In this episode of Uncommon Convos, Dennis VanDerGinst talks with Robby & Kimi Fender. Robby is the CEO of Yoli and is a co founder along with his wife Kimi.
On this episode of Uncommon Convos Dennis talks with former US Congressmen for the 1st District of Iowa, Bruce Braley. He was a successful trial lawyer in Iowa for 20 years. After serving in congress for 8 years he ran for the US Senate. In 2015 he returned to is roots as a trial lawyers in Denver Colorado. Bruce talks about his life and how he came to be a lawyer as well as his exciting path to congress and some of his most memorable stories.
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Full Episode Transcript
Let’s talk politics, law, and life. Stick around for a conversation with someone who knows a lot about all of those topics. Bruce Braley. My next guest on Uncommon Convos. Hi, I’m Dennis VanDerGinst. Join me in a series of entertaining and interesting conversations with entertaining and interesting people. We’ll explore various aspects of the human experience, and what makes life more fun. This is Uncommon Convos. Welcome to Uncommon Convos. I’m your host, Dennis VanDerGinst. And before I introduce our guest today, I want to encourage you all to subscribe to, rate and review Uncommon Convos on your favorite podcast platform. It’s completely painless, quick, easy, and free. And when you subscribe, you’ll automatically be alerted when new episodes are available. Also, don’t forget, you can learn more about Uncommon Convos, leave comments, suggestions, and watch the video version of our episode simply by visiting UncommonConvos.com. Lastly, I want to thank our sponsor, VanDerGinst Law. If you’re injured on the job or due to the wrongdoing of another, VanDerGinst Law would be honored to help. Simply go to vlaw.com for more information. Now, my next guest is someone I’ve known and admired for about 15 years. He was a successful trial lawyer in Iowa for 23 years and served as president of the Iowa Association for Justice before deciding to run for the US. House of Representatives in 2006. Is that right? 2006? Wow.
Seems like a long time ago.
It does. He won that election and served as Congressman for the First District in Iowa for eight years, and in 2014 decided to run for United States Senate. Hampered by President Obama’s sagging popularity in Iowa at that time and a couple of campaign hiccups, he lost that race to now Senator Joni Ernst. In 2015, he returned to his roots as a successful trial lawyer, now in Denver with the firm of Leventhal, Puga, is that Puga? And Braley, focusing his attention on personal injury, wrongful death, medical malpractice, product liability, and trucking cases. It is my pleasure to welcome Bruce Braley to the program. Bruce, thank you so much for joining me.
It’s always good to spend time with you, Dennis.
Well, speaking of, I saw you at the Iowa Association for Justice convention a couple of weeks ago, but we didn’t get a lot of time to talk. And I suspect that every time you come to one of those conventions, it’s old home week. And seeing so many trial lawyers from your home state and from the association you once led, I think your time gets eaten up pretty quickly.
That’s accurately described every time that I come back to the convention. But it’s always so wonderful to see old friends who you’ve known a long time, who mentored you, inspired you, and are still out there doing the important work of representing people in important cases that are hopefully making Iowa and the country a better and safer place.
Right. And I obviously want to spend a lot of time talking about that. But what I like to do when talking to someone who’s obviously carved out a good deal of success in their chosen profession or career, like people to get some understanding of how they got there, beginning with the fact that you grew up in Iowa. And I know a little bit about your background growing up, but I’d like to, from your perspective, have some indication as to what it was about your upbringing that you think framed your interests and your ambitions. And what was it about that, I guess, set you on that trajectory that you followed?
Well, I had a classic baby boomer experience growing up in a small town called Brooklyn, Iowa, which is about halfway between Des Moines and Iowa City, right off of Interstate 80. But when I was born, there was no Interstate 80. My dad managed a grain elevator. My mom was an elementary school teacher. I had two brothers and a sister, and we lived an idyllic lifestyle. My mom’s parents lived about 5 miles out in the country on a farm. My dad’s parents lived about 20 miles away on a farm near Montezuma, and we saw them, and we grew up next door to our cousins. The seven of us were like one large family. We played sports in our backyard all the time. I got my first job delivering the Des Moines Tribune and the Des Moines Register when I was in second grade. Think about that. It’s hard to imagine second graders delivering newspapers. It was a business. It taught me the fundamentals of math because I’d have to calculate how many weeks a prescription or a subscription to that paper would cost and collect on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. I had a ton of jobs growing up. I sold Christmas cards door to door, I mowed yards, I bailed hay, worked on farms, did landscaping, mowing, painting. I got a chauffeur’s license. I drove trucks, worked construction. I think by the time I graduated from law school, I’d worked 22 different jobs. And that was the value of hard work that my parents instilled in me.
And there was a really significant event that happened when I was two. My dad was taking a lid to the top of a grain elevator in Brooklyn. He lost his grip, and he fell over 20ft. His leg was crushed. He nearly died. He was laid up about a year. And if it hadn’t been for the safety net of worker’s compensation, my family would have not been able to survive because my mom had left her teaching job, was taking care of four kids under the age of six with a laid up husband. And that’s why I was honored to start a scholarship fund in my dad’s name to help injured workers and their families continue their education or get additional life skill training after they’ve had a significant workplace injury.
