How Kim Reynolds ascended to Iowa's governorship
Back in 2011, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s plans to lead a trade mission to China and South Korea were derailed when a divided Legislature went into overtime, deadlocked on the state budget.
Branstad remained at the Capitol to broker a deal and instead sent Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds overseas as the head of the delegation. She was at the time five months on the job — green and untested.
“She didn’t know she was going, and she didn’t have a lot of time to prepare,” Iowa Economic Development Director Debi Durham recalled. “And she was suddenly center stage at an international level.”
During nine days in China, Reynolds toured factories, made site visits, led seminars, delivered speeches and met various mayors, governors, ministers and secretaries — not to mention the vice president of China.
Lt. Gov. Kim Reynold talks about her battle with alcoholism, how she got through it and advice for those that are fighting it now. Brian Powers/The Register
Six years later, that situation will replay in reverse: Branstad will soon depart Iowa on a much longer mission to China, while Reynolds will assume control at the Capitol, brokering deals and guiding policy as governor.
Reynolds, a Republican, passed that early test, but the one before her now is surely tougher. Sometime this spring, after Branstad is confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to China, she will succeed him as Iowa’s first female governor.
“She really stepped up, and I’ve seen her step up every time since,” said Durham, who traveled with Reynolds on the mission to China and later shared a work-week apartment with her in Des Moines.
Reynolds, 57, is a daughter of southern Iowa with a small-town compulsion to get involved and a perfectionist’s attention to detail. She’s a one-time college dropout with a hard-earned bachelor’s degree, and after battling alcohol addiction she’s thankful for 16 years of sobriety. She built her political career from an unlikely office in the Clarke County courthouse and honed her skills with on-the-job training from the longest-serving governor in American history.
"I started out serving a county, and then I served seven counties and now I get to serve 3.1 million Iowans," Reynolds said. "It’s just been really, really fun to have the opportunity and honor to serve in that capacity."
Southern Iowa roots
Reynolds was born Kimberly Kay Strawn in St. Charles in Madison County, and educated at I-35 schools in Truro, class of 1977. As a small-town kid, she recalls being involved in everything at school, from the honor society to the newspaper and “every single sport imaginable.”
Her father was a factory worker at John Deere’s Ankeny Works. Her grandfather worked there, too, along with several uncles and other extended family members.
When asked to describe her politics, Reynolds describes a conservatism based on notions of limited government, personal responsibility and individual initiative — a perspective she ascribes to her father. He declined to join the labor union at Deere even as his father and brothers did, she said, and he maintained a farming operation in addition to his work at the factory.
Growing up, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds learned from her parents that if you work hard, good things can happen. Government serves a role she said but it isn't the answer to everything. Brian Powers/The Register
“That’s just the philosophy I grew up with,” she said. “Government serves a role, but they’re not the answer to everything. You need to have personal responsibility, and if you work hard good things can happen.”
After high school, Reynolds attended Northwest Missouri State University but did not graduate, telling the Register in 2012 that she wasn’t focused during her first foray into higher education and didn’t take it seriously. She later took classes at Southwest Community College but never earned a degree.
In 1982, Kim Strawn married Kevin Reynolds, of Medora, Ia.
Now 58, Kevin Reynolds is a soil conservationist, an avid outdoorsman and a 36-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When asked if he would be immortalized as a doll on display in the Iowa Capitol — as all the state’s first ladies have been — Kim Reynolds joked her husband should be depicted either in denim and flannel or hunter’s camouflage.
The Reynoldses have three adult daughters and eight grandchildren, all of whom live in central and southern Iowa. Spending time with them, Kim Reynolds says, keeps her “real” and “grounded.” At a press conference in the Capitol last month, Reynolds apologized to reporters that she was rushing away to get to a grandchild’s Christmas play.
Politics as customer service
Reynolds began her career as an assistant to an independent pharmacist in Mount Pleasant. The job that sent her down the path of public service came a few years later, after her family moved to Osceola in the early 1990s.
