Reconnecting with rural America from Iowa and beyond. It's a task known well to former Governor and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He joins our conversation on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at broadbandmatters.com. UIeCare is helping provide access to health care services to more Iowans. By offering online visits with a University of Iowa health care provider, UIeCare helps Iowans seek medical care without leaving home. Learn more at UIeCare.com.  

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, March 31 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: While democrats were picking their jaws up off the floor following the November 2016 elections, one former Iowa Governor already had a clear message to his party, you ignore rural America at your peril. According to 2016 exit polling data, rural voters opted for President Trump 62% to Hillary Clinton's 34%, costing her votes in the Electoral College. Tom Vilsack's tenure in the Iowa legislature, two terms as Governor and eight years at the USDA means he's no stranger to rural America. He now helms the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Mr. Secretary, welcome back to Iowa Press, good to see you again.

Vilsack: David, it's good to be here.

Yepsen: Joining us across the table, James Lynch, Political Reporter for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: As an advocate for rural America for the past eight years, let's get to the why here. Why did Hillary Clinton do so poorly in rural America? Was it policy? Was it tactics? Was it personality? Was it something else?

Vilsack: Kay, I think this is an issue that has been percolating for quite some time. I don't think it is fair to her to focus it just on her campaign. I think democrats for far too long have not spent enough time in rural communities, they have not spoken to rural voters, they have not listened carefully to the concerns that were being expressed and they haven't come up with a strategy, a plan, a vision that speaks to their needs and concerns. They're not solving the problems of folks who live in rural areas, which are unique throughout the country. So I think it was more of a failure of our party, not so much of our --

Henderson: So what is the problem that needs to be solved here?

Vilsack: Well, it starts economically. I think it's important to understand that many people who live in rural communities feel very deeply that they're not able to see their sons and daughters or their grandchildren grow up, they would like to have economic opportunity that provides their young people the opportunity, the choice to stay or to come back. So it starts economically. And then I think it also, from that stems a whole series of issues, the opioid issue that has been prominent recently is an outgrowth in part of that economic tragedy or challenge that rural America faces. We don't do a particularly good job of providing transition economies. As agriculture became much more productive we weren't thinking about the millions of people that were moving off the farm. Where would they go? What would they do? Even today as we talk about driverless cars, nobody is talking about the cab drivers, the truck drivers, the people whose lives are going to be turned upside down as a result of this technology. We need to have a plan, a strategy, a vision for those folks so that the transition that is going to take place in improving a modernized economy will be less painful than it has been.

Lynch: Given what you said, as we march through the first 100 days of the Trump administration, is rural America getting what it deserves, getting what it voted for when you look at what is happening with health care, what is happening with trade? Is rural America getting what it deserved?

Vilsack: I think it's a little early because not everybody in the administration is actually in the administration. We still don't have a Secretary of Agriculture, we don't have any of the undersecretaries, administrators. However, I think there is a growing concern and anxiety in rural areas about precisely what the direction of this administration will be. I just recently came back from Mexico visiting with not just Mexican officials but also ag officials from the U.S. that were down there to sort of sooth the anxiety and concerns of our Mexican purchasers. And, I'll tell you, I heard a lot of concern. We're just not sure what the trade policy is going to be, how it might impact and affect agriculture, which has a trade surplus. This health care debate, when you talk about 24 million Americans losing their health care, a lot of those Americans are going to be living in rural communities, it's going to negatively impact hospitals and clinics in those rural areas, making it more difficult for them to survive. So I think there's a lot of concern. We haven't seen an infrastructure bill which would potentially be a benefit to rural areas. So I think there is a growing level of anxiety that is going to have to be addressed by this administration.

Lynch: In terms of trade, President Trump has talked about renegotiating NAFTA. When you were in Mexico is there any appetite for reopening that treaty?