Was it that event that motivated you to go on to college and law school, or were there a series of other events that had some influence there?
Well, I talk about this because this is how random events in life can shape what you’re doing. I remember in high school, I applied for a job, a summer job, working for the local telephone company, doing lineman assistant job. And I didn’t get that job. One of my classmates got it. He ended up going on and working in that field. And I think about how not getting that job changed my life because it gave me a different career path. I ended up going to Iowa State, and based on my high school experience, I thought I was going to be an engineer. And then it didn’t take long for me to figure out that was not going to be the right career choice for me. And so I went into journalism because I really enjoyed journalism, was right after Watergate, which was a very influential event in my life. And then I ended up meeting a friend, and one day I saw him looking at this huge book, and I said, what are you doing? He said he was studying for the law school admissions test. I said, what’s that? And he told me he was the top rated engineering student at Iowa State at the time. And I said to him, Why do you want to go to law school? And he told me, Because I don’t want to be an engineer all my life. And that was the light bulb that turned off. I went to student counseling, took some vocational tests, saw that this might be a good career path for me, and then really had to bear down to try to improve my grades from what they were in engineering so that I could hopefully get into law school.
Yeah, it’s funny, and I hear this from so many attorneys, where all it takes is a small series of events to kind of set you on a different course than what you anticipated. Same was true of me. You mentioned going to Iowa State for undergrad, and you went to Iowa, the University of Iowa, for law school. So that makes you one of those novelties in Iowa where you’ve gone to these two intrastate rivalries. So when it comes to sports, who are you rooting for?
Four minus three makes me a Cyclone.
Well, there you go. At least that was not the answer you would expect a politician to give. So you gave us a real answer instead of, well, you know, it just it depends.
I grew up close to Iowa City. I went to a lot of Iowa Hawkeye football and basketball games when I was in high school, and it was affordable to do that. But then when I went to Iowa State, I actually ended up walking on the football team the spring of my freshman year, and then I ended up walking off. But that was a really good experience for me because I met some really talented athletes who I later knew better. I ended up attending bar for four years at a pizza place, and a lot of those athletes ended up coming in. But one of the things I learned from my bartending experience is how to talk to people. And more importantly, and you will appreciate this more than anyone, is how important it is to be a good listener, to do what we’re doing now. And more importantly, when I ran for office, it was one of the most valuable job skills any elected official can have, is learning how to listen to people, share their problems with you.
Well, and I want to certainly talk about running for elected office, but there was a long period of time there when you were focused on your law career before becoming a congressman. And so after law school, what was your journey relative to your law career? For instance, when I first started practicing, I went to a firm that focused almost exclusively on criminal defense, which was great. It was a great experience. A lot of trial experience. Did that for a while, then did insurance defense for about a year, and then did a general practice for about a year before focusing on what I’ve done and loved ever since, which is what we share mostly plaintiffs trial work. So was your experience similar? Did you jump right into trial work, or how did that work for you?
My experience, again, was shaped by life events. So when I went to law school, I didn’t know what lawyers did. I didn’t know any lawyers. I had some vague idea I might end up doing some type of criminal work, but I wasn’t sure. In my first year of law school, my dad and his parents both all died in a three month period. And I ended up missing my grandfather’s funeral to take my first law school final. And that is a decision I have always regretted. I drove to Montezuma for the wake the night before, and all the way there, I regretted I wasn’t studying and saw my dad and my family. And then I drove back to Iowa City, and all the way back, I regretted that I wasn’t staying. I took the test. I did terribly on it. And that whole first semester was influenced by that. Then in March of my second semester, my dad died. And after all this, I was really close to just letting go of law school. And it was my mom who said, the worst thing you could do to honor your father’s memory is to give up on your dream. And I’ll never forget that. And she basically kicked me out of her house, sent me back to law school. And the thing that really made a difference is I got a job clerking at a law firm in Iowa City, and Jay Hanahan, who was the lead partner took me under his wing, gave me a chance to learn what real lawyers do. And all that abstract stuff we were learning in law school finally started to make sense to me. But like you, Dennis, I just needed a job. And the guy that had been my dad’s boss, he ended up selling insurance after his injury said to me, if you get your insurance license, I’ll let you get the commissions on the renewals of your dad’s policies. So I did. I got an insurance license, and that led me to getting a job in Waterloo, Iowa, with a firm that did predominantly insurance defense work. Did that for three years. I learned a lot about how insurance companies work, and then I had that case where I decided, I can’t do this anymore. And I started doing plaintiffs injury work and been doing it ever since.
What was that case that triggered that, “I’m done with this.” I’ve had that Ah Ha moment myself.
