Hog, ethanol baron Bruce Rastetter now a Republican kingmaker

2011-08-04T09:00:00Z 2011-08-04T18:48:36Z Hog, ethanol baron Bruce Rastetter now a Republican kingmaker Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier
August 04, 2011 9:00 am

IOWA CITY (AP) --- Iowa entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter created one of the nation's largest hog production companies and then became a national leader in ethanol production. Now he's leaving his mark on another big Iowa industry: presidential politics.

Rastetter, a 55-year-old millionaire who grew up on a farm near tiny Alden in Northeast Iowa, has become one of the most sought-after GOP donors by presidential candidates hoping to win the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and unseat President Barack Obama. His influence is so great that Iowa Republicans are watching closely to see whom he will back.

"He's definitely on the A-list of folks," said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, who has received support from Rastetter.

Rastetter was among the group of Iowa Republican businessmen who traveled in May to New Jersey to try to persuade Gov. Chris Christie to jump in the race. And a conservative advocacy group that Rastetter helped found and that a longtime associate runs, the American Future Fund, has emerged as one of the most powerful in the country. An invitation to his annual summer party and cookout in August has become a hot commodity among presidential candidates.

Rastetter has a vast business and political network and close ties to Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who says the businessman helped persuade him to come out of political retirement to run for a fifth term last year. Rastetter then poured more than $160,000 into Branstad's campaign, becoming his largest donor before being appointed after the election to the Iowa Board of Regents, where he'll help govern Iowa's public universities.

In July, Rastetter was elevated to president pro tem in a leadership shakeup orchestrated by Branstad.

Rastetter's summer party will bring together his network --- everyone from hog farmers who work for him to politicians to Wall Street financiers. It will be Saturday, precisely one week before the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, an early test of campaign organization.

"They'd love to be invited," Branstad says of the presidential candidates, with a laugh. "I suppose it's up to Bruce who he wants to invite."

So far, Rastetter isn't saying. He has expressed interest publicly only in Christie, who has declined overtures to run. Christie did agree to come to Iowa on Monday for an education reform summit hosted by Branstad.

It's not entirely clear what motivates Rastetter. Friends insist he's simply a business-minded conservative who feels strongly about the future of the state and nation. Some environmentalists and Democrats question whether he's motivated by profit, with a goal of weakening regulations and greasing the skids for his business deals.

Rastetter, who did not respond to several interview requests for this story, has a knack for picking winners in politics and business.

All 13 candidates to whom he donated in 2010 --- 11 state lawmakers in addition to Branstad and Northey --- won their races, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Branstad recalled how Rastetter assembled a group of farmers, business leaders, lawmakers and lawyers at his log home in Hardin County to ask him to run for governor in 2009.

"He said, 'I think you've got the experience and the leadership ability. We really think you're the right person to lead the state at this very critical time.' He promised that he would be there to assist, and he was," Branstad said.

Rastetter's associates are also big donors. A longtime Rastetter spokesman who runs the American Future Fund, Nick Ryan, chipped in more than $67,000 to Branstad's campaign. Bruce's brother, Brent Rastetter, who owns a company that constructs hog confinement facilities, gave Branstad an additional $31,000 and was appointed earlier this year to the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission.

It is not clear how much money Rastetter has put into the American Future Fund, which claims it is a nonprofit group that does not have to disclose donors. The Des Moines-based group spent millions targeting Democrats and supporting Republicans in congressional races during the 2010 election cycle.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of a watchdog group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Rastetter represents a new breed of ultra-rich individuals who can secretly exert influence by pouring unlimited amounts of money into campaigns.

"He's learning how to play the system," said Sloan, whose group has filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service claiming the American Future Fund violated its tax-exempt status by engaging in political advocacy.

Adam Mason, an organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a group that says it works for "social, economic, and environmental justice," said his group has long been troubled by Rastetter's business operations and political influence. He said Rastetter's hog business put family farmers out of business, and that he fought proposals to increase regulation of hog operations that critics say pollute the air and water.

"The more troubling thing is, trying to run the state in his own vision isn't enough for him," Mason said. "We see him moving to bigger pastures."

Rastetter graduated from high school in Alden, a town of 900 people in northern Hardin County, before attending the University of Iowa and earning a political science degree in 1978. He went to work as a feed salesman before founding Heartland Pork Enterprises in 1994, which grew into the 13th largest pork producer with a stable of 61,000 sows that produced millions of hogs. The business was bought by Christensen Farms, becoming the fourth largest in the nation, in 2004.

