Speaking at the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union Hall in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday night, Democratic candidate for governor John Norris said, “I spent a couple of months testing the waters about my candidacy. After testing the waters, I found them high in nitrates and bacteria.”
It’s a good line, linking the state’s water quality problems to a political atmosphere Norris considers toxic, and it got laughs from the crowd of approximately two dozen who had gathered at the hall. Just like it has at previous stops on Norris’ six-day tour of Iowa.
The tour kicked off on Saturday, when Norris announced his candidacy during an event at the farm near Red Oak in southwestern Iowa that his great-great-grandparents settled in 1881. Norris is the fifth Democrat to enter the 2018 race for governor.
Norris has been an important figure in the state’s Democratic party for decades — and he’s been interested in politics since the age of 12, when he went door-to-door soliciting votes for Tom Harkin — but he’s only run for office once before. In 2002, Norris mounted an unsuccessful campaign to unseat the Republican incumbent Tom Latham in Iowa’s 4th Congressional district.
In an interview following his Cedar Rapids speech, Norris talked about what convinced him to become a candidate.
“This wasn’t on my bucket list,” Norris explained. “I enjoyed my run in 2002, and learned a lot about the state doing it, but I didn’t plan to run for office again.”
The idea came from former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, during a breakfast meeting in late December. “He said, ‘You know more than anybody else, what it’s like to be governor, and know more than anybody else how to get there,’” Norris recalled.
The former Democratic governor knows Norris well. Norris helped guide Vilsack’s successful 1998 campaign for governor, and served as chief of staff during Vilsack’s first two years in office. When President Obama appointed Vilsack Secretary of Agriculture in 2009, he again selected Norris as his chief of staff.
After his conversation with Vilsack, Norris began giving the possibility of running serious consideration. But it was the last legislative session that convinced him to enter the race.
“This past session was nothing more than an assault on workers, an abandonment of children, disrespect for women and neglect of our environment,” Norris said. In his stump speech, he lists the legislative actions from the session he would reverse as governor, citing cuts to education and other essential services, including health care for women. Norris describes those cuts as one of the consequences of the state giving massive tax breaks to large corporations. He also wants to overturn the laws prohibiting municipalities from raising the minimum wage, and restricting collective bargaining.
“There’s a serious wage and income gap in this state, and too big of a gap between the haves and have nots,” Norris told the people in the union hall. “[The Republicans have] done too much to benefit a few, and we’re all paying the price for it.”
“It’s not in line with Iowa values.”
Norris mentioned Iowa values repeatedly in his speech. Afterwards, he elaborated on what he thinks those values are.
“To me, it’s caring. We have a love for the land, it’s so much a part of our culture. We’ve always been a state that’s cared about neighbor and community,” Norris said. “A lot of Iowans have a rural background, and rural Iowans by nature feel a greater sense of independence. But whenever someone in the community was in trouble, people stepped up to help, whether they knew the person or not.”
“I saw that growing up on the farm. It’s a part of our culture, to look out for one another, and doing it with a sense of fairness and honesty.”
Norris believes the Republican Party owes much of its current success to undermining those values in rural Iowa, by exploiting the economic distress people feel with social wedge issues.
“Trump was successful by relying on the populism of hate and blame and anger,” Norris said. “And you saw it again in this [year’s state] legislative session.”
Norris is convinced the future of the state’s Democratic Party lies in addressing the economic distress of rural Iowans, while maintaining the party’s traditional commitment to urban issues.
“It’s my passion,” Norris said of improving rural conditions. And while many of his proposed solutions could come from any Democrat—improving public schools and infrastructure, bringing high-speed internet to rural communities, promoting renewable energy production (especially solar power) — Norris also stresses the importance of changing the culture of farming in Iowa.
Much of what is wrong with Iowa farming is driven by the federal government’s policies, according to Norris. “There are higher and higher payments for producing more from that one acre of land,” he said. “It’s led to greater soil erosion and greater use of chemicals that are now showing up in our water supply.”
“We should advocate for change in federal farm policy, but we have to invest research dollars to develop better conservation practices, while still maintaining agricultural productivity. We have several examples now throughout the state of farmers who are planting cover crops, and doing a better job at the integration of a nutrient management strategy, and increasing their productivity at the same time.”
“We need to take what they’re doing, use them as examples,” Norris continued. “We’ll have to invest some public money in education and incentivizing changes in the way we farm. If we don’t achieve it that way, then I think we have to look at creating regulations.”
“You always want to try to change behavior in the least invasive way possible. But if it’s impacting public health, and impacting the quality of our soil and water, then we have to look out for the future of all Iowans.”
Norris understands that Republicans in the state legislature would oppose his proposals, and if elected, he’ll likely face a General Assembly controlled by Republicans. But he believes his wide experience in politics and government will help him achieve his goals. In addition to his work for Vilsack, Norris was chief of staff for Iowa Congressman Leonard Boswell, as well as chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, chair of the Iowa Utilities Board, a commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the U.S. representative to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Program.
“I understand the power of the executive branch,” Norris said. “You can change a lot through the executive branch agencies, through rule-making and the way programs are administered.”
Norris also points out that unless they have super-majority in the assembly, Republicans will have to negotiate with him if they want him to sign their bills into law.
“If you have a governor from a different party, who can invite Democrats and Republicans into the room and force a conversation, I think we can begin to talk about our values again and being able to address Iowans’ needs.”
Norris is optimistic about his chances in next year’s election (“I think a lot of moderate Republicans and independents realize the Republican Party has overstepped, and we have an excellent chance of winning them over.”), but said he’s looking beyond November 2018.
“This is not a 16 month campaign for me. This is a three-and-a-half year campaign. Because it’s not just about taking the governorship, it’s about changing the make-up of the legislature,” Norris explained. “I don’t necessary mean Democrat or Republican. We have to change the legislature by organizing and empowering people, so that legislators expect they must respond to the voters.”
“Government should be a reflection of people and their values.”