Branstad defends picking campaign donor for regent job

BY NINA EARNEST | APRIL 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Gov. Terry Branstad is defending his appointment of his leading campaign contributor, Bruce Rastetter, to the state Board of Regents, saying the 54-year-old Iowa businessman has shown a commitment to higher education.

Rastetter contributed $160,000 to Branstad’s election campaign, making him the governor’s largest donor in 2010. He was also one of the supporters who urged Branstad to run for governor.

Branstad told The Daily Iowan last week that a campaign donation should not make a supporter ineligible for a position. He said he selected Rastetter — as well as fellow appointees Nicole Carroll and Katie Mulholland — for their commitment to higher education. All three will start on the board May 1.

“Bruce Rastetter is someone who cares deeply about education; he has been a very generous supporter of higher education, and he has the time and the commitment to really serve the people of Iowa well,” Branstad told the DI in Des Moines.

The Iowa Senate voted unanimously April 5 to approve Rastetter as a member of the state Board of Regents, as well as Mulholland and Carroll.

Rastetter said he has been “very clear” in his intentions.

“I didn’t support Gov. Branstad to be a regent,” he said. “I supported him personally and raised money for him because I believed he would make a positive difference in Iowa.”

The regent appointee noted that he has long had an interest in education. He said he believed the three institutions are important to Iowa, and the regents can work together to improve them, which is why he asked the governor to be a regent.

That Rastetter has little experience with education isn’t unique. Of the current regents, few have education experience. President David Miles served 11 years on the Drake University Board of Trustees, and Jack Evans is a life trustee of Coe College. Other members currently serve or once served in the legal field, communications, or business.

Rastetter — who started several agricultural companies including the Heartland Pork Enterprises and Hawkeye Energy Holdings — donated $5 million to the University of Iowa’s football facilities project in 2008 and $2.2 million for an agricultural entrepreneurship program at Iowa State University.

The UI alumnus donated $25,000 to the former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver and $100,000 to the Republican Party of Iowa. He has also given more than $30,000 to the Iowa Democratic Party and more than $140,000 to the Republican Party of Iowa in the last 10 years, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Rastetter said he has historically supported a variety of candidates.

“I believe that it is important for those of us that, frankly, have had some success to be active in the political process,” he said.

Cary Covington, a UI political science associate professor, stressed being a campaign contributor does not disqualify a supporter from an appointment.

Covington said officials in executive positions often select someone who has supported them in some way. People who donate large amounts of time on a campaign trail often end up on staff, he noted.

“The question is whether they’re qualified,” he said.

Branstad referenced his prior appointment of two-term Regent President Marvin Pomerantz — a businessman who donated several large gifts to the UI — as a positive example.

“I think I look for people who I think have a commitment, that are willing to give their time, talent and resources,” Branstad said.

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