolds has added another job to the list.
“I’m the No. 1 cheerleader for the state of Iowa,” she said during a “job interview” with leaders of the Iowa Biotech Association and Iowa Technology Association, who previously met with her Democratic challenger in the Nov. 6 election, Fred Hubbell.
And Reynolds, a Republican seeking a full four-year term, believes Iowans have plenty to cheer about.
At the top of the list is the U.S. News & World Report rating of Iowa as No. 1 in its Best States survey. According to the magazine, Iowa ranks first in infrastructure and high school graduation rates, and two-thirds of high school graduates go directly to college, which is slightly above the national average.
Reynolds has repeated the rankings so frequently she rattles them off from memory — third in health care and four-year college graduation rate, fourth for opportunity, fifth in education, sixth in gross domestic product growth, eighth for mental health and ninth in overall quality of life.
There’s more: a 2.5 percent unemployment rate, more high school students dual enrolled in community colleges than any other state, the second-lowest cost of doing business and income growth of 4.5. 5 and 5.1 percent in the past three quarters.
“It’s a great (economic development) marketing tool,” Reynolds said of the ranking. “It’s kind of like waving the flag like, ‘Hey look at us.’ Then you can make the pitch.”
Reynolds really never stops making the pitch whether she’s on trade missions she’s made every year since becoming Terry Branstad’s lieutenant governor in 2011 or on the campaign trail. She became governor in May 2017 when Branstad resigned to become ambassador to China.
The No. 1 ranking isn’t the goal, Reynolds said, but “it’s confirmation that we’re moving in the right direction, that what we’re doing is working.”
However, she said she doesn’t plan to rest on those laurels because as good as the overall ranking is, some of the ratings aren’t good enough.
“I’m not one to be satisfied,” Reynolds said.
A change agent
Asked about the “brain drain” of educated young adults leaving for jobs elsewhere and the difficulty of finding qualified employees here when the unemployment rate is so low, Reynolds thinks she has a way to meet the challenge.
“I said to someone the other day that instead of doing ‘trade’ missions I think we’re going to do ‘people’ missions,” she said. “We’re going to go to California, we’re going to go to Chicago and we’re going to go to New York. In Iowa it’s a low cost of living, a short commute. Your money goes twice as far. There are so many opportunities that exist in our state and we need to do a better job of touting that.”
Reynolds describes herself as a “change agent, and I think that drives people nuts.”
“I’m not about change for the sake of change, but we should always be evaluating any initiative we’re working on to see if we can do it better,” she said.
Debi Durham can attest to that part of Reynolds’ nature.
“There is no doubt, Kim Reynolds is the kind of person who is always asking ‘how can we do things better?’” the director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority said. “That speaks to the sheer volume of initiatives this administration has done since Day 1.”
Many of those, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and Future Ready Iowa, for example, have been led by Reynolds.
“I find that refreshing,” Durham said, “but I have to tell you that not everyone in government would concur with how we pace change.”
Durham, who shared a Des Moines apartment with Reynolds when she was the lieutenant governor, predicts more of the same if Reynolds is elected to a four-year term.
“I predict she will be very aggressive and engaged in economic development efforts around the globe,” Durham said.
Much of the Reynolds agenda is related to economic development. STEM and Future Ready Iowa are aimed at providing Iowans with the education and skills that will be needed to thrive in a changing economy, Reynolds said.
She supports lower taxes and tax credits to encourage business development, and sees a need to attract more venture and risk capital to fuel start-ups.
She created Empower Rural Iowa to help small towns face the needs for housing, broadband connectivity and leadership.
“If you look at the communities that have been successful it’s all about the leadership,” she said, “so we want to look for ways to grow that next generation of leaders and keep young people in those communities and have some ownership.”
Reynolds is a product of one of those rural communities — St. Charles, population 618. Her campaign ads draw on those roots, but the governor rejects suggestions she’s pitting rural and urban Iowa against each other.
“I think we’re one big small town,” she said, “ ... When I’m in urban communities and ask ‘how many of you come from a small town?’ without fail, 90 percent raise their hands.”
Given Reynolds’ track record as a county treasurer and as governor, Durham expects she will continue to look at how to better streamline processes and the delivery of services as well as how government interacts with citizens through the use of technology.
Reynolds said she never set out to be a politician, but it was her “change agent” nature that put her on that path.
As she frequently tells people, she waited tables and was a cashier to help make ends meet as she and her husband, Kevin, raised three daughters in Osceola.
In the early 1990s, she went to work as a motor vehicle clerk in the Clarke County Treasurer’s office. When she told Kevin about inefficiencies she saw, he suggested she run for treasurer or quit complaining.
