PROFILE: Transplanted Jack Hatch says he's ready to lead

A look inside the 2014 governor's race

Election, Government Rotator,
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June 13, 2014 | 9:40 pm

The Men Who Would Be Governor

Republican Terry Branstad and Democrat Jack Hatch are vying as the major-party candidates in November to serve for the next four years as Iowa's governor – a post that Branstad currently holds. This is the first of two profiles that will run this Sunday and on Sunday, June 22, designed to give readers a snapshot of them before the onslaught of campaign ads creates contrasting pictures. A note to readers, Hatch shaved his mustache after the interviews were conducted; Branstad has not.

DES MOINES — Mark Twain once wrote a book about a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court in 1889.

Now, 125 years later, Democratic state Sen. Jack Hatch is hoping to write a chapter in Iowa history books about a transplanted Connecticut Yankee in the Terrace Hill governor's mansion in Des Moines by defeating five-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad in the state's election for governor this November.

Hatch, 64, a Connecticut-born son of a banker and elementary school teacher, came to Iowa as a college student at Drake University in the late 1960s, fell in love with the state and never left.

The three-term state senator is giving up his District 33 seat to run for governor in the November general election.

“I got here because my mother wanted me to go to a Midwestern school,” said Hatch, who had a middle-class upbringing in a suburb near Hartford where he had a newspaper route, did volunteer work, ran track and served as student body president of his senior class in high school.

His mother identified early on that her son had dyslexia, a learning disorder that slowed his ability to learn to read. With the constant help of his parents and hard work, he recalled, he was able to overcome it.

So much so, he said, that when he graduated from Drake University in Des Moines with majors in political science and public administration there was an asterisk beside his name in the program which caught his mother's eye. She assumed it carried a negative connotation but was surprised to learn it signified he was the outstanding student of the class.

“She couldn't believe it,” Hatch said. “She had a hard time reconciling what I did at Drake knowing the struggle that I had as a kid. I'm a product of what early childhood (learning) means to a kid.”

EARLY YEARS

Contributed photo of Sen. Jack Hatch and his family.

While growing up in a town of fewer than 10,000, Hatch described his early life in Farmington as more like a rural setting and a scene out of an “Ozzie and Harriet” episode − with their house situated next to a hay field and farmstead with a septic tank, private well and no sidewalks. Streetlights were added later.

“It was a very welcoming place,” he recalled.

During his fourth-grade year in school, Hatch came down with rheumatic fever and was hospitalized for about a month. After that, he was out of school for four months for bed rest and penicillin treatments, while he received tutoring to help him keep up with his studies.

Hatch's dad was a World War II captain who earned the bronze star. Both his parents were Republicans and Hatch remembers having “I like Ike” buttons.

However, he said, after the assassination of President Kennedy, Hatch said he was struck by Robert Kennedy's message and “it became clear to me that the Kennedys were pretty special to my generation.”

He joined a Revitalization volunteer program helping in poor, inner-city neighborhoods of Hartford and created a chapter when he arrived at Drake.

TRANSPLANTING TO IOWA

In Iowa, Hatch was opposed to the Vietnam War, but he said he channeled his activism into constructive efforts as student body president at Drake and via his participation in the largest student volunteer program in the Midwest that organized a hunger hike, provided tutoring and mental-health counseling while working with neighborhood groups and churches.

As part of that, he said he had his picture taken with then-Iowa Republican Gov. Robert Ray.

“That was my first introduction to politics in Iowa,” he said.

During his early years in Iowa, Hatch said he got married, earned a master's degree in public administration from Drake and landed several jobs working with disaster relief and city administration before establishing Hatch & Associates in 1979. During that time, his first marriage ended.

Hatch, a private developer with housing projects in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, said his interest in politics first brought him to the Statehouse, where he served as a state representative from 1985 to 1993, leading the charge on a groundwater protection act, human services issues, affordable housing and education.

Dubuque Democrat Pam Jochum − who served with Hatch in the Iowa House and now in the Iowa Senate where she is the chamber's presiding officer and Hatch co-chairs the health and humans services budget panel − said Hatch “never forget where he came from” in championing the cause of people who are less fortunate or struggling to get ahead.”

Hatch worked as state director for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, from 1993 to 1995, aiding in recovery efforts following the devastating flood of 1993. He made an ill-fated bid for Congress in 1996 but was pushed aside when popular Des Moines TV weather personality Connie McBurney joined the race with name identification off the charts.

“I was more impetuous in my run then,” he recalls. “I didn't think it through. I didn't have the financial base that I have now and it was much more arduous than I thought. I lost, and that was probably a good thing,” he said, because he learned from that experience.

During the time Hatch worked for his office, Harkin said, he saw traits that will serve Hatch well if he is elected governor in November.