Vilsack: Well, the anxiety and concern that Mexicans have is a result of deportations, it's a result of immigration policy, it's about discussions of walls and it's also about the renegotiation of NAFTA.  And I think everyone understands that an agreement that has been around for 23 years probably can be modernized. But the key here is to preserve what's working. In the industry that I'm currently involved in, the dairy industry, that is our number one customer, Mexico. We want to make sure that we continue to provide 73% of all the imports of dairy products that go into that country from the U.S., we want to preserve that. And I will tell you right now what the Mexicans are feeling is that anxiety and concern and so they're beginning to ask themselves, should we be as reliant on the U.S. as we have been for agricultural products? Should we begin thinking about purchasing from other countries, the EU, New Zealand and the like. And so the challenge here is to reassure the Mexicans that we’re going to preserve what is best about NAFTA, we can strengthen portions of NAFTA, but frankly the focus shouldn't be on Mexico, it should be on Canada where the dairy industry is very constrained.

Lynch: Canadian officials recently visited the State Capitol and said they were cautiously looking at reopening NAFTA to talk about agriculture in particular, that there has been so many changes in productivity and biotechnology that it's time to look at that again. Do you see that happening and being productive in terms of how it affects Iowa farmers?

Vilsack: Well, I hope that the Canadian market, certainly on the dairy side, becomes a lot more open than it is today. They are taking steps today, however, that are contrary to what your question suggests where they are basically tightening the market, basically making it more difficult for imports to get in and we have raised this issue with Governors. I had an opportunity to meet with a number of Governors including Governor Walker, Governor Branstad and others, suggesting they needed to weigh in not just with our policy makers in Washington, D.C. but also folks in Canada. We were disappointed that President Trump chose not to bring this matter up when he visited with Prime Minister Trudeau but we were pleased that Speaker Ryan did bring it up. So hopefully we'll continue to advocate the need for modernizing that relationship and preserving what is working down in Mexico. We want to maintain a strong, healthy market here.

Yepsen: Governor, I want to go back to Kay's question for a moment. You said you didn't want to be critical of Secretary Clinton, but in fact she did get more votes, she just didn't get them in the right place. Now, doesn't she deserve some of the blame for not campaigning in Wisconsin, for example? After September 1st, Donald Trump made over 100 campaign appearances, about 109 I think, she made something like 70, none in Wisconsin. As you look back at the postmortem of this thing maybe nothing was wrong with the message, maybe it was just a tactical problem.

Vilsack: David, I think that the reason why there weren't visits to Wisconsin, the reason why there weren't visits to Pennsylvania was that folks were operating under the assumption that we could expand the map. And the reality is I think that a focus of this part of our party should be on maintaining the core constituency of the Democratic Party, which we basically have allowed to erode a bit. And many of the institutions frankly that have been supportive of democrats are also themselves need to rethink their approach, clearly unions need to rethink their approach, in my view, because there are not as many union members as there once were. How can we begin to expand union membership in this day and age? You look at the Iowa Farm Bureau, there are 82,000 farmers in Iowa but they have 360,000 members. Why do they have 360,000 Iowans? Because they offer something beyond just simply focusing on agriculture, they offer you discounts on insurance. So that is something I think unions need to be thinking more about and I believe they are.

Henderson: In Iowa, the stage legislature has restricted collective bargaining rights. Unions tried to fight it, they were unsuccessful. How do they do that in an environment where in majority republican states those sorts of things are happening?

Vilsack: Well, I think first of all they need to figure out whether their model is still working, whether it's still viable and whether or not they need to think about extending membership opportunities to folks who aren't necessarily in the workplace, per se. Secondly, I think it's important for unions and those who are favorably inclined towards government services to do a better job of explaining to people what the government actually does. I can tell you that when I was Secretary of Agriculture people were very surprised to learn that the Department of Agriculture invested nearly $30 billion into Iowa while I was Secretary, people had no idea. They didn't know that we helped to finance nearly 20,000 families and homes, to do hundreds of business development projects, probably more than what the Department of Economic Development did. And we need to continue to figure out ways to market what we do so that people understand and appreciate that there is a role for government.

Henderson: So if you have the magic wand to recraft the democratic party message for the country, you've talked about transitional economy for rural America, you've talked about unions, you have other parts of the coalition, what do they need to do?

