The Elbert Files: Debi Durham for governor?
Friday, June 14, 2013 7:00 AM
Debi Durham should run for governor.
Durham, the director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, is probably as surprised as anyone to read that sentence.
She might also be a little embarrassed, because she has never been elected to any public office, although Republican Doug Gross did choose her to share the ticket when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002 against then-incumbent Democrat Tom Vilsack. At the time, Durham was president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce.
When Republican Terry Branstad returned to the governor’s mansion in 2011, after a self-imposed absence of 12 years, he chose Durham to lead Iowa’s economic development efforts.
At the time, I doubt that he saw her as a competitor for his job. But that is something that she and others need to seriously consider.
During the 2010 campaign, Branstad, who is 66, led many to believe that he would serve a single term and then turn the reins over to his hand-selected lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds.
The idea was that unlike the two women, Jo Ann Zimmerman and Joy Corning, who had served as lieutenant governor during Branstad’s previous 16 years as governor, Reynolds would be a true understudy. She would learn the job up close and personal from Branstad, and head the Republican ticket in the next election.
With the 2014 election rapidly approaching, Branstad shows no sign of leaving the stage.
I’m not surprised. I’ve known Branstad since his first statewide campaign for lieutenant governor in 1978. To me, he has always been nice and accessible. But I reached the conclusion long ago that he enjoys campaigning much more than he does governing.
He’s never going to willingly step aside, and the sooner Kim Reynolds understands that, the better off she will be.
Which brings us to Durham, who was one of a half-dozen panelists last week at the Business Record’s Power Breakfast on the gender gap. The event was about how women can get ahead in business, but the panelists came back several times to the fact that Iowa is one of only two states that have never elected a woman to Congress or as governor.
All the panelists were good, but Durham was particularly effective, using self-deprecating humor while making solid points.
She reminded me of Democrat Mike Blouin, an earlier economic development wizard who had held the same job before he ran against Chet Culver in the gubernatorial primary in 2010 and lost.
Durham has hints of true charisma, a rarity in Iowa politics.
I asked two people who know her well what they thought of her as a candidate for governor.
“She wants to be noticed and sometimes will do things that are half a bubble off plumb just to get noticed,” said a Democrat.
Durham “has good tactical stuff” but acts without considering long-term consequences, said the Democrat, who cited her support of two successful Branstad efforts to offer big tax breaks to projects that created few jobs: the Facebook Inc. data center in Altoona and the Orascom fertilizer plant in southeast Iowa.
I also spoke with Durham’s former running mate, Doug Gross, who engineered Branstad’s return to state government three years ago.
“Debi is smart, talented, articulate and can solve problems like nobody’s business. She has a knack for bringing disparate people together,” Gross said. “She elevates the economic development department by making people feel they can do things they didn’t know they could do.”
But, he said, she has two weaknesses: Unlike Branstad, Durham does not like retail campaigning, and “she has a very thin skin when criticized.”
“There wasn’t a good political reason for me to pick her as a running mate,” Gross said. “She was from northwest Iowa and I needed someone from eastern Iowa. I picked her because I believed she would be the first woman governor of Iowa.”
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