“He just innately understood that the first requirement for being a good public official is that you have to really care about people, about their lives, what they go through in their daily lives and it has to be a part of what you care very deeply about,” Harkin recalled. “He cared very deeply about constituent service and making sure that we responded to our constituents' requests and helped them to solve problems.”

“I knew him before that when he was in the State Legislature,” the U.S. senator said of Hatch. “He was always very, very focused on making sure that people who had tough lives had some support for education, housing in their communities, schools, jobs, things like that where government really can do some good. That's where Jack Hatch kind of focuses his attention. He is a people person and as governor he would continue to do that.”

 

GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS

During that period of his life, Hatch was introduced by a mutual friend who owned a sundry in the Sherman Hill neighborhood near Drake to a woman who owned an interior design business and had a daughter from a previous marriage.

The two struck up a friendship and eventually he and Sonja Roberts married in 1986 at Hoyt Sherman Place. Hatch remembers awkwardly proposing to her at his parents' home but years later re-enacted the request complete with a diamond ring be bought in India when the two were on vacation at the Taj Mahal.

Contributed photo of Sen. Jack Hatch's wedding.

“He was a good dad,” said Roberts, who recalled Hatch being her daughter's soccer coach and forging a strong family unit. “He is truly a family man. He has been so good to his parents, he's been so good to his siblings,” added Roberts, who had a daughter with Hatch, “he has been so good to me and our family and my parents. I think that that would be one of his best qualities. He's so thoughtful.”

Together, Hatch and Roberts began tackling “fixer-upper” renovations of older homes in the 15-block Sherman Hill historic area that had fallen into disrepair in a “distressed” neighborhood that increasingly was beset with problems due to drugs, prostitution or other seedy activities.

Roberts recalls seeing a blue van trolling the neighborhood that appeared to be engaged in prostitution activity and following it until the occupants stopped, at which time she boldly approached the driver and said “I just wanted to tell you that our neighborhood does not appreciate your type of entrepreneurship.”

“The response was, well, I can't repeat it. But I never saw them in the neighborhood again,” said Roberts, who joked that her friends dubbed her “the sheriff of Sherman Hill” after the incident. “We're a close-knit neighborhood and you see that sort of thing and it makes you crazy and so you get crazy.”

The restoration of houses expanded into construction of affordable rental projects and the pair now operate a successful development business that employs 11 people.

“I build them and she has to repair them and manage them. So we're a team,” Hatch said. “We've been partners in marriage and partners in business.”

Roberts said Hatch's experience as a private developer will aid him in building a new administration from the ground up and bringing a new excitement to the governor's office if he succeeds in unseating Branstad.

“He's been in politics for many years but he's also had a private life and successes as a businessman. That translates into looking at things differently, approaching things differently. I think that that's a real asset for him,” his wife and business partner said.

Roberts said her husband only started talking about a run for governor in the last 18 months or so and it was an idea she had to acclimate herself to because it meant shifting gears from a life of slowing down and heading toward retirement to one that likely will jump into the fast lane of Iowa politics. After some consideration, she said she's on board and excited about the possibilities.

“You have that dream, you have something like that in the back of your mind, but in politics all the stars have to align and if they don't align then any dream that you might have had isn't a dream anymore,” she said. Roberts said she believes the stars have aligned for her husband in 2014.

IN NOVEMBER

As affordable and accessible health care moved to the forefront of American politics, Hatch took a lead role in Iowa as the most-vocal proponent of expanded health insurance coverage for children and expanding access to Medicaid for more needy Iowans and working families.

He clashed with Branstad numerous times over Iowa's approach to government's role in meeting Iowa's health care challenges until he reached a point where he believed new leadership was needed to meet the state's future needs in that and a number of other areas.

“His (Branstad's) opposition to the ACA (Affordable Care Act) and Medicaid expansion drove me to think (that) I just can't stay in the Senate if he's governor,” Hatch said. “This is not fun. I don't want to battle doing these things.

“It gets uninspiring to be here, knowing that I've got one arm tied behind my back.”

Some see the ACA as being a liability for Democratic candidates heading into a tough midterm election cycle. But Hatch and Harkin don't see it that way, given that more Iowans are receiving coverage, children can stay on their coverage until age 26, and people understand they can't be cut off due to pre-existing conditions or if they become seriously ill.

As to whether Republicans will try to paint Hatch as an outsider who is too liberal for Iowa in the fall campaign, Harkin said opponents tried that with him and found out Iowans are not interested in labels but rather what ideas a candidate can offer to better the future for them and their children.

Others see Branstad as unbeatable, with is 19-0 election success rate. But Harkin, who is retiring next January after seven terms in the U.S. Senate, said that, “I think that (in) every race you've got to go out and tell people why you will be better at this job in the future. Not so much about what you've done in the past, people don't vote for the past − they vote for the future.”

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