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The Elbert Files: Flourishing fields of smiles


Gov. Kim Reynolds’ new state motto, “Iowa: Freedom to Flourish,” is the fifth state slogan proposed by an Iowa governor since the 1950s when license plates identified us as “The Corn State.”

The governor’s choice immediately met with derisive social media posts that expanded on her message. For example, “Iowa: Freedom to Flourish unless you are a woman, … a teacher, … a member of a minority group or an immigrant, … gay or transgender.” You get the idea. 

The Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Todd Dorman asked: “Can a state where our Republican leaders worked overtime to rescind Iowans’ freedoms truly flourish?” He also tweeted: “If that’s supposed to be a river in the logo, it should be brown.”

Reynolds should not have been surprised at the backlash. Each of the four slogans that preceded hers was critiqued, although none quite as viciously in pre-social media times. 

Gov. Robert Ray was the first to feel the sting in 1970 when a Cedar Rapids advertising agency came up with “Iowa: A Place to Grow,” accompanied by a somewhat vague symbol.

The symbol was described as resembling a four-leaf-clover highway interchange, although officials denied that was the inspiration. 

“The symbol depicts growth in all directions,” Ray explained. 

But Jerry Knight, the Des Moines Register’s transportation reporter, wrote that the symbol “has been compared to four toilet seats,” and once those words were in print, it was impossible to erase the image from Iowans’ minds.

Every governor since Ray, except for Chet Culver, has found it necessary to try to improve on Ray’s effort. 

Gov. Terry Branstad proposed two slogans; he was, after all, governor for a long time. Branstad offered “Iowa: A State of Minds” in 1983, and introduced “Iowa: You Make Me Smile” in 1994.

“State of Minds” was proposed during Branstad’s first year in office and it turned out to be a worse disaster than “A Place to Grow.”

It began with Des Moines lawyer David Belin proposing that three words – “Quality and Productivity” – be added to new license plates the state planned to issue in 1985. 

Robert Rigler, chair of the Iowa Transportation Commission, told the Des Moines Register’s Randy Evans that “the idea hasn’t proven to be a grabber with Iowans.” It was, however, endorsed by many of the state’s business and labor leaders.

Rigler said he was about to drop the idea when he received a phone call from Branstad, who proposed a different slogan, “Iowa: A State of Minds.” Those words were lifted from material created by state economic development officials for a national advertising campaign. 

“Initial public reaction was not favorable,” Evans wrote.

“I wonder what state of mind any appointed official is in if he can’t vote against the governor’s wishes,” said Democrat Lowell Junkins, who later ran unsuccessfully for governor against Branstad in 1986.

Things went downhill from there. A headline in the next day’s Register said: “Iowans hurl brickbats at ‘State of Minds.’”

Branstad had better luck in 1994 with “Iowa: You Make Me Smile.” It wasn’t printed on license plates. In fact, there has not been an effort to put a state slogan on license plates since the “State of Minds” disaster. But the smile wording did appear widely in state-sponsored media.

Which brings us to Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, who was very democratic about choosing a replacement. 

Vilsack solicited input from all Iowans, before turning 2,203 suggestions over to a select panel of high school seniors, who had written essays about their expectations for Iowa in 10 years. The seniors narrowed the field to four finalists, which were printed in newspapers on mail-in ballots, which were tallied by state officials.

Vilsack announced the winner at the 1999 Iowa State Fair: “Iowa: Fields of Opportunities.”

“The new slogan conveys … a sense that Iowa is a place of unlimited opportunity,” Vilsack explained. 

But many Iowans saw it as an awkward rip-off of the 1989 Kevin Costner movie, “Field of Dreams.”  

Perhaps Shakespeare put it best: All efforts to create a state slogan were doomed “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” 


Dave Elbert

Dave Elbert is a columnist for Business Record.

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