Norris goes for broke with immigration, rural Iowa

Yet he has a hard time getting his message through

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

John Norris is the only gubernatorial candidate who is using Storm Lake as the centerpiece of his campaign. Everywhere he goes, and he goes to rural places first, he talks about how immigration is the future of small towns and county seats.

“I was asked what is the one issue I am willing to lose over. That’s it: immigration. As a state we’ve got to get over this hurdle of welcoming new people. That’s what I just told the Clinton Hall of Fame Dinner in Des Moines, a place where there were no people of color in the room, I don’t think. You have to tell them why it’s important. More of us have to speak out.”

He did it again over the weekend during a Democratic gubernatorial forum. Norris ripped into Gov. Kim Reynolds for inviting Rep. Steve King to be her campaign co-chair.  “That is an outrageous statement by you of who we are as a state and his racist comments. It’s damaging to our state. The growth that we’re having in rural populations is coming from immigrants.”

He said the two big issues he is raising that others are not are poverty and immigration. Each has profoundly rural implications as jobs and support systems erode, except in places like Storm Lake. He said it frustrates him that the other candidates aren’t focusing on it. His other big issue is saving rural Iowa, where he decries “high-input, low-output, no-profit agriculture.”

Norris knows what he is talking about. His dad lost the farm near Red Oak during the 1980s. He was chief of staff to Vilsack when he was governor and secretary of agriculture. He went broke running a restaurant in Greenfield as the town fell apart around him during the Farm Crisis.

He says his biggest turnouts are in rural areas where his message gets “a very strong reception, admittedly from Democratic activists.”

No other candidate is talking to the traditional Iowa Democratic base like Norris. That’s one reason the Iowa Republican Party is sending out emails nearly every week thrashing Norris and nobody else lately — they know he is on the right track and they are afraid of him.

Yet he is having a hard time getting his message through.

Norris is near the bottom in fundraising. Fred Hubbell is spending millions of his own on TV ads, while Nate Boulton and Cathy Glasson have sucked up all the labor money.

Norris gets oxygen from debates and free ink in the newspaper. But the press is barely covering the race, the political reporting corps is so thinned out these days. The only message is the Hubbell TV ads, which are good. That’s not necessarily healthy for the brand going into a general election absent a full-throated debate about what a Democrat can do to turn around this flailing state.

The Davenport debate wasn’t a debate at all. No sharp elbows were allowed. Norris could not take on Hubbell, populist vs. scion of Des Moines business. The next debate is tonight on Iowa Public Television. Norris said he will take off the gloves if given the opportunity.

“Campaigns are how you move people,” Norris said.

It’s a shame. Democrats cannot win statewide office without a showing up in rural areas. Norris is telling people in Wright County that they should be talking to the folks in Storm Lake and Sioux Center so they can deal with a new pork plant that will bring an influx of immigrants. Either you can make the most of it, like Storm Lake, he told them, or not.

“That got a great response. It always does,” Norris said.

The June 5 primary is knocking. Nobody else is talking about sustainable agriculture or nitrate pollution, or the real problems that Iowa farmers face in managing resources because nobody else understands it like Norris.

He knows that Steve King animates progressive voters in rural areas. He is banking on it in the primary. If no candidate gets more than 35% the nomination is thrown to the state convention, where Norris thinks he has a fighting chance with the activists who get elected to the convention. One poll shows Hubbell at 40%, but who knows what it means when nobody has heard of Andy McGuire or Norris. Who actually shows up June 5? Nate Boulton claims to have the convention delegates, should it get that far. Again, who really knows?

One candidate is going for broke with rural Iowa, a familiar theme. The others are working on Dubuque, Iowa City and Des Moines where all the Democrats live. If the message is that rural is not worth our time or effort, get comfortable with Kim Reynolds at the Monday morning press conference in the Capitol. It will be a familiar sight. And if progressives thought she was tough as an appointee, wait until she claims a mandate.

Rural votes swing Iowa elections. Democrats have a hard time with that fact. It shows in the primary campaign so far.