By then, Rastetter had his eyes on the heavily subsidized ethanol industry.

In 2003, he co-founded Hawkeye Energy Holdings Co., which would grow to operate four large ethanol plants across Iowa and become one of the largest producers in the U.S. Business colleagues say he was a forceful advocate for state and national policies to increase ethanol production. But when the ethanol business hit bad times, the plants filed for bankruptcy. After they emerged, a subsidiary of Koch Industries purchased all four plants.

Rastetter has turned his attention to a new venture, Agrisol Energy, which has announced plans to work with the government of Tanzania to develop large-scale farming operations there. Some critics have called the project a greedy land grab, but Rastetter and the company say they are trying to spread new farming technology and techniques that will help increase food production in Africa and help local farmers.

Branstad says he chose Rastetter, who is single, for the Board of Regents because of his passion for education. Rastetter has made one of the largest donations to Iowa athletics --- $5 million to help the University of Iowa Hawkeye football team build new training facilities in 2008 --- and has given more than $2 million to Iowa State University to support an agricultural entrepreneurship program. His personal foundation also gives out college scholarships to students who study agriculture.

State Rep. Annette Sweeney, a Republican who heads the House Agriculture Committee, went to the same Lutheran church as Rastetter, growing up in tiny Buckeye.

"Even growing up as kids, if he saw something he was interested in he made sure he studied up on the issue and tried to achieve his passion," she said. "I see that he just wants to make the state of Iowa work. He wants Iowa to be the best that it can be because he's very interested in wind energy, the agriculture sciences, education as a whole."

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(17) Comments

  1. tangledweb
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    tangledweb - August 06, 2011 11:51 pm
    OpenUpAndSayDuh said: "sounds like somebody forgot to whom our former vice-president owed his soul, the no-bid contracts, and all the other wonderful things that go along with personal wars. "Chicago style politics" is a stupid excuse term, an apologists term. I'm not a defender of all things democrat. The difference is the republican party makes a business of bragging about how ethically and morally superior. They like to brag about how they are for the little man. I never viewed hog confinements or selling advisory positions,regardless of who does it, something that benefits the little man or is somehow ethically or morally superior. Since this article is about a republican, that's what people are discussing. Next time it's about GE, maybe we should discuss the democrats. "


    How well you don't know me. I think the thread got away long before I put my two cents worth in. I'm not defending this guy by pointing out what the democrats are doing, I'm saying they do it also. You can't complain about one group of politicians doing something when the group you champion does the same thing. There's no difference between parties. Republicans don't want to raise taxes on the rich anymore than democrats want to close loopholes for the rich. You want to give me change I can believe in? Let's start with getting rid of ALL special interest groups, corporate, non-profit, unions, etc. Then get rid of all political donations, federal funds only.
    Maybe then America can get back to the republic that the founding fathers envisioned.
  2. OpenUpAndSayDuh
    Report Abuse
    OpenUpAndSayDuh - August 06, 2011 8:29 pm
    tangledweb said: "You can't be that naive Gloria. You do realize that some of Obama's biggest money supports are now sitting in advisory positions in his government steering the decisions that the president makes in ways that will benefit them? The head of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, who's company paid no corporate taxes last year, sits at Obama's right hand at many meetings. And then you have Andy Stern, former head of the SIEU, is one of the White Houses most frequent guest. What's the difference between a company head or a union leader? Their all doing it to benefit themselves. Don't go thinking your Democratic party is all high and mighty beyond that, it isn't. Look up Chicago style politics if you do, it may change your mind. "

    sounds like somebody forgot to whom our former vice-president owed his soul, the no-bid contracts, and all the other wonderful things that go along with personal wars. "Chicago style politics" is a stupid excuse term, an apologists term. I'm not a defender of all things democrat. The difference is the republican party makes a business of bragging about how ethically and morally superior. They like to brag about how they are for the little man. I never viewed hog confinements or selling advisory positions,regardless of who does it, something that benefits the little man or is somehow ethically or morally superior. Since this article is about a republican, that's what people are discussing. Next time it's about GE, maybe we should discuss the democrats.
  3. tangledweb
    Report Abuse
    tangledweb - August 06, 2011 7:07 pm
    You can't be that naive Gloria. You do realize that some of Obama's biggest money supports are now sitting in advisory positions in his government steering the decisions that the president makes in ways that will benefit them? The head of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, who's company paid no corporate taxes last year, sits at Obama's right hand at many meetings. And then you have Andy Stern, former head of the SIEU, is one of the White Houses most frequent guest. What's the difference between a company head or a union leader? Their all doing it to benefit themselves. Don't go thinking your Democratic party is all high and mighty beyond that, it isn't. Look up Chicago style politics if you do, it may change your mind.
  4. OpenUpAndSayDuh
    Report Abuse
    OpenUpAndSayDuh - August 06, 2011 5:35 pm
    Justfortoday said: "Hogs and ethanol huh? Well, we need a business man running the money in this country, might as well be someone that's been successful. Yes, I voted for Ross Perot in the 80's. "

    the 80s eh?

