U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack signs a book for the Carroll Chamber of Commerce Thursday during a campaign event at Queen Beans in Carroll for his wife, 4th Congressional District Democratic candidate Christie Vilsack of Ames.<span style="font-size: xx-small;"><em>&nbsp; Daily Times Herald photo by Douglas Burns</em></span>
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack signs a book for the Carroll Chamber of Commerce Thursday during a campaign event at Queen Beans in Carroll for his wife, 4th Congressional District Democratic candidate Christie Vilsack of Ames.  Daily Times Herald photo by Douglas Burns
Friday, November 2, 2012

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Thursday said western and central Iowans can count on his wife to be both an effective and classy representative in Washington.

“She is never going to be embarrass you,” Vilsack said of wife, Christie. “You’re never going to have to worry about something she said in the media that will come back and embarrass you because it was said by your representative.”

Tom Vilsack, a former two-term governor of Iowa, spoke in the late morning at Queen Beans in Carroll to about a dozen supporters of Ames Democrat Christie Vilsack’s bid for the 4th Congressional District seat. Her contest with U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, has gained national attention.

To this point, Tom Vilsack, an active surrogate for President Obama’s re-election, has generally remained in the background of his wife’s campaign so the remarks represented some of his fist public advocacy in what he termed a “competitive race.”

Tom Vilsack specifically challenged King’s references in a Mason City debate Tuesday to federal relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy. The death toll from Sandy had risen to 90 people as of Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Citing waste and fraud with Hurricane Katrina relief, King said he supported a federal role with Sandy “but not one big shot to just open up the checkbook, because they spent it on Gucci bags and massage parlors and everything you can think of in addition to what was necessary.”

Tom Vilsack said the incendiary rhetoric should not be a congressman’s go-to response when a large swath of the nation is suffering under desperate conditions.

“You know folks, that should not be your first thought when devastation has hit,” Vilsack said. “If you’ve seen some parts of New York City that have been devastated, not just by floods, but also by the fire, it’s hard to believe that those people’s first thought would be gaming the system. That’s the kind of comment that not only represents solely on Congressman King, but because he’s from Iowa, because he’s from this new 4th District, it reflects on every single person in the district. People outside of Iowa then believe this must be what we think.”

This has a deterring effect on economic development, business start-ups and jobs in Iowa, Vilsack said.

“If you’re a business leader thinking about locating a business, or you’re an entrepreneur thinking about starting a business, are you going to think about coming to a place where the first response to a disaster is concern about Gucci bags and massage parlors?”

But there is truth in King’s references, although Tom Vilsack challenged the timing of the remarks more than their veracity.

The Atlantic magazine reported that “over the disastrous course of its Katrina relief efforts through February of 2006, the Federal Emergency Management Agency handed out between $600 million and $1.4 billion in ‘improper or potentially fraudulent’ aid payments to actual hurricane victims as well as con artists posing as them, according to a pair of reports by the Government Accountability Office.”

The inappropriate Katrina expenses did include money for massage parlors, strip clubs and tattoos, The Atlantic reported.

New Jersey Democratic Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, worried about the here and now of Sandy on her constituents, not Southern-fried waste of past years, told the Huffington Post that King should see her state in the wake of the hurricane before going with the colorful rhetoric on federal relief.

“One of the first thoughts that came to my mind was ‘well then we won’t help Iowa either!’” Wagner said in an email to HuffPost. “Iowa has floods, tornadoes, and drought, all these disasters are aided by the federal government on a more regular basis than hurricanes in New Jersey. But no, Mr. King, these are the United States, and it is our job to help each other when faced with devastating natural events.”