Yeah, I was asked to defend a landlord who owned a lot of apartment buildings and had received a lot of notices from the local utility. They were going to shut off his power if he didn’t pay his past due bills. I mean, a lot of notices. And a young college student at the University of Northern Iowa came home to her apartment and the hallway was dark because the power had been shut off. And she was brutally attacked and raped right outside of her apartment. And I ended up settling that case for a very small amount. And I went home that night and I told my wife, Carolyn, I’m not doing this anymore. And I went in the next day and I told my partners, and to their credit, they completely supported my decision, and I think it worked out well for all of us.
Now, when you made that decision, did you just convert to doing plaintiffs work in that office or did you go off on your own or to another office?
No, we already had a plaintiff’s practice in addition to the business practice and the defense practice. And so what I did is just moved in and kind of expanded that practice, and then it became a bigger and bigger part of the firm the longer I was there, right up until when I left.
Right. And in fact, if I remember correctly, for 23 years, you engaged in practice before running for office, and near the end of that 23 years, I believe, I think you told me this when we met a couple of weeks ago. That’s when you served as president of IAJ, the Iowa Association for Justice. And it was shortly after that, I think you told me you were kind of corralled and encouraged to run for office. Is that right?
It was actually my last day as president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers, and they were having a reception, and I was really excited because I was going to get my life back and no longer have this important leadership role. And a bunch of friends started coming up and talking to me about this, and it wasn’t something I had even seriously considered up to that point. And they were very persuasive. And I ended up talking to my wife about it. I think we were out at dinner around our anniversary, and I remember she dropped her fork when I told her I was thinking about this. But I remember I got some really good advice from Congressman Dave Nagle. He said, one of things the you need to do is you need to write a list of pros and cons. And he goes, I guarantee you the cons column is going to be a lot longer, but you need at least think through all these things if you really are serious about doing this. And he was absolutely right. The cons list was much longer. I had kids in school. My wife was teaching. I was right at the height of my legal career. And yet it was just something I felt very strongly about it and in the end, I think Carolyn actually was pushing me to do it more than I was. I knew what a huge, disruptive force that would be in our family life, if I won.
Well, so what was it about the idea of serving in that fashion that, in your mind, put you over the hump? Besides Carolyn being supportive of the idea, what was it you thought you could do in that role that you weren’t already doing?
Well, as you recall, that was the last two years of President George W. Bush’s presidency. And I think the war in Iraq was something that had galvanized me and a lot of people. They were not happy with the direction the country was going in. There were a lot of economic issues and other important things going on. Minimum wage hadn’t been raised in years. If you remember, that was during the time period when the Republicans who controlled the House and the Senate were talking about privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and the president was talking about it, and there were a lot of these fundamental safety nets that were at risk. And I just decided it was time for me to try to add my voice to that conversation, use the skills I developed as a trial lawyer, and instead of representing a number of clients, to have the opportunity to potentially represent 700,000 people in the First District of Iowa and be their voice. And that’s what happened.
And obviously, you ran. You won the seat. And I’ve spoken with you before about the fact that I’ve toyed with the idea myself. Fortunately, maybe fortunately, my con list was probably a lot longer. So I have not gone that route. But I’ve often wondered, okay, so the first day in the office, let’s say the day you take the oath of office, what was that like? Are you just completely inspired, in awe, intimidated, proud? I could just imagine if this is something that you’ve been working for and campaigning for, and then there you are. What’s that feeling like?
Well, it was an incredibly exciting day because my family was all there to share it. And we started off with Mass at a Catholic church on Capitol Hill because Nancy Pelosi was being sworn in as speaker that day. She is a very devout Catholic, and that was an important thing for her to do as part of her first day as speaker of the House. And then there were a lot of activities going on before the formal swearing in on the House floor. We went into one of the reception rooms right off the House chamber. Absolutely spectacular setting. And my family and I got our picture taken with my hand on the Bible that I had gotten at First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, Iowa as a young kid. And my mom was there, my wife and my kids were there. It was a very humbling and emotional culmination of winning that seat. But then you go out on the House floor and you’re one of 435 people being sworn in. There were a lot of receptions. What I remember is very graciously the Iowa delegation hosted a reception for Dave Loebsack and I because we’d both just been elected, and the Republicans and Democrats all came together. There were a lot of people in town. And because the Speaker was committed to getting to work day one, I’m at that reception with my family when we get notice there are votes on the House floor. And I was looking forward to having fun with my family at this Iowa reception. Instead, Tom Latham and I had to get in a car together to go back to the floor, and I told my family I’d see them back at my apartment. But people talk about drinking through a fire hose. That’s what the first day was like. Incredibly emotionally rewarding, but a lot of stuff happening.
You mentioned your apartment, and over the years I’ve been fascinated by the situations and scenarios that I’ve heard about, read about or spoken to people about with reference to their living arrangements in DC. If they are serving as a Congressperson or in the Senate. Did you share an apartment with anyone?
