John Norris: 'We're Headed in the Wrong Direction'

Apr 18, 2018

John Norris is no stranger to politics. He worked as chief of staff to former Governor Tom Vilsack, a job he retained when Vilsack became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Norris has also served as U.S. Minister Counselor for Agriculture to the United Nations in Rome, and has served on the Iowa Utilities Board and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Now, he’s running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

In this interview, he talks with Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters about why he's running, how he's connecting with voters in both urban and rural Iowa, and what his priorities are for the state budget. A transcript of that conversation follows:

So first of all I'm just curious to ask all the candidates who are running for governor what made you want to run?

I'm worried about the future of this state. I've got three middle school age sons and we’ve replanned camping trips because you can't swim in that lake. What kind of signal is that to our youth and our future if we're letting our environment degrade and just the lack of, a lack of commitment to public education is obvious in this state right now. We're accepting mediocrity. So the number of issues that really, I think, are going to determine our future and we're going the wrong direction right now.

In 2016, you saw the now President Donald Trump do really well in a lot of states including in Iowa connecting with rural blue collar voters who have felt left behind. How do you connect with those Iowa voters in a midterm election when turnout never is as good as it is during a presidential year?

Well the first order of business to reconnect with rural voters is to show up. We've had a lot of our statewide Democratic candidates the last several cycles who just have not campaigned in rural Iowa. Reconnect on values with them, because once I sit down and talk to them even folks, even Republicans or no party voters out there. We share the same values. Love of the land and strong sense of community a fundamental belief in public education as the great equalizer, and how important those rural schools and rural hospitals are. They recognize that I share the same values as them. But I had to show up to have that conversation and then they'll listen to and they get behind an agenda that helps restore economic opportunity for rural Iowa.

Two of the statewide elected Democrats in recent history that have done really well connecting with voters and getting re-elected I think of are Tom Harkin and Tom Vilsack. You have relationships in working with both of those men. What do you think they had that connected with voters and what have you been able to pick up from them if anything?

Well yeah I worked with Tom since I was in junior high volunteering and worked for him out of college and was, of course, Tom Vilsack’s chief of staff. You know Tom Harkin was the scrappy son of a coal miner. And Tom Vilsack was the mayor of Mount Pleasant who dealt with farmers as an attorney during the farm crisis. So they understood rural Iowans, they connected with rural Iowans and they showed up and campaigned in rural Iowa. And that's really what I'm trying to mirror in this campaign. I'm from a family farm. I own a small business in rural Iowa. I understand the struggles of rural Iowa and I'm making an effort to go out and talk to rural Iowans and connecting with them.

And what are you hearing from them? What are the important issues to rural Iowans, and do they differ that much from those that live in the cities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids?

Not tremendously. There's, you know, there's increasing divide between the haves and have nots in both rural island and urban Iowa. The growing economic disparity. So economic opportunity is critical for rural Iowans, but I'm also hearing they're extremely worried about the future of their hospitals and health care and mental health services in rural Iowa because the Medicaid privatization is just wreaking havoc on our rural health care system and mental health services.

You bring up Medicaid privatization. This was a move that happened in 2016. Former Governor Terry Branstad did this. Didn't need legislative approval to do it. Since then, we have even seen the current Governor Kim Reynolds say that there are problems within the privatization of Medicaid. There is a lot of talk about problems that are there… the Ombudsman's report that came out last week. But Medicaid privatization for the management came about because there was a need to control costs of Medicaid. There are a lot of people that talk about the problems, but what are the solutions if the old fee for service kind of model isn't sustainable, or is it?

Well I take exception for why it came about. It's the poster child for how much corporate lobbyists control our government today and the private insurance sector saw $5 billion of Medicaid spending in this state. And they wanted a piece of the action. So we carved out now a profit margin and that's how, how do you do that and expect to improve services? It's not happening. We're not saving money. It's costing us money. It's costing us lives. It's costing us quality of life for so many Iowans. How do you do it? You bring it back in to have a state run Medicaid program. Lower those overhead costs. So as much money as possible goes to services for Iowans who need it.

