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.
"IT'S JUST SO DIFFERENT AND WRONG IN SO MANY WAYS"
Some things never change, like the ties to family and friends that pulled the Norrises back to their home state, rather than to job opportunities elsewhere. But in other ways, the Iowa they found in 2016 didn't resemble the state they remembered.
I think the biggest eye-opener for me--and I knew it, and I'd seen it before I left, but when you don't see it for a while--it's driving across the state. And I like to go on the back roads when I can. I mean, it's just, it's just stark, the contrast of our landscape from even ten years ago, but certainly from longer back than that.
That's one of my main reasons I started thinking about this [running for governor], is I just--my love for the land and rural Iowa is just, what I wanted my family and our family, my boys to experience. It's just, it's just so different and wrong in so many ways. [...] That's the biggest negative I've seen since we moved back.
A second motivating factor for Norris: "the politics are certainly more dire than any of us imagined." He had no idea Republican lawmakers "would be this usurped by outside forces and carry this agenda."
As Governor Tom Vilsack's chief of staff for two and a half years, Norris worked with a GOP-controlled legislature. The Republicans running the show now are "much more extreme" than those who regularly discussed policy with some of their Democratic colleagues and people in Vilsack's office. Today's Iowa House and Senate leaders are "definitely not engaging the minority party in conversations," and "there seems to be no evidence even amongst just the majority party of having serious policy discussions." It's all about "tactics and running this stuff through."
A BACKGROUND IN POLITICS AND POLICY
People who build political careers tend to follow one of two professional tracks: campaign operative or policy-maker. I can't think of any other Iowan with as much experience in both the "hack" and "wonk" camps as Norris.
He did a little work for Tom Harkin's 1982 re-election campaign for the U.S. House, but his first big political job was as statewide events coordinator for Harkin's 1984 U.S. Senate race. Norris did quite a bit of fundraising too. He managed Lowell Junkins's gubernatorial bid for part of the 1986 cycle and continued with that campaign in the lead fundraising role.
Also during the mid-1980s, Norris was state director for the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, which advocated for legislation to help family farmers and other policies to combat the farm crisis. A new job offer followed soon after he attended an organizing meeting for Jesse Jackson at the Greenfield Country Club in Adair County. Being Jackson's state director for about a year and a half before the 1988 caucuses was a "great experience," Norris remembers. During that year's general election, he worked on the Michael Dukakis campaign. (Dukakis carried this state convincingly.)
Shifting gears, Norris bought the old hotel in Greenfield and ran a restaurant in the Adair County seat for four years. He had a vision of restoring the town's old opera house--a labor of love others took on many years later.
Norris left the restaurant behind to run Harkin's presidential campaign in Iowa. Some good political trivia: David Plouffe, best known now for managing Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008, was the state field director for Harkin's 1992 effort.
The following year, Norris organized the Farm Aid benefit concert in Ames, with headliners Willie Nelson and Neil Young, then enrolled at the University of Iowa law school on an accelerated program. Completing that degree in two years "felt like a vacation after the restaurant business."
He had planned to practice law after graduating, but was recruited to run a short-lived U.S. Senate campaign in Oklahoma, then managed Leonard Boswell's first Congressional race in 1996. Despite getting in just a few weeks before the filing deadline, the then Iowa Senate president won the primary and general elections. Norris moved to Washington to serve as Boswell's chief of staff.
He declined an offer to run Vilsack's gubernatorial campaign in 1998, but in the middle of that cycle stepped up to the challenge of becoming Iowa Democratic Party state chair. It was an unenviable position: the party was deeply in debt and hadn't made the last payroll. "We ended up turning it all around, Vilsack turned it around, we turned the party around and won the governor's race."