Well, I did, but I started out I had no idea where I was going to live. And so I got a one bedroom apartment that was walkable because I never had a car when I was in DC. They have great public transportation. So I had rented this apartment, and it was one of these that had just recently been updated, so it seemed like it was a good place. And then the first summer I was there, the air conditioning went out. And if you’ve ever been in DC in the summer, that there were times when my apartment was 98 degrees when I’d get home in the summertime, and I kept telling the landlord that they needed to do something about the air conditioning, and it never got fixed. So it got to the point, I just broke my lease, and I did actually sleep in my office as I was trying to figure out what was going to happen. And then one of my friends, who now is one of my best friends, Ed Perlmutter from Colorado, said, why don’t you come crash at our place? We’ve got a spare room. There’s nothing in it right now. So I went there. I ended up moving in with Ed and Steve Kagan, who represented Appleton, Wisconsin. And for the next seven years, Ed and I shared a townhouse with Steve, and then he lost his race. And then Joe Courtney from Connecticut became our third roommate. And as crazy as it sounds, at that age in your life, you’re not looking for a roommate. But when you’re all alone in a place like Washington, DC. It really helped to have people to talk to.
When you come home from a hard day and just people who are going through the normal life experiences with their families even though they’re in DC for four or five days a week.
Sure. Yeah. I always found that really fascinating. So before this, I think you mentioned you had no legislative experience. There’s got to be a point in time. You mentioned that from day one you’ve got votes that you’re getting called to. Was there a point where you just had this, “Oh, shit” moment where this is real. I can’t believe that this is actually occurring. Did that sink in to you immediately that first day, or did it take a while for you to absorb and realize, wow, this is what I am actually doing now?
Well, it’s interesting because getting to work in the United States Capital is one of the greatest honors I can think of that anybody could have. It is such an amazing, awe inspiring place. I can’t tell you how many times we would have late votes, Dennis. And I’d be walking back to my place, maybe with my roommates, maybe with some other people just leaving the floor. And inevitably, somebody would turn around and you’d see that Capitol lit up at night against the night sky and somebody would say, can you believe we get to work here?
Because that’s what a privilege it was. But I think one of the things that was significant is the first day I’m there for orientation, I opened The Washington Post, and there’s a picture of Henry Waxman, and underneath the picture said, The Most Feared Man in Congress because he was the incoming chair of the Oversight Committee. And with all the things that have been going on, we knew there was going to be a lot of oversight hearings. And I told my staff, I want to serve on that committee, and I got to sit there and question all of the big players in the Bush administration. We did the Pat Tillman hearing on the friendly fire cover up involving the army in Afghanistan. We did the baseball steroid hearing, where I got to cross examine Roger Clemens and prove that his explanation for what he was doing made absolutely no sense. The day that I was moving into the townhouse with my two roommates, I’m over moving stuff in, and I get a call from my staff saying that I was next up and Condoleezza Rice was the witness. I literally jumped in the shower, ran back to the hearing room, sat down, and they said, Mr. Braley, and you start questioning. It’s a heady experience because these are important people, important events, and the people you represent are impacted by the things going on.
And I always appreciate, whenever I’m watching hearings in DC, whatever the reason is, when I’m seeing someone who obviously has a legal background doing the questioning, it makes so much more sense. So I can imagine with your prowess, that you did a terrific job at those hearings, and I want to ask you about some of your proudest accomplishments while you were in the office. But before I do that, one question I have, because as an attorney, and especially after having practiced 23 years and attaining a certain level of success, it’s pretty apparent that you take a salary reduction when you run for office. And I know there are a variety of ethics rules that apply, the members of the House and the Senate regarding restrictions on outside employment and outside earned income, and in particular, ownership of a law firm, which I believe is a no no. At that point, did you have to sell any shares in your firm, or how does that work?
Well, I had reached an understanding with my law firm in terms of my compensation during the two years I was running for Congress. I actually tried two jury trials the year I got elected to Congress, and people in Congress could not believe that. But I had reached an understanding when I got elected. I wrapped up my practice. I had no more financial interest as of the December 31 of 2005. And then I did. It is a substantial pay cut for some people, it was for me. And at the time, there was an understanding that there was a cost of living adjustment that was going to take place. And quite frankly, that was one of the things that I considered in deciding to run. And then shortly after I got elected, due to political pressure, there were votes to keep that pay increase from going into play. So unlike what happened with judges who used to be tied to that same congressional pay rate, the salary of members of Congress has not gone up significantly since I was elected in 2006. Even though the salary for federal judges has now been detached from the salaries for Congress. But you know what? I never complained about that. I knew going in that that was going to happen. But when you have to pay for living expenses in DC, you have a home back in Iowa. My kids were at the age where they were about to go to college. I mean, all those things, they do create stress. But the stress that you’re experiencing is so minor compared to a lot of the people you represent, that it’s not something you dwell on.
Right. So what are some of your proudest accomplishments while you were serving in the House?