Can you do that in the current state budget climate?

Absolutely. Their projections of cost are false, or savings are false. Bringing it back in having a state run, I believe can save us money and improve services. It needs to be run through managed care, but state run managed care because you want to make sure you contain costs. But the priority has got to be getting the services Iowans need and they're not getting it now. They're being denied it as a course of business to increase profit margins for the commercial managed care organizations.

Governor Kim Reynolds in the outset of this legislative session said the first bill she wanted to sign, and in fact the first bill that she did sign, had to do with water quality. In my first question to you, you talked about the environment, you talked about water quality. New money being allocated for water quality projects in the state was in that first bill. Does it go far enough? Does it do much?

This is pure electioneering by Governor Reynolds. This water bill really will not have an impact. And even more importantly we won’t know if it's had an impact because they purposely left out any measuring or monitoring of progress, which enables the folks to continue to deny that our largely ag practices are degrading our water quality. We have to have a designated funding stream to help do cost share for farmers to change practices, and we have to have real monitoring and measurement to know if we're making progress. So this is just election window dressing for the governor to say she's addressed the issue. This woefully inadequately addresses that issue.

There are a lot of farmers in rural Iowa that think it was a good thing. You say no though.

It's a good thing because it kicks the can down the road. For instance when we eliminated funding for the Leopold Center. (Iowa State University) Absolutely. They were doing public research to help farmers change practices to rebuild soil health and improve our water quality. That's exactly the type of measures we should be doing. But did this water bill refund the Leopold Center? Absolutely not because they don't want to make the necessary changes to clean up our water supply. And that starts with recognition. You can't deny the science of our water quality in this state. This allows them to continue to deny it because there's no measuring or monitoring. So if we really want to get at this problem we've got to fund more public research and extension, help farmers do basic things like cover crops that we know will rebuild soil health and clean up the nitrates and phosphates and water runoff. That's what has to happen. This bill will not get us there.

There are some Democratic candidates, there are some other national Democrats who talk about agriculture is getting too big, that corporate agriculture is a problem. Do you feel that way?

I really think about what is our future in farming in rural Iowa, and how do we grow population of rural Iowa on the farm side? And I saw that about two months ago at the Practical Farmers of Iowa's annual convention, where there were probably 1000 farmers there and I'd say close to half were under the age of 40, all looking to make a living through diversified, sustainable agriculture. And if we're going to grow our farm population in rural Iowa, it's going to be through diversified, sustainable agriculture. We're always going to be a large commodity production state but the growth in population and opportunity, I believe, is more in diversified and sustainable agriculture.

Another one of the key issues that the governor outlined early on, and a bill that she has signed that has seen some bipartisan support, is what's gotten done with mental health in the state -- bipartisan support. There were some Democrats in the House and Senate that said it didn't go far enough. Did it go far enough?

It didn't go far enough. But it, most importantly it was a recognition. And I tell you that there's no issue I've heard more, that's been more dominant in the last nine months that I've been out on the campaign, is the lack of mental health services available to Iowans and how critical it is to communities and to families. Nearly every family in Iowa is impacted by the lack of mental health services. So at least we saw from the legislation they passed, there's recognition. But until there's funding and real effort put behind that recognition we're not going to see improvement. Now that's what has to happen next.

And from people that you're speaking to on the campaign trail is mental health. One of those that keeps coming back time and time again no matter where you are in the state?

If I'm with two people or 200, I know that's the one issue I can count on that's going to be raised. It's clear that's one of the most pressing problems in this state is the lack of mental health services. And the Medicaid privatization has compounded it because so many mental health providers can't get reimbursed or can't get adequately reimbursed for services. They're literally leaving the state or leaving the practice because of the squeeze the Medicaid privatization is putting on our mental health providers.

Something that's currently going on right now, there's a lot of talk with within the Republican House and the Republican Senate and with the current Republican governor regarding tax cuts. This all kind of links back into the state budget as a whole, but if you step back and take a look at where things are if you had your way, if you were in the governor's office how would you be making changes as far as do we need more tax cuts in the state? And what are your priorities within the state budget?

