ANKENY — Eight months ago, Adam Gregg was working in relative anonymity as the state’s public defender, responsible for ensuring low-income Iowans are provided legal representation in court matters.

Then he was suddenly thrust into the middle of a transition at the very top of the state’s leadership, not to mention a legal debate over the powers of his new job.

Public defender one day, lieutenant governor the next.

Eight months later, Gregg says he has become accustomed to the pace of his new position as Iowa’s acting lieutenant governor, second in command to Gov. Kim Reynolds.

And he said he harbors no disappointment nor ill will over the fact he holds the position but not its normal standing in the state’s line of succession.

On this day, Gregg is speaking to a young professionals’ group in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, telling how he was overwhelmed to be in the Iowa Capitol with his family, including his daughter, to hear the first Iowa condition of the state address to be given by a female governor.

“I’ve compared it to stepping onto a rocket ship,” Gregg said.

Gregg served under former Gov. Terry Branstad as a liaison to state legislators and policy advisory. In 2014 he was the Republican nominee for state attorney general; he lost that election to longtime Democratic incumbent Tom Miller.

After the 2014 election, Branstad named Gregg public defender, a role in which he served until the summer of 2017, when a political transition swept Gregg into the highest level of the administration.

New President Donald Trump appointed Branstad to serve as U.S. ambassador to China, and Reynolds was promoted to governor.

As Reynolds prepared for the transition, questions were raised over whether she would have the legal authority under the state’s laws and Constitution, to appoint a new lieutenant governor.

Miller issued a formal legal opinion that the state Constitution does not grant that authority to a governor who was promoted from lieutenant.

That legal opinion was met with backlash from some Iowa Republicans, who accused the Democratic attorney general of forming a politically motivated opinion.

The newly minted Reynolds administration opted against challenging the legal opinion and named Gregg as lieutenant governor without placing him in the line of succession, making Gregg an acting lieutenant governor. Should Reynolds vacate the office for any reason, Jack Whitver, the Iowa Senate President, would become governor.

Gregg insists he is fine with the arrangement.

“It has been a non-issue, seriously,” Gregg said during a recent interview with the Courier Des Moines Bureau. “It has just been an absolute non-issue. We operate the same way that we otherwise would, with minor exceptions like I don’t have a trooper detail. Other than that, I’m in the all the same meetings that I would be. Other than that, the governor asks my advice the same way she otherwise would.”

True to form as the governor’s top assistant, Gregg praised Reynolds for her solution to the legal quandary surrounding his position.

“I thought it was a very politically astute decision by Gov. Reynolds to find a way to get everything that she wanted out of (the position) and to totally deflate the arguments against it,” Gregg said. “And I think it’s a window into the way that she is going to lead our state and has been leading our state. She has a way of being able to find creative solutions to problems that other people can’t see. And I think that was Exhibit A of that on Day 1 of our administration.”

Gregg said he has embraced his role in helping Reynolds daily and spreading her vision across the state. He said he appreciates the opportunity to work as Reynolds’ partner in the administration, especially when he sees lieutenant governors from other states who are not as involved in their administrations, he said.

“It just makes me appreciate it that much more because it gives me that opportunity to be more involved, more influential, have a very meaningful role in improving the state of Iowa,” Gregg said.

One of the first tasks with which Reynolds has charged Gregg is an initiative to help struggling rural Iowa communities. Reynolds laid out the initiative earlier this month during her first condition of the state address.

Gregg said he has been meeting with community, business and organization leaders in order to fully grasp the issues facing Iowa’s small towns with the hopes of developing a way to provide new programs or streamline existing ones to help those small towns retain their residents.

Gregg said he wants to encourage business investment in rural Iowa, help those small towns’ populations grow, and help foster more investment in high-speed internet access in those areas.

He acknowledged the challenge of combating a migration from rural to urban areas that is happening not only across Iowa but across the country. In Iowa from 2010 to 2016 the largest population growth happened in the state’s most populous counties — Polk, Dallas, Story, Warren, Linn, Johnson, Scott, Jefferson and Dubuque — while 79 of the state’s 99 counties saw a decrease in population, according to the state’s nonpartisan data agency.

“There are definitely some economic and demographic trends and headwinds that underlie some of this. So that makes it challenging because there may be little that government can do about that,” Gregg said. “But that doesn’t mean that rural Iowa isn’t worth fighting for. I think it absolutely is. And it’s worth continuing to find ways so there’s prosperity there and opportunity to grow Iowa.”

Gregg said he hopes to help promote Iowa in a way that makes young people consider staying after they graduate from college, and that he would like to find a way to reconnect with young people who have moved away and may consider returning to Iowa.

“I think we can find a better way as a state of communicating with young people who have chased that opportunity out of state and maybe would consider coming back. You might chase that high-paying job in Chicago or Milwaukee or New York or what have you, but once you get to a point in your life where you’re ready to settle down and have kids ... at that point I think Iowa and specifically small-town Iowa starts to look pretty darn good,” Gregg said. “So I wonder if there is a way that we can identify folks who have done that and communicate with them about the opportunities that are available here.”

Gregg also must perform the role of co-campaigner as Reynolds seeks her first elected term as governor. After the legislative session ends sometime this spring, that role will increase for Gregg as the Reynolds-Gregg ticket first looks to survive a Republican primary challenge. Should they win that, it would be on to what is expected to be a hotly contested general election until the ballots are cast in November.

Gregg said he is not only ready, but embraces the challenge. He said he expects to campaign alongside Reynolds but also at times on his own in order to cover more ground across the state.

“I’m invigorated by it,” Gregg said. “I like getting out there and meeting with Iowans and learning about the companies that are doing cool things that have a reach that you’d never expect. And I’m looking forward to getting out there and advocating. That’s kind of who I am at the end of the day. I’m an advocate. I feel like that’s a skill set that I bring to the table.

“So that’s what gets me fired up, is the opportunity to go out and advocate for a position and advocate for our vision and advocate that the governor (Reynolds) is the right person for the job.”

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State house reporter for The Courier/Lee Enterprises.

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