Regent Bruce Rastetter, an agricultural entrepreneur and Republican donor, has cheerfully weathered a coordinated smear campaign by Democratic politicians, radical liberal groups such as Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Des Moines Register.
Rastetter, a savvy businessman and public servant, can take the hits. That doesn’t make the scurrilous attacks fair.
Liberals, led by anti-agriculture radicals, argue that Rastetter and Regent Craig Lang, the former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, have politicized the Board of Regents and threatened academic freedom at regent universities. That’s bunk, and the misguided attacks have done more to muddy the waters than anything the regents have done.
Bob Haus, a government affairs professional at a bipartisan consulting firm and a heavyweight GOP operative, provides some useful context in a post at his blog, “Off the Record”:
Bruce Rastetter was accused of some sort of academic atrocity this week when it was disclosed he sent an email to U of I President Sally Mason requesting a meeting between a U of I professor and members of Iowa’s biofuels industry. The meeting was to facilitate the sharing of industry information, and to bridge an obvious communications gap.
You might ask, “So what’s wrong with a member of the Board of Regents asking the head of a University he helps oversee to arrange a meeting with a faculty member?” Well, only in Iowa City is it an offense punishable by sweeping and potentially unconstitutional new legislation.
First, where was the outrage by ICCI, Democratic state legislators and the Des Moines Register when Democratic activists or mega-donors Michael Gartner, Ruth Harkin, Bonnie Campbell, Rose Vasquez—the list goes on—pushed a political agenda on the Regents?
In April 2011 Regents Harkin and Gartner pushed through the Harkin Institute of Public Policy before the terms of Campbell, who Harkin nominated for a lifetime appointment as a federal judge, and Gartner, a longtime Harkin gadfly, expired. Rastetter’s innocuous email to University of Iowa president Sally Mason asking a professor to consider information from an industry representative hardly smacks of infringing academic freedom. Even the professor said so. Nonetheless, the manufactured outrage by Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, egged on by ICCI, shifted into clown mode.
Sen. Danielson, chairman of the State Government Committee, introduced a bill, Senate Study Bill 1163, titled “The Regents Accountability and Transparency Act.” This is pure political posturing, designed to focus fire on Rastetter, who has donated to GOP-leaning PACs and Republican candidates such as the Branstad-Reynolds campaign.
It’s clearly unconstitutional to prevent Regents from making political contributions, especially since it wouldn’t cover numerous other state boards and officials. The bill is also dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House.
Moreover, who is going to follow around Ruth Harkin, a director and lobbyist for oil giant ConocoPhillips (she makes decisions involving the company’s PAC donations to federal candidates), to make sure she doesn’t engage in partisan political activity? Hell, she’s the wife of a U.S. Senator and regularly attends partisan Democratic events, as is her right as an American.
Again, where’s the outrage from Democratic legislators, the Des Moines Register and ICCI, a vocal minority of cranks, about Ruth Harkin’s political activity?
Second, the Register should be ashamed of its sensational coverage of the matter, especially considering their cheerleading for the ill-advised Harkin Institute at Iowa State University and their sycophantic parroting of talking points distributed by Ruth Harkin and Michael Gartner whining about supposed academic freedom violations despite vocal objections by the ISU faculty, administration and director of their own Institute saying that was not the case.
Consider the front-page, top-of-the-fold story by Register reporter Perry Beeman, who covers the environmental beat, starting with a lede noting that Rastetter “again is caught up in a political controversy.”
Rastetter’s email, in hindsight perhaps not the most tactful outreach, seems pretty innocuous. It simply forwarded a request from a renewable fuels booster who wanted to provide more information to a professor. It didn’t threaten any action. It didn’t bash the professor. It didn’t call for more industry-friendly research. Where’s the beef-scandal? It’s a nothing burger.
“Sharing information is bad? Give me a break,” Rastetter told the Register. “I would think both sides would welcome that. That is the first and only activity I have had on this issue.” The professor involved, Jerald Schnoor, agreed: “I didn’t think the request was unusual, and I’m happy to talk with the Renewable Fuels Association,” he told the Register. What an outrage!
The Des Moines Register, both in elevating the baseless charges leveled by ICCI and poindexter politicians such as Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, is shameful and a disservice to their shrinking subscriber base.
Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich joined the fray in a Thursday piece comparing Rastetter with a scorpion and referring to Danielson’s bill as “legislation to change the beast.” As least Obradovich acknowledges the political maneuvering of Danielson and other statehouse Democrats. Nonetheless, she ends on a foreboding note: “Once a scorpion, always a scorpion. [The bill] would, however, keep his stinger out of the 2014 elections.” Which is, of course, the Democrats’ goal.
Third, Rastetter has engaged in an important effort to improve transparency at regent universities, creating a transparency task force to recommend changes to regent policy responding to public records requests.
It’s ironic that this so-called scandal was revealed by a public records request. It’s not immediately clear who was snooping through Rastetter’s emails, but they have every right to do so. As a public official, Rastetter’s actions are rightly subject to public scrutiny. Former Regents Michael Gartner, Bonnie Campbell, Rose Vasquez and current Regent Ruth Harkin, the wife of U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, are not so transparent.
TheIowaRepublican.com requested emails and correspondence from Gartner, Campbell and Vasquez relating to the establishment of the Harkin Institute. All provided no information beyond bare bones agenda documents or, in Gartner and Harkin’s case, said that responsive records could not be located because they purge their personal email accounts, which they use to conduct Regent business. Rastetter, in contrast, has always been responsive to public records requests involving Regent business.
It seems that the only principal guiding Democrats, ICCI and Register writers is that political activity by Republican regents is bad or questionable while political activity by Democratic regents is good or undeserving of scrutiny. One would hope that the Register and the clown caucus of Democrats in the Senate would stop their political posturing and focus on more pressing matters. Don’t hold your breath. There are scorpions afoot.
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