Government

For progressives, first step proves to be hardest

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Norris speaks May 24, 2018, to supporters at a house party in Coralville. He and a large roster of other candidates lost the June 2018 primary to Fred Hubbell. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Norris speaks May 24, 2018, to supporters at a house party in Coralville. He and a large roster of other candidates lost the June 2018 primary to Fred Hubbell. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Sometimes, it’s good to know there are people and messages that don’t change — especially when they were right all along.

Indivisible Iowa and Americans for Democratic Action Iowa hosted a joint activist winter workshop last weekend in Waterloo.

I was invited to lead a session on crafting and submitting letters and guest columns to local newspapers, an offering I’ve extended to any Iowa group. Although my session was scheduled for late in the day, I arrived at the beginning and remained throughout.

I did so because the underlying theme of the day, bridging the gap between urban and rural, is of interest to me and should be of concern to any Iowan paying attention to the influx of money in politics, the culture of personality surrounding campaigns and recent election results.

Our state continues to be guided by politicians who campaign on one thing — or, worse yet, avoid issues and public scrutiny during their campaigns — and then arrive in Des Moines as the lap dogs of special interest groups.

When people wonder why things don’t change — why, for instance, the state hasn’t addressed its shrinking rural economies or its burgeoning prisons — the reason can be traced to all the time and talent expended on pet projects intended to mobilize a specific segment of the population for the next election, instead of developing policies to combat the state’s most thorny problems.

For a prime example, look no further than the recently passed “sanctuary cities” bill — used as a campaign fundraiser before it had gained approval in the Legislature, supported by only one nationalist lobbying group and objected to by every law enforcement agency statewide.

When the base needs to be motivated, long-standing concerns about loss of local control, stagnant population and workforce decline apparently can be suspended. Mythical crisis averted, and local governments and groups are left with less power and authority to act in their own best interest.

The workshop in Waterloo began with a conversation led by John Norris, one of several Democrats who competed in last year’s gubernatorial primary. In the interest of space, I won’t rehash the full Norris resume. But it’s worth noting that Norris was involved in the Obama campaign that carried 53 of Iowa’s 99 counties. (In contrast, the Clinton campaign carried six — all encompassing the state’s three largest metro areas and public universities.) And, as I’ve said before, when I talked with small-town residents during the 2018 primary, Norris was the candidate people wanted to discuss.

And for Norris, who has long advocated for policies to address the multifaceted economic and cultural issues facing rural Iowa, the message hasn’t changed.

“The first thing,” Norris told workshop attendees, “is showing up.”

Implicit within his directive is showing up to listen, not in some misguided bid to win back a geography, which is what political consultants often push.

“This isn’t about the message; the message doesn’t change,” he said. “But we do need to understand that the mind-set in rural areas is different, and we are unfamiliar with that mind-set because we aren’t showing up.”

But even within this group of geographically diverse activists, Norris’ simple advice seemed to get lost. Questions centered on topics more likely to appear in the New York Times than in a small-town weekly — farmer suicides, “factory farms.” Perhaps that’s a byproduct of our social media-driven society, where everything seems to be placed on some national pedestal.

Or maybe it is a byproduct of living in a state that’s already hellbent on debating the 2020 presidential election instead of focusing on who will lead local school districts and governments at the end of 2019.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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