John Norris has been navigating Iowa politics and policy for more than 30 years. He’s seen leaders who deftly steered the state and those who recklessly yanked the wheel to extremes.
He’s running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination with hopes of doing some steering. But in our yanking times, his campaign has failed to gain speed.
“When you govern, you have to steer from the center. You can’t yank too far to the left, too far to the right. You can take a state a certain direction. I think our state would benefit from more progressive policies,” said Norris, who was chief of staff for Gov. Tom Vilsack and later worked in Vilsack’s Department of Agriculture, among other stops on a long resume.
“But for the stability of democracy and the confidence of Iowans, we can’t be one-sided in our viewpoint in this state. And that doesn’t mean I’m not progressive and don’t want to take our state down a more progressive path, but you steer it in that direction, you don’t yank it in that direction.
“Go in the ditch and swing it back too hard to the left or right, the car flips. Your best thing to do is drive it on out,” Norris told me in an interview.
Yanking is now our default. We have wave elections where veering voters are all over the road, our Trumpian swerve being the deepest, most rash ditch dive. Republicans who grabbed control of the wheel in Iowa yanked the wheel hard right, smashing up decades of bipartisan achievements.
Now Democrats, understandably outraged, are vowing to yank the state back. The “center” is a dirty word. The middle is no-man’s land. Never mind that even under the rosiest scenarios, Democrats will pull back even-plus-one in Iowa. They’ll make red purple again, even with a wave. And any Democratic candidate saying they’ll refuse to govern from the center is really saying they’ll refuse to govern.
But governing is no longer the goal. Instead, the formula is win, yank, repeat.
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After Norris helped Vilsack win 48 counties in the 1998 gubernatorial election, the new team faced intense pressure from Democrats to clean out the entire Branstad administration. Vilsack resisted the pressure and kept on some GOP veterans.
“That was actually my office advising him on that,” Norris said. “I said we haven’t been in this position for 32 years. Let’s manage the change.”
Of course, the current partisan trench warfare makes 1999 look like Nerf dodgeball.
“I get the folks who want to take heads off. And certainly they’re going to be stronger in 2019 than in 1999. I share the anger and frustration. But we’ve got to steer it back on course,” Norris said.
So Norris, who also helped Leonard Boswell win an overwhelmingly rural southern Iowa congressional district in 1996, is out looking for votes in places where Democrats got creamed in 2016. Norris grew up on a farm, owned a small town restaurant and has been involved in agriculture issues for decades. He’s been talking about mental health, rural schools and economic opportunity.
His experience with how Iowa politics works and doesn’t work is reflected in his stands on issues such as water quality.
Norris believes farmers can be convinced to use nitrate-holding cover crops because their benefit to soil health can improve profitability. That can be done without public dollars, he says. To pay for other measures aimed at reducing nitrate and phosphorus runoff, Norris would enact a surcharge on farm fertilizer, with 100 percent of the proceeds spent on farm-based projects.
Norris also supports raising the state sales tax to fill the voter approved Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust fund, which provides funds for water cleanup efforts as well as recreation efforts boosting rural economic development and quality of life.
And he’s for keeping farm runoff reduction voluntary, to a point.
“There’s got to be an end of the road here. Because, at the end of the day, public health is the no.1 priority,” Norris said. “Anybody who pollutes should expect to be held accountable if they don’t make corrective action.
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“If the incentive is on higher profits and the same practices clean up the water, the whole thing wouldn’t have to get to a more aggressive regulatory model. But I think there has to be an understanding that is the next step if corrective action is not taken,” Norris said.
But his throwback campaign isn’t exactly catching fire. He trails rivals such as Des Moines business executive Fred Hubbell, state Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, and Coralville union leader Cathy Glasson, both in momentum and bucks. Democrats are lining up behind new faces. Where does Norris fit? How does he break through?
“My breakthrough is bringing everybody together at the end,” Norris said. “There’s a growing recognition that we have to win votes back in rural Iowa to have a shot at winning statewide elections. And, without fail, people think I’m the strongest candidate to win back votes in rural Iowa.”
Democrats’ rural support is in a deep ditch, to be sure. Will they steer or yank?
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