She ran, won and served from 1998 to 2006.
Colleagues recall she brought technology to the office to improve service. She worked with other county treasurers — Democrat and Republican — to build a website allowing Iowans to pay their property taxes and vehicle registrations online. She also led a statewide effort to allow rural treasurers to issue driver’s licenses. Until then, many rural drivers had to wait for a state bus to come to their county before they could renew their licenses.
When she talks about her personal life, Reynolds likes to say “my story is the Iowa story.” She talks about growing up as a small town girl in St. Charles. Whether it was board games or basketball, Reynolds was determined to succeed.
Success didn’t always come easily. After high school, she went to Northwest Missouri State, but dropped out. She took courses at community colleges and Upper Iowa University while raising her daughters. It wasn’t until 2016 when the 57-year-old lieutenant governor completed her degree at Iowa State University.
In her first Condition of the State speech in January, Reynolds recalled sitting next to another “non-traditional” student, Amy Boozell of Boone, who also had taken community college classes but not completed her degree.
“We sat next to each other at graduation, at ages 42 and 57, a mother of five and a mother of three, aware that just because life got in the way didn’t mean that opportunity had to be forever out of reach,” she said.
Reynolds has faced her share of personal challenges even as she was making a reputation for her “can do” attitude. In 1999 and 2000 she was charged with driving while intoxicated and treated for alcoholism.
It was life-changing, she said, recalling a night in 2000 when she sat in a jail cell and prayed. Reynolds decided she needed to be sober to be the person — the wife and mother — she wanted to be. She’s been sober for nearly 18 years.
Despite of the challenges — or perhaps because of them — the “my story is the Iowa story” resonates with backers.
“She could be my neighbor,” Laura Kamienski of Cedar Rapids said after listening to the governor speak at a Linn County picnic. “She has the same values as I do.”
Randy Lucore of Hiawatha called her “down to earth … an everyday Iowan.”
“Every time I talk to her she puts off a vibe that she’s just like you,” Lucore said. “She doesn’t seem like she’s above you.”
Among the accomplishments as governor Reynolds touts are Future Ready Iowa, her plan to train Iowans for the jobs of today and tomorrow; and a comprehensive mental health reform plan. And like the work she did with fellow county treasurers, Reynolds boasts that those initiatives are bipartisan.
“Those two bills passed unanimously. Every single legislator, Republican and Democrat, voted for them,” she said.
Even in a “politically divisive, ugly environment, we do things a little differently here in Iowa, and I’m proud of that,” the governor said.
Sticking with it
When common ground can’t be found, she’s willing to push ahead nonetheless. She didn’t let Democratic opposition stop her effort to win passage of the largest tax cut in Iowa history or from signing a law prohibiting abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.
When Branstad tapped Reynolds to be his running mate when he ran in 2010, some people questioned his choice. She was not widely known and had just two years of experience in state government as a minority party senator.
Durham called her a quick study. “As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “there is no one better to job shadow than Gov. Branstad.” Durham also has witnessed Reynolds in the glare of the spotlight when she’s had to make hard decisions.
When Reynolds received allegations from Iowa Finance Authority employees that the director, Dave Jamison, had sexually harassed them, the governor fired him.
Jamison was her friend and former fellow treasurer, “but that didn’t make any difference when she was confronted with the information ...” Durham said. “She made a very firm decision and stayed with it.”
And she’s stuck with some decisions that weren’t her own.
“The Medicaid debacle created by Branstad and Gov. Reynolds could well determine this governor’s race,” according to Hubbell supporter and former Democratic candidate for governor Bonnie Campbell.
She’s referring to Branstad’s decision to have private managed care companies operate Medicaid, which provides health care services to about 680,000 children, seniors and disabled Iowans. The goals were to improve services and reduce costs.
The apparent failure to achieve that is Hubbell’s main line of attack. His ads feature people who services were hurt.
“Those stories are unacceptable,” Reynolds said, “and my vision is to make sure I can look parents in the eye and guarantee a system that is sustainable, that will take care of their loved one today, tomorrow and into the future.”
She said her administration is “constantly reviewing” Medicaid.
But even if it is in her best political interest to move away from managed care, former Branstad confidante and GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Gross said Reynolds can’t because of Branstad’s influence on the Republican Party.
“His base of support is her base of support,” Gross said.
Reynolds rejects that.
“I’m my own governor. I’ve made significant changes,” she said, pointing out that in her time as governor she has brought in new Medicaid leadership and provided funding based on experience, rather than the assumptions made at the time of the transition.