Norris then helped Vilsack assemble his cabinet and served as the governor's first chief of staff. Early on, he became aware some people had been meeting to talk about "restructuring Iowa's electricity market to deregulate at the retail level." Norris encouraged Vilsack to get involved in those discussions before some bill he didn't like landed on his desk. The governor wanted to know, "Who did we hire to do energy?" The answer was nobody. Climate change wasn't a salient issue at the time, nor was ethanol a major factor in the agricultural economy. Norris remembers his boss saying,
"You've been telling me you want to do a policy area. There you go." And so, he called the group and re-formed it as his working group on electric restructuring. And I remember showing up at that first meeting [...] it's highly technical stuff, and I loved it. I loved it. And we steered them away from retail restructuring and really got to the heart of the issue, [which] was the concern about long-term generation capacity for Iowa. And we instead passed the advanced ratemaking principles, which led to all the wind build-out. That and the PTC [wind production tax credit] are the two biggest factors in Iowa being where they're at in wind today.
About two and a half years into his stint as chief of staff--a typical "burnout level" for that demanding position--an opening came up on the Iowa Utilities Board. Vilsack wanted to appoint Norris, who started preparing for the job.
A change of heart came during a long run one morning. "I couldn't get running for Congress out of my mind. I just thought it was time, I'd been wanting to. [President George W.] Bush had been in office, and that was motivation as well." Later that day, Norris met with some Iowa Utilities Board staff and sat in on a telecom hearing. "Paint drying was more exciting." He walked back up to the governor's office, where a press release announcing his board appointment was almost ready to go. Instead, he told his colleague he was going to resign and run for Congress.
Norris moved to Ames and "had a great time" running against Representative Tom Latham in 2002, even though that turned out to be a bad cycle for Democratic challengers. (Only two Democratic candidates in the country defeated House GOP incumbents.) The vast, newly-drawn fourth district covered 28 counties from Madison County all the way to the northeast corner of Iowa, a five-hour drive from end to end. Norris is philosophical about losing: "Timing's a lot in politics." But he now realizes "I listened to my consultants too much" about what issues to emphasize. How so?
I wanted to talk about economic justice and equity. And I wanted to point out that here's a guy who cut, voted to eliminate the low-income weatherization program, but yet he and his family had taken millions of dollars in federal payments to subsidize their million-dollar farm operation? So where's your values here? What are your values? And looking out for the little guy?
"No no no, John, this [election] is going to be on Medicare and Social Security." You know, a lot of elderly in the district. The problem is, they [Republicans] can muddy the waters on those issues. It's hard--we have not done a good job of clarifying the philosophical differences on those programs. But I don't know if it would have turned the race around, but I kind of regret not going with my heart.
Norris raised about $1.2 million for his race against Latham, "which was unheard of" for a challenger in 2002. "So I know what it takes to put the resources together. It takes a lot."
Both Howard Dean and John Kerry had campaigned for Norris during his Congressional race. Later, Kerry reached out to Norris about running his 2004 Iowa caucus campaign, and Norris agreed. Then, when Kerry launched his presidential bid here, "He told the crowd that Jackie was pregnant before I'd had a chance to tell anybody."
Wow, awkward! "It was very awkward. He didn't realize--I mean, he lost the crowd for about five minutes, because they were all--everyone's looking around to see Jackie."
Disclosure: I was a volunteer precinct captain for Kerry in 2003 and 2004, when Kerry came from behind to win the caucuses and fell just short in the general election. Kerry gained more than 100,000 more votes here than Al Gore had managed in winning the state four years earlier, but it wasn't enough to match the surge in Republican turnout for President Bush.
Vilsack had another vacancy to fill on the Iowa Utilities Board in early 2005 and appointed Norris to chair the three-member body. Again Norris immersed himself in energy policy issues. Unlike most state boards and commissions, running the utilities board is a full-time job.
Four years into his six-year term, Norris moved back to Washington following Barack Obama's election as president. He and Jackie had become influential early Obama supporters after Vilsack abandoned his own presidential ambitions. Obama appointed Norris to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. During the long wait for Senate confirmation (held up by Senator Olympia Snowe "for about seven or eight months for a decision FERC had made five years before"), Norris returned to a familiar role: chief of staff for Vilsack, now U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. "It was great. I enjoyed the year there. I mean, it was kind of like the governor's office. You've got to assemble a cabinet, put a team together, set the agenda."
