My parents were in the fortunate position of being able to choose where they wanted to raise a family in early 1970s. They had been raised in Nebraska and Minnesota, they had met in Colorado, and had been living in Kansas when they were given the opportunity to choose where they wanted to raise me and my brother. After a lot of discussion and research they decided to move to Iowa.
What made Iowa appealing to a young couple in the 1970’s? The simple answer is that Governor Robert Ray made Iowa appealing to my parents. From the time I started school in Adair, Iowa through the beginning of my high school career in Ames Robert Ray was the only governor I knew. There was no distinction growing up between the role of the governor and the person Robert Ray, it was just “Governoray”. He was synonymous with Iowa politics and what it meant to be an Iowan for many years.
So, again, why come to Iowa in the 1970s? To my parents, Iowa was unique. They saw a pace that was easy going, they saw a commitment to public education, they saw an economy built on family farms, and they saw a state that was welcoming and deceptively progressive. It was Robert Ray, as much as any single person, who helped to form the Iowa identity that I grew up being so proud of.
Robert Ray’s Iowa took great pride in public schools. He radically changed how Iowa funds our schools, putting rural schools and urban schools on a more even playing field. He recognized that people like my parents would choose to come to Iowa because the schools were strong. He also recognized that Iowa’s schools would only flourish if teachers were treated well. He demanded that Iowa’s teachers (and nurses and firefighters) be treated as professionals and instituted Iowa Public Employment Relations Law, which allowed employees to bargain collectively. During Governor Ray’s tenure Iowa schools were recognized as outstanding.
Robert Ray’s Iowa was also welcoming to people who needed a safe place to start a new life. During the 1970s Governor Ray cleared the way for thousands of refugees from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Viet Nam settle in Iowa. While people everywhere understood that there was a crisis in Southeast Asia, it was Governor Ray who took action. He knew that Iowa was a place where these family’s lives could be changed for the better. “Don’t tell me of your concerns for human rights, show me,” Ray said. “Don’t tell me of your concerns for these people when you have a chance to save their lives, show me. Don’t tell me how Christian you are. Show me.”
Robert Ray’s Iowa was also a place where moderate political views could find a home. Often times Governor Ray would place political rivals on state boards or advisory groups. His theory was that it was more valuable to have those who disagreed with him working on the inside to solve problems than to have them sniping from the outside. Governor Ray’s Iowa was a state where we could elect Senator Charles Grassley and Senator Tom Harkin. Current Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said this about Governor Ray, “Gov. Ray’s legacy lives on in the millions of people that he impacted as a tremendous statesman for Iowa and our nation. His civility, courage and common-sense governing set a high standard for those who followed,”
As Governor Ray passed away last week at age 89 it made me ponder whether my parents would still be drawn to Iowa in 2018. Do you look at Iowa in 2018 and see a state dedicated to strong public schools or do you see a state that has recently taken away bargaining rights for teachers, a state that is only growing K-12 funding at a rate of less than 2% in recent years, and whose leaders are eager to steer more public resources to private and charter schools. Is Iowa still seen as a place that is welcoming to immigrants? Well, Iowa’s most outspoken congressperson recently said, “You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies.” So, let’s just say that Iowa may not be seen as a refuge for those in need any more.
In one of Governor Ray’s final interviews in office he said hoped that, “People in Iowa had pride in this state and in themselves,” because of the work he did. As you read the many messages of respect to Governor Ray upon his passing, I think it’s obvious that people were proud of our former governor. Iowans can look back with pride on what it meant to be an Iowan during his tenure.
What public policies in the last few years make us proud to be Iowans? I’m not sure what our current legislators would point to. More tax breaks to businesses and the top 1%? Privatizing Medicaid? Taking Collective Bargaining from public employees? I’m not sure any of that will encourage a young couple to want to come here and call themselves Iowans.
The election of 2018 should be about what it means to be an Iowan.