Just about everyone who’s been involved in Iowa politics for more than a decade knows who John Norris is. But if you are a younger Democrat, a progressive who got inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign or just someone who became involved after the Vilsack years, you might not. And those folks might look at Norris’ resume through the lens of the 2016 presidential primary and see an old guard, establishment insider: former chief of staff to the governor, former IDP chair, a USDA official and utilities board chair.
That, however, wouldn’t be an accurate read of the man who has often found himself on the left of the party’s status quo, to the point where he was once told he’d never have a job in Iowa Democratic politics again after working for a “fringe” candidate. That “fringe” candidate was Jesse Jackson, and fifteen years after Norris received that threat from a party leader he was chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.
Norris now looks to bring a unique mix of life experiences to the gubernatorial race: a respected leader in the state and national political class who has real credibility on economic justice issues. That background makes him a particularly interesting figure in today’s Democratic and progressive political climate, not fitting any specific mold or frame of a candidate that the party applied to their presidential contenders last year.
Politics and organizing were a part of Norris’ life from the start. His father was an early organizer for the National Farmers Organization, taking a younger Norris to organizing events with farmers and Democratic campaigns. During those events, he first got to meet Tom Harkin while in high school. Norris would go on to work on one of Harkin’s congressional campaigns, driving him to events throughout Southwest Iowa.