The Iowa governor’s race is shaping up as a choice between competency and compassion, with the roles reversed this year from what is often expected.

Retired insurance executive Fred Hubbell, a Democrat, is the one presenting himself as the competent candidate, while Republican incumbent Kim Reynolds has positioned herself as the compassionate choice.

That may sound sexist, but look at the facts.

Hubbell has run regional, national and international businesses and has solid knowledge of the economy and finance. From a purely business standpoint, he is easily the most qualified Iowan to receive a major party nomination for governor in my lifetime.   

Meanwhile, Reynolds makes up in passion what she lacks in experience. She has a gift for identifying with everyday Iowans, and while she’s only been governor for 17 months, she’s the most telegenic chief executive since Harold Hughes.

She has a compelling personal story, having pulled herself up from small-town Iowa to win elections at county and state levels before graduating from college while serving as lieutenant governor.   

As a leader, Reynolds has shown flashes of potential, but it’s been hard for her to shine amid the morass of financial and legal problems created by her mentor, Gov. Terry Branstad, who left office in May 2017 to become ambassador to China.
Those difficulties include:

• Tax credits — “tax giveaways,” according to Democrats — that left the state treasury too cash-poor to keep school aid payments even with an inflation-adjusted economy.  

• A rapid decline in water quality that could be reversed by adopting a voter-approved sales tax increase that Republicans oppose but Hubbell supports.  

• Branstad’s clumsy attempt to privatize Medicaid payments. That hurt both patients and medical providers and, at one point, prompted an apology from Reynolds.   

• Payments of millions of dollars in legal fees and penalties as a result of lawsuits filed by state employees against Branstad and the Republican-controlled Iowa Senate.

Hubbell has used those and other problems to make the case that Iowa needs a more competent chief executive. 

At 67 years of age, he has a resume rarely seen in politics. Born into a patrician family, Hubbell was groomed to take over Equitable of Iowa Cos., the insurance business founded in 1867 by legendary businessman Fredrick M. Hubbell, the candidate’s namesake and great-great-grandfather.

Hubbell didn’t just take over the business in 1989, he changed the culture at Iowa’s oldest life insurance company, installing an entrepreneurial spirit and refocusing its business plan on the rapidly growing retirement market.

When he added variable annuities, the company’s growth exploded, driven in large part by demand from baby boomers.

The growth attracted the attention of Amsterdam-based ING Group, one of Europe’s largest banking and insurance conglomerates.

Hubbell initially resisted selling to ING. But after months of talks aimed at preserving Equitable’s growth culture, he gave in and negotiated a sale in 1997. The $2.6 billion price made it Iowa’s largest business deal ever at that time.

Hubbell joined ING’s management, and within a few years he was leading ING’s North and South American insurance operations.

To maintain profitability, he made tough decisions to consolidate operations, lay off redundant workers and increase insurance premiums, skills that should serve him well as governor. He also on rare occasions had to fire or rein in employees who let greed get in the way of their ethics.

As an insurance CEO, Hubbell had to be intimately familiar with economic and financial issues. And he had to be able to anticipate and deal with the concerns of shareholders and financial analysts.
Now he wants to translate those skills to state government, and while Hubbell’s passion may not be as telegenic as Reynolds’, there are thousands who can attest to his compassion.