The Rants/Narcisse roadshow: a new headache for Culver

State Representative Chris Rants will “debate” former Des Moines School Board member Jonathan Narcisse on various issues during the first half of December. The Iowa Republican blog has the preliminary schedule for the debates in Bettendorf, Ankeny, Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Waterloo, as well as footage from yesterday’s joint press conference by Rants and Narcisse.

Scheduling the “debates” is a clever move by Rants, who is running the best gubernatorial campaign in the GOP field so far. These events will not be good news for Governor Chet Culver.

Rants is a smart guy; he’s got a lot of substantive material on his campaign website, and his stump speech is getting good reviews at Republican events. He has a few big obstacles, though. Never having run a statewide campaign before, he lacks the name recognition of Terry Branstad or even Bob Vander Plaats. He has raised a lot of money for Iowa House Republicans over the years, but he can’t compete with Branstad on the fundraising front, and he may have trouble keeping up with Vander Plaats and Christian Fong.

Rants has been traveling the state more or less full-time since the legislative session ended in April, but many of his solo appearances aren’t big draws for journalists. He was a long-shot before Branstad got into the race, and he faces longer odds now. His upcoming “debates” with Narcisse are likely to generate free media in Iowa’s biggest cities.

I put “debates” in quotation marks because Rants and Narcisse are not likely to present markedly different prescriptions for the state.

I went to Narcisse’s website, An Iowa Worth Fighting For, and downloaded his manifesto. His guiding principles and policy proposals are largely conservative. For instance, he wants to drastically reduce the size of state government, phase out corporate taxes, reduce the sales tax to 4 percent, and reform property taxes. Narcisse has a lot of ideas on education reform, including taking on the main teacher’s union, opting out of No Child Left Behind, reducing education bureaucrats by 5,000 to 10,000 positions, and repealing the “Model Core Curriculum” with a view to restoring “true local control.” His views on immigration reform are also likely to appeal to a conservative crowd. He is a regular guest on right-winger Steve Deace’s WHO radio program.

Narcisse is not a closet Republican. His views on drug policy and nutrition in schools, for instance, would put him at odds with many in the GOP. I would describe him as an anti-establishment type. He certainly doesn’t espouse typical Democratic opinions.

The problem is, the upcoming debates are being presented as Republican Rants against Democrat Narcisse. By blasting the current performance of state government and calling for its radical reduction, Narcisse is more likely to reinforce Rants’ message than provide a counterpoint to it.

Some journalists have speculated that Narcisse might challenge Culver in the Democratic primary, but I think two other outcomes are much more likely. Narcisse may end up endorsing Rants and his government reform proposals. Speaking to WHO journalist Dave Price yesterday, Narcisse slammed Culver and several of the Republican gubernatorial candidates, but not Rants. He said Branstad, Vander Plaats and Fong don’t have a plan to restructure state government, for instance. Echoing talking points Rants has used, Narcisse said Culver’s across-the-board budget cut will increase property taxes. More broadly, the upcoming “debates” seem designed to raise the profile of Rants’ campaign. (UPDATE: In the comments, Narcisse says he will not endorse Rants.)

Alternatively, Narcisse might run for governor as an independent. Ordinarily, I would say a third-party candidate running on a small-government platform would help an incumbent Democrat by dividing the opposition vote. In New Jersey’s recent gubernatorial campaign, independent Chris “don’t spend money you don’t have” Daggett helped Governor Jon Corzine get back into the race against Republican Chris Christie.

However, Narcisse isn’t a typical small-government conservative. He is a registered Democrat who supported Culver in 2006, which will probably increase the media’s interest in his message. A Republican who calls Culver “a disaster for this state” might get tuned out as partisan noise. Narcisse lets journalists put a Democratic label on sentiments like these:

“Any Democrat who loves this state must call for someone to run against Gov. Culver,” Narcisse said. “He has been reckless and irresponsible in his administration and it has destabilized government in this state at every level.”

It’s worth noting that Narcisse owns The Iowa Bystander, a newspaper targeted at an African-American audience. He will consequently become the second prominent black Iowan to take an active role in campaigning against Culver. In October, Iowa/Nebraska NAACP head Keith Ratliff endorsed Bob Vander Plaats for governor.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of the Rants/Narcisse road show, but these events won’t produce any welcome publicity for Culver. The only upside I can think of is that they will bring Rants’ bashing of Branstad to a wider audience as well.

Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: The Iowa Republican prominently published an open letter from Narcisse to Vander Plaats. Excerpt:

I love this state. I would sit down with you, Gov. Culver, former Gov. Branstad, or any other Iowan committed to addressing the very serious issues facing this state. The pain of Iowans is real, and that pain calls for answers and leadership.

