State Public Health Department director resigns

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The director of the Iowa Department of Public Health has resigned because she plans to run for Congress, Gov. Terry Branstad said Thursday.

Mariannette Miller-Meeks recently faced criticism for a comment she made about food stamps. Branstad said he did not seek her resignation and said it had nothing to do with the remark.

“I know what she’s intending to do,” Branstad told reporters at the Capitol. And when reporters asked whether Miller-Meeks planned to run for the U.S. House from Iowa’s 2nd District for the third time, the governor acknowledged that she would be doing just that.

“I don’t know that I should be the one announcing it,” Branstad added.

Miller-Meeks, an Ottumwa ophthalmologist and Republican, has been criticized for inaccurately saying that Mountain Dew was the top item purchased with food stamps in Iowa. The comment, made during an October event, was highlighted in a Lee newspaper story.

A health department spokeswoman later said Miller-Meeks “regrets that she miscommunicated the information.”

Miller-Meeks did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment about Branstad’s statement regarding her plans. She previously ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2008 and 2010, losing both times to Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack.

Miller-Meeks has served as director of the state agency since Branstad took office in 2011. Earlier Thursday, she said she was not leaving because of the comments but rather to seek new opportunities, including a potential third run for Congress.

“In order to be able to explore what’s the best course for me and my family, it was best I resign to make that determination for me and my family,” Miller-Meeks said.

Miller-Meeks said her Mountain Dew remark came as she was making comments about how improve nutrition for those on public assistance. She acknowledged that the state does not specifically track food stamp purchase information.

In a news release announcing her departure, Branstad said Miller-Meeks had served with “great passion.”

“Mariannette has been a champion of health in Iowa, including working to promote our Healthiest State Initiative,” Branstad said.

Branstad named the agency’s deputy director, Gerd Clabaugh, as its interim director.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Scott Brennan criticized Miller-Meeks on Thursday, saying her resignation was “past due.”

“She has used the office of public health for a political agenda only Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party could love — demonizing working families in need with blatantly false information about Iowans, trafficked on the Internet by a radical Tea Party fringe,” Brennan said in a news release.

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