The job? Motor vehicles clerk in the Clarke County Treasurer’s Office. Less than four years later, she was the county treasurer, winning the office after the incumbent opted against seeking re-election.
Reynolds says she never intended to get involved in elective politics, but recognized the open seat as a chance to test her ideas about improving the office’s efficiency and customer service.
“I like a challenge; I’m not afraid of that,” she says. “I’m a little bit competitive by nature, and I thought it could be a great opportunity to take some of those ideas and really implement them.”
She was re-elected three times as the Clarke County treasurer, including twice without an opponent. Longtime Osceola real estate agent Helen Kimes got to know Reynolds during her time in the treasurer’s office, and remembers her skill at serving constituents — even in the uncomfortable task of explaining a tax bill.
“She’s got a tremendous strength there in communicating and relating to individuals,” Kimes said.
Early in her tenure, Reynolds was selected for a leadership tour of Taiwan for young politicians. In 1996, she was appointed to the board of the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System. She later served leadership roles in state and national county treasurers’ organizations, and was named national treasurer of the year in 2004.
Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds talks about how and why she began her career in public service. Brian Powers/The Register
Addiction to redemption
It was during this period that Reynolds faced perhaps her biggest personal and professional challenge. She was arrested in 1999 and again in 2000 for drunken driving, and acknowledges now that she was addicted to alcohol.
“Part of the problem is when you feel like you can control every aspect of your life, it’s hard to understand why you can’t get control of that,” Reynolds said of drinking. “The fact of the matter was I couldn’t. I needed help, and it just took a really devastating thing for me to realize I couldn’t do it on my own.”
In the wake of the drunken driving incidents, Reynolds said the Osceola community rallied behind her, even bringing food to her family while she was in treatment. After the arrests, she twice won re-election as treasurer.
“It just was a community that stood up and stood behind me, and I will never ever forget that,” she said.
Reynolds says she’s “conscientious” now of her ability to be a role model for others struggling with alcoholism.
“I just hope by how I live my life every day that people can see there is another side to addiction,” she said. “You can live with it and have a successful life.”
It was also in Clarke County that Reynolds first gained experience with statewide policymaking, recalled David Jamison.
Jamison, a former Story County treasurer who now serves in the Branstad-Reynolds cabinet as executive director of the Iowa Finance Authority, worked closely with Reynolds when they were officeholders in the Iowa State Treasurers Association. Through that organization, Reynolds led efforts to create a statewide website for paying tax bills and lobbied to allow county treasurers' offices to issue driver’s licenses, a change that expanded access in rural areas.
“She’s really good at capturing the information, and she’s really good at reading people,” Jamison said. “She’s very perceptive, and she’s always very engaging.”
Reynolds’ governing style even then emphasized getting involved and digging into the details. She describes herself as a “convener and a collaborator.” Her resume — dating back to high school, it seems — is one of a compulsive joiner. Back in Clarke County, she served on the county development board and the Osceola Main Street Board. She was a member of Rotary and the Optimist Club.
“I like to be involved, and I like to be at the table,” she said. “That’s always been a big driver for me.”
Courthouse to the Statehouse
In 2008, after 14 years in the treasurer’s office, Reynolds ran for the state Senate. She won her seven-county southern Iowa district by nearly 10 points in a strongly Democratic year to join a chamber in which Republicans held just 18 of 50 seats.
She’s remembered as a student of state government who set out to interview every department head to better understand their roles and their budgets. And in a Senate dominated by Democrats, she dug in on what she knew and worked across party lines, managing bills concerning county treasurers and disaster relief.
State Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, remembers Reynolds as a “cheery” presence in the chamber who didn’t seem too hung up on political ideology. But, Jochum recalled, Reynolds was also one of three Republican women in 2009 to oppose legislation aimed at guaranteeing equal pay for women doing the same jobs as men.
