A week before the Iowa caucuses, Tom Miller was stumping for Sen. John Kerry at a press conference held outside the Capitol. Though the temperature was around freezing, Miller did not wear an overcoat and needled Kerry about how Iowans can handle colder temperatures.
“Just don’t catch pneumonia, Tom,” Kerry told Miller.
Fast-forward to two days later, as Miller relates the story through the haze of a nasty head cold.
“I think John Kerry got the last laugh on me,” Miller said wryly, sipping water to ease a dry mouth from taking cold medicine.
For Miller, who is in the middle of his sixth term as Iowa’s attorney general, the political bug bit during a much earlier presidential race.
“It was the election of President Kennedy when I was in high school that got me really interested in politics and running for office,” said the Dubuque native, who nine years later earned his law degree from Kennedy’s alma mater, Harvard University.
Miller, who was first elected attorney general in 1978, has gained a reputation as a consumer advocate who has often been in the national spotlight by joining in high-profile cases. At the same time, he’s drawn criticism from political opponents who question whether an attorney general should use state funds to fight national legal battles.
Among the most notable cases Miller has been involved with include Iowa’s cooperation with 18 other states in the antitrust case against Microsoft Corp., in which a federal court ruled that the software giant had violated state and federal antitrust laws.
The attorney general’s office was also among the lead with 45 other states in the tobacco lawsuit, which in 1998 resulted in a settlement in which Iowa will receive an estimated $2 billion in payments over the first 25 years. In a current case, Miller’s office is appealing a federal court decision that threw out as unconstitutional Iowa’s ban on packer-owned hog farms. Miller is defending Iowa’s current law banning ownership by large vertically integrated corporations such as Smithfield Foods, and supports federal legislation to institute a national ban. When deciding whether to become involved in a consumer case, Miller said, “the basic standard is how wide-ranging the effect of the conduct is, and how clear the law is that (the action) is illegal.”
“At times we make exceptions; the tobacco case was an exception because the law was weighted against us. But there was so much harm related to it – 5,000 Iowans a year die from tobacco – that that sort of trumped the strength of the case,” Miller said.
“With Microsoft, it was actually sort of the rule of law that concerned us, that Microsoft had this enormously successful company, but in our view was violating the antitrust law clearly and repeatedly and there was potential for a great deal of harm,” he said. “The question was, would anybody stand up to this powerful, well-regarded company? We thought they should have to follow the law like anybody else.”
Former state Rep. Dave Millage, the Republican candidate for attorney general in 2002, said the Microsoft case is an example of an inappropriate use of the state’s resources. Neither should the attorney general’s office been involved with Al Gore’s challenge of Florida’s presidential balloting system in the 2000 election, he said.
“One of the reasons I ran for attorney general was that Tom Miller was spending too much time on these high-profile cases, and not tending to law enforcement cases in Iowa,” Millage said. “How are Iowa’s interests in Microsoft different from those states that weren’t involved in the lawsuit? It was just one of those cases that I didn’t think was of particular interest to Iowans.”
At the same time, Miller was respected by legislators, said Millage, who at the end of his 12 years in the House in 2002 was chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Among Miller’s current projects is a crusade against secondhand smoke as a public health risk. He’s advocating legislation that would allow Iowa municipalities to pass bans on smoking in restaurants.
Raising awareness of secondhand smoke as a public health issue is really a continuation of the effort that began with the tobacco lawsuit, said Miller, who points to estimates that 500 Iowans a year die from exposure to secondhand smoke.
“The only way to deal that is with a comprehensive program to change the culture of America about tobacco, how we think about tobacco,” he said.
Miller is also pushing for continued state funding for drug treatment programs as a measure toward fighting drug-related crime.
“What really works well is enforcement and education together,” he said. “Enforcement alone will never solve the problem.”
Another issue capturing the attention of Miller and other attorneys general is the investigation of the mutual fund industry, which was initially led by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Now, the California attorney general’s office is taking the investigatory lead, Miller said, and his office will be working with California’s to look into possible wrongdoing.
“If there is abuse in Iowa, we will certainly take a look at that,” he said. He said Principal Financial Group Inc. “did the right thing” in immediately dismissing traders who were timing trades for their personal accounts.
Miller, who early in his legal career served as a legislative assistant to former U.S. Rep. John C. Culver, had early on considered a run for the U.S. House himself.
“Fortunately, I got diverted to the attorney general’s race, which I think was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” said Miller. One of the reasons he decided not to run for Congress, he said, was that his friend Michael Blouin chose to run.
Miller said it’s clear the attorney general job has been a good fit for him.
“I’ve always enjoyed being a lawyer and being in politics,” he said. “I could see that the AG’s office was a good mixture of the two. … For me, the AG’s office is a much better job than being in Congress. I’m more attuned to the executive than the legislative side. In the long term, I’d much rather live here than in Washington. And this is just such a wonderful job – a mix of law and public policy.”
Blouin, Iowa’s economic development director and a close friend of Miller’s since college, calls Miller “the perfect attorney general.” Miller was the best man at Blouin’s wedding and is a godfather to one of his daughters.
Friendship aside, Blouin praised Miller’s legal acumen.
“He knows his stuff better than anyone else in the country,” Blouin said. “Tom is a quick study and is very well respected. I think he is the combination of brilliance and heart, which isn’t always present in an attorney general’s office.”
An unsuccessful bid for governor in 1990 brought Miller briefly out of the public sector and into private practice with the Des Moines office of Faegre & Benson LLC., before he returned to the attorney general position in the 1994 election.
John D. French, an antitrust attorney who recently retired as a partner at Faegre & Benson’s Minneapolis office, has worked with Miller for the past 20 years.
“He is very impressive as an attorney general, which is not true of all attorneys general,” said French, who has also served as a legal consultant to Miller on antitrust cases. “He is a leader in antitrust enforcement at the state level. He is held in really high regard by the antitrust enforcers.”
Miller said the governor’s office is the only elective position other than attorney general he would consider. He said he doesn’t know whether he’ll consider another run for governor, however. “I really think about it in four-year blocks,” he said. Maintaining a balance between adequate enforcement of laws and a regulatory climate that’s not overly restrictive to business is important, he said.
“We want Iowa to be attractive to business,” he said. “We try to be fair; we try not to bring cases just because a company is unpopular or there’s some good publicity to be had. We really think through the cases, and in almost all cases there are clear violations of the law.
“By being independent, straight shooters and fair, that (creates a) good business climate for almost all companies. For companies that want an edge or are doing something illegal, that’s not a good environment. But most companies aren’t that way. And they know they’ll get a fair shake and that no one is going to use the AG’s office against them.”