DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad's upcoming departure to Beijing marks the end of a career in state politics that spans several decades.
As the longest-serving governor in the U.S. at more than 22 years, Branstad oversaw Iowa throughout the farm crisis of the 1980s that brought financial ruin to many farmers and during the Great Flood of 1993 that inundated communities throughout the Midwest. But the 70-year-old who's leaving to be President Donald Trump's ambassador to China may get the most attention for his actions during his final year in office, when Republicans controlled the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in nearly 20 years.
"I'm leaving the state in a better and stronger position than I found it," he said Monday, hours before the Senate voted to confirm him.
While Branstad highlights Iowa's low unemployment rate of 3.1 percent and renewable energy investments in wind farms and ethanol as signs of success, critics point to legislation Branstad signed this year that weakened public unions, restricted minimum hourly wage increases and added a voter identification requirement.
Branstad and Republicans who pushed the bills through the Legislature say the measures on collective bargaining and wages were aimed at keeping the state competitive financially. They say the voter ID law will maintain election integrity, though there's little evidence of fraudulent voting.
Branstad, who was elected governor in 1982 and returned in 2011 for his sixth nonconsecutive term, in recent years also privatized Iowa's Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled without legislative approval, a move he defended amid a court challenge and one that he claims saved the state money in the long run. He was also criticized for decisions to remove funding for unemployment offices and two state mental health facilities, moves that also led to legal action.
Among the groups that have been critical of Branstad is Progress Iowa, a self-proclaimed advocacy group.
"Governor Branstad's confirmation today ends a career as Governor in which he attacked Iowa's workers and public schools, left the state budget in shambles, and on more than once occasion was rebuked by the Iowa Supreme Court for abusing his authority," the group's executive director, Matt Sinovic, said in an email.
Branstad began his career in public office as a state representative, first being elected in 1972. He went on to serve three two-year terms and was elected in 1978 as lieutenant governor before being sworn in as governor in 1983. Without term limits, Branstad was in the top post until he decided not to seek re-election in 1998. After time in the private sector, he launched another gubernatorial run and came back to his old job in 2011. He and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds were re-elected in 2014.
When he returned to office, Branstad campaigned on four goals aimed at job growth, reducing state government costs, increasing family incomes and making Iowa's schools the best in the nation. More than five years later, data shows the results have been mixed, though Branstad and Republicans have defended them.
"If you look at how Iowa has weathered the very, very slow emergence from the recession, I really think that the governor's steady hand has made sure that there have not been erratic swings," said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. "It lays right at his feet that we have not moved backward."
Branstad will now be expected to lead communications between the U.S. and one of its major trading partners. Branstad has no formal diplomatic experience, though his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping dates to the 1980s, when both men were in early stages of their careers. Branstad has also traveled to China several times on trade missions.
Branstad is expected to resign and be formally sworn in as ambassador sometime in the next few days. Reynolds, his No. 2, will then become Iowa governor.
Monday was Branstad's 8,167th day in office.
"It's not any easy thing to leave the job that you love and that you've worked hard for and gone through many elections to achieve," he said. "But when the president of the United States asks you to take on an even bigger challenge ... I feel this is an opportunity of a lifetime."