Norris trudges on, seeking rural soul of Iowa



Neither sleet nor ice nor dark of day could keep John and Jackie Norris from their appointed round of Northwest Iowa on Saturday, including a stop at Diane Hamilton’s home here before the county crews could show the way on Casino Beach Road.

“Oh, the roads are pretty good,” said wheelwoman Jackie Norris, a former top aide to Michelle Obama and now head of Goodwill of Iowa. He is among seven candidates seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and is staking his strategy on rural Iowa and hardcore activists.

He talked them up, six to eight at a time from Rockwell City to Pocahontas to Storm Lake to Cherokee to Spencer to Spirit Lake while the weather service warned of a blizzard. He listened more then he talked. People gave him an earful about declining fortunes.

When he finally speaks, Norris starts out with a recitation of the decline:

Tom Harkin and Tom Vilsack won 82 and 68 Iowa counties respectively in 2002.

Barack Obama won 62 counties in 2008.

Jack Hatch won one county in 2014.

Hillary Clinton won six counties in 2016.

“If Democrats just keep doubling down on urban areas they should expect the same result,” Norris said. “I’m trying to build capacity in rural areas so we don’t fall into the same trap again. If you start here, you can come back here in the end and have some reservoir of good will.”

He should know. He was Vilsack’s chief of staff and Jackie helped Barack Obama lock down Iowa.

Norris and Andy McGuire (featured last week) are the only Democrats reaching out to Northwest Iowa so far. A June primary is not that far off. With so many Democrats polling above 5% each it is difficult for Norris and McGuire to see how nobody gets 35% in a primary and the nomination is thrown to the state convention. They are working the central committees and the activist base hard. Norris has deep connections with the rural activist base, which remains vocal in the party, and hits the environmental theme hard.

“Our future is not in the mass production of No. 2 yellow corn at a net loss,” Norris said. “It’s time for a correction. Are we better off having lost half our farmers and with half our children born into Medicaid? We’ve gotta challenge the Farm Bureau thought because it’s killing rural Iowa. I can’t accept that we are better off with nine or 10 farms in a county farming on chemicals.”

He was chief of staff to Vilsack when he served as US Secretary of Agriculture. He served on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He proposes using wind turbine tax revenue to create a new bonding plan to revitalize rural communities. The communities themselves could divert a portion of wind turbine revenue, under his plan, to create betterment projects — luring better rural transit service, funding a daycare, incenting solar installations, creating a recreation center. He points to how Vision Iowa, a similar plan, revitalized Dubuque and Storm Lake and Sioux Center with big projects.

Yet 85% of the Democratic base is in urban clusters.

Norris has raised the least among the top five contenders but enough to put gas in the car and keep the cell phone bill paid — he has to spend 30 hours a week dialing for dollars. Both he and McGuire are committed to staying through to a state convention. Fred Hubbell, Nate Boulton and Cathy Glasson appear to have the money or labor endorsements to see them through. And then there’s Jon Neiderbach and Ross Willburn. So there is just no telling how things work out.

He wants to reverse Medicaid privatization to fund mental health and health care needs. He wants to roll back tax cuts to cut schools some slack. He wants to create new streams of revenue — like taxing the incremental valuation increases with repowering old wind turbine farms, that otherwise go in the form of property tax relief to absentee agland property owners and the turbine owners.

“There are tremendous possibilities for rural Iowa,” he said.

And, for all we know, he was the only Democrat out there talking about it, six people at a time, under a coat of ice and winter fog.