The 44th Lt. Gov of Iowa was a moderate Republican serving under Gov. Terry Branstad who ran in 1990 and served two terms.
Corning, Avenson legacy transcends their titles
Joy Corning’s which she wrote herself, didn’t even mention her service as a state senator and lieutenant governor. Her daughters added those political achievements in a postscript.
Don Avenson may have been best known to Iowans as the former Democratic speaker of the Iowa House and a former candidate for governor. But the comment I saw most often about him on social media was “father figure.”
Both of these Iowa political icons will be remembered far less for their political accomplishments than for their characters and their strong interest in and empathy for others.
Corning, who died Saturday, focused in her last public words on her family and a few of the causes that she cared about: Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Plymouth Church, University of Northern Iowa, and the Des Moines Symphony.
My closest contact with Corning came after she had left the lieutenant governor’s office in 1999. She worked to elect more women to public office and encouraged many to run. She cared about keeping politics out of the judiciary and worked to defend Iowa’s judicial nominating system. She was marginalized by the Republican Party for her support of gay marriage and abortion rights, which made her one of the nearly extinct breed of GOP moderates.
On many of those issues, she lost more battles than she won, but I never heard one discouraged word from her. She was unfailingly gracious but never stuffy. She modeled civility in politics and tried to help political opposites find common goals.
Avenson served as speaker of the Iowa House from 1983-1990, through the tumultuous farm crisis. His political accomplishments were long-lasting, including Iowa’s groundwater protection law and telecommunications systems. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990 against Gov. Terry Branstad. After Avenson’s unexpected death on Friday, Branstad expressed his regard for Avenson’s character in a statement, noting: “Even though we sometimes disagreed on policies, I knew that I could always rely on his word.”
After Branstad left office in 1999, Avenson served as a reference for him when he applied for the job of president of Des Moines University, according to Jerry Fitzgerald, one of Avenson’s closest friends and a fellow lobbyist. “They had a great deal of respect for each other,” Fitzgerald said.
I don’t have to tell you how rare that is in today’s politics.
Fitzgerald regularly traveled with Avenson and was on a road trip with him when the former speaker suffered a fatal heart attack. We reminisced on the phone about Avenson’s love of hunting and the outdoors, and his fascination with the history and travels of Lewis and Clark. They didn’t talk much about politics during their trips, he said.
Fitzgerald said his two brothers, his only remaining family, had passed away within a month of each other in 2011. “Don, he called me and said, ‘You have one brother left,’” Fitzgerald said, his voice breaking. “We saw each other as brothers.”
Avenson was often described as larger-than-life. He was a big man in stature and personality, known for his humor and his pragmatic approach to problem-solving. But those who knew him best also remember his mentorship of young lawmakers, legislative staff and lobbyists. “He believed in me” was a common theme.
The loss of two longtime and respected public servants came on the heels of the tragic news that Tom and Christie Vilsack had lost their 6-year-old granddaughter last week after a sudden illness. Ella was the daughter of Jess and Kate Vilsack. The news was met with shock and an outpouring of grief from Iowans across the state.
As we honor the lives of these Iowans and comfort those sorrowing for their loss, let us remember that politics is not primarily about titles or power. It’s not about money. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about people. And no, I’m not going to launch into a sappy Barbra Streisand song about people who need people.
What I will do is pass along the simple request that Corning’s daughters made on her behalf:
“In our mother’s memory, please hug a child, help someone in need, or volunteer your time to a cause for which you are passionate. And remember to vote.
“Most of all, mom would like you to be kind to one another.”
Kathie Obradovich is the Register’s political columnist. Contact: [email protected] Twitter:
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