Just about everyone who’s been involved in Iowa politics for more than a decade knows who John Norris is. But if you are a younger Democrat, a progressive who got inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign or just someone who became involved after the Vilsack years, you might not. And those folks might look at Norris’ resume through the lens of the 2016 presidential primary and see an old guard, establishment insider: former chief of staff to the governor, former IDP chair, a USDA official and utilities board chair.
That, however, wouldn’t be an accurate read of the man who has often found himself on the left of the party’s status quo, to the point where he was once told he’d never have a job in Iowa Democratic politics again after working for a “fringe” candidate. That “fringe” candidate was Jesse Jackson, and fifteen years after Norris received that threat from a party leader he was chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.
Norris now looks to bring a unique mix of life experiences to the gubernatorial race: a respected leader in the state and national political class who has real credibility on economic justice issues. That background makes him a particularly interesting figure in today’s Democratic and progressive political climate, not fitting any specific mold or frame of a candidate that the party applied to their presidential contenders last year.
Politics and organizing were a part of Norris’ life from the start. His father was an early organizer for the National Farmers Organization, taking a younger Norris to organizing events with farmers and Democratic campaigns. During those events, he first got to meet Tom Harkin while in high school. Norris would go on to work on one of Harkin’s congressional campaigns, driving him to events throughout Southwest Iowa.
“Even though growing up in rural Iowa I felt connected, the fact that I spent a whole year traveling around in the mobile office, talking to voters, gave me a connection to rural Iowa that isn’t too different today,” Norris told Starting Line.
The most formative years of Norris’ life came during the 1980s’ farm crisis, when he did his best to help many of those farmers he’d met get through a tough time.
“That probably was the most impactful in my life and my philosophy as anything,” Norris said. “We had a rural crisis hotline for farmers thinking of suicide. Families were being broken up. Not just farmers, but banks, businesses. It was an ugly time. And it, in my mind, was largely a product of failed farm policy and this race to get big corporate agriculture that winnows out these farmers. We now know what’s that done to rural Iowa. It’s been devastating, and unnecessarily so.”
Then came the 1988 Iowa Caucus. The year before Jesse Jackson first traveled to Iowa in preparation for his presidential run, packing an overflow crowd of 700 into a church in Greenfield. Invited out to the Adair County town by Dixon Terry, Jackson built his Iowa campaign around Greenfield, using it as a way to connect his message about both urban and rural communities being left behind.
Norris helped hold the first organizing meeting for Jackson for President in the Greenfield country club, and would later pull off what he described as the “best political event in the history of Democratic politics.” When Jackson announced his campaign for president, he did it by holding a huge parade through the streets of Greenfield.
“This is Greenfield, Iowa, the only African American in town was the adopted daughter of the Methodist minister,” Norris said. “We had a parade through the town square in main street Greenfield and it was a sight to behold. It arrived at a tent at the edge of town, at the fairgrounds. I’ll never forget, we borrowed chairs from the fairgrounds and set them up in the tent, and on the bottom of some of the chairs were ‘KKK.’ We had a gospel choir from a Waterloo church, we had a bluegrass band, we had a reggae band, and we had the boy scouts doing the pledge of allegiance. It was the most rainbow crowd you can imagine from all over the state and country that came in for it.”
The insurgent Jackson campaign would take Norris all over the country, including to California where he marched with Cesar Chavez for migrant workers. At the time, Jackson’s policies were seen as radical, even inside the Democratic Party. He pushed for a single-payer healthcare system, getting rid of mandatory minimums in prison sentencing, an Equal Rights amendment, creating a Palestinian state, free community college and more. And he specifically worked to link the plight of white Americans in rural communities to the overall struggle for economic fairness.
Jackson over-performed in his 1988 run, but still came up short, and Norris looked for what was next. And even though Norris had already worked for Harkin and the state party, his allegiance to Jackson’s candidacy was seen as disqualifying, and he was informed he’d have trouble finding political work again.
“I didn’t see that as any diversion from that,” Norris said, dismissing the view then that Jackson was a “fringe” politician. “That person didn’t understand what was happening. He hadn’t seen great, big Iowa farmers hug Jesse and cry. I knew I was doing the right thing … Jesse was mainstreaming an issue that needed to be told. It opened my eyes to the plight of rural farmers and urban areas as well.”
After 1988 Norris returned to Greenfield, buying a hotel and restaurant with Don Stanley, another Iowa politico. Norris helped run the restaurant for four years, but it eventually wasn’t making enough money and he returned to politics. He worked on Harkin’s short-lived presidential campaign in 1992, then went to law school and got involved with Farm Aid. He’d later run Leonard Boswell’s campaign and then served as his chief of staff.
In 1998 Norris was recruited to run the Iowa Democratic Party. At the time the organization was in a meltdown – they hadn’t made the last two payrolls, the House Truman Fund had been completely drained of money. So Norris went about refilling the coffers, getting the party organized, and later that campaign cycle Tom Vilsack would become the first Democratic governor elected in Iowa in 30 years. That led to the next phase in Norris’ career, going from the governor’s office to the USDA, with plenty of points in-between.
Returning to Iowa after an overseas USDA post this year, Norris felt his experience and passion was well-suited for the times Iowa finds itself in.
“It’s always been what’s the next challenge, what’s the next opportunity,” Norris said. “Jackie and I have a calling for public service. You step up when you’re needed and can offer something. That’s what got me to get in this race.”
When Norris first started “exploring” his gubernatorial run, he retraced his old steps in rural organizing by traveling around to small towns for a listening tour. He’s sought to own that issue in particular in the primary, but his early advisers – two of whom were key staffers with Bernie Sanders’ Iowa Caucus campaign – also point to his roots in the party’s left wing.
“My background would identify more with the fight of what Bernie was talking about,” Norris noted, but he was careful to stress that he’s not appealing solely to any specific group or faction within the party. “I’m not targeting left, right, middle, I’m targeting Iowans who think they want a change, same as I do, and I’ll lose or win on that. But I’m not going to change who I am.”
While in theory recreating a kind of coalition that Jackson once envisioned – of white rural farmers, union workers, women, minorities and young people – could be a very effective approach for both a general and primary election, it’ll be tough this time. Rural Iowa has drifted ever further away from the Democratic Party, and the working class that was once there was hollowed out as Norris mentioned from the Farm Crisis. And the party’s progressive left of today, while they may share Norris’ passions and viewpoints, focuses on issues in a different way than 30 years ago, with new certain phrases and attitudes that can matter just as much as policy positions. It’s yet to be seen if an old-school economic justice fighter can speak the language of the new-age progressive crowd.
But Norris feels that recreating the sort of broad rainbow coalition that Jackson hoped for will be crucial for Democrats ability to retake Iowa in 2018.
“We’ve got to win this with not just Democrats, but with independents and some moderate Republicans,” he said.
by Pat Rynard