Our current economic development strategy is not sustainable. We are trying to lure out of state businesses here with tax cuts, which is undermining our fiscal capacity to invest in our education and health care for Iowans and our workforce and job training. Because when I crisscross the state I also hear from a lot of manufacturers and businesses they can't find workers. Now I of course encourage them to raise wages that helps to attract workers but that's not all of it. We have too many children who aren’t going on to college that aren't getting job skills training and those businesses who need workers are here paying taxes. Yet the governor's strategy is to lure out of state businesses here with tax cuts. And we've literally eroded hundreds of millions of dollars of annual state revenue in this state to the wealthy few and the corporate interests that have eroded our capacity to provide good public education, mental health services. There's no children’s mental health service in the state of Iowa. No system. And so we have too many children falling through the cracks. And that's our future workforce that our current businesses need. So we've got to change our economic development strategy not to be based on tax giveaways, but investment in our people and our future.

Recently, since the change in the state Senate, before that there had been Democratic control of the Senate. There had been Republican control of the House. There was a lot more compromise that seemed to be happening at the state level. You've seen some shift in power, a lot of changes at the state level. How do you, how would you as governor be working with Republicans towards legislation and finding that common ground?

Yeah I think the two biggest threats to our government and our democracy are number one the control of government by special interests. But the second is the lack of ability to work together. So the first thing I'll do as governor is sit down in that governor’s conference room with Republican and Democratic leaders. We're going to identify the easiest problem we all agree needs to get resolved and we're going to figure out how to solve it, because we've lost that ability to work together to solve problems. Once you solve that easiest problem, then the next more difficult problem becomes that much easier to find a solution, because you've begun to learn how to work together again. That has to happen in a divided government even in a non-divided government. You've got to work together across the aisle to make sure everyone has input. That's what develops the best policy, the most balanced policy for the state.

You've spent some time away from Iowa. Do you feel still pretty connected to the state coming back here?

Yeah I feel like I never left because my whole mission when I was working in the Obama administration was to help Iowa, and everything from, Governor Branstad called me when I was on the Federal Energy Commission to thank me for pushing through some regulations that help the transmission, that got our wind energy to market. My wife Jackie when she was first chief of staff for Michelle Obama made sure Iowans got passes to the White House, you know. And we attended funerals of Iowans at the national cemetery at Arlington when they came, to be there for them. So our mission in the Obama administration was to help Iowa and do what we could to further the efforts here in Iowa. So I never feel like I left Iowa. We just went and were ambassadors for Iowa. Both in our nation's capital and also in the United Nations. When I worked as the U.S. representative for agricultural policy I met with Iowans that came out to Italy to the United Nations there to help them understand how world agriculture production impacts and how U.S. ag policies impact farmers around the world.

Some are painting this Democratic primary as kind of a two or three person race at this point. So you still think it’s wide open?

I still think it's wide open. I think folks are just starting to pay attention. We've got supporters all over this state, and I feel very good about the progress we're making as people who have been looking. You know, Iowans expect to meet the candidate, as probably a result of our presidential caucuses. And so certainly they expect to meet their gubernatorial candidates. And now that we've had a chance to meet Iowans across this state and they've been contemplating the race we feel like a lot of them are breaking our way because they're looking for someone with experience. I think our chief argument against Governor Reynolds is going to be her mismanagement of the budget, and that we need to have someone who's actually managed at the government level at private business and nonprofit sector which I have done all of those. And they also appreciate my passion for rural Iowa because even in downtown Des Moines or Cedar Rapids they recognize if it erodes all around our urban areas our urban Iowans can't afford to sustain the human and physical infrastructure of this entire state. So it benefits all of us to see rural Iowa economically prosper again. So those are helping me connect with folks with voters across this state about a change of direction for Iowa.