Norris spent nearly five years as a federal energy regulator, then relocated to Italy for two years as U.S. Minister-Counselor for Agriculture to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Program. He and the family moved back to Des Moines last September, when he became a co-owner of the State Public Policy Group, and Jackie was hired as president and CEO for Goodwill Industries of Central Iowa.
"WE HAVE NOT MADE A COMPELLING ECONOMIC ARGUMENT"
The years Norris was out of state included three devastating elections for Iowa Democrats. How does he explain what happened last year, when the voting patterns of whites with and without college degrees diverged markedly? How can our party's candidates combat a drumbeat from GOP candidates and conservative media outlets, saying Democratic elites look down on ordinary people and don't respect their culture or values?
We have to give people a reason. The preservation of their life and opportunity is about expansion and not retracting. And extending rights to the individual.
You know, we have been, as a party, we've focused a lot on social justice issues and equal rights, and we should never back away from those. But we have, I think, not made a compelling economic argument. It's crazy because we have the best, compelling economic argument. But that's allowed--nor have the Republicans, I mean, there's no economic future in their economic plans for rural Iowa. It's, you know, giving tax breaks to large corporations in the urban centers is not helping grow rural Iowa. In fact, it's complicating their ability to deal with it. Compounding their ability to deal with it.
Why are more rural Iowans voting for politicians whose economic priorities don't help their communities? In Norris's view, Republicans
have driven social wedges on social issues to divide folks. And we have not addressed--we've just said, well that's wrong. So we've amped up our response on social justice issues. Which, yeah, angers us and we should respond. But we have not responded by saying, folks, your enemy is not Latinos or gays and lesbians. Your enemy is your economic future and the inability to educate your kids and get adequate job training and getting access to good jobs in rural Iowa.
That's, that's I think it's where a lot of that economic anger comes from, that frustration, that fear comes from. And they've [Republicans] capitalized on the blame game. And we've responded by sticking up for people they're blaming, which we should. But we haven't also responded with real programs to help restore their economic opportunity.
And then that gets us into tax policy and our budget policies and the reflections of our priorities, which is what we should be talking about. Because their priorities are--look at where they're spending the money. And look at who they're taxing and not taxing.
Folks, that's what we've got to get people to look at. Who really are they trying to help economically. Because until you help them economically, they're vulnerable to want to blame someone else. That's human nature. [...] Let's give people, you know, let's create a fear of "they're gonna take your guns" so that you forget about the fact that they don't care about your job.
"A POPULIST MESSAGE OF HOPE AND COOPERATION"
What does Norris think Iowa Democrats could do to improve our candidates' performance in statewide elections?
Our biggest losses are in the rural part of the state. So we've got to address rural Iowa. I mean, we've got to address issues in Des Moines and the urban areas in the state too, but you know, as I said in that Starting Line article, if it all erodes around the Des Moines-Ames corridor and the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor, it'll eventually impact us here too.
So I don't think we've been aggressive enough with answers for how we turn this rural Iowa economy around. And part of it's because it's so darn hard. I mean, we have just let our ag industry become something that's in my mind long-term not sustainable, but that's not going to be turned around anytime soon. But we can begin to lay the groundwork.
In the meantime, we've got to get hope for people living in rural Iowa that we can create economic opportunity for them. And also, make it attractive enough, we've got to attract folks to repopulate rural Iowa, small towns.
As Norris mentioned earlier, Republicans don't have any plans to improve the job market or living standards in rural or small-town areas. The difference is, they have developed a political strategy to compensate for that shortcoming.
I think the last cycle, certainly with [Donald] Trump, maybe a little bit the previous cycle, with Ernst and [Governor Terry] Branstad, they really played to people's fears, and the least-common denominator. And it was a populist [message] based in hate and anger and racism. We have to have a populist message of hope and cooperation and fighting for the little guy.
And you've got to empower folks to have that kind of future in rural Iowa. Education is such a huge piece of it. People aren't gonna move back to rural Iowa, or rural Iowans aren't going to be excited about or confident in their kids' future if we aren't giving them, returning Iowa to just the best education in this country. That takes resources. That's a whole tax reform issue discussion. [...]
