Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack is on Senator John Kerry’s very unofficial, but much talked about short-list for the No. 2 spot on the ticket. Now that Republican Senator John McCain – has, for the zillionth time, refuted the winning, but improbable notion of a Kerry/McCain ticket, the attention, may at last shift to the more viable—and Democratic—contenders for the vice-presidency.
Vilsack, unlike North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, did not run for president, and is not a household name. In a recent AP poll, 36 percent of registered voters chose Edwards as Kerry’s running mate, 19 percent picked Gephardt, 18 percent favored retired Army General Wesley K. Clark, and just 4 percent picked Vilsack.
Nevertheless, Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council—the centrist wing of Democratic party, whose most famous product was former President Bill Clinton—has said that Vilsack was “very much a favorite” of his. So, what makes Vilsack so attractive? Iowa, which Al Gore won with less than one percent of the vote will be one of the most closely contested states in 2004 as well. Slate, in its overview potential VPs put Vilsack in the category of the “They Don’t Mean a Thing If They Ain’t From a Swing.” Swinging Iowa, however, can provide only seven electoral votes. Vilsack is the first Democratic governor elected in Iowa in over 30 years and as a two-term governor, will be the 3rd longest serving governor in the state’ history. During his tenure, Vilsack has provided financial incentives for businesses to relocate to Iowa, created jobs—the state’s unemployment is under 5 percent, and made education and health care priorities. Iowa accounts for 5 percent of the nation’s labor force in the agricultural feedstock and chemicals sectors, and last week, Vilsack was in San Francisco for the biotech conference. Attracting the biotech sector to Iowa is one of the aims of the state’s Values Fund, which Vilsack often cites as one of his major accomplishments.
In contrast to Kerry’s highly privileged background of Swiss boarding schooling and Yale’s secret Skull and Bones society (of which President Bush was also a member), Vilsack was an orphan who was physically abused by his adopted alcoholic mother. Like Kerry, Vilsack practiced law before entering politics.
The endorsement from Vilsack’s wife during the Iowa primaries—in which Vermont Governor Howard Dean was seen as the favorite—is credited with helping Kerry carry the state. The fact that Vilsack lacks the movie star qualities and the political ambitions of Senator Edwards, while at the time, being personable and effective speaker, is also a plus. Some fear that Edwards would steal too much of the spotlight away from Kerry.
Vilsack is far from being a shoe-in for the job. For one, in a campaign dominated by war in Iraq and national security, Vilsack lacks foreign policy experience. The state’s budget deficit, Vilsack’s plan to attract foreign workers to the state, and proposals to raise taxes on cigarettes and some services all make good targets for the Republicans. In an interview with Iowa Politics, Vilsack said that:
“It is my job to continue to try make sure that people get the services that they need. But it is hard to do when you have not had revenue growth in three years. But no governor has had to go through that. In fact in the last 30 years there has only been one year where there was a slight decline in revenue, it was minuscule. We have had three years and we have 8 percent fewer dollars than we had three or four years ago. And the budget that I submitted to the Legislature this year, is in fact less than the budget that was approved my first full year as governor.”
Vilsack’s favorability ratings are below 50 percent, raising doubts about whether Vilsack would be able to deliver the votes in Iowa and the neighboring states. Conservatives will also seize on the fact that Vilsack singed an executing order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, which was later overturned by the state’s legislature.
With the announcement of Kerry’s running mate a few weeks away, the search for potential skeletons of the potential running mates is in full swing. Kerry’s campaign even requested all of the newspaper columns that Vilsack wrote when he was the mayor of the small Iowan town of Mt. Pleasant. Whether anything juicy is to be found in Vilsack’s “Mayor’s Moments” remains to be seen, but it was considered yet another indication of how seriously Kerry’s team is considering him. As Kenneth Baer, a former advisor to Al Gore and the author of Reinventing Democrats told the Des Moines Register :
“Inside the Beltway, Vilsack is seen as a heartland, labor-friendly Democrat. What the support among New Democrats shows is that his support is broader than that…It shows he has potential support beyond his region or his natural constituency.”