Unfortunately, it has become obvious; you have no real interest in providing those answers or that leadership.

Mr. Vander Plaats, that’s not good enough.

The time has come for you to stop offering platitudes and promises; pandering is not leadership.[…]

Yesterday I looked at your website and found two consistent themes.

The first is pandering to issues that have little to do with the constitutional duties of a Governor. For example you talk about the need for a federal fair tax while you completely fail to offer a vision of tax reform in Iowa. If that is your plan, to neglect Iowa’s needs and debate federal matters, you should run against United States Senator Charles Grassley or United States Representative Steve King.

The second is affirmation that, with the exception of the executive order, your policies are no different than those of former Governor Terry Branstad’s, sans the experience. In many respects, your priorities are no different than Governor Culver’s.

Your site affirms government intrusion into the private business sector in multiple and unacceptable ways. Your site affirms your commitment to major expanded government. Your site affirms your commitment to a failed education bureaucracy.

In the comment thread at The Iowa Republican blog, Narcisse added:

I have been willing to work with Bob, Christian or any other Republican on developing real solutions. Infact I met with Bob the same morning I met with Speaker Rants. While Bob pitched me even offering me a job Chris actually discussed real ideas and solutions. […] I would welcome debates with any Republican. Unfortunately Chris Rants is the only one willing to really discuss ideas and solutions. That doesn’t mean I’m propping him up or planning to run with him. It means Iowans can get a real solution conversation instead of pandering. As for Bob, there was no candidate I was so willing to spend time with to develop solutions. He just isn’t interested and what he’s posted on his site is Big “G” Government to either be funded by tax hikes or debt. But I would love to have him come out of hiding and actually offer a real plan, real solutions and man up. But he is, afterall, the “turn around” ceo.

DECEMBER 6 UPDATE: Narcisse published a long open letter to Rants at The Iowa Republican blog. It isn’t quite an endorsement, but it teeters on the brink in several places.

  • I don't get Narcisse

    I just do not understand his angle in all of this. Narcisse is an opportunist and he wouldn’t start wailing on all the GOP candidates if he didn’t have some goal in mind.

    I think he’s trying to get his face and name out there for a run at another public office, either in 2010 or beyond, either as a Republican, Democrat or Other. I could see him trying to get on someone’s ticket, either GOP or Dem. (Is he the root of the Judge rumors?) Or I could see this whole thing as Narcisse in cahoots with Rants–it is, after all, putting butts in his seats.

  • From Jonathan R. Narcisse: For the Record

    First, I am not going to endorse Chris Rants. That’s not going to happen.

    Second, my motives are no different than they’ve been the last three decades of my advocacy. I have been fighting for the working Iowans, children, the poor my entire adult life. A decade ago I engaged in a 99 county process that resulted in major education and health efforts in Iowa and even gained national attention.

    As a member of the Des Moines School Board I didn’t enjoy the support of the South of Grand crowd but I crushed in Des Moines’ poorest and most working class communities.

    They recognized, even if the establishment – left to right – I would never sell them out or compromise.

    Third, what is conservative or liberal. I’d love to talk to you about my ideas and dismiss the labels. Instead of speculating why don’t you meet with me.

    For example property tax reform isn’t a conservative idea. Under our current structure blighted areas like Forest Avenue cannot be renovated unless rich developers come in and do it. If a small business comes in and improves the property that business gets hit and hit hard.

    This means the decay continues from Waterloo to Davenport in our urban areas and decay continues from Lyon to Lee counties in our rural areas. Meanwhile urban sprawl thrives.

    The problem is since we don’t examine issues in depth we allow labels to define the value of them.

    Under my proposal high poverty areas – urban and rural – can be resettled and developed. Family farmers, not just big corporate ag is protected. Urban Sprawl is checked.

    Each area proposed in “An Iowa Worth Fighting For” serves a potent populace outcome. And the debates with Chris Rants will highlight real solutions.

    As for differences there are many. A surface look may not point these differences out but as we were sitting at Famous Dave’s going at it hot and heavy the idea formed. Let’s have some Lincoln vs. Douglas style debates and truly offer Iowans something they don’t get – meaningful solution oriented political discourse instead of pandering.

    If anyone is interested in more than speculation and would love to hear why these ideas are truly the most empowering for working Iowans I’d love to have that conversation.

    I can be reached at 515-770-1218 and my email address is

    • thanks for your comment

      I am active with 1000 Friends of Iowa and certainly agree that we need to redevelop and revitalize our existing urban residential neighborhoods and business districts. Right now taxpayers are subsidizing the rapid urban sprawl that accelerates the decay you are talking about.