A related challenge is getting "that last mile on high-speed internet, which is the hardest and most expensive mile," to Iowans outside cities and suburbs. With his partner Bradley Knott, the State Public Policy Group set up a system to give everyone in a Des Moines low-income housing development access to high-speed internet through wifi. Norris believes thinking creatively may reveal opportunities to extend broadband in underserved areas, perhaps using the Iowa Communications Network that has connected public buildings since the 1980s.
Finding new owners for long-established businesses will be another critical part of any revitalization strategy, according to Norris.
Two key elements are education--both as training of the workforce and also for the children of people who want to live in rural Iowa--and access to technology so they can live in rural Iowa and work elsewhere, or bring jobs to rural Iowa.
The other piece I think we have to really focus on is, we've talked about the aged farm workforce for some time. We need to talk about aging small business owners who have spent their life building up business equity--not a ton of equity, but that's kind of like the farmers did, that was their life savings. We've got to work to transfer that--to help do tax policies so they can transfer that ownership to new people moving there or people existing there that keeps them there. You help secure their future retirement, but you also help pass on, so it's really a succession plan for rural Iowa businesses.
Bringing veterans back. I'm talking about welding shops, you know, I'm talking about some hardware stores. We've got to focus on the transfer of our small business and our small manufacturing owners to the next generation. We can do that through tax policy.
And certainly the development of new ag products, and some diversification of agriculture in rural Iowa. That's a harder nut to crack on a large scale, but we've got to start.
So I think there are things we can truly do to help reach out to folks, bring people back to rural Iowa. But I don't think we're doing any of that well, if at all, now. Certainly not cutting education. We did a lot with the Reinvest in America Act through the USDA with access to broadband, but it's not done. And that last mile is still a critical piece to figure out the technology.
I asked Norris how he thought the new collective bargaining law would affect small towns and rural Iowa, given that similar policies in Wisconsin made it harder for rural school districts to compete for teachers.
That's a great example of what I'm talking about, this populism based on blame and anger. A lot of the good jobs in rural Iowa are working for the schools or county government. Those are livable wages, right? Not great wages, but they are livable wages. They don't pay enough to attract teachers, but they are livable. So you've got either your large farm operations now, or you've got another class of people working for minimum wage. And people feeling hopelessness about themselves or their kids' economic opportunities.
So it was a blame game. It was this, kind of Trump populist anger: well, why are they getting to make so much money?
Having run a restaurant in a small town, Norris knows that if a bunch of public employees get a cut in their take-home pay, "Boom! You're not selling any hamburgers, or you're selling hamburgers and not steaks."
It is so undermining of the future. Is that really the decision you want to send to rural Iowa? [...] I mean, some of those entry-level government jobs are just barely livable wages, but they are. And with the benefits, they enable someone to live a good life in rural Iowa. In Iowa in general. But now, we're going to strip them of that so we can just lower everyone's [living standards].
It is so backward, but that's the politics we have to deal with. We have to get folks to realize we can't turn those folks on each other. They're all in the same boat.
Norris sees the Iowa Republican assault on local control as part of a long-term strategy.
Cities and county governments are incubators of innovation and new ideas and progressive ideas. What are they doing now? They're trying to chop off the incubation of progressive ideas by limiting what local governments can do on minimum wage, on plastic bags, you know, on CAFOs [confined animal feeding operations]. And this is the party that claims to be for local government.
But I really think it's, it's largely designed to make sure that those new progressive ideas don't get off the ground. And if you incubate them to success in some counties, it could actually take hold, and we could move this state forward on some really creative and, you know, basic economic progressive ideas and environmental ideas. [...]
Their strategy is well thought out, and it's driving wedges only to benefit the folks who retain control of the powers of government and can vote their taxes in the way they want them.
On a more encouraging note, Norris pointed out that wind turbines being installed in many parts of the state are "injecting a serious amount of new property taxes into those counties."
