Politics have always come naturally for the Iowa native, former first lady
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
SIOUX CITY — Christie Bell loved that bicycle.
It was a blue Schwinn, and 10-year-old Christie plastered it with Kennedy-Johnson bumper stickers ahead of the 1960 election. Hanging over the front handlebars was a Time magazine cover featuring an illustration of then-U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy.
She had carefully cut out the cover, gluing it onto a piece of cardboard before wrapping it in plastic wrap. It was proudly attached to the front of the bike by string.
She treasured the decoration so intensely that she would remove it from her bicycle when she got to school and store it in her desk, afraid something would happen to it.
Mount Pleasant, population 5,843 when Ann Christine Bell was born in 1950, was home to few Kennedy fans. It was the seat of Henry County and was booming with children in the post-World War II era.
One of those children was Bobby Lofgren. Like many families in Mount Pleasant, his was Republican.
He “pulled it off my bicycle, ripped it off,” Christie recalled. “So I slapped him.”
It was likely the first of many political battles to come for a young girl raised in a family often consumed by politics. But the future Christie Vilsack, who would go on to establish a Young Democrats Club at Mount Pleasant High School, would have the last laugh.
Nearly 50 years later, as husband Tom Vilsack was launching his campaign for governor, Christie wrote to her high school friends seeking contributions. One of the checks in the mail was for $50. The donor? Bobby Lofgren.
Finding strength in a time of loss
Democratic Party politics were prominent as Christie Vilsack grew up, and the women were often more immersed than the men. A pattern that, in some ways, would repeat itself later in life.
Her paternal grandparents, Jess and Amy Bell, had a mixed political marriage for a while, until her grandmother embraced the Democratic Party in the 1930s amid the Depression.
Her mother, Fyrn Scrivner, was from Missouri, and was a practicing, traditional Southern Democrat. After Scrivner married Tom Bell, who went by the nickname “Chief,” the family settled into their first home in Mount Pleasant. Later, they moved to a place near a state-run hospital that featured an “amazing tree house.”
Best friend Melinda Huisinga, who went by the last name Shepp while growing up in Mount Pleasant, recalled the day they became blood sisters. The two girls had summer birthdays a month apart — Huisinga in June, Vilsack on July 12 — and they played and played in their Mount Pleasant neighborhood day after day.
“We were blood sisters. We made an agreement in grade school and took a pact — pricked our little fingers and signed in blood — that we were going to be blood sisters forever, because I was an only child and she had two brothers. So, we made a pact that we would be sisters,” she said.
One minor problem. Huisinga would have been more than happy to prepare for Girl Scouts activities, ride bicycles and climb trees with her friend, staying out until the neighborhood mothers called kids in with varying whistles. But as they got older, Christie Vilsack’s interest in politics grew in a way that other kids couldn’t understand.
Huisinga recalled her friend watching political conventions on television.
“She’d just be very interested in it, glued to the TV. I thought, ‘How boring.’ I wasn’t interested in going inside in the summer and watching the National Democratic Convention,” Huisinga said.
As a sophomore at Mount Pleasant, Christie Vilsack started a Young Democrats Club with a boyfriend at the time, and about five others joined. She went on to serve on the student council and as a cheerleader. She was homecoming queen and editor of the school newspaper.
Her formative years were not without loss. At age 15, she was taken aside by her father and told her mother had cancer. She probably wouldn’t live more than two years.
Her mother’s illness was a constant in the Bell household. Fyrn Bell underwent several surgeries, and despite showing great courage and resolve in the face of the illness, was often unable to take on traditional motherly responsibilities. Her daughter had to step up, but the family insisted her high school years remain as normal as possible.
The community of Mount Pleasant stepped up, too, baking casseroles and helping find prom and homecoming dresses.
“I was one of those people with a million things (activities) after my name in the yearbook, and my family made sure I was able to continue to do that,” Christie Vilsack said. “But it just changed everything.”
The morning after Christie went to the 1968 senior prom, Fyrn Bell died at age 51. Huisinga said the death was difficult, but Vilsack didn’t show anxiety over it.
“If she had a down moment, she didn’t share that with us,” Huisinga said.
But before Fyrn passed away, she made sure that her daughter didn’t lose sight of her dreams. Christie Vilsack had plans to attend college in upstate New York, and Fyrn told “Chief” that he was to insist she stay on course.
In the fall of 1968, she packed her Volkswagen and headed east to Kirkland College in New York.
Humphrey or Nixon?
In college, she met her future husband, Tom Vilsack, also a freshman, during lunch. He was sitting with a table of guys, and on a dare, he went over to talk.
“For five bucks, at that point in time in my life, I’d do just about anything,” Tom Vilsack said.
The problem? He realized he didn’t have anything to say to her. But it was October 1968, and Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey were locked in a fierce battle for the White House.
“So the best I could do was, ‘Are you a Humphrey or Nixon supporter?’“ Tom Vilsack said. “And she looked at me like I was half crazy, and she said, ‘Humphrey.’”
The die was cast. The two began dating. They hit “a rocky spot,” as he describes it, because he was still pining for a high school girlfriend named Mary Beth from Pittsburgh. But eventually Tom Vilsack picked the Iowa gal.
