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Ross Wilburn: Former Iowa City Mayor Eyes Governor's Office

John Pemble /IPR
Ross Wilburn, candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Democrat Ross Wilburn is Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s diversity officer, as well as an associate program director for Community and Economic Development. He has 26 years of experience in nonprofit and governmental organizations, including serving as Iowa City mayor and a council member. Now, he’s running for governor of Iowa.

He talked with IPR's Clay Masters about Medicaid, water quality and other issues facing Iowa. A transcript of the conversation follows:

First of all, what I'm asking everybody who's running for governor in the primary is why are you running?

After the fall 2016 elections, concerned about mental health care, concerned about the direction of our state in terms of the privatization of Medicaid, as both a parent and a former provider, as a former social worker and working in a K-12 school district. Just concerned about education in general and education cuts across a lot of different ways. But it's our future and so we've got to invest in our K-12 education, our postsecondary education. We've got to have young people ready to learn, not being hungry, and able to focus with mental health, good mental health as they come into school. So that's part of the reason. I think another reason is I was a supporter of then Senator Obama and the primary reason I got involved in his presidential campaign was because of health care and the Affordable Care Act. Wasn't perfect but it was something that hadn't been accomplished before. And so to start seeing the unwinding of the Affordable Care Act even if you ask individual provisions about those who say they hate Obamacare they're in favor of, you know, making sure that preexisting conditions, that folks are eligible for coverage, those types of things. And so wanting to get back involved in local government, in this case state government, to do something.

The office of mayor in cities across the state is a nonpartisan position and city councils are nonpartisan. When people talk about Iowa City a lot of times it's seen as a very liberal city. I'm curious to know, your time as mayor, your time on the city council, there in Iowa City, did that- did those jobs feel like nonpartisan political positions? Did it feel partisan and what are examples of when partisan politics were not at play?

Well as you said that the local government is a nonpartisan office, but people knew who the Democrats and Republicans were, they knew who the green people were and in the case of Iowa City they knew who a Socialist was who was on City Council, former council member Karen Kubby. When it got down to issues, a good majority of the time we were in lockstep in terms of a council. But when I came on to council predominantly there were people who were business owners, that was the history of Iowa City, and in some cases more conservative business owners, not all business owners are conservative. But there are certain things that have to happen at the local level. Trash has to be picked up and recycling. Water has to come out of the faucet. Police and fire people want to see-- you know they don't want to have to pay on the spot for fire services, you want us to put out the fire at your house. So those types of things you in general would see in lockstep. But there were some issues in terms of how we invest our money and how we invest in our people, was where you would see some of the divide. And so it started through relationship and building that relationship in areas that we have in common. There were some areas, well for example in terms of environmental issues.

I signed the 2007 U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement which mayors across the country had signed, I believe including Mayor Cownie in Des Moines. But not all mayors made sure that there was some effort. You know it was signed a proclamation and they do that resolution all the time but I worked with our city manager and city staff to think about how can we make this real, to reduce our carbon footprint by 80 percent by the year 2025 I believe it was. So we reviewed our environmental practices. We changed how we were cooling and heating buildings. We established the east side recycling center, which included you know a partnership with Habitat Restore and I think Friends of Historic Preservation, as well as demonstration bio swells and LEED Platinum LEED certified facility, and not all more conservative folks were comfortable with that type of investment. We even purchased a former sand quarry which is now known as Trueblood lake and there was one council member a little bit more conservative than I who said, well you just want to put a trail around it. Let's let the private developers buy this. I said well, you're right I do want to put a trail around it. But I also want to make a generational decision that we are preserving this land not only for people, but you know we purchased the land all the way to the river, so help preserve the river front. In terms of people needing to come and recreate themself through recreation canoes and bikes. Yeah I'm going to make this generational decision. And I said you watch, before we finish this decision, there will be people out there even though the private company still owns it with canoes and bicycles.And sure enough they were. We had to stop them because there was barbed wire and metal out there. But you know if you look at that place today, almost every night there's people out there, there's a facility out there too. They're using the facility. I was just there for the Burr Oak Land Trust folks who are investing in land to be held for conservation. But just that natural breathing part of the community and we need those natural breathing areas of the state for people, for the environment, and for you know any of the animals that are out there.

Sticking with the environmental theme: water quality. The first bill that the governor signed, 282 million dollars for water quality projects in the state. Have you analyzed that legislation? Do you think it goes far enough? Is it just a starting point? Does it do anything? What do you make of it.

It's a step and it's an acknowledgment that should have been there before by the governor and her predecessor Governor Branstad that our environment-- it's not just about being green and people being tree huggers and all that. You know, it's related to environmental health, environmental health of people and both our food and water. So it's a step, it doesn't-- You know you've got to have the funding for it. I support what the constitutional amendment vote did.