Maybe we should be thinking about how to leverage that revenue stream for the next 20 years to invest in some rebuilding communities. So we partner that with state money on education and infrastructure and have an aggressive program to help transfer small business ownership to people there or people moving in.
I don't have all the answers, but we can begin to change energy development and renewable energy--with solar, and the expansion of wind turbines, and the expansion of solar I think are two other great opportunities to help rebuild the rural economy. You know, each place you're going to have different pockets of strength, but that's what you do. Build them one community at a time. We can begin to turn it around.
Long-range, we've got to be a better advocate on federal farm policy and change our incentives away from getting more and more out of one acre of land to more and more [into] conservation programs so we can begin to change our rural environment, so it's a place people are attracted to and want to live.
"WE WANT BUSINESSES TO BE PART OF THE COMMUNITY"
Norris has talked about needing to rein in some of the excessive corporate tax breaks Iowa enacted in recent years. Is he willing to explicitly campaign for governor on that issue? "Absolutely."
I mentioned that a lot of Democrats are afraid to speak in those terms, because they can easily be portrayed as trying to raise everyone's taxes.
I think we have to have significant tax reform in the state. And it starts with the rollback of some of those tax credits from the 2013 [commercial property] tax bill that have gone in large numbers to very few. And now we're seeing the ramifications of that: cuts in education, cuts to the Flood Center at the University of Iowa. That's a direct result of giving tax breaks to someone who didn't need it.
This is Branstad 201. In the 80s when he was governor, they did all kinds of tax breaks: property tax breaks, subsidized wages for all these little pop-up factories all over rural Iowa that were great for ribbon-cutting. But the folks who worked there were eligible for public assistance. That's not economic development. You just drain the public ability to do other positive things for education and infrastructure.
This cycle, they're not populating rural Iowa with plants, because that's all--to Trump's credit--moved overseas. Not to his credit, but he's right about that. And now it's going after the high-tech industry, the big industries on the research and development side, giving them huge tax credits. So you've got some companies like Rockwell Collins that don't pay taxes in the state and actually get a check back. That's, that's just--wrong.
So, we're going to talk about [taxes], yes. Which ones to roll back. Simplify Iowa's tax code. I think Jack Hatch's book, the tax stuff he talked about is pretty on the mark. Going to four tax brackets. Probably work towards a phase-in of eliminating federal deductibility. I think it's--we've talked about that for years, but we never get it done. [...] We've got to look at how we phase it over a few years so it just doesn't drop off a cliff and people can plan for it. And then provide some middle-class tax relief.
As a group, Iowa Democratic politicians aren't known for highlighting environmental issues. But Norris repeatedly brought up the Iowa's Water and Land Legacy (IWLL) campaign to fill the still-empty Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Iowans approved the constitutional amendment establishing that fund in 2010--a Republican landslide year--with 63 percent of voters statewide and a majority in 79 of the 99 counties.
Revenues from the next 3/8th of a cent sales tax increase will be directed toward the trust fund. Norris strongly supports passing IWLL, though he's not convinced "3/8th is even enough to get us on the right path for water quality and soil conservation. But it certainly is a piece of it."
We've got to make sure we can protect that revenue stream for education and not what Branstad wants to do, or wanted to do, is rob that stream [for water quality funding]. And then provide that into middle-income tax relief and advancement in education. Fully funding IWLL. And like I said, I'm still not sure 3/8th is enough. Because you want to do all the parks and rec stuff too which makes us a great place to live. [...] And perhaps probably a fertilizer tax or some kind of disincentive for overuse of the cause of our serious water problems. It's as much in land use as it is in what you do with inputs, which goes back to the farm policy.
It's all tied together. And that's why I think this long-term transition in our rural landscape is going to take a while. But it starts with conservation and fully funding IWLL and the water effort.
Ever since IWLL was being debated in the Iowa legislature, I've felt uncomfortable with the environmental community promoting a regressive sales tax increase, even with such a worthwhile goal in mind. How would Norris mitigate the impact of that? "Tax reform on the income tax side," including bumping up the earned income tax credit for people whose wages aren't high enough for them to pay income taxes.
