DES MOINES, Iowa — Former longtime Iowa Gov. Robert D. Ray, who helped thousands of Vietnam War refugees relocate to the state and defined Iowa’s Republican politics for years, has died. He was 89.
Ray, who never faced a serious election challenge during his 14 years as governor, died Sunday morning at a nursing home in Des Moines, said his former chief of staff David Oman. Ray had been battling Parkinson’s disease for several years, Oman said.
Ray once said that his approach to governing was simple: leave politics out of the decision-making process.
“I used to tell the staff, whenever we would talk about something like that, that you don’t start talking about politics at all,” Ray told The Associated Press during an interview in November 2011. “Let’s just decide what the right thing to do is, and then we’ll decide how to promote it.”
During his 14 years as governor, Ray never faced a serious election challenge before he decided not to again seek re-election in 1982.
Recalling his time at the state’s helm, Ray said he was especially proud of his work beginning in 1975 to resettle refugees from the Vietnam War in Iowa. The state became one of the largest resettlement locations in the U.S., and Ray dismissed any notion that relocating thousands of people fleeing Vietnam to his largely rural Midwestern state would carry political risks.
“It was saving the lives of refugees,” Ray said. “People would say that you might not get re-elected and I would say I can make more money if I don’t get re-elected.”
He was born Robert Dolph Ray in Des Moines on Sept. 26, 1928. Ray graduated from the Drake University law school in 1954, and became active in Republican politics while practicing law. He eventually was considered a leader of the party’s moderate wing.
He became chairman of the Iowa Republican Party and was credited with rebuilding it after the devastating GOP losses in 1964, when Barry Goldwater headed the party’s national ticket and lost in a historic landslide to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Ray was rewarded for his efforts with his gubernatorial win. He also served as chairman of the National Governors Association, the Republican Governors Association, the Midwestern Governors Association, the Education Commission of the States and the Council of State Governments. And in 1976, he and his wife, Billie, and their three children were the first family to live in the governor’s mansion in Terrace Hill.
Although Ray was a strong Republican throughout his life, some of his decisions seemed to run counter to GOP leanings at the time.
He signed into law the state’s bottle deposit system, which encouraged recycling by tacking a fee on soda and beer bottles that was repaid upon their return. He also created the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women, which advocates for policies that benefit women and girls. He also signed executive orders promoting civil rights and energy conservation.
“Obviously he was intelligent and a good politician, but he also had this compassion and forward thinking,” veteran Republican activist Becky Beach said in 2011. “To be a conservative Republican and talk about women’s rights was not something that everybody looked favorably on.”
But she noted that Ray “always had such a presence and generosity that kind of transcended whatever the chaos of the day was.”
Jerry Fitzgerald, who served as Democratic House majority leader during part of Ray’s tenure, said the former governor was reasonable and wanted to solve problems.
“He was an honorable man who did a lot of good things for the state,” Fitzgerald said a November 2011 interview.
Current Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds praised Ray’s leadership.
“His civility, courage and common-sense governing set a high standard for those who followed,” Reynolds said Sunday.
Ray remained active in public life after leaving the governor’s office, including serving as interim mayor of Des Moines in 1997, the same year he helped form the Institute for Character Development at Drake University. A year later, he served as the university’s interim president.
What attracted him to politics, he said, was the chance to work with people and improve their lives.
“There’s an excitement about being able to help other people, particularly in the governor’s office,” Ray said. “Money isn’t the only reason you exist.”