John Norris: Why he may run for governor and what he would bring to the table

With the exhausting battles of the 2017 legislative session behind us, Iowa Democrats can turn their attention to the most pressing task ahead. Next year’s gubernatorial election will likely determine whether Republicans retain unchecked power to impose their will on Iowans, or whether some balance returns to the statehouse.

A record number of Democrats may run for governor in 2018. Today Bleeding Heartland begins a series of in-depth looks at the possible contenders.

John Norris moved back to Iowa with his wife Jackie Norris and their three sons last year, after nearly six years in Washington and two in Rome, Italy. He has been touching base with potential supporters for several weeks and expects to decide sometime in May whether to become a candidate for governor. His “concern about the direction the state’s going” is not in question. Rather, Norris is gauging the response he gets from activists and community leaders he has known for many years, and whether he can raise the resources “to make this a go.”

In a lengthy interview earlier this month, Norris discussed the changes he sees in Iowa, the issues he’s most passionate about, and why he has “something significantly different to offer” from others in the field, who largely agree on public policy. The native of Red Oak in Montgomery County (which happens to be Senator Joni Ernst’s home town too) also shared his perspective on why Democrats have lost ground among Iowa’s rural and small-town voters, and what they can do to reverse that trend.

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Only four senators voted to hold Geri Huser accountable

Disappointing but not surprising: the Iowa Senate on April 10 confirmed Geri Huser as chair of the Iowa Utilities Board by 44 votes to four. Senators delayed consideration of Huser’s nomination in late March, after Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press that she “has maintained a busy and profitable private legal practice” during her first two years as board chair.

Iowa Code 474.8 stipulates that each utilities board member “shall devote the member’s whole time to the duties of the office.” For decades, every other attorney appointed to that board halted his or her legal practice during the term of service. For some reason, Huser decided those standards need not apply to her. She has also given out conflicting information about her work for the Skinner Law Office. Although she has claimed not to receive any income from that firm, she appears to work out of their office, as Bleeding Heartland discussed near the end of this post.

Only four senators–Democrats Tony Bisignano, Kevin Kinney, Bob Dvorsky, and Herman Quirmbach–found Huser’s outside legal work concerning enough to oppose giving her two more years of greater administrative responsibility and higher pay as the board chair. Most Iowa Senate confirmations are unanimous, so four votes against Huser indicates unusually strong discomfort with her conduct.

On the other hand, the 44 senators who supported Huser on Monday sent a clear message to Iowans. If state law on devoting one’s “full time” to public service gets in the way of a earning a side income, sometimes during regular business hours, powerful and well-connected officials don’t need to follow that rule.

Huser’s ongoing legal practice isn’t her only unprecedented behavior as Iowa Utilities Board chair. Less than six months into her term, she withheld funding for energy centers affiliated with state universities. That inappropriate exercise of her authority was disruptive to the centers and possibly illegal. At the time, a former lawmaker who helped create the energy centers described Huser’s interference as “way out of line.”

Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom works at the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, which got caught up in Huser’s power play, even though the Iowa Energy Center at Iowa State University was her primary target. I am seeking comment from Bolkcom on his vote to confirm Huser and will update this post as needed.

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Weekend open thread: Terrible predictions edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

In the real world as well as on social media, many Iowa Democratic activists have been talking about Rich Leopold this week. Since announcing his candidacy for governor on Wednesday, Leopold has reached out to county chairs and other local leaders in a bunch of towns. I hope his early, aggressive campaign will drive other Democrats thinking about this race to start pounding the pavement sooner rather than later. I’m all for a spirited, competitive 2018 primary.

Longtime Johnson County elections office worker John Deeth wrote a must-read “deep dig” about the real-world implications of “the proposed voter ID legislation, with the Orwellian name ‘Voter Integrity,’ launched by Secretary of State Paul Pate on Thursday.” Key point: county auditors of both parties are not fans of voter ID, “because they’ve been on the front lines of dealing with the public and they know that it doesn’t solve anything and that it will make it harder for the public.” Bleeding Heartland’s take on Pate’s solution in search of a problem is here.

Des Moines Register statehouse reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel published a heartbreaking account of her mother’s terminal illness during the presidential campaign, a “sudden and devastating” ordeal that still “hurts like hell every day.”

Along with most Iowa politics watchers, I’m gearing up for the 2017 Iowa legislative session, which begins on Monday. First, let’s take care of some unfinished business from 2016. Like many political writers and a fair number of Bleeding Heartland readers, I had a horrendous year for predictions.

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Senate should demand full disclosure of Branstad donors before his confirmation

The Branstad-Reynolds Scholarship Fund, which collected money to pay for Governor Terry Branstad’s 2011 and 2015 inaugural celebrations, has not disclosed the names of donors who contributed $1.1 million in 2015, Ryan Foley reported today for the Associated Press. That information should have been included on the non-profit’s 2015 tax return. However, the return filed on November 15, 2016 named only one donor: Principal Financial Group, which gave $25,000.

Before considering Branstad’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to China, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should insist that the governor bring his non-profit into compliance with federal law. Senators should also scrutinize all donations to the group, to see whether Branstad did any political favors for individuals or businesses that bankrolled his inaugural.

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Energy centers got their money from the Iowa Utilities Board this year

During the first week of December 2015, an unexpected political scandal went out with a whimper as the Iowa Energy Center and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research finally received the remittances the Iowa Utilities Board had collected on their behalf from gas and electric utility companies. For many years, the board had transferred those funds without incident, as stipulated by state law. But in her first year as Iowa Utilities Board chair, Geri Huser took the “unusual, perhaps illegal, step of withholding funding […].”

Huser’s power play was aimed at the Iowa Energy Center affiliated with Iowa State University. (Its leaders denied her unsupported claim that they had refused to provide sufficient financial information to the board.) Because funds for both centers are calculated and released at the same time, the unprecedented board action also delayed resources for the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa. Huser backed down a week after Ryan Foley of the Associated Press exposed the controversy to a wider audience.

Having heard nothing about the energy centers’ funding lately, I reached out this week to Iowa Utilities Board communications director Don Tormey. He sent documents showing that in accordance with the usual formula for splitting the remittances, the board disbursed $4,123,150.49 to the Iowa Energy Center and $727,614.79 to the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. The board sent warrants (paper checks) using regular mail, as had happened in 2015 for reasons I still don’t understand. Before last year, the board typically transmitted those funds via wire transfer.

Communications staff at the state universities confirmed that the energy centers received checks in the mail last month for $4,123,150.49 and $727,614.79, respectively. Those totals comprise the remittances from utility companies but not the interest accrued on those funds. John McCarroll of Iowa State University noted, “In the letter with the check, IUB said they will be forward[ing] the interest payment in June 2017 as they close out the fiscal year. This is how they handled the interest in 2016.”

The board has faced criticism on other fronts this year after approving the Dakota Access (Bakken) pipeline and allowing its construction to commence this summer, when Dakota Access did not have all applicable federal permits. Pending lawsuits are challenging the board’s authority to use eminent domain for the pipeline, saying a 2006 Iowa law does not allow a company that isn’t a utility to condemn farmland. It would have been foolish for Huser to stir up more trouble by flexing her muscles at the energy centers’ expense again. Also possibly relevant: former Iowa Energy Center executive director Mark Petri, with whom Huser had tangled, left Ames this summer to take a new job as director of the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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