Regarding Iowa's Research Activities Credit, under which some large corporations not only pay no taxes, but receive "refunds" from the state, Norris is open to helping new businesses, but not existing ones. More broadly, he wants to move away from the mindset of the state subsidizing businesses directly through the tax code.
Our subsidy--what we should offer new businesses that are in the state and will come to this state: We're going to subsidize you. We're going to subsidize you with the best-educated and trained workforce in America. What more do you want?
Bleeding Heartland: And amenities that make people want to live here.
Norris: Exactly. Yeah. Quality environment. Schools you want to raise your kids in. Environment you want to live in and bike ride and go fishing in, you know--and safe water. And access to a workforce you can't get any better in America. That's more important to business growth than a ten-year [tax exemption to] relieve the responsibility, the fiscal responsibility to help pay for this community that we all want to support. It's just--if that's what it takes to get your business here, maybe that's not the business we want.
We want businesses to be part of the community. Being a part of the community is so basic to what makes Iowa great, our sense of personal responsibility and accountability. And that means [paying] your fair share and helping support the community, and that means supporting education, supporting our environment, supporting infrastructure. And we're letting them off the hook. So it's the wrong incentive.
Returning to the topic of the costly 2013 commercial property tax cut, Norris observed, "Local governments are upset and should be upset when these state decisions are made that hamper their ability to self-govern. There's just so many things wrong with how we went about that."
NORRIS'S CASE TO DEMOCRATS--AND TO CONSERVATIVES
Six to ten Iowa Democrats are either running for governor or seriously considering it. I see few policy differences shaping in up a primary race where everyone wants to raise wages for working people, better support public education, restore state funding to Planned Parenthood, and so on. How does Norris see himself standing out? What could he bring to the table that other Democrats don't?
Experience. I mean, I've put together cabinets before with a governor. Run the state with a governor. Put together a cabinet at USDA. I've been chairman of the [Iowa] utilities board, and an energy commissioner [for the federal government]. What I liked the most about those two jobs--utilities board and energy commissioner--is you have to make raw policy decisions. Stuff has to work at the end of the day. You've got a little thing called Ohm's law, you know? At the end of the day, the grid has to function, right? So it keeps you honest.
So I think I have a depth of policy development experience and understand how you process those, how you make good policy decisions, because I've made a number of them.
So one is, a different set of life experiences. I own my own business now, I've owned my own business before and had a business in rural Iowa. So I have, I think, a real connection to the small business community, which I think is key for Iowa's future.
My kids are in public school in Iowa. I came from public school. I think, I don't know how much that differentiates me, but my wife was a public school teacher. Serious commitment to public education. [...]
Significant life experience. I hope a little wisdom with my engagement in a number of things in politics, policy, government, business over the years, so I think I bring some of that to the table. I have gray hair. Gray like Bernie [Sanders].
The "wisdom and a set of life experiences" Norris says he can bring to the job equip him "to put together a government and change. We've got some big problems. This isn't just about winning an election. It's about changing the course of this state. That's a big task."
If he runs, Norris won't be the only candidate from rural Iowa, and he was careful not to discount anyone else's "love for the land or passion for the state." "But no one has more," he added. "And I want to make that a defining part of my candidacy: that land ethic Aldo Leopold tried to define. That's part of my mission."
A few minutes later, Norris recalled his track record of raising almost $1.2 million as a Congressional challenger in 2002. "I have a lot of folks all over the country who are interested in supporting me, so I think I'll have the capacity to put the resources together. Perhaps more so than some others--maybe not Andy [McGuire], if she self-funds--but more so than someone who hasn't put together a national network of fundraising before. And we all know it's going to take resources to win this thing."
That's for sure. Soon-to-be-governor Kim Reynolds has raised more than a million dollars for her 2018 campaign already, and the Democratic Governors Association may not invest in Iowa next year.
Norris will argue he has the capacity to be a strong candidate and to do the job if elected governor.
Suppose he becomes the 2018 nominee. How would he win over Iowans who aren't Democrats?