I’d say number one has to be passing the Affordable Care Act. I had a nephew whose son was diagnosed with liver cancer when he was 18 months old, and they removed two thirds of his liver. And thank God he survived. But he continues to have issues now that he’s in high school. And at the time that happened, Dennis, his parents could never change jobs, because if they did, his treatment related to cancer would have been disqualified under his insurance because of pre existing conditions. So when we had hearings on this, and when I did 17 town hall meetings on the Affordable Care Act, I would take his picture with me and say, this isn’t some abstract policy. This affects real people like my nephew’s son, Tucker Wright. And I have a very memorable photograph of me on the House floor with that picture, talking about this. And so that was a big deal. I also worked really hard to pass the first bill in Congress, in the House that addressed the important issue of climate change. And even though there was a majority of Democrats in the Senate, the Senate never took that bill up. And I think Senator Kennedy’s untimely death had something to do with that. And so here we are, all these years later, the evidence, the powerful evidence of climate change and its impact on our lives gets stronger and stronger, and nothing has been done about it.
Yeah, well, I was going to ask, too, what maybe regrets you might have as far as your time in Congress. Not that it’s regretful that it hasn’t gone anywhere, but that’s certainly not your doing. But as far as anything that during your time in Congress, is there anything that you regret as far as votes? For instance, something you would change or an agenda you wish you had pushed harder or hadn’t participated in?
There are so many votes you take every day. There are votes that are designed to put you on records so they can use it as an attack ad against you. So I don’t regret the individual votes I took when I took them. I took them for the right reason, even if they were going to be harmful to me politically, because that’s how I viewed my job. One of the big myths is that people would come to town hall meetings and say, well, if the majority of your constituents want you to vote this way, will you agree to vote that way? And I would tell them, no, that’s not what I was elected to do. I don’t have the means to do a poll every time I take a vote on the House floor. You elected me to be your representative and make tough votes and be able to defend them. And if not, you have the right to vote me out of office.
So I think one of the things I deeply regret is that we were never able to pass legislation to overturn the Citizens United case that the Supreme Court decided, because in my mind, it is the single most harmful thing that has happened in American politics. It’s taken money out of transparent donations that have to be reported and allowed big moneyed interests who never have to identify themselves to radically influence elections in America. And I think it’s terrible for democracy.
Yeah. And I want to along those lines, I want to talk to you about another issue, but before I do, we’ve had opportunities to speak in the past, and I recall one time you were regaling my wife and I with some of the coolest or strangest experiences you had because of serving as a congressman. What were some of those stories that you think the audience might enjoy?
Well, I mean, one of the coolest things I got to do is ride on Air Force One with President Obama. He was coming to Cedar Rapids to do a campaign event. Congressman Dave Loebsack and I were both invited to ride. I don’t care how old you are, what your life experiences are. Riding on Air Force One was an amazing experience, and we got a tour. We got to see the president’s office and the family living quarters and was ironic, as a lot of the kitchen appliances were from the 1960s. Dennis, the kind you and I would recognize from growing up in the Midwest. But the highlight for me was they had a secure phone line, and the steward on the plane says, if you want to make a call to somebody, feel free to use the phone. So I called my wife, who was teaching high school in Waterloo, and I called her cell in the middle of school day thinking she wouldn’t answer. And to my surprise, she did, even though, it was probably a 202 area code. And I tell her where I am, and she’s kind of annoyed with me for interrupting her class, but then she puts her phone on speaker and tells her students where I am and who I’m with, and some of the students say, “Put Obama on!” Like I was just going to go get the President of The United States. But that was a really cool experience, one I’ll never forget. I think some of the experiences are memorable because of the moment and when we had terrible tornadoes and flooding in my district in 2008, my reaction was, I got to get back home. I went to Parkersburg, which had been destroyed by this terrible tornado, and I’m helping this family. I took my chainsaw with me and I’m helping them clear out their basement, and they’re looking for a box that has money in it. And a lot of this stuff vanished and was never seen again. And just their life savings was in that box and it was gone. Wow. And then about a week later, I’m in Waterloo, sandbagging in the floods with my son David, and we get called over to East Waterloo to do more sandbagging. And it was in my old neighborhood that I used to live in. And we’re walking through chest deep water to get to the place we’re going to sandbag. It’s getting dark out, and I’m standing next to this young kid without a shirt on, right next to this tiny house. And when we get done sandbagging, we go out in the streetlight and get a bottle of water. And he looks at his friend and he goes, is that Bruce Braley? His friend said yes. And he looked up at me and he goes, are you my congressman? I said yes. He goes, I can’t believe I’m sandbagging with Bruce Braley. And that moment meant everything to me because I randomly met this young boy, we were sandbagging his grandmother’s house. And just this simple act of connecting with another person in that capacity, I’ll never forget.
Yeah, no, absolutely. Which then brings me to the next question, which is, why leave that? Why in 2014, make the decision to run for Senate. And let me set the stage a little bit. Tom Harkin had indicated he was going to be vacating. And at that point you were in your fourth term, I believe.
So obviously well established in the House. I can understand, and in fact, I think, I and most people who were familiar with you and the situation felt that you had the inside track for that seat. But at the same time, you mentioned President Obama. At the same time, President Obama’s popularity had really tanked in Iowa. I don’t know if that was something that caused you any concern or eventually did, but it seems like it may have impacted what happened along with, in all fairness, a few campaign gaffes along the way. But what was it that prompted you to even decide to seek out that seat?
