DES MOINES, Iowa — Regarded as a savior to many Vietnam War refugees and as a political centrist willing to cross party lines, former Iowa Gov. Robert D. Ray will be remembered at a funeral Friday as a beloved leader — who likely would have a tough time being elected in today’s political climate.
As Iowa residents of all political stripes reflect on the Republican governor’s 14-year bipartisan legacy, many acknowledge that the qualities that made Ray so respected and effective would largely disqualify him as a politician today, reflecting dramatic changes in state and national politics in the 35 years since he left office.
“I find it hard to think that, in either party, that Bob Ray would be welcome,” said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Price Foundation and a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia who worked on refugee resettlements as a member of the Ray administration.
Plenty of people welcome a political leader modeled off Ray, Quinn said, but such a politician couldn’t advance through either party’s nominating process. He said that’s one reason Ray’s death has prompted such an outpouring of respect and affection for the governor, who was first elected in 1968. Ray died Sunday at age 89.
“There’s a lot of people in both parties who together would find someone like Bob Ray very attractive,” Quinn said.
On Thursday, Ray became the first Iowa official to lie in state at the Capitol in over six decades — since Gov. William S. Beardsley died in office in 1954.
Ray and his state were catapulted to national prominence in 1974, when he broke with other governors and encouraged Tai Dam refugees and later other Vietnam War refugees to move to Iowa. He did so despite concerns among some of his constituents that the refugees — who entered the U.S. legally with the support of the federal government — would take jobs and other resources away from existing Iowa residents.
Ray defended the resettlements on moral grounds in a 1979 speech in St. Louis, invoking the memory of the United States refusing asylum in 1939 for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany . He also described his experience watching people die around him in a Cambodian refugee camp.
“If we don’t have the heart, or the spirit, to save human lives, then how can we be expected to help those whose lives are already assured?” Ray asked.
Som Baccam, a Democratic community leader who knew Ray well after coming to Iowa in 1975 as a refugee from Laos, said Ray is regarded as a savior by many in the state’s Southeast Asian community. She said he was fair-minded with a “bipartisan heart” that could bring people together.
Matt Walsh, a history professor at Des Moines Area Community College who wrote a book on Ray’s resettlement of Tai Dam refugees, said Ray’s action on immigration contrasts with modern politicians. He cited former Gov. Terry Branstad’s order for state agencies to stop working to resettle Syrian refugees in Iowa following a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris .
Branstad served as lieutenant governor during Ray’s tenure and was named by Trump as U.S. ambassador to China.
Walsh noted that Ray’s decision followed successful re-election campaigns, when the consequences of a political backlash were diminished.
Under Ray’s leadership, Republicans who controlled the Legislature adopted several laws that would have been less striking coming from a Democratic administration, including substantially increasing how much the state funds public schools and implementing collective bargaining rights for public employees.
David Oman, his onetime chief of staff, said Ray sought to win votes from Democrats and independents, not just his Republican base. Oman said campaigns now focus on minimizing the other side and exciting their bases, which he said can lead to wins without a clear mandate. He hopes future campaigns will be successful by returning to Ray’s bipartisan approach.
“People tell us anecdotally and by poll that they want clear, differentiated leaders who reach out across party lines and just solve problems,” Oman said. “That defines who Bob Ray was.”
By SCOTT STEWART, Associated Press