The former girlfriend was the sister of Karen Santorum, wife of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
“If I hadn’t made the right decision on this, I could have been Rick Santorum’s brother-in-law,” Tom Vilsack said. “As it turned out, I went back on bended knee and asked for a second chance with Christie.”
As a young man, he didn’t have quite the same passion for politics that she displayed. But as Christie Vilsack graduated from college, her father sent a letter summarizing job options back in Mount Pleasant, where Tom Vilsack could be a lawyer and she could be a teacher, and the couple could fill community leadership roles, too.
The couple made the move, and she spent several years working as a teacher. Tom Vilsack eventually entered politics at the suggestion of several prominent Mount Pleasant residents. He became more active and determined after a disgruntled citizen gunned down mayor Ed King during a City Council meeting. Tom Vilsack was elected mayor of Mount Pleasant in 1987 and won a state Senate seat in 1992.
She supported him every step of the way.
“I don’t want to call him the reluctant politician, but it wasn’t something that he planned for,” Christie Vilsack said. “It was a talent that grew. … It just evolved.”
‘I remember liking her so much …’
But for Christie Vilsack, politics always came naturally.
Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman Sue Dvorsky first met her in 1997. Dvorsky was chairwoman of the Johnson County gubernatorial campaign team for Tom Vilsack, considered a long shot to win the party’s June 1998 primary, let alone the general election.
He had served in the Iowa Senate with Dvorsky’s husband, state Sen. Bob Dvorsky. She knew Tom Vilsack as a policy wonk who didn’t have the kind of effervescent personality that was almost a prerequisite for statewide candidates.
“He was fine, but I just wasn’t fired-up. Until I met her,” Dvorsky said. “Then, I was all in.”
What husband Tom may have lacked, Christie had in spades. She was warm, open and relatable, Dvorsky said, and, most important, at ease when talking with people as the two campaigned across the state.
“I just remember liking her so much, and I rethought him when I met her,” Dvorsky said. “She was an absolute asset to him because she could introduce him so that people could listen to those ideas. I am not the only person who gave him a more careful look because she was so magnetic.”
Michael Gartner, who has had a big impact in Iowa through stints at two major newspapers and leading the Vision Iowa Board of Directors a decade ago, among many other accomplishments, first met the Vilsacks in 1996, when Tom Vilsack was laying the groundwork for his 1998 gubernatorial bid. Since that time, he’s become friends with the Vilsacks and is supporting her congressional quest.
He was immediately impressed with her charm and intelligence. Gartner said Vilsack seems to have quickly grasped the retail political skills too many candidates lack.
“It is either in her genes from her dad or osmosis from living with (Tom) Vilsack,” Gartner said.
Thanks in part to Christie’s contributions, Tom Vilsack was elected governor in 1998. He won a second term in 2002.
In 2006, Vilsack announced his intention to run for president. He eventually dropped out, in February 2007, citing money constraints. He now serves as secretary of agriculture in the administration of President Barack Obama.
The stars align for Congress
Now, it’s Christie’s turn.
Vilsack, who can rip off references to people in towns like Gillette Grove, Mondamin and Fenton, said for the longest time she didn’t feel the need to run for office. She was satisfied with the team approach she felt was instrumental in helping her husband to his political victories.
“I always felt fulfilled,” she said. “I had my own life as first lady, I had my own projects — I advocated for early childhood and preschool, and I advocated for teachers and librarians, I helped create Enrich Iowa, which was the first time we had public financing for public libraries.”
But after Tom headed east to serve in the Obama administration, the stars began to align for another Vilsack to run for office.
Dvorsky said the timing for a Vilsack congressional run in 2012 was right. She has raised her two sons into adulthood, she’s healthy and she has no elderly parents to look after.
Even so, Christie hasn’t always embraced the idea.
Gartner recalls a night when four couples were having supper at Terrace Hill when Vilsack was governor.
“Somebody said, ‘Geez, Christie, you ought to run for Congress.’ And she kind of demurred. And (Tom) Vilsack didn’t stop the conversation, he kind of goaded it on. It was clear to me that this wasn’t the first time anybody had suggested it, and if everything fell into place, she would do it,” Gartner said.
Gartner said Christie Vilsack learned important lessons in seeing the two statewide campaign battles her husband went through in 1998 and 2002, and then traveling in support of libraries and literacy as first lady.
“She really knows the state, knows the issues and knows the rigor and the mechanics and the skills of campaigning. They are like (Gov. Terry) Branstad, they never stopped campaigning,” Gartner said. “She had a book (tour) every year that Iowans should read, so she has great name recognition and a great ability to marshal support.”
Gartner also praises her political instincts. She picked Al Gore over Bill Bradley in the 2000 Democratic presidential candidate race, and endorsed John Kerry in a large 2004 field.
“It did move the (Kerry) women’s vote that week,” Gartner said. “People hadn’t made up their minds. I know it made a difference in the way that race turned out.”
Longtime friend and childhood “blood sister” Huisinga isn’t surprised that Christie Vilsack has finally taken the plunge and is running for office.
