RED OAK — The winding Montgomery County roads from Red Oak to the Norris family farm served as something of a time machine, with both forward and reverse levers available to a politician many Democrats believe can resurrect the party’s fortunes in rural Iowa.
The staging and atmosphere for John Norris’ announcement as a Democratic candidate for governor had the look and feel of an old-fashioned Tom Harkin event, grilled burgers galore and crockpotted dishes and populist rhetoric on land seven miles southwest of Red Oak and generations deep in the Norris family.
The forward-looking part: Norris’ future-minded platform aimed at re-establishing Democrats as viable and able to connect in land long lost to the Republicans.
“I remember getting farm work done for dad so I could earn some money putting up hay for Ermil Eitzen or Rex Bradley,” Norris said in his speech. “They would always pay me more because I could handle stacking a hayrack by myself rather than hiring two town boys to do it.”
Norris, a confidant of former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and former Iowa Democratic Gov. and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, spoke from a hay-baled stage on the farm and then mingled with more than 150 supporters for three hours.
“I am here today to declare to the special interest and wealthy corporate lobbyists that their days of government handouts and sweetheart deals are about to end,” Norris said. “In the words of Abraham Lincoln — we are going to rise up and restore ours as, ‘a government of the people, by the people and for the people.’”
Matt Hildreth, a rural progressive activist and the political director of America’s Voice, said Norris is cut from the same cloth as Harkin and the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.
“He reminds me of the old-school progressive, a prairie progressive,” Hildreth said.
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Norris went heavy on agriculture noting that the farm, the home of his brother, James, an expert pheasant hunter, ties the family to the early settling of Iowa.
“I came home to this farm and my Red Oak community to be with you — my family and friends — because this is the place that made me who I am today,” Norris said. “This is where Iowa values began for me. The values we are all grounded in — our love for the land, caring for our neighbors, our devotion to faith and family, hard work, honesty, frugality, service to community and country and a commitment to justice and opportunity for all — that’s why I came home.”
Norris lives in Des Moines where he is the co-owner of the State Public Policy Group with Carroll native Brad Knott, a Kuemper Catholic High School alum.
In an interview with the Daily Times Herald, Larry Branstetter, president of the Red Oak Chamber and Industry Association and a retired teacher who taught Norris, said he is “very much” in support of Norris’ candidacy.
“He’s coming out of that Harkin mold in my opinion,” Branstetter said.
Branstetter acknowledged that at this point in rural Iowa the notion of voting for a Democrat is unthinkable to many people.
“That’s where the Democratic Party and their candidates have to start searching their hearts and saying what do they really, really feel is the Democrat message,” he said.
He said Norris, with his rural and farm background, can connect in Iowa small towns.
“John’s one of us,” Branstetter said.
Branstetter recalled talking about government with Norris when the latter was a teenager.
“John never talked political party politics,” Branstetter said. “John talked what people needed. That was when he was 15. He talked about the needs of people. He talked about the problems that people in agriculture, and the people who need to be lifted up, the problems they were having.”
Aurilla Goldsmith, 28, a cosmetologist and active Democrat from Adams County, said Norris brings the right to personality to modern politics.
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“I feel like John can connect with people in general,” Goldsmith said. “He’s soft-spoken. He remembers people. I’ve only met him once and he remembers my name. He comes from a rural farming community and I feel like we need more people involved in politics that come from those areas.”
Lori Amdor, 30, of Corning, a public housing director, said Norris brings a number of strengths to the race, most notably his support of public education.
“Teachers are always spending their own money” in schools for materials and projects, she said. “Education, I would just like to see something done about it.”
On economic development, Norris said too much state money goes to too few companies for projects that don’t benefit large swathes of Iowa.
“Through tax credits in the hundreds of millions for large corporations that pay no state income taxes and multimillion-dollar handouts to multinational corporations, our governor and legislature has lined the pockets of their donors, while underfunding public education, letting tuition rates increase at our colleges and universities, and closing much needed mental health care facilities to Iowa families,” Norris said.
Norris challenged Republicans’ decision on how to manage Medicaid.
“They have turned over Medicaid — a program that worked fine for decades — to private insurance companies placing profits for a few over the health of our most vulnerable citizens,” Norris said. “One half of the babies born in Iowa are born eligible for Medicaid. Many of our parents will need Medicaid for care in nursing facilities. Instead of focusing on getting people healthy and enabling our elderly to live their final days with dignity, our governor is bailing out this failed Medicaid experiment, placing the profits of insurers over the care of Iowans.”
• Douglas Burns is co-owner of the Carroll Daily Times Herald. More of his work can be found at carrollspaper.com