Vilsack: Well, I think it's important that we speak to and our vision is not necessarily siloed, it's not necessarily focused on individual interests but it is broader in context. The reality is when you talk about a transitional economy you can actually relate to virtually every American because we're all going to be faced with changes. Look at this industry that you're in, it has been changed phenomenally in my lifetime. Are we helping people make the adjustments? The industry that I was in for many years, the practice of law, has changed dramatically. And so I think we need to look at our education system, I think we need to look at our institutions that support economic development and ask ourselves, are they structured in a way that will help people transition, not creating new jobs only and solely, but also making sure that people can move into these new jobs. It's great that we have community colleges, but are we training the people in the right areas? We've got a lot of chefs today, but do we have enough welders, for example?

Lynch: You talked about maintaining the core constituency of the Democratic Party. For years we've heard people talk about a 50 state strategy. Are you talking about moving away from that and just concentrating on the blue states, the coastal states?

Vilsack: No, I think a 50 state strategy makes sense and I think it needs to go deeper. I think we need to focus less attention, if you will, on presidential politics and more attention on state legislative races and governor's races. The reality is that the Democratic Party has seated a lot of statehouses and that has ramifications in terms of what people are talking about, what people are voting on, what people are thinking about. I think the legislative session this year in Iowa is a very good example. We're seeing a lot of special interest legislation being advanced. Is this in the long-term best interest of all the people of Iowa? That is a question I think folks are going to begin to ask as they look at what has been done during this legislative session.

Yepsen: Who speaks for rural America these days?

Vilsack: That's a great question. Right now we're waiting for Sonny Perdue, Governor Perdue to be confirmed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary position. He would be in a position to be able to speak about rural America and for the concerns and there are many. There's anxiety about trade and about the agricultural markets. There are diseases that are occurring, avian influenza has cropped up again. There's new technology, the GMO labeling bill has to be done, there's a lot of work that needs to be done and it's going to have direct impact on people in rural communities. That's why I was concerned about the budget that was proposed by the Trump administration and about the trade discussions because there is no one in the room today as those budgets are being formed or as a trade policy is being formulated that speaks about agriculture. Agriculture has a trade surplus. When we basically shake the tree down in Mexico, the reality is the people that are going to suffer are our farmers. When we don't speak clearly about the needs for agricultural open markets in Canada, our farmers basically pay the penalty. So it's great to talk about steel, it's great to talk about autos, we should talk about those things, but not in a way that creates problems for our farmers and our agriculture.

Henderson: Let's shift to state politics exclusively. What would be your view for the Iowa Democratic Party moving forward? And what role do you plan to play in that realignment?

Vilsack: Well, I'm happy to provide advice for what it's worth. I've been through this process quite a bit. I would say this, one thing, I hear this often, I hear boy there's no bench, there's no bench. I remember in 1998 that was exactly the same thing that was said in 1998. Well, it turned out that the bench, we had actually not one but two governors in that bench in 1998. Chet Culver was elected Secretary of State, I was elected Governor. So I hope people understand and appreciate the bench doesn't, isn't, it creates itself, if you will, candidates create themselves. Candidates create opportunities. So first and foremost I think it's important for us to have a robust debate about the future of the state. How are we going to get moving again? How are we going to get to a point where we've got jobs that will attract people, will retain people? The reality is that many of our small towns are challenged. Will a candidate come up with a solution? I know when I was Governor I was proud when the census people from the department came over and said, Governor, for the first time in 70 years we have reversed outmigration in this state. That was a big deal. We created the Vision Iowa program which created a lot of activity throughout small towns and big cities, helped to I think reshape a city like Des Moines, for example. So what is the next iteration of that? I think there are tremendous opportunities with this water issue. It's unfortunate that it doesn't seem to be dealt with, that we continue to have the division between rural and urban centers, and I think democrats have an opportunity to say hey, we can be the party that brings people together, not divides them.

Yepsen: Governor, are you doing anything by way of recruiting candidates to run? History teaches that this ought to be a pretty good election year for democrats as the party out of power in the White House. So are you loading the canons, getting ready to capitalize on what could be a good surge for democrats?