      I fail to see how helping Chris Rants’ gubernatorial campaign will advance this agenda in any way. It was Rants who, as Iowa House speaker, refused to bring Ed Fallon’s land use bill up for a floor vote, even after the local government committee had approved that land use bill by an overwhelming bipartisan majority.

      From my perspective, having a series of debates in which the Democrat and Republican tag-team in bashing Chet Culver can only increase the odds of electing Terry Branstad. He was governor when the tax-increment financing law was changed to allow cornfields to be declared “urban renewal areas,” so developers could get additional taxpayer support for urban sprawl. If you think Branstad would be any more open to your agenda than Culver is now, I strongly disagree.

    • I have updated the original post

      to link to your comment.

  • Dr. Pepper, 7-Up are options, too

    I reject the Coke-Pepsi scenario always presented to voters.

    Culver has been a disaster as Governor. At the same time the Branstad people are livid with me because I’ve hammered his administration.

    He was a pro-gambling, no growth, big government, bigger tax Governor and now he is a pro-gambling, no growth, big government, bigger tax hypocrite as a candidate.

    One might actually have respected him if he owned his legacy and defended it but I’ve sat across from him and his pandering insults the intelligence of even the simplest of Iowans.

    As for debating Rants why should I fear that. I am sick of the labels – conservative or liberal – as they exist amongst the political class.

    The priorities of the political class – getting elected, keeping power, attacking, fending off attacks, keeping croonies happy and, once in a while, acknowledging real problems is no longer good enough.

    Solutions need to be offered. This isn’t about Republicans versus Democrats. People are hurting. Really hurting. In doing 10,000 miles the past few months I’ve seen good, decent Iowans from both parties hurting bad.

    Truth is most Iowans were born into their party like they were born in their faith. And the poltical class has lied to us while serving the same master.

    The only good thing about this decade is we’ve learned when our party has all the power they are no better than when the opposition party has all the power.

    So we created “An Iowa Worth Fighting For” to create a weapon to arm Iowans with to fight the evil of the political class. To stand up and advance an agenda that gives us our state back.

    I supported Gov. Culver. Not just voted for him but worked to get him elected. I think he’s a great guy, personally. But his policies have been reckless and irresponsible. And poor people are suffering. Working Iowans are suffering. Teachers are suffering. Education has plunged on his watch. And the litany goes on and on. He doesn’t even listen to his own people. I’ve talked to them.

    At the same time to suggest I am backing Branstad, or Rants, or Vander Plaats as if those are the only options is absurd.

    Debating Speaker Rants puts the advancing of our ideas on a bigger stage. It’s that simple. It’s old school. Instead of hiding behind meaningless labels and no real solutions being offered we are going to meet in battle. We are going to defend our positions. Iowans deserve that.

    The other option is to remain in the dark. I didn’t send Bob that letter because I expected him to change. I sent it for his supporters. To challenge them. He isn’t what he says he is. His website confirms he’s a big ticket Republican but because we are no longer supposed to think but simply be loyal to our tribe he’s been able to get away with it.

    Well, I don’t have a tribe. I have a 13 year old and a 10 year old and neither can afford the Branstad-Culver-Vander Plaats Administration. I have a mom who is 75 and none of these people represent her.

    So in the absence of leadership advancing solutions it is our job, as Iowans, to do so. We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.

    Now I’m glad our politicians still lie to us. Why do they lie to us? They fear us. They quake before our latent power. But Iowans don’t understand that power.

    But they better.

    Next year we face a billion dollar deficit. That’s owned by both parties. But who is Culver going to be firing next year – Democrats that teach in DSM and Wat. Democrats that are cops in Dav. and C.R. Democrats that are laborers in Sioux City and Marshalltown.

    When I met with Branstad I didn’t take it easy on him. Infact I said the difference between his graduation rates and those of Vilsack and Culver is that Jonathan Narcisse wasn’t there to expose the lies.

    Well, this time he doesn’t get away with it and when I recently gave a speech that went after him his people came after me.

    A decade ago I started a statewide effort. We were changing this state and we were impacting the nation. Even the White House wanted to work with us but I lost my marraige and nearly my sanity because I was so focused on making positive changes.

    I’ve paid a high price and I’m in no mood for politics for politics sake. This is bigger than party loyalties. This is about fixing our state before it’s too late.

    And with that we must embrace this sentiment: “We can no longer have permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”

    I have unapologetically fought for those without a voice. And I will continue to war against those who harm the innocent – red or blue.

    • don't drink Coke or Pepsi

      and I also support some reforms that neither party will embrace.

