Robert Ray and the Lost Soul of the Iowa Republican Party

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President Trump with Gov. Kim Reynolds at a roundtable discussion in Peosta July 26. Photo: C-SPAN/Screenshot

In 1975, an ethnic minority group in Southeast Asia called the Tai Dam made an urgent appeal for asylum to governors in 30 states. Forced from their homeland because of the Vietnam War and facing persecution from the communist regimes that had taken root in the region, they feared imprisonment or death. Saigon had fallen in April, and, a month later, President Gerald Ford signed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, allocating funds to the State Department to resettle some of the millions of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees displaced by conflict.

Earlier that same year, Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, a Republican, had been sworn in for his fourth term. He became aware of the Tai Dam’s plight in the summer and, with no other governors stepping up, decided to help. Because the refugees wanted to resettle in the US together in the same location, which ran afoul of State Department rules, Ray contacted Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the president to request an exception. He succeeded, and soon after, 1,200 Tai Dam refugees made Iowa their new home, bringing with them a unique culture that enriches the state to this day.

Ray’s humanitarian efforts cemented his legacy as one of the most celebrated governors in Iowa history. “I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die,’” he later said of his decision. “We wouldn’t want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same situation. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”
Flash forward to June 16 when more than a thousand GOP activists gathered in Des Moines for their party’s state convention amid national outrage over the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy of prosecuting every undocumented adult attempting to cross the southern border — including those seeking asylum from brutal violence in Mexico and Central America — and separating their children from them in the process.

Taking to the stage, party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, a staunch Trump supporter who was invited to meet with him at the Oval Office in May 2017, encouraged his fellow Republicans to stand firm in their support for the president against a biased news media out to tarnish his image. He then asked them to literally stand to show their support. Obediently, they rose, cheering, and Kaufmann proclaimed, “Do you hear it? We’re united!”

Kaufmann’s words echoed the party’s 2018 campaign slogan and social media hashtag, #UnitedIowa. Yet it would appear that the united Iowa the chairman and his cohorts envision is one exclusively for their party, which controls the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the Legislature. Since 2016, the Iowa GOP has embarked on a wholesale conservative transformation of the state, privatizing Medicaid with disastrous, at times deadly results for many of the state’s most vulnerable residents; gutting collective bargaining rights to further cripple public-sector unions; enacting a discriminatory voter ID law whose unstated but obvious intent is reducing Democratic turnout; passing massive tax cuts similar to those that recently bankrupted Kansas; and signing the nation’s strictest abortion ban into law.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a time when the state was more divided — or Republicans more removed from the vision of Robert Ray, who earned lasting respect from across the political spectrum for his centrism, civility, and empathy. (The mission of Drake University’s Robert D. and Billie Ray Center, named after Ray and his wife, who were both alumni, is to provide “character and leadership development strategies to improve civility and develop ethical leaders throughout the world.”)
By contrast, Kim Reynolds, the current governor, has repeatedly failed to condemn the anti-immigrant, white supremacist-parroting rhetoric of Steve King, an honorary co-chair of her 2018 campaign, while calling liberals “unhinged”; and used immigration not as a point of unity but division.

In a February fundraising push, Reynolds urged potential donors to “send a message to far-left liberals in Iowa City and Des Moines” by supporting her efforts to ban so-called sanctuary cities, a loosely defined term involving the protection of undocumented immigrants from deportation by federal authorities. Three months later, a tragedy put the potential importance of such policies into stark relief: Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco, an undocumented immigrant on the cusp of graduating high school in Des Moines, was forced by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to return to a part of Mexico overrun by drug cartels, where he was kidnapped and murdered three weeks later. Pacheco had been shielded from deportation by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children, but his status was revoked because of recent OWI and pot possession charges. (Reynolds has turned her own two drunk-driving arrests into a major part of her redemption story.)

Meanwhile, Reynolds remained silent on the Trump administration’s child separation policy, rolled out in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, until the day before the president bowed to public and legal pressure and reversed it, when it was already clear he was about to do so. As if suddenly moved by something other than political expediency, the governor told reporters, “It’s just horrific that, you know, children are being used as a pawn in this situation.” By mid-August, 565 migrant children remained separated from their families, in violation of a court order to reunite them.

Far from distancing themselves from Trump, Iowa Republicans have followed Kaufmann’s lead and stood by him throughout his many perversions of the office of the president, offering only tepid criticism on the occasions they feel the need to mollify their voting base. This was apparent in late July, when Reynolds and Congressman Rod Blum joined Trump for a panel discussion in Peosta amid another brewing controversy: the president’s trade war that could cost Iowa farmers upwards of $600 million thanks to China’s retaliatory tariffs on pork and soybeans.

As if there was nothing amiss, Trump arrived on stage to a rendition of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, carrying a John Deere-esque “MAKE OUR FARMERS GREAT AGAIN” hat as Reynolds and Blum watched him, smiling and laughing. Trump repeatedly heaped praise on the politicians. (“There’s no place doing better than Iowa,” he said. “I mean, there’s no place with better leadership. There’s no place with more advanced thought.”) A timid foe of Trump’s tariffs, Reynolds told reporters after the event that she was hopeful the president’s claims of opening up European markets would bear fruit and focused her blame for the trade war on China rather than him. Blum was far more servile, praising Trump for his “political courage” and predicting that the trade war would ultimately, somehow, make farmers — and everyone else — “better off.”

When Ray died earlier that month at the age of 89, tributes poured in from across the nation. Kaufmann, too, paid his respects. “Governor Ray was a combination of statesmanship, unquestioned integrity, and leadership that transcended politics,” he tweeted. “Just hours before I assumed the Chairmanship of the Iowa Republican Party, I visited the Governor and he provided me advice and guidance.”

It leaves one wondering, what advice and guidance? And why has Kaufmann apparently chosen to cast it aside while pledging his blind loyalty to the bigoted and divisive politics of Trump?

Perhaps it’s because his party long ago abandoned lofty ideals for partisan gamesmanship, as Drake political science professor Dennis Goldford hinted at in an interview with the New York Times after Ray’s death. “By 1988 it was certainly no longer a Bob Ray Republican Party,” Goldford said. “He was a moderate Republican, of which there are fewer and fewer and fewer, and he was governor at a time in Iowa when that was not a problem.”

Evidently, it is for today’s Iowa GOP, whose appeals for Ray’s brand of political civility appear not to be a principled stance but a cynical ploy to further the party’s false narrative that it is uniting the state while, in truth, it continues to deepen its divisions and disregard the troubles it faces.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.