Vilsack: I'm sure that the party is involved in that, I'm sure party leaders are involved in that. The reality is I'm in the state, I'm out of the state, I travel quite a bit. Again, I'm making myself available for people that are thinking about running or thinking about taking a leap and I'm happy to provide advice. And, I'll tell you, I provide them very, very solid advice in terms of understanding precisely what they're getting themselves into. I think there is a tendency on the part of people to run for office because somebody suggested they should run. They need to understand how difficult this is, they need to understand that it's not all giving speeches and having pats on the back, it's raising a lot of money, it's a tremendously pressurized thing and they need to be prepared for it and they need to be able to answer the fundamental question that folks like you will ask which is, why are you running? What are you going to do for the state? How are you going to do it? And often times candidates have sort of a general idea about that but not very specific ideas. And I remember when I ran for the state Senate my first supporter was my wife, Christie. I said, honey I'm thinking about running for the state Senate. She said, great, why do you want to run? I said, well I want to help people. She goes, no, no, really, why do you want to run? I said, well I've been Mayor, I think I can make a difference. No, no, really why do you want to run? And it was a great lesson for me to be able to articulate precisely what you want to do with the job. And so many candidates who run for office have a hard time doing that.

Lynch: Whether it is out of respect for you or nostalgia for better times, a lot of people have suggested they'd like to see you run again. Will we ever see your name on the ballot for Governor, for U.S. Senator?

Vilsack: Well, I made the mistake when I was a state Senator of saying I was going to get out of politics and it turned out that I shouldn't have done that, I think Yepsen basically told me I shouldn't have done that. You never want to say never, but the reality is I think, I was at a speech the other day where somebody said that you need to step aside and you need to give the next generation the push forward. And I think that's probably more likely to take place. I think it's time for new, fresh ideas, young, energetic folks to inject themselves into the politics in the state, certainly from the democratic perspective. I think we'll be prepared for that as a state and I think it's going to be necessary for the democrats to put someone forward who excites people, who gets people ginned up for the 2018 election. It's going to be a very important election at the state.

Yepsen: Terry Branstad came back to rescue his party. Wouldn't you be in the same position to come back and help your party?

Vilsack: I hope it doesn't need help. I think there are a lot of young, up and coming leaders that are interested in thinking about this. I've talked to several of them. And I'm hopeful. I just don't see that I'm the, that it makes much sense for an old guy to come back.

Yepsen: Well, James asked about running for Governor or Senator, I want to ask about the White House. You ran for the presidency, why wouldn't you be preparing a campaign for 2020?

Vilsack: Well, I used to say when I ran for President that I wasn't a rock star but I was rock solid. And I don't know if the politics of this country has changed to the point where rock solid sells. I hope it does because at some point in time it really shouldn't be about celebrity, it should be about competency and I think it is possible that in 2020 the country will be looking for people that actually know how to run a government. I think right now I've got concerns, I've got concerns that there's no one at the Department of Agriculture, there's no one at the Department of Agriculture who is speaking for agriculture and the agricultural interests. With due respect to the political folks that have been put there from a campaign, they don't understand what this department does. And now we're into April before Sonny Perdue can possibly be confirmed, and maybe it will be May, and then how many months does it take to get all the undersecretaries? You need somebody who knows how to run the place.

Yepsen: I didn't hear a no.

Vilsack: Well, again, I learned the lesson never to say never but I don't think that's in my future. I remembered how hard it was for four or five months, I can't imagine doing it for two or three years.

Lynch: There is another presidency that is open at Iowa State.

Vilsack: I don't have a pilot's license.

Henderson: Oh my.

Lynch: Touché. Would you consider that?

Vilsack: I don't think so.

Henderson: You told us in December you'd like to do something with students.

Vilsack: Right, that's the point. You can be the president of a university but what exactly are doing? Well, it's sort of like running for President, half the time you're raising money and the other half you're in meetings and so forth and directing a very large organization. Let me just say this about Iowa State and our Regents universities. I have had the chance and the privilege of going to a lot of universities in my prior position. I think we too often in this state are satisfied with good and not great. I think our universities are good, but I think they could be great. And I would hope that the next leader of both the Regents and Iowa State and the leaders that are currently in place at the University of Iowa and Northern Iowa understand the capacity that they have to move these great universities to the next level because they can be incredible drivers of innovation, of creativity, of new opportunities, of creating excitement about a state. I said this the other day to someone, I said, when the football season begins at the University of Iowa or Iowa State, do we think our teams will compete for the National Championship or are we just satisfied if they get to a bowl game. I tell you, you go to Ohio State, you go to Michigan, it's not about competing in a bowl game in January, it's about winning the National Championship. And I think that's an attitude that I think we need to develop more of in this state. We are humble, we are aw shucks kind of folks, we don't want a lot of attention, but the reality in today's world, if you want to attract bright young people, if you want to retain your bright young people, you've got to give them a sense that you are committed to being great. And I hope that the leaders of these universities understand the great opportunity they have.

