DES MOINES — Former Republican Governor Terry Branstad sat in the witness chair in a Des Moines courtroom for nearly six hours Friday and forcefully rejected allegations he tried to force a state administrator to resign seven years ago because the official was gay.
“I was raised by a Jewish mother who was very sensitive to discrimination and she taught me to treat everyone with respect and dignity,” Branstad said during afternoon testimony. “…That’s the way I’ve always operated. I’ve never worried about what somebody’s sexual orientation was.”
Christopher Godfrey, who is gay, was the state’s Workers Compensation Commissioner in 2011 when Branstad returned to the governor’s office after a 12-year hiatus. Branstad asked Godfrey to resign, then cut his pay by a third when Godfrey refused. Godfrey filed a wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuit in 2012 and the case has gone to trial before a jury this month.
Branstad admitted under questioning from Godfrey’s attorney Paige Fielder that same-sex marriage was a political flashpoint in 2010, but Branstad testified he “didn’t know” the Iowa GOP’s platform called for repealing a state law that provided legal protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual Iowans..
“I’ve never had any objection to protecting people…that are gay…from being mistreated or discriminated against because of their sexual preference,” Branstad testified.
Branstad told the jury he did not want prominent Christian conservative Bob Vander Plaats as his running mate in 2010 because banning same-sex marriage would have been the focal point of the campaign. Branstad, late in the day, suggested public attitudes about same-sex marriage have evolved in the past decade.
“People have accepted it,” Branstad said, “and I support it.”
Branstad, who is currently the U.S. Ambassador to China, testified he has hosted “pride” events at the ambassador’s residence in Beijing.
“Gay people celebrate the fact that they’re gay and they’re proud of it,” Branstad said, who revealed in open court that his current chief of staff, a former Republican state legislator, is gay. “…(Pride month) is going on. It’s going on back in China, although China doesn’t have quite as open a society as we do in this country.”
In his fifth hour of testimony, Branstad briefly broke down in tears on the witness stand as he talked about the honor of serving as U.S. ambassador to China. During the court’s morning session, Branstad testified he’d gotten complaints from the business community about the way Godfrey handled workers compensation matters and wanted to appoint a replacement.
“We’d gotten a tremendous amount of concern expressed by the big organizations like the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Motor Truck Association and individual employers from around the state,” Branstad said.
Branstad admitted Friday that he did not have the authority to fire Godfrey and had not conducted a performance review or read Godfrey’s employee file, but Branstad said did have the ability to cut Godfrey’s salary to the lowest level of the pay scale established by the legislature for the position.
“I felt that a salary at the top of the range, certainly considering all of these problems about performance, was not appropriate,” Branstad said.
Branstad, under questioning from Fiedler, admitted he and Godfrey spoke in person just once. The former governor said he was unaware of statistics about the number of cases Godfrey’s office processed and how business fees for workers compensation claims had declined during Godfrey’s tenure.
Friday’s court session concluded at around 4 p.m., the only day Branstad was scheduled to testify. The jury will return next week to hear from more witnesses.
Des Moines attorney Roxanne Conlin, Branstad’s Democratic opponent in 1982, has guided this case through the court system for the past seven years, but she is not in the courtroom today. Conlin became ill last Friday, complaining of the air quality in the Polk County Courthouse, which is under renovation. Fiedler said Conlin is feeling better, but under doctor’s advice will not return to the building until renovations are complete.