Well, it was something once I was elected to Congress, it was something that was always in the back of my mind. Senator Harkin and I actually had conversations about this in terms of his decision to retire, when he was going to retire. He and I had known each other for some time. He was a political mentor and a dear friend of mine. The fact that senators run every six years rather than every two years was a huge factor. The fact that senators get to vote on confirmation of judges was a huge thing to me, given my background. The chance to represent the entire state of Iowa, not just the Northeast section of Iowa. In a state where I’d grown up, I’d worked all over the state of Iowa. Love, Iowa. It would have been a great honor to be a senator from the state of Iowa. Having more influence over legislation than you do as one of 435 members of the House. All of those things were part of the decision making that went into deciding to run for the Senate.
Yeah. Now, do you think that President Obama’s lack of popularity at that point in time had a significant impact on the outcome?
That’s hard to say. I think Iowa was changing politically. You have to remember that two years earlier, president Obama had won Iowa by a significant margin. I was on stage with him the night before the election with one of my idols, Bruce Springsteen, President Obama and the First Lady, Michelle Obama. And all downtown Des Moines was on national television. It was an amazing experience. But then in two years, things were changing. In the, you know, the final two years of any president’s presidency, especially if they’re a two term president, it becomes very difficult because people get tired of presidents. It’s just a fact of life. I’d come in on a wave in 2006. I went out on a wave in 2014. But I think the moment in time that will always be memorable to me was when Michelle Obama came to Drake University to do an event for me, and I gave a great introduction, talking about one of the first meetings I had with her husband. She gets up, and she starts referring to me, and she keeps calling me Bruce Bailey. Bruce Bailey. Bruce Bailey. About nine times she said it. Finally, people in the in the crowd are screaming at her. It’s Braley. And, you know, to me, Dennis, that symbolizes the highs and lows of politics, and if you’re in it long enough, you’re going to go through that.
Sure, I think I know the answer, given conversations we’ve had in the past, but would you consider running for office again? And if so, under what circumstances? And in what kind of office?
I get asked this question a lot. I get asked this question a lot by people who want me to run for office. And the answer is, very simply, no. I enjoyed representing the First District for eight years. I have no regrets about my decision to run for the Senate. My life is happy. I have four grandkids now, three kids, and my life is, we’re in a very good place right now. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t put my wife and my family through it again.
I don’t blame you. What advice would you give to someone who was considering getting into politics and serving in office?
You have to really look deeply into your soul and ask yourself, why am I doing this? Who do I want to benefit? Who do I want to help? What do I want to get out of this experience? And what can I provide to the people I hope to represent? And you have to be willing to go out and listen and hear what’s on people’s mind, whether you agree with it or not. Because if you’re elected, you don’t just represent the people who voted for you, you represent everyone.
Right. Unless your name is Donald Trump.
What people forget, though, Dennis, is there’s a lot of stuff you do that is political, even the official stuff, you know, because there’s often partisan votes on bills. But to me, the most important job was the constituent service I provided to the people in my district. When there’s disasters in your district, I told my staff, our number one job is going to be helping these people get back on their feet and making sure that they get every benefit they’re entitled to as a tax paying member of this country. And sometimes just being there matters. One of the most rewarding parts of my job, and this is where my training as a trial lawyer came in handy, was visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed and Bethesda. Because when I walked into those rooms to see profoundly injured men and women, I knew I had to project confidence that I was there as a representative of their country to make sure they got the care they needed to get the best outcome possible. And I saw people who had profound brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputations. I had one of five quad amputees in the Iraq and Afghanistan war, and those turned into some of the closest personal relations I had while I was serving in Congress.
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I want to talk a little bit more about certain aspects of politics. And you serve, as we said, four terms, and that’s, you know, a healthy stretch of time. But by no means is it the lengthiest period of time we see served in the House or the Senate. So where do you fall on the topic of term limits?
I think that term limits are not something that is needed, because I think voters have the ability to limit the terms of elected officials if they choose to do so. It’s ironic that many of the same people in Iowa who are constantly calling for term limits continue to vote for Senator Grassley, which is their right, and just reelected him to the United States Senate. So to me, there is some value to having experience, having seniority on committees, and that can be beneficial to the district or the state that you represent. It’s not in the Constitution, so I don’t think it’s anything that could be put in place without a constitutional amendment, and that would be very difficult to accomplish.
As we know, the Republicans have recently taken back control of the House, so it would appear, and the Democrats seem to have retained control of the Senate. Prior to the midterms, there had been this talk of a red wave. You mentioned about you coming in on a wave and leaving on a wave. There was talk about a red wave, which doesn’t seem to have transpired. Why do you think that is?
