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Vilsack says he's 'luckiest guy on earth'

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP)--Tom Vilsack has had a career of unlikely twists and turns, but even the former Iowa governor and small town lawyer seems a bit surprised by his latest move.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, about six months after being confirmed by the Senate to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vilsack spoke of his new job and looked back on his accomplishments in Iowa. He'll return to the state next weekend for a Democratic Party event.

"I feel like I'm the luckiest guy on earth,'' Vilsack said from his office in Washington. "The first thought I had was gratitude.''

Like the president who nominated him, Vilsack's achievements came despite humble beginnings.

He was born in Pittsburgh and orphaned at birth. A couple adopted him, but his mother was an alcoholic who would lock herself away for days in the attic.

He met his future wife, Christie, in college, then moved to Mount Pleasant where he joined his father-in-law's law practice. He coached little league, raised his children and became a respected figure in the southeast Iowa town.

When a gunman shot the mayor to death at a City Council meeting, Vilsack was asked to step in and bring some stability to the shocked town. He was elected mayor, and later his overwhelmingly Republican district narrowly elected him to the state Senate.

When Vilsack ran for governor in 1998, few gave him much chance of beating the Republican nominee, former U.S. Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot. But Vilsack scored a solid win with 52 percent of the vote, making him Iowa's first Democratic governor in 30 years.

Vilsack and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson, won re-election in 2002, and Chet Culver retained the office for the Democrats in 2006.

The Democratic event this weekend will, in part, honor Vilsack, his wife and Pederson for their part in bringing Democrats back to power in the state. All three will be inducted into party's Hall of Fame.

"I am really glad that Democrats are recognizing the contributions that Christie and Sally made,'' said Vilsack

Reflecting on his successful 2002 re-election campaign, Vilsack noted he was a rare Democratic governor that year. He credited his wife and Pederson with making the difference.

"I was the only one to survive who was elected in 1998,'' Vilsack of the election, dominated by Republicans nationally.

Christie focused that first term on libraries and reading, traveling the state and becoming a prominent advocate. Pederson, who has an autistic son, had long been an advocate for disabled people.

Vilsack said the two women opened doors for him.

"It gave us a network we could tap into,'' he said.

Vilsack said his legacy as governor would be his investment in communities as well as his focus on renewable energy, especially biofuels.

"I think the Iowa program gave people an idea of what their communities could be,'' said Vilsack. "We also began a recognition of the importance of early childhood education.''

Vilsack continued to confound expectations after leaving office.

He made a brief run for the Democratic presidential nomination that foundered quickly due to fundraising problems. After dropping out, Vilsack became an ardent and vocal supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential bid.

Vilsack said Barack Obama's choice of the two opponents for his Cabinet says a lot about the president.

"President Obama is a very different politician,'' said Vilsack. "There are not many politicians who would have picked so many people for their cabinet who outright opposed them during the campaign.'''

Iowa Democratic Chairman Michael Kiernan said the decision was made to induct Vilsack into the party's Hall of Fame because of the lasting impact he's had on the party.

Vilsack said given the Democrats' recent success in Iowa, where the party holds both legislative chambers, the governor's office and three of five congressional seats, it's easy to forgot how much has changed since his election as governor.

"We were the minority party,'' said Vilsack. "I think we built a much stronger Democratic Party.''

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