Norris is a voice for rural Iowa



John and Jackie Norris plan a canoe trip with their children over the Memorial Day weekend to decide if he will run for Iowa governor. He told us twice. He pointed out how his son Sam, 11, caught a nice walleye keeper with a catfish to go with it from Storm Lake in an hour Saturday morning. And that the kid is smart.

He was sending a clear message:

As Paul Wellstone used to say, John Norris comes from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.

He will make water quality an issue. He is leading with rural Iowa, education and renewable energy.

Norris, 58, is setting himself up as the experienced populist in the race among a field led by four candidates: Andy McGuire, former state party chair; Nate Boulton, a Des Moines labor lawyer who has several union endorsements in his pocket; Fred Hubbell of the legendary family that built Des Moines and sustains progressive causes; and Norris. Several others are in the race; these are the most prominent.

Norris was an organizer with the Iowa Farm Unity coalition, a Tom Harkin staffer, chief of staff to Governor and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington. His wife, Jackie, was instrumental in Barack Obama’s rise in Iowa; she was a top aide to Michelle Obama in the White House.

None of the candidates knows more about agriculture, the environment, the promise of renewable energy or the roots of populism in the Iowa Democratic Party.

He has the resumé like nobody’s business.

And he has the passion for rural Iowa that Democrats seem to have lost.

“Industrial agriculture has utilized our landscape as a depreciable asset like a factory, rather than treating it as a living organism to pass off to the next generation,” Norris said.

He repeated it for me so I got it down right.

That’s a pretty powerful statement. He is talking like no other politician in Iowa.

“People are so distrustful in rural places because they’re falling behind. They don’t trust the special interests and the sweetheart deals, and they’re right,” Norris said. “We’re all impacted in rural Iowa by it. It’s fractured us, our sense of community and values, it’s all divide and conquer.”

He wants to be the happy warrior with a sense of outrage.

So he blends a blissful May canoe trip with his family, far from the dysfunction of Washington, in the brooks of eastern Iowa with a polemic on how pollution is killing Iowa’s once-clean waterways.

He wants to embrace the idea of protecting the Raccoon River with filter strips. He believes that the state can set some regulations on land use as it affects critical public health issues. He is skeptical of talking about a huge mega-fund for water quality that corporations could mine in the name of profit.

He says that our schools aren’t the best anymore, and it’s about time we admit it.

“We’ve abandoned the thought that we can be Number One in education as we used to be,” Norris lamented. He is a product of Red Oak High School and Simpson College in Indianola. He understands how important private colleges are to Iowa. He understands that education will lead immigrants to make Storm Lake even greater. He believes we can shift resources from corporate giveaways and tax credits to public schools and private colleges.

Norris starved running a restaurant in Greenfield. He knows what small towns are up against.

He chaired the Iowa Utilities Commission during a period in which MidAmerican Energy turned from a leading skeptic of renewable energy to America’s largest wind-energy provider. Norris knows Warren Buffet. And, he knows how those new turbines near Pomeroy can repower the Pocahontas and Calhoun county economies: Tax revenues starting to flow off those property improvements will swell over the next 20 years. The state could help counties capitalize on those revenues by assisting in rural business development or community improvements, much like the Vision Iowa program that used bonding to revitalize Storm Lake. Norris was chief of staff to Vilsack when the Vision Iowa program approved our $40 million project.

People who believe in a sustainable and prosperous Iowa have strained over the past several years to hear the voice of Henry Wallace, Harold Hughes and Tom Harkin — the great progressives who sprang from rural places. We in Northwest Iowa feel abandoned by all the development in urban centers. The Democratic Party largely wrote us off when Steve King jumped on the horse.

Storm Lake was one of Norris’ first stops after he started thinking about running for governor. Everything he is thinking about and talking about comes together here, in the reddest area of the state.

We hear the voice we have been straining for. We honestly do not know if Norris will run. Hubbell’s entry could scare him off. McGuire could suck up all the legislative support and Des Moines money. Boulton could shut him out from the unions. His message of a community-based uprising against cynicism could fall flat among a dispirited lot.

I hope not.