The bill in question was Senate File 137, which mirrored the federal Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act by allowing women to sue for back pay and damages when they were paid less than male coworkers in equivalent jobs. In a floor speech, Reynolds argued that the measure could burden small business with high legal costs and lead them to cut jobs.
Jochum recalled sitting next to then-state Sen. Staci Appel as Reynolds and another female legislator spoke out against the bill, which did pass.
“They got up and gave their case for why Republicans were not going to vote for equal pay for equal work for women,” she said. “And so after I picked my jaw up off the floor, I looked at Staci and said, ‘Did I hear that right? Women are getting up and saying that women who do the same work as a man should not get paid the same?’ ”
The lieutenant governor will replace Terry Branstad, who President-elect Donald Trump appointed as U.S ambassador to China. Branstad is expected to be confirmed by Congress and Reynolds would assume the governor position in January.
Reynolds’ legislative tenure proved to be short-lived, as after just two sessions she was tapped by Branstad to join his 2010 campaign for governor.
Branstad, in fact, was an aid and an advocate for Reynolds' career dating all the way back to the 1990s. It was Branstad, then in his first stint and fourth term as governor, who appointed Reynolds to the IPERS board in 1996.
And in 1998, he backed Reynolds’ bid for the GOP nomination in a special election to the state Senate, writing a letter on her behalf. (Another candidate won the nomination.)
'Just so Iowan'
Twelve years later, as Branstad geared up his campaign to retake the governor’s office, his attention turned again to Reynolds. He praised her from the campaign trail in May 2010, and a month later asked her to be his lieutenant governor. From the start, he envisioned her playing a broader role than any previous lieutenant governor.
“He wanted somebody who was very energetic but had a real passion for public service and had experience,” said David Roederer, the state Department of Management director who was a top aide to Branstad on the 2010 campaign. “She had run a campaign in one of the largest Senate districts in the state, and she’d had the experience in county government. She just was so Iowan.”
Less than a month after elevating her from freshman state senator to gubernatorial running mate, Branstad was talking about her as a possible successor.
“We have to win this election first, but I think she’s got the ability, and I want to do what I can to mentor and encourage her,” Branstad told the Register in July 2010. “I truly think she has leadership ability to be governor someday.”
Still, the pick was seen as a calculated risk. Branstad had just emerged from a tough GOP primary against evangelical Christian activist Bob Vander Plaats, and it wasn’t immediately clear whether socially conservative voters would rally to his candidacy. Choosing Reynolds sent an unmistakable signal: Branstad was more interested in a like-minded, economy-focused partner than placating a particular constituency.
Social conservatives, in turn, attempted — unsuccessfully — to push her off the ballot during a party meeting.
It didn’t matter by November, of course. Branstad and Reynolds cruised to victory over incumbent Democrats Chet Culver and Patty Judge, and have enjoyed wide support among Iowa Republicans since.
Now, Vander Plaats says he sees Reynolds as “pretty strong” on key social conservative issues like opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and support for government protections on religious freedom. The question, he said, is how she’ll act on those beliefs as governor.
“What are the things that she’s willing to champion, what are the things she’s willing to go to the mat on?” Vander Plaats asked. “It’s not just what will she sign — she can sign a lot of things because the Legislature passed them. But what is she really willing to do? What’s in her heart? That’s going to be revealed over the next year.”
In the governor’s office, Reynolds has played an unprecedented role as partner and confidante to the governor. Over the last six years, she has traveled extensively with Branstad and appeared at his side for innumerable press conferences and public appearances.
The governor and his staff make clear that she plays a role in all the administration’s key decisions behind closed doors as well, from strategizing to policymaking to appointments.
Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds talks about the moment she realized that she could really become Iowa's governor. Brian Powers/The Register
“What I witnessed was an incredible partnership between her and the governor,” said Robert Haus, a Republican political operative who served as Reynolds’ chief adviser in 2015 and 2016. “She was included in every major policy decision, all the backroom, ongoing discussions and the setting of policy. She understood that it was always the governor at the head of the table. But she was always at the table.”