I believe that was 2010-- to set aside three eighths of a penny sales tax for these type of efforts, for the outdoor recreation and resources and Recreation Trust Fund. Organizations like the Burr Oak Trust are willing to partner a public private partnership to help try and do some of that land preservation, to help with conservation practices, to help set aside some land. Maybe not public owned but private owned but are some farmers wanting to have some-- you know a land cooperation so that some of their privately owned land can be for public use whether that's for hunting, fishing, trails or even some of the diverse crops that we've seen growing up in Iowa in terms of wine and beer and hops and grapes.

When we were talking about reasons for getting involved you were talking about the privatization of Medicaid. One of the things that separates you from the other five running for the Democratic nomination is that you've had experience as a social worker and working in social work. I'm curious what do you take away from your time in social work to the campaign trail? What do you bring to the table and see is a strength as a governor with that social work background?   

I also was an educator. I taught at the University of Iowa School of Social Work and a lot of my students are current providers now. And several of them, you know, they have the skills, talent, and the desire to be helpful to Iowans. And their choice, not being able to provide services in a way that they can sustain a living themself, to have to look at a second job outside of providing those critical mental health services. But mainly also hearing from some of the folks that are receiving services from them, having to travel multiple states to try and get, you know-- if someone's in a psychiatric emergency you can't afford to wait two or three months to travel, to get an appointment in-state. There's not enough providers here in the state.

So not only from people that are former students who are providing service but friends of mine who I went to high school with who you know right here in the Des Moines area have had siblings commit suicide because they didn't have access to that critical care. The other piece about having been a practitioner and knowing folks and practitioners is you've got to have that comprehensive set of services: prevention, intervention, treatment, and evaluation. And without doing so and just focusing on those critical instances, which we eroded by closing down some of the mental health centers. It's untapped potential connection with our families, and the deaths that occur-- but untapped potential for people that could be giving to the community in a variety of occupations, not just the very wealthy or the lower income folks. So I think that's a piece just having those experiences and looking at ways to try and make sure that we are investing in Iowans. And that's part of what our Let's Be Iowa campaign theme is: let's be Iowa. Let's invest in education. Let's invest in mental health care, and you know let's strengthen rural and urban economies so that there are opportunities for folks here in Iowa and not necessarily trying to recruit some of the you know businesses from out of state to come here with tax breaks that aren't going to provide an investment back in the state.

On the topic of Medicaid privatization this was something that former Governor Terry Branstad did in 2016. It was something he did not need legislative approval to do. You've even seen the current Gov. Kim Reynolds say that there were mistakes in the way that this was rolled out. This was seen as a way to contain costs. That's the reason that gets given from the Republican governor and that the return to the old model commonly referred to fee-for- service isn't going to cut it. Do you agree with that? Do you see other ways that you could go back to a state run program? How do you assess the situation? Because it's really easy for people to say, you know- oh this doesn't work but what are the answers?

Right. Well I commend her for reluctantly admitting that there were some problems. A lot of times when there is an issue other factors are blamed. So that's a step in the right direction. But you know continuing down that path I think is a mistake. I would reverse the privatization of Medicaid to have a state run system. There needs to be oversight and accountability. But I would be willing to take a look at you know the possibility of a mixed system with fee-for-service but also trying to incentivize wellness. Is there some type of block type funding for some of the providers that we can you know put that funding out there, put some requirements on you know-- there's got to be certain types of partnerships, partnerships with schools, partnerships with you know some of the private providers, and even some alternative care type-- you know whether it's relaxation therapy, acupuncture, those types of alternative health care systems.

So let's take a look at a way to even incentivize keeping people well because we're going to pay for mental health and health care one way or the other. We will do it proactively, preventively with an emphasis on that, or we can do it reactively with roads leading back to untapped potential with people you know not being well, in some cases committing suicide.

And we've seen mental health become a big issue on the campaign trail here for the governor's race and also at the statehouse level. There are people who have personal stories that I'm sure that you've met with over your time in social work and in city politics and education and also out on the campaign trail. There was some bipartisan support for mental health legislation that got signed in this legislative session by the governor. Is that a good step? Is it misguided? How do you see the current legislation that has been signed by the governor?

In terms of…

Just in terms of does it does it go far enough, do you think that there is more that can be done in this legislative session? Just where do you come down on mental health issues and how to properly fund that?

I see. Okay, thank you.

Especially when the state budget is the way that it is and there's a lot of conversations about how to make money go further.

Right. Well even jumping back to local government, in Iowa City we maintain-- I inherited and we maintain-- and they continue to maintain a triple A bond rating, the highest bond rating that Moody's gives. We did that by properly managing our money.

We also voluntarily chose to invest in our aid to agencies fund. Some of the agencies which were providing preventative interventions both for youth, for people that are surviving domestic violence, those type of services as well as making investments in infrastructure. So we laid out multi-year planning with funding saying here's how we're going to do it. Part of that is adequate revenue and giving out the large tax breaks without an expectation of a return on investment, is one strategy to go about doing that rather than making-- I mean I'm going about it you know a little indirectly but it does impact the budget and what you're able to set aside to fund mental health services in a bipartisan way. But rather than giving the Apple $20 million deal with the local larger tax abatement strategy how about taking some of that funding and investing in rural and urban jobs, businesses that people will have an opportunity to build a business here in the state to get that-- are we getting the jobs and now is that creating folks who have income, that revenue is coming back into the state. If there's other types of you know expectations, infrastructure that the business itself will put that takes away from the demand on the state. But I think you know trying to both show that we can make that investment to acknowledge that there are some problems and some challenges and set out a path forward to doing that rather than saying the market itself is going to take care of that because that's not what the market is geared towards. You know private shareholders is what it's geared toward.

