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CULVER: competitive spirit translates to political life
Secretary of State Chet Culver, left, greets John Bailey of Clear Lake during Culver's Back to School tour in August in Mason City.
KRISTEN BUEHNER / Courier Lee News Service

DES MOINES -- Twenty-one autumns ago Chet Culver's boyhood backyard dream of playing big-time football on Sundays was betrayed by a banged-up knee.

"It was very, very difficult. I wanted to play professional football," said Culver, who was in his second season as a scholarship tight end at Virginia Tech in 1985 when he was sidelined by injury. He never got a chance to crack the starting lineup.

"It was hard because it was completely out of my control. We tried maybe a dozen different treatment options. It was frustrating. I had the ability; I just couldn't stay healthy," Culver said.

But the injury that ended his playing days didn't snuff out his competitive fire or dull the instincts he honed on the field.

Culver's life after football has been about snaring opportunities like passes over the middle. He's taken hits, changed course and looked hard for openings.

When his football dreams faded, Culver stepped up his effort to earn a political science degree in four years. After college, when plans for attending law school fell through, he changed direction and embarked on a career in teaching and coaching.

When there was an opening for Iowa secretary of state in 1998, Culver ran and won. This year, with the governor's office wide open for only the fourth time in nearly three decades, Culver jumped in and grabbed the Democratic nomination.

"It's in my blood. I love this," said Culver, who still carries a football player's frame. "I enjoy public service. I love campaigning. I want to be the hardest-working governor we've ever had."

Family ties

Culver's craving for competition is genetic.

His father, John Culver, was a star halfback at Harvard who scored 11 touchdowns in 1952, a year that still ranks 11th on the school's all-time single season scoring list. He was drafted by the NFL's Chicago Cardinals but chose a law career instead.

"He was a big, fast guy," Chet Culver said.

His mother, Ann Cooper Culver, was a national champion diver and speed-skater who missed making the 1956 U.S. Olympic Team in diving by seven points.

His parents made a formidable political team. John Culver was elected to the U.S. House in 1964 and won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1974. Chet Culver was born in January 1966 during his father's first term.

Even though he spent much of his childhood growing up in a Washington, D.C., suburb, Culver's said his fondest memories are from the three months he spent in Iowa each summer.

"I just absolutely loved fishing. I had a little dingy, a little fishing boat that I actually paid for and bought working a lot of odd jobs," Culver said. "I was probably 12 or 14 years old. I went all through the Mississippi River up there."

When Culver wasn't playing outdoors he was on the playing field. He swam competitively and played football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey. His three older sisters also were athletes and all played sports in college.

In high school, Culver was co-captain of his basketball team, which won the Maryland state title. He hoped to play football at the University of Iowa, but the Hawkeyes were loaded with tight ends. Virginia Tech was a different story.

"He was a real bright kid, a real polite guy," said Dave Smith, assistant athletic director for media relations at Virginia Tech who worked in the football program during Culver's time at Tech.

But Culver's knees wouldn't cooperate. So he hit the books.

"I was able to channel that energy into political science," Culver said. "I didn't have the best grades in the world, but I was focused on getting my degree and moving on with my life."

Politics in the family

At a recent campaign potluck, Culver's wife, Mari Culver, told supporters how their 5-year-old daughter reacted when a campaign sign for her father's opponent popped up in their neighborhood.

"I'm not even going to go trick-or-treating at that house on Halloween," she said.

Politics has always been a family affair for the Culvers.

"I certainly saw firsthand the impact you could have as a public servant," Chet Culver said. "I didn't grow up with that cynical view that some people have.

"But there were also times when I wasn't sure if I wanted to enter into the public arena," Culver said.

One of those times came in 1980 when his father lost his bid for a second Senate term, an episode Culver calls "painful."

Eight years later as a fresh college graduate, Culver jumped back into Iowa politics. He worked as a field staffer for the Iowa Democratic Party in 1988 and worked as an assistant to Statehouse lobbyist Ed Campbell in 1989 and 1990.

That work led to charges during the Democratic primary this past spring that Culver lobbied for meatpacker IBP. He denies he actively lobbied for the company.

When Campbell's wife, Bonnie Campbell, ran for attorney general, Culver was hired as her campaign field director. After she won he worked in the attorney general's office as a consumer advocate and later as an environmental advocate.

Teaching career

Culver planned to go to law school and took summer classes at Drake University. He needed to earn a 2.5 grade point average to get into law school but posted a 2.35.

There was a silver lining, however.

While taking a prep class in Iowa City for the law school admissions test, Culver was introduced to Mari. The couple married in Des Moines in 1993.

With his wife's support Culver pursued a career in teaching and coaching and earned his master's degree in education in 1994.

"Getting his master's was hard. He did it at night school. He worked during the day and went to school at night," Mari Culver said.

She bristles at the suggestions by her husband's opponents that he lacks the intellectual heft to be governor.

"I find that argument pompous," Mari Culver said. "I think why people do it is Chet is such a likeable, personable, genuine guy. His opponents in the past and his current opponent may lack that type of personal warmth, so they try to drag him down."

Culver landed a job teaching government, history and economics at Hoover High School in Des Moines in 1995. He also coached junior varsity football and junior high basketball.

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"The kids just loved him. He was personable and related well with them," said Jeff Jansen, a teacher at Des Moines' East High School who coached with Culver.

In 1998, Culver saw the open secretary of state's seat as a chance to return to politics.

Capitol conflicts

During his campaign for governor, Culver has touted his successes during two terms as secretary of state -- the state's commissioner of elections and registrar of voters.

Culver contends voter turnout is up, 95 percent of Iowans eligible to vote are registered and hundreds of polling sites have been made accessible to the disabled. He spearheaded efforts to get young people more involved in politics.

But he has repeatedly clashed with Republicans, who accuse him of using the office to boost his political prospects. They've also battled over reforms to the state's voting system.

"It was his way or the highway. That was the negotiation," said state Sen. Mark Zieman, a Postville Republican who led efforts to require voters to present photo IDs at polling places. Culver opposed the idea, calling it an unneeded barrier to voting.

Lawmakers at one point threatened to eliminate Culver's office and move its duties to other agencies.

"All I can remember is going down to his office, and when the red got up to the bottom of his ears the meeting was over," said Zieman, who contends Culver's temper "would get the best of him."

U.S. Rep. Steve King, a former state lawmaker, also clashed with Culver over voting reforms.

"It was impossible," King said. "He blocked everything."

But Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat who also took part in reform negotiations, saw Culver's actions differently.

"I think he was understandably suspicious about some of the proposals," Vilsack said.

"What some may have seen as rigidity, I see as taking a principled stand on the integrity of the voting system."

Culver took heavy partisan criticism for failing to declare President Bush's 2004 victory in Iowa until three days after the election. And he drew fire after posting federal forms on his office's Web site that included Social Security numbers.

Culver insists no cases of identity theft resulted from the controversy.

He said the criticism hasn't slowed his run.

"It's like athletics," Culver said. "A lot of times you play teams or your opponents who like to talk a lot. I like to just prove myself in terms of my actions. You can't be distracted."

Contact Todd Dorman at (515) 243-0138 or at todd.dorman@lee.net

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