“We would always tease Tom that maybe she was the one who should have run for governor,” Huisinga said.
Not an easy path to Washington
That doesn’t mean this election will be an easy one. In fact, Christie Vilsack faces a steep uphill climb if she wants to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron.
Huisinga said it will be a daunting task to pull off a win against the 10-year congressman.
“It is a big one. He’s represented them for, what, five terms? It is a very Republican area so, sure, it is a challenge,” Huisinga said.
Gartner acknowledged Christie Vilsack is at a 48,200-voter disadvantage to King, when comparing the Republican and Democratic Party registrations. Even though King makes comments people on the political left find inflammatory, Gartner said, Vilsack will have her hands full with King.
“He is not an unlikeable guy; he’s not an ogre,” Gartner said.
However, Gartner said, she is a “spectacular money-raiser” and “tireless as a campaigner,” so a win isn’t out of the question.
Christie Vilsack has gotten notice for her substantial fundraising, having topped King through the last reporting quarter, $1.54 million to his $1.27 million, while having $905,427 in campaign cash on hand through the end of March.
“She’s got to get the independents, and Obama has to be strong at the top of the ticket. But all those things can happen. She can win, but it isn’t going to be easy,” said Gartner, who lives in Des Moines.
She moved from Mount Pleasant to Ames in order to pursue a win in the newly redrawn 4th Congressional District, and political opponents have dubbed her a carpetbagger.
It’s not her first, and likely not her last, brush with controversy.
She became embroiled in controversy when a 1994 column she wrote for the Mount Pleasant News was dredged up in the Boston Herald. In the piece, she said she struggled to understand the speech patterns of blacks and that Southerners have “slurred speech.” She also wrote that she would rather learn Polish than speak in a Jersey accent.
She responded that a Republican National Committee staffer had apparently looked hard to find an issue to “attack” her with. She said “people take things out of context” and that as a teacher she sought to instruct children about language and dialects.
More recently, Iowa Republicans have criticized her for using out-of-state fundraisers to amass some of her cash, including May 30 with former President Bill Clinton in New York City. The hosting levels ran from $500 to $5,000.
“It seems clear Christie Vilsack has no interest in visiting with Iowans and instead wants to raise money from out-of-touch liberals who don’t share Iowans’ values,” said King’s campaign manager, Jake Ketzner.
Additionally, Republicans have sought to tie Christie Vilsack to the policies of Obama, even as she has steadfastly said she would not address how she might have voted on high-profile national legislation, such as federal health-care reform, of recent years. That answer has resulted in charges that she is ducking issues.
She and King have pledged to discuss issues in campaign debates but have not finalized those plans.
Tough issues, despite the small-town facades
Dvorsky said Vilsack’s upbringing in Mount Pleasant gives her the unique ability to understand and connect well with Iowans, particularly women. A key strength Vilsack brings to the campaign is that she formerly worked as a teacher and writer, and it helps as she meets people, Dvorsky said.
“A good grassroots politician is somebody who can connect with people. And she truly loves that kind of connection. That is real — that is not spin from me and shtick from her — that is real,” Dvorsky said.
“She is a very, very good campaigner because of the things that make her a good person, and some of those are the things that made her a good teacher, that organization, self-discipline, the embrace of hard work. You can’t really buy that kind of thing, and you can’t really fake it. In a long campaign, if you don’t like campaigning, it is very hard to hide that from people. She really likes it — she likes talking to people, she likes talking about ideas.”
Dvorsky said Vilsack is astute enough to see that behind the facade of small-town upbringing, Iowans also deal with a lot of tough issues — poverty, lost jobs due to businesses folding, broken families — and to recognize sometimes the government needs to be there to pick up the slack.
“You can have kind of a ‘Music Man,’ ‘Pollyanna’ kind of look at it, a very nostalgic look at it. But she, I think, understands a lot, because of who she was and what she has learned about people. I think she has a really good understanding of what goes on behind that, that there are a lot of challenges families face. And sometimes you can see them, and sometimes you cannot,” Dvorsky said.
Christie Vilsack said being a teacher for decades now informs how she campaigns. When she looks at the 39 counties in the 4th District, she said, her job is to help each town to maximize potential, via directing federal government aid. She said the towns in the counties have varying identities, but people overwhelmingly have the goal of keeping their children living and working in Iowa.
She said she has enjoyed her strategy of releasing a new issue plank — agriculture, education, college training — roughly each month for the last eight months. Campaigning through the new 4th District isn’t daunting, she said, because she knows her upbringing fits the people she’s talking with.
“This district is all small places,” Vilsack said.
Even though childhood friend Huisinga, who last saw Vilsack at the Iowa State Fair in August 2011, is a Republican, she will vote for Democrat Vilsack in the Iowa 4th congressional district race that will be settled in November.
“I believe in voting for the most-qualified candidate, the one that I think will listen to the people, will uphold our values,” Huisinga said.
“She has the people’s best interest in mind. I do believe she is very sincere. I don’t think she has changed — she is the same Christie that I knew growing up in school. She doesn’t put on airs. Christie is Christie. She is very genuine, very sincere.”