I think it's interesting the campaign slogan that you have is Let's Be Iowa.


You also mentioned 2016 was one of the reasons why you wanted to get into this race for governor. The presidential election, 2016, it was a very divisive year. You saw people who largely felt left out, blue collar, rural voters showing up and voting for president Donald Trump now. How do you unite a state? How do you unite people that feel very divided? In politics too, as the slogan says to be Iowa, to be one. I mean I think that's kind of what you're going for there.

Sure. You know it starts with listening and that's not only something I learned as a social worker talking social workees. That's something my mother taught me. And you know my mother died when I was 20 years old. But listening first. You always listen first to people whether they agree with you or not. And so the governor can set the tone with the legislature. You know I'm hoping we can get a legislature that's democratic again. But starting by listening and even just hearing the election by going out to rural Iowa and listening to folks. I did it in Rossville where there were about 150 people and a couple of other gubernatorial candidates. I like the name of that town Rossville by the way. Or you know where I went to a cover crop workshop in Sutherland, Iowa with my work out with Iowa State Extension and Outreach. It starts by listening first to gather information and trying to find points of agreement where you can go forward from that. I did it as a youth counselor when I was back in the late 80s and early 90s when I was doing counseling to rural youth teenagers and parents in Washington County, Iowa County, Benton County, Louisa County.

And so it starts with that listening to try and understand those who have a different perspective and different background. And I also teach a program called Navigating Difference. It's an 18 hour curriculum that we do at Iowa State Extension and Outreach to learn how to work, interact, communicate with folks who have a different background. So it starts with listening first, finding areas of common ground, and let's set aside the differences and at least move forward on where we agree.

There isn't a whole lot of agreement right now regarding the state budget. When it comes to Republicans have a majority in both the House and Senate and right now the state budget hasn't come forward yet. We're still waiting to see in this overtime session what this tax cut package is really going to do. When you're looking at the state budget right now and you're hearing about or seeing the conversations that are taking place at the Capitol, what do you make of it? What do you think should be the priority when we're talking about a state budget at the Capitol?

You know even last summer, back in July when I was on RAGBRAI up in Orange City and talking to a friend of mine that lives in Northwest Iowa- a RAGBRAI friend ,so someone you see once a year. But you know she heard that I was going to be running for governor and I said ‘that's right. I'm collecting signatures to get my name on the ballot.’ By the way I was the first to successfully get their name on the ballot for the Democrats. And she said, “well I'd like to sign but I'm a republican.” I said so ‘you know that's ok, anyone can sign’ and she said-- I said but you know-- she says “oh, OK.” I said ‘well but you know I bet we could come up with two issues right now that we would agree on.’ She said “OK.” I said ‘mental health care. I bet you know someone that was affected by mental illness and closing down the mental health care.’ She said you know, I believe it was a brother-in-law she said who works in a corrections system and he was saying that he thought at least 60 percent of the people who were incarcerated had mental illness and committed their offense for a variety of reasons when they were off their medications. We didn't get to the second one. She said “that's good enough for me,” and she signed. So I think some of the hesitancy you're seeing difficulty within the Republican party in themself is people in their communities across Iowa saying we are hurting. This is a problem. This is not going to be sustainable for the state of Iowa if we've got folks who are not mentally—do not have good mental health. And so, I mean that's not the entire thing. But the point is to be listening to those issues that are coming forward. Mental health, K-12 education. I was in the Iowa City School District working there as equity officer, diversity officer when Wisconsin was going through its union busting activities and we had some applicants, you know my first four years of the district over 100, 150 new employees and you know there were some applications from Wisconsin and now we see some Minnesota people looking from Iowa to Minnesota doing the same thing.

So you know those are those are two of the areas but certainly rural economies, rural and urban economies, are a critical issue for the state.

So you-- I mean I'm not going out on a limb here but I'm guessing you would say that education spending is not where you would like to see it in the state. I mean do you think we're funding our schools enough in the state?

We are not funding our schools enough. We're not even-- allowable growth isn't at a rate of inflation. Governor Reynolds, I saw in the Des Moines Register a while back it pointed out the percentage of the revenue pie or the expenditure pie. Well when you've decreased the funding, the amount of revenue coming into the state by giving out the tax breaks, no expectation of return on investment, you've shrunk the amount of ingredients you can buy to give out for the pie. So you know that's a critical piece that we need to try and lift the revenue going towards students and public dollars for public education. The days of teachers pulling out money out of their pocket to pay for calculators for students is not sustainable if we want to have young people prepared to help our state grow. Bottom line.

Ross Wilburn thank you.

Thank you.

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.