Kim Reynolds is the rare politician who comes across as totally believable when she says she never aspired to higher office before she was plucked from relative political obscurity in 2010 to become Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s running mate.
Reynolds, who didn’t finish college until three weeks ago and who stumbled into politics while working in a county treasurer’s office in rural Iowa, said her original plan in life was to be a teacher.
“It was never in my wildest dreams” to be governor, said Reynolds, laughing. The 57-year old is tall and lean with an unassuming demeanor.
Reynolds is expected to become Iowa’s first female governor in a month or two after Branstad’s expected confirmation as this nation’s ambassador to China. She began stepping out of Branstad’s shadow last week as she toured parts of western Iowa, introducing herself to Iowans on her own terms.
The Republican declined to talk specifically about her priorities or vision for the state, saying Branstad is still governor and he is still in charge. “I’ll have an opportunity (later) to talk about my vision moving forward,” Reynolds said during a one-on-one interview with The World-Herald.
She did talk, however, about her commitment to rural economic development. She also sought to reassure Iowans that she expects there to be plenty of “consistency and continuity” after she takes over, saying she shares Branstad’s approach to governing.
Reynolds vows to continue Branstad’s commitment to visiting each of the state’s 99 counties every year and to ensuring that all Iowans have a chance to express their concerns or frustrations to the governor.
“I’m a pretty good listener,” she said. “I’m a convener (of meetings) and a collaborator.”
It is not clear exactly when Reynolds will become governor because that depends on when Branstad is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Confirmation hearings for ambassadors typically are not held until Cabinet-level offices are filled. That means it could be February or March before Reynolds can move into Terrace Hill, the governor’s residence.
In the meantime, Iowans can expect Reynolds to take a more visible role in state government.
It has long been known Reynolds was Branstad’s chosen successor, ever since he tabbed the former state lawmaker from Osceola as his running mate. At that point she had served less than two years in the Iowa Senate. Since then Reynolds has been a constant presence on the trail with Branstad, attending meetings and campaign events with the governor.
She is expected to seek her own full four-year term as governor in the 2018 election.
Reynolds’ path to the Governor’s Office has been anything but normal. She is a small-town girl who grew up in St. Charles, a city of about 700 in Madison County, famed for its covered bridges. Her father was a farmer who also worked at the John Deere factory in Ankeny, helping to build cotton-picking machines.
She went to college after high school but didn’t stay long. In her retelling of those college years, Reynolds doesn’t pull any punches. She wasn’t “focused,” she said, and she was “partying” too much.
Over the years she tried to go back to college and earn a degree, but life kept “getting in the way.” In recent years Reynolds redoubled her efforts — with the governorship on the horizon — and finally earned a degree last month, with the help of online classes.
She now holds a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Iowa State University, with a concentration on political science, communications and business management.
Reynolds and her husband, Kevin, who is a soil conservation officer, lived in Oakland and Mount Pleasant earlier in their married life. In about 1990 they moved to Osceola in south-central Iowa to be closer to family.
Kim Reynolds, who had worked at a pharmacy in Mount Pleasant, soon landed a job with the Clarke County Treasurer’s Office. She said her husband urged her to run for treasurer when the position came open. She won and began to make a name for herself in county government circles for using technology to streamline the office and convincing the state to allow county treasurer’s offices to issue driver’s licenses.
It was during her years as a county official that Reynolds met Branstad, who appointed her to the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System board in 1996.
Her budding political career almost came to an end, however, in 1999 and 2000 when Reynolds was convicted twice of driving under the influence.
She calls it the “toughest time” in her life, saying she came to the realization that she was an alcoholic and needed treatment. Reynolds said she fully expected to lose her job and was stunned when many in the community made it clear they were still in her corner.
“How do you say ‘thank you’ to a community who gave you a second chance? A lot of people don’t get a second chance,” said Reynolds, with tears pooling in her eyes.
Today, Reynolds’ story of sobriety is well-known to others who have faced their own struggles with alcohol. She said people frequently come up and whisper in her ear the number of years or months they have remained sober.
“They don’t make a big deal of it,” Reynolds said. “They just give me a hug and whisper.”