Bruce Rastetter, a leading Republican campaign donor and Branstad administration appointee to the Board of Regents, said he’s watched Reynolds’ leadership skills grow over the six years she’s held the office.
“Her self-confidence has grown over the past six years and is now really evident,” Rastetter said. “I’ve seen it in our interactions. She’s much more confident in her views and perspectives on things.”
Earning that 'piece of paper'
Although it had little effect on her two-decade political ascent, one aspect of Reynolds’ resume and personal history always gnawed at her: the fact that she’d never completed her college degree. She knew her courthouse and Statehouse experience were just as valuable as anything she could do on campus, and she heard her husband when he said it was “just a piece of paper.”
“Why is it the people who have the piece of paper always tell you you don’t need the piece of paper?” she asks.
She resumed her studies in 2012, first at Upper Iowa University in West Des Moines and then at Iowa State University, taking many classes online to work around her official schedule.
"I don't like starting something and not finishing it," Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said of getting her degree. Brian Powers/The Register
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies last month, collecting her diploma 10 days after she learned she would become governor. At the ceremony, Reynolds sat next to another nontraditional student — a 42-year-old single mom with young children.
“Every day is an opportunity for me to learn — that’s how I’ve approached life,” Reynolds said. “My message is that it’s never too late. If it’s something you want to do or if it’s important to you, go for it.”
Giving the commencement speech at the graduation ceremony was U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a close friend and political ally of Reynolds’ dating back to their overlapping tenures as county officials in southwest Iowa.
“I don’t know how she does it, but in between getting her degree she has also helped run this state as our lieutenant governor — and now soon, will become our first female governor,” Ernst said in her speech. “Kim, you are an inspiration and a tremendous role model.”
Education has figured heavily into Reynolds’ gubernatorial portfolio as well. Her signature issue has been boosting student interest and achievement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), a policy area seen as foundational to the administration’s approach to both education and economic development.
With Reynolds as co-chairwoman, the administration says its STEM advisory council has engaged more than 100,000 students in various in-school and after-school STEM education programs since 2012 and that students who have participated in those programs have scored higher on national math, science and reading tests.
The effort has also increased partnerships between schools, colleges and business, including through “externships” in which teachers embed with businesses to bring new STEM skills back to the classroom.
Next: an Iowa milestone
Also prominent in Reynolds’ gubernatorial portfolio: promoting trade. In addition to that early trade mission to China and South Korea, she has led missions to Germany, Brazil, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand. She met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a trip to Israel in 2016 sponsored by the Republican Lieutenant Governors Association.
As governor, Reynolds is likely to add rural economic development as a major priority.
“If Iowa is going to grow and be successful like I believe it can, we need economic opportunities in every corner of the state,” she said. “You can’t just have pockets of excellence, and we can’t just move people from southern Iowa to Des Moines. You have to make sure they have those opportunities no matter where they live.”
In 2013, when U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin announced his retirement, Reynolds was mentioned as a candidate in the race to succeed him. After mulling it over for several weeks (and taking a fact-finding trip to Washington, D.C.), she opted not to run.
A year later, Reynolds and Branstad won re-election to the governor’s office. Now, less than three years later, she’s poised to succeed him as governor — and become the first woman in history to hold Iowa’s highest office.
Reflecting on that milestone, Reynolds is proud but modest. She notes other Iowa women who have taken prominent political roles in recent years, including Ernst as U.S. senator, Mary Mosiman as state auditor, Linda Upmeyer as speaker of the Iowa House and Jochum as president of the Iowa Senate.
“Here’s what I know about every one of those women: For them, it’s about public service. It’s about giving back and having the passion to serve,” Reynolds says. “And that’s what excites me. That’s what I’m fired up about.”