Well, I think that there were some really significant events that happened in 2022 that may have impacted a potential red wave. I think the January 6 debacle, that was a direct assault on democracy and a direct assault on the integrity of Congress and the right to have your vote counted made people really sit back and think what is going on in this country. I think the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe versus Wade was another watershed moment. And I don’t know how either of these events affected the actual outcome of the Congressional elections, but I think that they were significant factors. The deciding factor in every election is people voting in the middle, even though all the talk is about the polarization on the left and right, at the end of the day, it’s those independent voters and Republicans and Democrats who change their votes from cycle to cycle that determine every election. And I think that those are some of the events that influenced the outcome of these elections.
Speaking of the polarization and those on the far left, far right getting all the attention, it appears as though and maybe you agree, maybe you don’t, but it appears as though Kevin McCarthy is going to be the speaker once again. And there’s been talk of the Republicans, some of those who I would assume are on the far edges that are wanting to begin a new investigation into Hunter Biden, talking about impeaching President Biden. Is that fair, or do you think that’s a witch hunt? And how will that impact Kevin McCarthy’s ability to get anything done?
Well, I lived through this with John Boehner when he got, he became speaker during the rise of the Tea Party. And what happened is he had a very difficult time controlling his significant majority because he was constantly under attack from inside his conference. And I think the margins that Kevin McCarthy is going to be working with in the House are even slimmer. I think that the attacks from the far right within his conference are going to be much stronger than they were against John Boehner. And I think Kevin McCarthy is going to have a very difficult time herding cats in the right direction. I think that’s inevitable.
Well, one of the other issues that seems to be occurring, first of all, former President Trump has been released from Twitter purgatory, I guess, and Musk has indicated that he now has full access again, and he has announced his intention to run for reelection. Well, first of all, what do you think his chances are and how does that impact the Republican Party? It seemed that the Republican Party was Trump’s Party, and then he’s been blamed, right or wrong, for a lot of the losses along the way, and it seems like he’s become a more divisive figure within the Republican Party than perhaps even nationally. What do you think his chances are? Do you think he’d be looking at a running as an independent or the third party candidate? Is he going to hurt or help the Republican Party?
I think that this is still Trump’s Party. I think Donald Trump controls the Republican Party in the United States. He controls the candidates who run and the candidates who fear his Twitter feeds, and that’s going to grow now that he’s back on Twitter. I talked to a lot of Republicans who think that is the absolute worst thing for their chance of retaking the White House in 2024. I talk to a lot of Democrats who think their best chance of keeping the White House is if Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket. But I won’t determine that. That’s going to be determined by this long nominating process. And my guess is Ron DeSantis is going to be a part of that conversation, that there are going to be others in the Republican Party who will want to make their voice be part of that conversation. So I think it’s going to be very fascinating to watch that unfold over the next two years.
Yeah, for sure. Well, let’s leave the politics alone for a bit and revisit law, because that’s what you did after the Senate bid. You went back to practicing law, but instead of Iowa, you moved to Denver. What was it that prompted that move?
I had known my current law partner, Jim Levanthal, long before I ever ran for Congress. He had told me while I was in Congress that if I ever decided to get out of politics and elected work, that he would like to talk to me about coming to work for him. And Jim had been a mentor of mine. Carolyn and I had spent a lot of time in Colorado with our kids camping when we were younger, and after going through what we did in the Senate race, we were looking for a new start. And I was looking at possibly working in DC, doing public policy work, when I got this call from Jim. And I came out and sat in the front conference room and looked out the window at the snow capped front range, and I thought this would be a good place to start over again as a trial lawyer. I still have my license in Iowa. I have probably eight to ten cases that I’m working on in Iowa right now. My family pretty much lives back there, so we feel like we’ve got the best of all worlds. I spend a lot of time here. I spent a lot of time in Iowa, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of it.
Well, you and I share this passion for helping the people who have been wronged and injured, and we’ve both done it for quite a while. And I know that a lot of our colleagues and other folks our age are either retiring or slowing down or talking about retirement. What is it that keeps you motivated?
What keeps me motivated is probably the same thing that keeps you motivated, and that’s having the opportunity to improve somebody’s life and give them hope. And I’ll just give you one example. I recently settled a birth trauma case for a client in Colorado Springs. And we were doing mediation, and the mom was participating by Zoom in mediation, and it was a lot of back and forth, very stressful. The future of her life was going to be dependent on the outcome of mediation. We finally got the case settled, it was a great settlement, and the next thing I see on my zoom screen is her holding her profoundly disabled son, who’s now about seven, and snuggling with him, and just that feeling of satisfaction in knowing you played a small part in changing his life for the rest of his life. That’s why we do what we do.
Yeah. And I was just going to ask you what some of your proudest accomplishments in law were, and that is exactly the type of thing that keeps me motivated, and I know keeps you motivated. A lot of listeners, I’m sure, have heard the term tort reform, and as a former congressman and as a trial lawyer, you’re in this unique position to comment on tort reform, I think, and I’d like you to explain to the listeners what tort reform is in general, and what kind of dangers it poses.