    You realize that there is no more successful business than the US government...in fact they are allowed to print money, have monopolies, and run in debt that would make you or I cringe.

    We don't need any more businessmen. If your job is to make money, your loyalty is to the money. We need someone who has ownership in this country, and whose loyalty is to the country and the people in it. All of them.
  5. Bassopotamus
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    Bassopotamus - August 04, 2011 10:12 pm
    2 brand new posters both proclaiming the genius of Allen West on the same thread leads me to believe that someone is paying shills for Allen West. If only they were shilling for Adam West, I'd be interested.
  6. Justfortoday
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    Justfortoday - August 04, 2011 4:26 pm
    lol timbrackett, I agree.
  7. timbrackett
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    timbrackett - August 04, 2011 1:49 pm
    People still take Glenn Beck seriously?
  8. balboabombast
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    balboabombast - August 04, 2011 1:38 pm
    Interesting that Mr. Rastetter had some sense of moral-fibre in his beginning vision. Wonder where he lost his way. King-maker, Baron and big Iowa millionaire aren't humble reminders of God fearing servants of the Gospel that's so revered by the morally bankrupt Republicans.
  9. GloriaJL
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    GloriaJL - August 04, 2011 1:14 pm
    Maybe we can give him a big award for his contribution is making Iowa lakes and rivers a sewage pit. It's disgraceful the number of lakes that are so polluted our kids couldn't swim in them.
  10. GloriaJL
    Report Abuse
    GloriaJL - August 04, 2011 1:11 pm
    This entire story makes me want to vomit. It's good to know Branstad is bought and paid for. I wasn't aware positions on the Board of Regents were for sale.
    It seems to me that the right wing of the Republican party thinks the only things immoral are related to sex---abortion, gay marriage... I guess peddling influence and state positions to the highest bidder is okay. Soon the Iowa caucuses will be totally irrelevant since it appears Iowa Republicans are out of step with the rest of the U.S.
  11. Justfortoday
    Report Abuse
    Justfortoday - August 04, 2011 12:49 pm
    Hogs and ethanol huh? Well, we need a business man running the money in this country, might as well be someone that's been successful. Yes, I voted for Ross Perot in the 80's.
  12. Kernel
    Report Abuse
    Kernel - August 04, 2011 12:41 pm
    Exactly, Think. The word "baron" doesn't have a positive connotation in modern usage.

    And 1959, Glenn Beck's backing is a kiss of death in a general election.
  13. denhall
    Report Abuse
    denhall - August 04, 2011 11:47 am
    I am one of the thousands of Americans who have become mesmerized by Congressman West. The man is honor and integrity personified. His knowledge is amazing, and he truly analyzes a thing for its best value to Americans before choosing a side or a vote. He exudes Leadership which is what America needs most now. Please look seriously at writing his name in for the straw poll.
  14. Think
    Report Abuse
    Think - August 04, 2011 11:01 am
    I wonder what he gets in return? No one just gives that type of money. Both parties are bought and paid for. Hog Barron, huh, I don't like the sounds of that.
  15. 1959
    Report Abuse
    1959 - August 04, 2011 10:35 am
    SInce be Gov. Chris Christie can not be persuaded, Congressman Allen West is a strong consideration as a write in candidate on the Straw Poll.

    There is a steady groundswell forming of grassroots efforts across the nation calling for the entry of Florida’s Congressman Allen West into the Republican presidential election nomination race.

    Pundits are speculating that West is still gauging the actual level of support for him before making a final decision. Many supporters believe that Congressman West is the perfect antithesis of Obama and perhaps Glenn Beck said it best, "It is time to restore honor and I think Allen West, I think he's got it." ( Glenn Beck, April 10, 2011)
  16. slipstream
    Report Abuse
    slipstream - August 04, 2011 10:32 am
    Maybe he should be called a federal government subsidy baron.
  17. Kernel
    Report Abuse
    Kernel - August 04, 2011 9:27 am
    It is good to know who to blame.
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