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The man who would be president

Vilsack’s friends, colleagues say he has what it takes

Rod Boshart

The Gazette

November 26, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

DES MOINES — Growing up in a pleasant but obscure Pittsburgh neighborhood, Doug Campbell didn’t envision a day when his childhood buddy would be vying to become the most powerful leader of the free world.

  He does now.

  Campbell will be among a throng of supporters, neighbors and the curious who will gather in Mount Pleasant this week for a community potluck and to witness local transplant Tom Vilsack officially launch his bid to become president of the United States at Iowa Wesleyan College.

  ‘‘I knew he wasn’t going to be a professional athlete,’’ joked Campbell, a Pennsylvania attorney who counts Vilsack as his best and oldest friend, a bond that dates back to 1955.

  ‘‘This does seem to be his destiny. He’s focused on it,’’ Campbell added. ‘‘Given the trajectory of his political career, I would say nothing would surprise me at this point or has. It’s just been one success after another. He just always wins.’’

  But, even with his personal bias, Campbell concedes this is a monumental challenge for a man who married into an Iowa connection and joined his father- in-law’s law firm, was recruited to become mayor of Mount Pleasant in the aftermath of a town hall shooting spree and rose through ranks in the state Senate to serve two terms as governor.

  ‘‘What I’m hearing out here is he’s a long shot, he’s a dark horse — how can he win?’’ Campbell said on the same day that CNN issued a poll showing Vilsack, 55, garnering 1 percent of the support among 10 potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidates.

 ‘‘Well, he can win if people hear him,’’ Campbell said.

  ‘‘There’s no doubt that people will underestimate him because he’s from Iowa, and I think he relishes that. I think it keeps him motivated.’’

  Val Washington, who attended Albany Law School with Vilsack, said she witnessed him developing his powers of persuasion as a serious-minded law student.

  He was smart, confident, selfassured and not intimidated by professors, said Washington, a practicing upstate New York attorney.

  Vilsack had married Christie Bell, a Mount Pleasant native, in August 1973 and lived about 40 miles from campus while attending law school.

  Because of that, he did little socializing at the college, although he did play rugby.

  Vilsack had a down-to-earth demeanor, Washington said.

  Although he was interested in politics, he did not appear to be on a political track, she said.

  ‘‘He’s not a real selfaggrandizing person, the way you think of politicians,’’ Washington said. ‘‘There’s no shortage of bloated egos walking around law school corridors, but he wasn’t one of them.’’

  Thomas James Vilsack’s unlikely presidential quest started nearly half a country away from Iowa, in a Pennsylvania orphanage in 1950.

  He was adopted by Bud and Dolly Vilsack and grew up with one sister in the industrialized East.

  He was raised in a volatile family setting that was troubled by his mother’s battles with alcohol and prescription drug abuse.

He has said the experience instilled in him an understanding of how important it is for a child to get off on the right foot and the key role that education plays as society’s great equalizer.

  Because of what he described as his mother’s ‘‘Jekyll and Hyde’’ personality, his parents eventually split and he lived with his father.

  During Vilsack’s teenage years, his father’s business and health began to fail.

  About that time, Vilsack’s mother succeeded in conquering her addiction, and his family reunited for a brief period.

  Vilsack met his future wife while he attended Hamilton College in upstate New York.

  After he finished law school, the couple moved to Mount Pleasant. They settled into the quiet comfort of southeast Iowa, where they raised two sons, Jess and Douglas.

  Vilsack made a name for himself locally when he spearheaded an effort to raise money privately to build an athletic complex for the high school. He enlisted the help of students to take over the local radio station for a weekend fundraising drive for what eventually blossomed into the Maple Leaf Athletic Complex.

  That effort was a springboard for Vilsack to lead a number of civic organizations while he dabbled in grassroots politics until 1986. It was then that Mount Pleasant became the focus of national attention when Ralph Davis opened fire during a City Council meeting, killing Mayor Edd King and wounding two council members.

  After an interim mayor was named, King’s father approached Vilsack about seeking the office. He agreed to run, scored an unexpected victory and served from 1987 until 1992. At one point, he decided not to seek re-election but was voted in by a write-in effort that landed him more than 90 percent support.

  Vilsack followed that success with victories in state Senate races in 1992 and 1994.

  Republican David Heaton, now a state representative, lost to Vilsack in 1992. He said Vilsack’s work in guiding his community through one of its darkest periods was the difference in the race.

  ‘‘I didn’t have any idea that he would end up running for president of the United States,’’ Heaton said.

  Another local Republican, outgoing Henry County Attorney Michael Riepe, said he had an inkling Vilsack was building a resume ‘‘for something down the road’’ after he became mayor.

  Vilsack’s decision to run for president has elicited a ‘‘mixed bag’’ of community reaction, Riepe said.

  ‘‘It goes beyond most folks’ experience here,’’ he said.

  ‘‘It’s tough sometimes to get beyond the small box that a local community can put you in. He’s certainly as qualified as a governor from Arkansas.’’

  Frustration with political realities almost led Vilsack to leave elective office in 1996.

  He announced on the Iowa Senate floor that he intended to resign in his second term to devote more time to his family and law practice.

  However, a trip back to Mount Pleasant for son Jess’ high school graduation was a turning point.

  Vilsack said he had a conversation with his brother-inlaw, Tom Bell Jr., an attorney in Wisconsin, who shared a belief that if a person has a talent, it should be used to its fullest. They talked about how, given the chance to do something that would make a difference in people’s lives, one should pursue that opportunity.

  The next day, Vilsack said, his brother-in-law suffered a massive heart attack and died.

  ‘‘I think at that moment I recognized what all of us recognize but often fail to appreciate. And that is that life is a gift that you get day by day, and if you do have opportunities, you need to seize them,’’ Vilsack said in a 1998 interview. ‘‘That’s what convinced me to stay in the game.’’

  Ralph Rosenberg, an Ames attorney who served with Vilsack in the Senate and as head of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission for Vilsack’s administration, said Vilsack was a tireless worker. Rosenberg said Vilsack did his homework, had an eye for detail and produced thoughtful solutions to complicated problems.

  ‘‘His ability to gather information, quickly process it, analyze it, distill it and then speak to groups is profound,’’ Rosenberg said.

  David Roederer, a GOP operative who is a Mount Pleasant native, said Vilsack’s decision to run for president has generated some excitement in his hometown and around Iowa, along with a measure of skepticism.

  ‘‘It’s kind of an Iowa way.

  Most Iowans don’t see themselves or other Iowans running for president,’’ he said.

  ‘‘It’s the modesty that comes out in them.’’

  Longtime friend Campbell noted a similar undercurrent in Vilsack’s old Pennsylvania neighborhood.

  ‘‘There’s this notion that people have that, ‘Well, if I know somebody, then he realistically can’t be a candidate for president because I know him and real candidates for president come from someplace else,’ and you have to get past that,’’ he said.

  ‘‘People are thrilled, and the support for him is very strong,’’ Campbell added.

  ‘‘Anyone who knows him is just delighted that he is a candidate because they knew him back when you were who you were and there was no concealing it. They know that he’s the real deal."