      At the same time, I see only two realistic outcomes next November:

      1. Culver will be re-elected.

      2. The Republican nominee for governor (most likely Branstad) will defeat Culver.

      Neither is likely to lead to your agenda or my agenda being enacted in full. I’ll take the first option.

  • The Debate Won't Be Culver Bashing

    Goto Check out the questions. This won’t be Culver, Branstad or any other candidate bashing. This will be the advancing of ideas and solutions. t least on my part and if Speaker Rants engages in bashing I’ll bury him.

    But he’s smart and I think he knows this will be too big on the stage to be petty. We’ll both bring it and if either is weak in the solution realm we will be punished by the other.

  • Reducing Government

    That isn’t a conservative idea. We have multiple bureaucracies that duplicate administrative functions like Economic Development and Commerce. Why isn’t it just prudent to consolidate them.

    We have divisions and programs that are poorly aligned. Why shouldn’t we move Criminal Juvenile Justice from Human Rights and the Public Defender from Inspection and Appeals and put them where it makes sense?

    Why should we have near 180 boards and commissions that lack direction and focus and dilute resources?

    We need to fix DHS.

    My daughter has about 25 kids in her class yet her school district has less than a six student to one staff person ratio. Only 57% of the district’s money goes to instruction and half of that, at best, gets in the classroom.

    Now they want to go after teachers when these people come in early, leave late and eat cold soup for lunch while administrators take two hour lunches at Skip’s?

    Are you kidding me.

    Governor Culver cuts across the board and the Republicans offered no alternative which means key services like police and fire protection get cut.

    Meanwhile, I received an email from a legislator describing just one of the many areas of waste in governance in Iowa. We call an ambulance in Des Moines to pick up an inmate in Ft. Dodge to take him to Iowa City the ambulance returns to Des Moines and then goes back to Iowa City to Ft. Dodge and back to Des Moines.

    Yes I want to reduce government.

    We have 99 counties, 947 cities, nearly 400 academic bureaucracies. We have superintendents for school districts smaller than some of our elementary schools. We have cities with 12,000 residents with S.W.A.T. teams.

    Why is it conservative to eliminate this kind of waste?

    What’s worse is while the citizenry debates liberal vs. conservative virtues our leaders sell out to the highest bidder. When Republicans were in power they didn’t keep their word. And now that the Democrats are in power, with a up to one hundred billion in government funded public works projects slated over the next 30 years there is no prevailing wage or livable wage commitment. Instead the Democrats have allowed all those federal and state funds – stimulus, flood recovery, school infrastructure, etc…- go to big Republican owned construction companies and the slave labor they’ve hired to do the job so they can further line their pockets.

    Why should I care if the people that have wrought this crisis on their own return to power beginning with Gov. Culver?

    • some reorganizing will have to happen

      otherwise there’s no way they can come up with a balanced budget for fiscal year 2011. Let’s see what the legislature’s commission comes up with before we assume that teachers and other public workers are going to bear the full brunt of the cuts.

      You and I probably agree on more things than you realize, but I don’t agree that Democrats in power have been “no better” than Republicans when they ran this state. I am disappointed by the Democrats’ failure to deliver on a lot of things I care about. The prevailing wage fiasco was especially depressing because we should have had the votes to get that through the Iowa House.

      But this state would be in even worse shape if Republicans had been in charge. No increase in minimum wage, no expanded access to pre-school, no investment in affordable housing or better sewer systems or lead testing or any number of things. The GOP probably would have responded to the current situation by passing more tax cuts for the wealthy.

      I voted for Fallon in the 2006 primary, and I would agree that Culver is a poor coalition-builder and hasn’t done enough on certain issues. At the same time, I think the bashing/blaming of Culver has been excessive. The current revenue weakness stems largely from national trends that are out of his control and partly from all those tax cuts passed by Republican-controlled Iowa legislatures (many of them signed into law by Vilsack). If you’re worried about government resources going to the powerful interests, Blouin would have done worse than Culver, and Nussle would have done worse than either of them.

      Both parties are afraid to propose major consolidation because the public will punish them for it. People may tell you they want less government and bureaucracy, but that doesn’t mean they want to give up anything in their own community (including their small-town SWAT team). Of all 50 states, Iowa has the highest proportion of residents living in towns smaller than 25,000. More consolidation of school districts and counties means of a lot towns will die.

      Wasn’t Rants speaker when the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court started talking about consolidating county courthouses, way before the current budget crisis? The legislature threw a hissy fit, because they knew the public in the smaller counties wouldn’t stand for this. It won’t be as easy as you suggest to get people to rise up for wiser investments of public resources.

  • December 3rd Training

    On December 3rd we are holding an extensive training on how to reorganize government and fix our state. You should cover it. Check out the schedule at

You need to signin or signup to post a comment.