DES MOINES, Iowa — For six years as lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds has traveled throughout Iowa alongside the governor she described as her mentor and friend, but rarely has she been in the spotlight.
That’s about to change as Gov. Terry Branstad has accepted President-elect Donald Trump’s offer to become U.S. ambassador to China — subject to Senate confirmation — giving Reynolds the opportunity to set priorities for the state as governor. She would become the state’s first female governor and would hold the position until January 2019, when Branstad’s term would have ended.
So far, those who have worked with Reynolds describe her as an enthusiastic and genuine person, but they’re not sure what to expect from her as governor.
“Are there issues that weren’t as relevant to Gov. Branstad as might be relevant to her, that she’ll seize this opportunity to jump on? I don’t know what they would be. I’m sure there’s got to be some,” said Craig Williams, chairman of Carroll County Republicans.
Williams described Reynolds as someone who never forgets a face and always gives him a wave from across crowded rooms.
Gary Nystrom, a Boone County Republican, remembers a party event a few years ago at which Reynolds coolly stepped in to help Branstad answer questions. He’s seen her help out like that often, and he suggested it showed Reynolds has a command of issues and her own ideas for the state.
“Kim Reynolds will be her own person,” he said. “She learned from the governor and she backed a lot of things and was deeply involved in a lot of policies he was involved with. But I would say that she’s a person that can stand on her own, and I would not be surprised that there will be some things that she will want to do differently.
And I would be disappointed if she didn’t stand up and say, “No, I think this is how I want to do this.’“
Reynolds, 57, was treasurer of Clarke County in southern Iowa for 14 years before she was elected as a state senator in 2008. In between those elected posts, she was arrested twice for drunken driving. Her convictions in 1999 and 2000 resurfaced when Branstad began considering her as a running mate for his 2010 gubernatorial run. The Democratic Governors Association referenced the arrests in a Wednesday press release.
Reynolds, who declined an interview request Thursday, has said she stopped drinking after her second arrest.
“With the love and support of her family, her community and the grace of God she was able to overcome this struggle and is proud to be sober for over 16 years,” said Ben Hammes, a spokesman for the governor’s office. “Tens of thousands of Iowans are fighting some form of addiction, and Lt. Gov. Reynolds stands with them and encourages them to seek and receive the necessary treatment to similarly improve their lives.”
Debbie Lynn, the current Clarke County treasurer, worked alongside Reynolds at the time of the arrests. She said Reynolds was open about her recovery.
“That took a lot of courage, and she did it, and I too was so proud of her,” said Lynn. “I think that shows you that she’s a real person. And she would support anybody that would have any type of struggle, because she’s been through it herself.”
Reynolds has also been open about a longstanding goal to get a bachelor’s degree, a point that Hammes said she will reach.
Reynolds will finish coursework from Iowa State University this month and will receive a bachelor of liberal studies degree sometime in the spring, according to Hammes. He said her schoolwork began at Upper Iowa University and it has included both night classes and online studies.
In her time as lieutenant governor, Reynolds has prioritized education efforts, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math. She’s also co-chaired an alliance aimed at workforce skills training and an initiative on energy policy.
Although the timing of Branstad’s departure isn’t clear, Reynolds will become governor just as Republicans take control of both legislative chambers, and they have made clear they’re itching to approve conservative legislation long derailed by Democrats. That could include revamping the state’s collective bargaining rules for public employees and banning local counties from increasing minimum wages above the state level — two things Branstad has spoken about in recent weeks.
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, who made history earlier this year when she was elected as the first female speaker of the chamber, implied she expects Reynolds to follow in Branstad’s footsteps.
“Certainly she has her own ideas, certainly she has her own priorities, but I think it’ll be a smooth transition and not a lot of surprises,” she said.
Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, remembers meeting Reynolds when she was in the Senate and he was a state representative. He said Reynolds will be a leader, and that can include continuing some of Branstad’s initiatives.
“When you have a switch in governors this close to the beginning of a session, people want stability,” he said. “People want to know that there’s some predictability and some consistency. Let’s face it. She and Gov. Branstad campaigned with a lot of these legislators. So there’s an expectation of what issues will be important and that those issues will be worked on.”