Henderson: You mentioned a few minutes ago water quality as an issue you hope that Iowans embrace on their to-do list. A year ago you embraced Governor Terry Branstad's idea for one way of finding new money to address the problem. What is your new prescription since that one failed?

Vilsack: Well, it's for the Iowa legislature to understand the importance of putting money behind this effort, to combine it and coordinate it with federal resources so that you actually have a big bang for the buck, to encourage the development of ecosystem markets so that you can bring outside resources into conservation, there are corporations in the United States that are currently investing in other states' conservation programs for social responsibility benefits, for carbon credits. Chevrolet just invested in a working ranch in North Dakota for carbon credits. Coca-Cola is reclaiming land so that they can meet their goal of reclaiming the water that they use in their production process. There are hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in ecosystem markets throughout the United States. So if you create a program similar to Vision Iowa where you create a program, you're going to create an opportunity for investing in conservation, you're going to put people to work, you're going to preserve the soil, you're going to clean up the water, and the benefits of that will be enhanced tourism opportunities and the ability of this state to market itself as a place to bike, to hike, to fish, to hunt, whatever. And I think that's the opportunity that is being missed here. Plus you're going to be able to bring people together, you're not going to pit agriculture against cities and cities against farmers. That just doesn't, we're not big enough to be fighting with each other on issues like this, we need to come together and it's up to our political leaders to make that happen.

Lynch: During the last year of the Obama administration you spent a lot of time talking about opioid crisis, especially in rural America. Have we missed the opportunity to do something about this? What should we be doing? What should the nation be doing? What should the state be doing?

Vilsack: One of the last things the President signed was the 21st century American Curist Bill which included resources for opioids and I think that is a very good start in our effort. Unfortunately and tragically in 2015, 33,000 Americans died from opioid abuse. And we're probably going to continue to see numbers like that, that exceed automobile accident deaths, gunshot deaths and so forth, for a period of time because this thing is deep. It's in all parts of the country, it's in all economic strata, it knows no bounce. So first and foremost we have to train physicians to move away from opioids and I'm beginning to see that that movement is taking place. We have to train new docs, new hospital folks to move away from those pain medications. Secondly, we need to make sure that our first responders are adequately prepared to deal with the overdose situation to save lives. We need to make sure that we continue to invest in Medicaid assisted treatment options so that people who are addicted can get help and assistance the right way, counseling, tapering them down from their overreliance. Now, one of the challenges in all of this has to do with the health care reform bill that is being discussed by Congress right now. The reality is if that bill is passed in its current form it is reducing the level of coverage for addiction treatment. It's going to make it much more difficult for people to get the care that they need and this goes to the whole notion of the 24 million Americans who are going to lose their health insurance coverage. It's an access issue and it's particularly acute in rural areas because it's tough enough to get access to health care in rural areas, now if you don't have folks who can afford to pay for those services, you're going to see less access not more.

Henderson: We have 30 seconds left. You're now the nation's chief milkman. Do you expand markets by selling it in Mexico and overseas? Or do you expand the market by convincing Iowans to quit drinking soy milk?

Vilsack: You basically do a lot of things, you expand the domestic market because it's not just about fluid milk, it's also about whey and protein, it's also about athletes being able to use this product to regenerate muscles and certainly selling around the world, not just to Mexico.

Yepsen: Governor, we're out of time. It's good to see you again, thanks for being back, hope you'll join us again.

Vilsack: Thank you.

Yepsen: And we'll return with another edition next week of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at noon on our main IPTV channel with a rebroadcast on our .3 World channel Saturday at 8:30 in the morning. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at broadbandmatters.com. UIeCare is helping provide access to health care services to more Iowans. By offering online visits with a University of Iowa health care provider, UIeCare helps Iowans seek medical care without leaving home. Learn more at UIeCare.com.