Yeah. Tort reform is when elected officials try to substitute their judgment for the people who elected them to office, who show up on jury duty and hear the facts and hear the law, and actually decide these cases based on what is presented at trial. And I got booed on the floor of the house of representatives at about 11:00 at night when I was giving the closing argument for the affordable care act. And tort reform was the last motion introduced by the republicans. And because of my background, the leadership asked me to come back and respond, and I did. I talked about this at all my town hall meetings. If, what tort reform really is, is saying, I don’t trust the people who elected me to do the right thing after they’ve heard the evidence and been instructed on the law to do the right thing and give these parties justice. Plaintiffs and defendants.
I have always hated the fact that we who represent those parties have allowed the term to be framed tort reform, because it sounds like it’s a good thing to people who are not aware of the details. It’s one that, unfortunately, we’ve had to live with, but it’s a non ending fight on a state by state basis. We see it come up with respect to caps in different types of cases and other measures that are introduced to try to curtail the rights of those parties who have been wronged. And like you said, Bruce, taking it out of the hands of the jury, which just makes no sense. So I asked you before what advice you would give to someone who is considering politics. What about to someone who was considering a career in law? Are there mentors that you looked to and or still do look at with respect to the choices that you’ve made and make in your career? People that you would encourage other folks to look to, books that they should read? What would you say to someone who is considering that career path?
I think the most important advice is to talk to people who are practicing law and ask them that question, why are you still doing this? What motivates you to want to do this work and listen to what they tell you? I have mentored a lot of young lawyers, I’ve mentored a lot of congressional staffers, and I’ve told them that there are twelve really important words to always get to the bottom of something. The first four are what do you think? Asking somebody what their opinion is is an empowering thing to do. Let’s get to work is an important motivating thing when you say not just why don’t you go get to work? Let all of us get to work. And I can’t remember the other one right now, but it was based on a book called The Little Big Things by Tom Peters. And this is not a book about being a trial lawyer. It’s about how the little things you do to empower the people you work with to reach their maximum potential will benefit you and everything you’re trying to do. And Tom was a consultant who worked in the Nixon White House. But this was an incredibly valuable book that a friend of mine gave me when I was in Congress. The other one is, I read a book called In Search of Atticus Finch by Mike Papantonio, a well known lawyer with a radio show in Florida. And what that forced me to do as a young dad and a trial lawyer was think about how you prioritize the things that are important in your life as a trial lawyer and as a dad and a husband. Because too often we get sucked up into our work and we don’t try to achieve that balance and we never ever achieve that perfect balance. But you have to be thinking about it.
Now when you’re dead and gone, years and years and years from now, of course, what is it that you want to most be remembered for?
I gave all of my staff in Congress a one sentence job description, and it was I help people.
There you go.
And I said, when you come into work in the morning, I want you to think, who are we going to help today? When you leave this office at night, I want you thinking about, who are we going to help tomorrow? So the epitaph I want on my tombstone is simply, we help people.
Yeah, I love that. I love that. Now, before I let you go, we did the serious part. Now we’re going to play a little game that I like to play. And this is called ‘Would you rather?’ Now, some of these are maybe funny or insightful, but some of them, I’m just going to warn you, are ridiculous. Okay? So first question, would you rather have to speak in rhyme for the rest of your life or speak in riddles for the rest of your life?
Now, see, you would have impressed me if you had answered that question in a rhyme like, I have no time, or for riddles, I have no time, therefore I’ll make a rhyme, or something like that.
I don’t have a future as a rapper.
I don’t think either of us have that danger. Okay, so this one I thought was pretty appropriate. Would you rather be forced to try a case entirely in your birthday suit or while loudly farting every 30 seconds?
Wow, that’s quite a choice. Probably the latter, because the first one is terrifying.
Yeah, well, speaking of the first one so the next question is, would you rather your wife laugh every time she sees you naked or cry every time she sees you naked?
Laugh. Yeah, I think there’s way too little laughter in the world, so I’ll take that over crying any day.
Perfect. Last question. Would you rather be leader of the free world or leader of Amazon?
I think some people would argue Amazon is the leader of the free world, and I’m not sure how you define the free world anymore.
I think right now I’d rather be leader of Amazon, because that way I’d make sure that everything I want comes to my house on time.
There you go. I think that’s perfect. That’s exactly what I was looking for. Bruce, I want to thank you so much for spending the time today. I really appreciate it. I want to thank the listeners and the viewers for tuning in, and I want to remind them again, be sure to subscribe to, rate and review Uncommon Convos on your favorite podcast platform and visit UncommonConvos.com to watch the video version of this and every episode. Also, be sure to check out our other podcast, Legal Squeaks, where you can learn about some of the important legal and consumer issues that you might be facing on a day to day basis. Also want to once again thank our sponsor, VanDerGinst Law. If you’ve been injured, VanDerGinst Law would be honored to help. Check VanDerGinst Law out at vlaw.com. Bruce, thank you again so much. And we’re taping this right before Thanksgiving, and Bruce has a trial scheduled for next week. So a very special thanks for taking the time today.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and everybody watching. And thanks for having me on your show.
Thank you so much, Bruce.
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