As Democrats look to their developing gubernatorial primary field, one new name would bring an experience as close as you can get to being a former governor: John Norris. Tom Vilsack’s chief of staff for two years, few other Iowans have as long a resume in Iowa Democratic politics and governance than Norris. He’s been IDP chair, ran for Congress, managed John Kerry’s successful 2004 Iowa Caucus operation, worked for Tom Harkin and Vilsack, served as the commissioner of the Iowa Utilities Board and later on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and did a stint for the USDA in Rome.
Now he’s back in Iowa, a partner in the Des Moines consulting firm SPPG since last Fall, and is strongly considering a bid for governor.
“This is not becoming the state that I want to raise my kids in and have my future in,” Norris told Starting Line of what’s motivating his interest in running. “The direction that we’re headed is like Kansas. It’s frightening.”
Norris believes his background could make him uniquely suited both to quickly addressing Iowa’s toughest issues and building a real campaign team to get it done.
“I think I bring a set of experiences that would enable me to do the overwhelming job that is necessary to turn this state around,” Norris said. “It’s daunting for anyone. Someone who could hit the ground running day one and build a team that could change the direction of this state is critical.”
The biggest longterm problem for the state, as Norris sees it, is the slow economic degradation of rural communities. Norris grew up in Red Oak in Southwest Iowa.
“Now that I drive out in these rural areas, it becomes apparent to me how critical, how dire the situation is in rural Iowa,” he explained. “We’ve got to create economic opportunity for folks in rural Iowa. We’re doing wonderfully in the Des Moines-Ames corridor and the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor, but if it’s eroding all around us it will eventually impact these success areas too.”
To do that, Norris suggested, will require technology infrastructure, a restructuring of the tax code to benefit middle-income Iowans, revitalizing the quality of Iowa education and taking advantage of renewable energy. The Branstad/Reynolds administration’s focus on helping large corporations hasn’t done much of anything for people living in rural Iowa.
“We’ve got to change the economic equation in this state and roll back some of the tax cuts that have gone to very large businesses,” Norris noted. “The future in rural Iowa is going to be building up small businesses.”
When Norris moved away from Iowa for seven and a half years to serve in the Obama administration, he left a state Democratic Party that was in a strong position – controlling the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature. Now he’s returned to the worse situation Democrats have seen in decades. As a man who’s run quite a few successful Democratic campaigns in Iowa, he thinks the path forward for the party is getting back to basics in their messaging.
“I think we’ve got to focus on core issues that impact people’s lives. The Democratic Party needs to focus on the issues that matter to people’s day-to-day lives the most,” Norris said. “It’s the stuff that Bernie Sanders excited people about. He talked about economic justice and economic opportunity, and excited and brought a lot of new people to this party. We have to be responsive to that and take what we learned from the last cycle.”
The Republicans’ legislative priorities at the Statehouse have veered far away from those bread-and-butter issues this year, to the extent that Norris hopes they’ll face a severe backlash from the voters.
“When you talk about defunding Planned Parenthood and cutting back on collective bargaining … and the expansion of this Stand Your Ground gun bill – to a family in Iowa trying to make ends meet and look out for their kid’s future, there’s no answers in that,” Norris said. “They have clearly shown us what their agenda is, and it’s not driven by the needs of Iowans, it’s driven by the right-wing agenda of ALEC and the Koch Brothers. There’s never been a better opportunity that I can remember for Democrats and progressive-minded people to provide ideas and solutions about reclaiming the mantle of the party that’s looking out for the little guy.”
Were Norris to make the plunge, it would add to an already very crowded potential field of candidates. All told, ten are running, considering a run or haven’t ruled it out, including Andy McGuire, Nate Boulton, Todd Prichard, Mike Carberry, Rich Leopold, Mike Matson, Jack Hatch, Jonathan Neiderbach, Chris Hall and now John Norris.
While he likely wouldn’t start out as the favorite in the current field, Norris certainly has the ability to put together a solid, serious and decently well-funded campaign. He maintains strong relationships with the Vilsack and Harkin donor base, as well as a network of national funders from his time in the Obama administration. His lifetime of helping other Democratic campaigns in Iowa gives him a long list of favors to call in, and he’d have plenty of experienced Iowa operatives to choose from to put together a well-run campaign. And with all of the talk in gubernatorial analysis about which candidate could be the next Tom Vilsack, Norris has the clearest direct link to the popular former governor’s legacy.
For right now, Norris is pitching around the idea to Iowa politicos, and he says he’s getting a very positive response. But with the race to begin in earnest after the Legislature adjourns, he’ll need to quickly stand out in the ever-growing field of Terrace Hill hopefuls.
by Pat Rynard