I've spent almost my whole life in Iowa. I think Iowans are generally conservative, but they're not conservative in the way that has been reflected in the last few years. [They're] conservative like my grandfather, you know? He built his house from scrap lumber that he tore down from the last house, you know? And frugal. You know, we're conservative in that way. [...]
I like the kind of conservative that I think about Iowa. But now we've got this notion of conservatism that's more about, about limiting other people from being part of our community. I don't think that's where Iowans' hearts are at. If we talk to them about conservative values based on protecting the land and being you know, community-based, caring about your neighbor. I think the Democrats can [connect] with the conservatives more so than the folks that want to let CAFOs build next to your house, or let someone else pollute your water, or let someone not pay their fair share. Because those aren't conservative values, the conservative values I sense in Iowans. [...]
My campaign will live or die on that fundamental appeal to return Iowans to what I really think they are, and create the opportunities for them based on those conservative values. And I think land, and conservation is to me a conservative word and has a conservative meaning. It's treating the land with respect and passing on to the next generation better than you found it. That's something we as Democrats shouldn't be afraid to really run on.
Norris sees the new collective bargaining law as an example of Iowa Republicans rejecting traditional conservative values. Local governments, school districts, and public employees are now bound by state regulation "of what people can and can't do," as opposed to the decades-long tradition of "a negotiated business transaction" with "the right for people to self-determine their outcome."
HILLARY OR BERNIE?
Safely ensconced in Italy during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, Norris never went on the record as a supporter of either Sanders or Hillary Clinton throughout the divisive presidential primaries. Reflecting on that choice now, where would he have landed? "That would have been a tough one for me. I'm taking the easy way out here."
I warned him that if he's campaigning around the state, people will ask, "Were you for Hillary or Bernie?"
I think of that in my argument for myself. I think the argument for Hillary was, she is experienced, and that is valuable. And I'm kind of making that argument for myself.
But I think she missed the mark on what people were looking for, and I don't think I'm going to miss that mark. I'm just too rooted in kind of a populist progressive roots that I'm not scared to talk about.
So I thought Bernie brought that to the race. The real kind of fight, what this is about, to the race, that excited people. So it would have been a tough choice for me had I been here for the caucuses. One's kind of a straightforward, rational argument for experience, and one is that, "This is wrong. We've gotta fight to correct it." Unfortunately they came in two packages instead of one. If we'd had them in one package we wouldn't be sitting here talking about this.
How would Norris respond to the idea that a woman in politics who presented like Sanders (shouting, talking about revolution) would not have struck such a favorable chord with voters?
She didn't have to present like Bernie. But you didn't sense that it was in her gut. You know, you just--have a heart. I think--I just, I don't think she answered those fears out there of folks in a positive way. Government can help you, as opposed to government's your enemy. And the people you don't look like need--we're all in this together, versus, it's their fault.
Trump, I think Trump won on, like I said, populism based on hate and anger. We saw it in the 80s with the farm crisis, with the group that got really into anti-Semitism. They were getting off the ground in Iowa. And there was a lot of that. And there was that fear of losing their farm, and some folks wanted to blame somebody. We tried to give them hope through intervention with counseling and legislation--the ways you go about positive change to change the equation. That's the same type of two different kinds of populism I saw in this last race.
The second-biggest factor was, I think there was still--I think Obama capitalized on some of that with the hope and the change message. But people--they didn't change for a lot of people. I don't think our politics changed. Policies changed. Health care policy--great. Some policies changed, some on climate change. But the politics didn't change for people. They didn't feel any more empowered than they did eight years before. [...] So I think Trump had a different change message, like I said, based on that blame and anger. But unfortunately, we didn't respond.
Before Memorial Day, Norris will likely confirm whether he is committed to taking a "populist message of hope and cooperation and fighting for the little guy" to Iowa voters. But first, the Democrat with a deep love for Iowa's land must decide how ambitious to be in the garden he had tilled shortly before our interview. "I'm gonna reassess what I'm planting if I'm going to be busy campaigning."