Bouncing back to the working class Iowans we talked early on in this conversation about those that maybe felt like they'd been left behind. When we talk about wages in the state there was legislation last year that made it so local municipalities cities, counties couldn't set their own minimum wage. Do you think, are you in favor of a broad minimum wage hike? Are you interested more to letting local municipalities make changes? Where do you stand on the issue of minimum wage?

Well I believe local governments should, county governments should be empowered to set higher minimum wage because economic circumstances are different in different parts of this state. But we need a floor minimum wage in this state with the goal to get people who work full time off of public assistance. I know conservatives don't like paying for people on public assistance. Well the best way to resolve that is make sure that folks who work full time, because most people who are on assistance work full time, they just don't have high enough wages to be able to support themselves and their family. So our goal with the minimum wage, I believe, should be to set it at a level that enables Iowans who work full time to get off of public assistance and have the dignity of being able to support themselves and their family. It should be actually closely tied to the federal poverty level rate, 130 percent of poverty is for a family of four is a 40 hour work week at $15.37/hour. So whether it's the federal poverty level index or some other cost of living index it needs to be set at a level that adjusts over time. So that folks working full time, again, can support themselves and their family. And by doing that I think you raise wages for a lot of other Iowans above the minimum wage because when you set a floor at a level that supports someone to sustain them, their own economic needs. Then you raise wages across the state. Now no one aspires to make minimum wage, but that's why you set a floor. So those folks who need to take minimum wage jobs or are qualified only for minimum wage jobs get the chance to support themselves.

Do you think Iowa has changed very much since you first got involved in politics?

Well the erosion of our rural population and the number of farmers out there has been probably the most significant change as I drive across Iowa, and just see fewer and fewer homesteads, fewer and fewer fence rows, fewer folks farming land. I think we've had some success in welcoming new immigrants to the state but we’re going to have to be more successful and embrace new Iowans and immigrants if we're going to see population growth particularly in our rural communities. So I want to see Iowa be a more inviting state for a diverse population because that's going to help our workforce needs help our businesses grow repopulate our rural schools and our main streets. And you've seen it in towns like Storm Lake and Orange City and Perry, Iowa where they have and Sioux Center Iowa where they have good growth in immigrant population those rural communities are starting to grow.

And you've talked to even in your opening comments about education that there has been change in the state with priorities for education. What is a prospering education in the state of Iowa look like to you?

Well it starts with recognition of the changes. I mean today nearly half of our babies are born eligible for Medicaid in Iowa. That's a shocking statistic but so many children are born… Where’s that statistic from? Nearly half of our babies in Iowa are born eligible for Medicaid. It's 40 percent 42 percent but nearly half the babies are born eligible for Medicaid. Free and reduced lunch has doubled in the last 15 years. So we have nearly half of our student population showing up every day either food insecure or from a single parent home whose parents working 60 hours a week because of low wages, or a substance abuse home, or domestic violence home. That's a whole different set of challenges for that classroom teacher who really is the bedrock of our public education system. And we're not equipping our schools to help meet those challenges. Now layer upon that the new number of English language learners we have coming to our schools. That's another set of challenges that I know growing up in Red Oak public schools my teachers didn't face when we expected Iowa to always be the best in education. And now in addition to that we have no children's mental health system in the state of Iowa and we know that one in five children have some mental health need, but even more profound amongst those children coming from stressful economic home environments. And we're doing nothing to address those unique challenges we have today we didn't have 20, 30, 40 years ago. So it's going to take more investment in public education if we’re going to make sure we help all those children reach their full potential. And that's how we're going to break the cycle of poverty for so many families in this state and develop a workforce that can help our business and industry grow. So public education has to be a number one goal for our state, for our future. And we are underfunding it now and we're starting to lose teachers. Minnesota's advertising right now for our young teachers because when we stripped away their collective bargaining rights, they're now starting to see that impact their benefits and their pay. And we're gonna have a harder time attracting teachers in this state, particularly in rural communities, because we stripped those bargaining rights away from teachers and we are not funding education at a level to keep up with the increasing needs.