|Gov. Tom Vilsack (Democrat)|
Tom Vilsack is well experienced in overcoming long odds. Currently locked in a political contest so fierce and so close it's been called the World War I of this election cycle, Vilsack can be comforted by the knowledge he's stared down worse situations and emerged victorious.
A little-known Democratic state senator who almost retired from politics in 1996, Vilsack stunned political observers with his upset victory over the highly favored Republican candidate in 1998. Before entering politics he took on large corporations as a small-town trial attorney and won two high-profile class action suits. As a child he overcame the kind of obstacles that are often predictors of future failure.
The man who would become governor of Iowa started life as an orphan in Pennsylvania. He was fortunate enough to be adopted by Bud and Dolly Vilsack, but "growing up, he watched his father struggle with his business, and watched his mother struggle with alcoholism," says his campaign Web site.
Vilsack has said that despite their personal problems his parents made the sacrifices necessary to send him to Hamilton College in Upstate New York, where he met Christie Bell of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Vilsack came to love Christie's hometown. The couple married while Vilsack attended Albany law school, and moved Mt. Pleasant after graduation. They have two sons who are now both attending college.
After law school, Vilsack joined his father-in-law's firm where he became a successful trial attorney, winning "notable verdicts for farmers defrauded in the Prairie Grain Elevator case and in a class action that returned $13 million to 86,000 insurance policy-holders (average $151 each)," Michael Barone wrote in the Almanac of American Politics.
In 1987, according to his official biography, Vilsack was drafted to run for mayor by the people of Mt. Pleasant following the death of the town's previous mayor. He was elected state senator in 1992 and continued to live and practice law in Mt. Pleasant.
After nearly giving up on politics in 1996, Vilsack decided to make a rather quixotic run for governor. Barone spells out the challenge Vilsack faced in his first statewide campaign: "Republicans had held the governorship for 30 years; they had just gained control of the state Senate in 1996. The state had a record surplus, unemployment was down to 3 percent and it was widely assumed Republicans would win again."
Before he could stare down the daunting task of wresting power from the GOP, Vilsack had to win the Democratic primary against a favored and better-known former state Supreme Court justice, Mark McCormick. Vilsack ran to the left of McCormick, who sought the political middle ground.
Vilsack stood by his liberal record in the state Senate and collected endorsements from organized labor. During the primary Vilsack, told Iowans they needed to "stir the pot" of Republican rule or the stew of the state might "burn on the bottom," Barone writes. Vilsack beat McCormick 51 percent to 48 percent.
The Republican nominee for governor in 1998, former Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot, earned nearly as many votes in his primary as both Democratic nominees combined did in theirs. Lightfoot, however, was an old political enemy of powerful longtime U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, who had declined to run for governor, but had sworn Lightfoot would never preside over the Hawkeye state.
Harkin threw his full support behind Vilsack, campaigning all over the state on his behalf. Lightfoot, who disliked the campaign trail, proposed a major tax cut as his primary campaign issue. Vilsack said as governor he would provide more funding for education and bring more high tech agribusiness to the state. Lightfoot raised more money, but Vilsack, with Harkin's strong backing, won 52 percent to 47 percent, overcoming a huge early deficit in the polls.
As governor, Vilsack has successfully reduced class sizes in Iowa schools, and increased overall spending on education. He's battled with the legislature over discrimination protection for gays, having his veto of the legislature's repeal of his original order granting the protection declared invalid by a judge. Vilsack has also vetoed a law that mandated waiting periods before a woman could get an abortion.
According to his campaign, he's also been able to provide health insurance for 25,000 children of low-income families and worked with Harkin to set up a state prescription drug co-op in order to provide Iowans the option of cheaper medication.
Vilsack has also sought to actively confront the changing demographics of Iowa. The population of Iowa as a whole is growing older as young people leave for jobs in other states and a huge influx of immigrants, mostly Mexican, are filling jobs in meatpacking and other agricultural industries.
Vilsack appointed a bi-partisan commission to make recommendations for how to deal with the changing population. The commission said, owing to the state's very low unemployment rate, more immigrant labor was needed to fuel the economy. Vilsack has embraced the commission's stance, setting up welcome centers for immigrants and hosting return-to-Iowa parties for natives now living in big cities.
Vilsack faces a surprisingly strong challenger in Republican candidate Doug Gross, a longtime GOP state party official, former chief of staff to former Gov. Terry Barnstad and adviser to former Gov. Robert Ray. The economy has become the major issue of contention in the campaign. Gross has accused Vilsack of wanting to raise taxes, a charge the governor denies.
Gross has also made the loss of jobs in the state an issue. Vilsack maintains that unemployment rate is at a healthy low, while Gross has continued to say job loss is a major issue for Iowans. Gross has accused Vilsack of not working hard enough to stop a school bus manufacturing plant closure in the governor's own hometown of Mt. Pleasant.
Both parties have dumped a substantial amount of money into a race that remains close, according to recent polls. A Research 2000 poll, conducted Oct. 1 through Oct. 3 shows Vilsack leading Gross 50 percent to 40 percent.
--By Jason Manning, Online NewsHour